A decade into an apocalyptic war against alien invaders called “the Angels”, Shinji Ikari is one of several young pilots co-opted into the last-ditch Evangelion programme – an ethically-unsound bioweapons project to fight the aliens with their own technology, no matter what the human cost. Behind the scenes, there are scandals within scandals about the cores of the “Eva” units, while the pilots bicker and squabble, and fight to keep their sanity in savage, blood-soaked battles against random enemies.
Hasn’t this all happened before? Well, yes it has, in the Evangelion TV series, bestselling Evangelion manga, and several remastered, slightly-tinkered DVD releases. The most recent incarnation was Evangelion 1.0, to which this film is nominally the sequel, although there is a lot more to it than a simple remake.
It’s easy to forget that when Evangelion was originally broadcast, it was something of a mess. Production delays and cashflow problems led to hilariously (and then, frustratingly) long cost-cutting shots with little or no animation. The grand finale was a glorified radio play, and there was undeniable filler peppered throughout the latter half of the season. It’s fair to say that the 13 hours of original Evangelion TV might be reasonably slashed down to the four intended feature-length movies without losing much in the way of quality or plot, and that’s before production studio Gainax start wedging in big new chunks of footage. Watch in particular for a prolonged sequence at a marine preservation park, and a loving CG panorama of early morning bustle in Tokyo-3. This is no mere clip-show, that’s for sure.
This latest incarnation also reaches us an entire generation after the original – it’s been sixteen years since the TV show first appeared on Japanese television. The intervening period has seen great changes in the make-up of fandom, which the film acknowledges with a wry jibe at the expense of internet slash fiction writers, when two male characters almost snog. There are some even odder angles and changes of focus throughout, and part of it is undoubtedly aimed at fans of the original, particularly that sector of thirty-something uber-geeks whose love of figurines and other collectables keeps much of modern anime afloat. It’s salutary to remember that these enthusiasts would have been mere teenagers at the time of the serial’s original debut.
The Gainax studio seems all too aware of this. A couple of years ago at the Locarno Film Festival, their merchandise man with an Eva laptop and an Eva cellphone showed me Evangelion egg-timers, underpants and lucky gonks – part of over 3000 items of spinoffery that keep completists busy and poor. Mari Illustrious Makinami is undoubtedly part of this enterprise – a pretty new face literally parachuted into the plot in order to sell more pin-ups. In an odd piece of anime trivia, she is supposedly intended to “look British”, whatever that means. But she also throws the old character dynamics into turmoil and serves to remind long-time fans that there are many, deeper changes to the story. Many of the “old” characters have also been altered, much more subtly – there are changes to their names, backstories and personalities that completely affect their motivation and behaviour.
There are similar changes elsewhere, not the least in an off-hand reference to a “Vatican Treaty” that playfully backtracks on Gainax’s previous claims that all the story’s apocalyptic religious imagery was purely ornamental. As with many science fiction franchises, it is also strange to find ourselves living in a time after the notional D-day. 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t sound so futuristic any more; Terminator’s Judgement Day has been and gone, and Evangelion itself is now set in the past. Or is it?
There are tantalising clues dropped throughout these movies that suggest Gainax are thinking way ahead of the curve. It’s not just minor changes in the plot; it’s tiny references in the background that seem to obliquely refer to previous versions. Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the Moon in these remakes has a smear of blood across it, seemingly referencing a battle in the original series, and a character who arrives in the post-credits teaser openly suggests that all this has happened before. There is a chance, unconfirmed by the filmmakers themselves, that every change, every tweak in this film is entirely deliberate, and intended to tell a story that is not a remake at all, but a sequel, set aeons after the original, when everything has come back full-circle. The prospect remains that Evangelion 2.22 is inspired most of all in that regard by the Ron Moore Battlestar Galactica, or perhaps for anime fans, the similarly cyclical storyline of the 1980s classic Gall Force. Gainax know the score: there are many copies… but they have a plan.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This review first appeared in the SFX Ultimate Guide to Anime, 2011.