After two drastically different endings that left fans seriously irate and not a little bit confused, Hideaki Anno, the series creator of the popular and influential anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, had a lot to answer for. Today, the show is infamous for its convoluted financial troubles and Anno’s inability to give closure to what is probably the most ambitious anime to date. His new film, Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone, sets out to integrate crucial plot points that he unceremoniously hurled at the viewer at the last minute in the show’s now-infamous TV finale. But getting Neon Genesis Evangelion to make some semblance of sense is a mammoth undertaking considering the show’s literally bibilical scope (it ends after all life on Earth, save for its adolescent protagonist Shinji Ikari, has been reduced to primordial goo).
As a TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion was wracked with financial and philosophical burdens, ending without enough funds to develop Anno’s bat-shit crazy finale. Even after making the ending he had always wanted in The End of Evangelion, two extra-long episodes later repackaged as a single film, Anno still left fans feeling cheated. There was too much to keep track of, what with philosophical references ranging from Schopenhauer to Sartre and Judeo-Christian imagery being bandied about with flippant alacrity in a show about robots and teen introspection, to say nothing of the scene in which Shinji masturbates over a colleague’s comatose body. The story needed to be drastically simplified, making You Are (Not) Alone the first of four proposed films that would make the story a cohesive, if not accessible, single unit.
Unfortunately, the series’s story is no less complicated, and it shows from the amount of plot You Are (Not) Alone crams into 98 minutes. The movie takes place in a future where—spoilers herein—giant monsters called Angels have destroyed the bulk of the world in an event referred to only as the Second Impact. Within minutes of Shinji’s (Spike Spenser) arrival, an Angel attacks and his father Gendo (John Swasey), who abandoned Shinji at a young age, asks him to help stop it by piloting an Eva, a robot designed to battle to the Angels. A colossal migraine just waiting to happen, this is only just the tip of the iceberg in a story rife with double-crosses, self-analysis, and questionably re-appropriated Christian iconography.
Though Shinji is essentially humanity’s only hope of survival (the Angels seek to destroy the human race by causing a Third Impact), his struggle to fight the Angels is secondary to his internal struggle to rely on other people. Everyone from Misato Katsuragi (Allison Keith), his handler and tentative friend, to Rei Ayanami (Brina Palencia), a fellow Eva pilot, try to get him to break out of his mopey little emo shell—he spends a lot of his alone time listening to his Walkman and staring at the ceiling—and accept that he’s, as the title inexpertly puts it, not alone.
As our introduction to Shinji, You Are (Not) Alone is very much a psychodrama where supporting characters and Shinji himself inexpertly tell us and only sometimes show us what his personality is like. This is a result of Anno’s heady ambition to elevate the Mecha anime subgenre with philosophy and religious symbols. His lofty ideas have always overshadowed his characters, even when they’re ostensibly about those characters.
Analogies, such as Schopenhauer’s concept of the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, are used to explain the character’s angst because images of him failing to gain acceptance with his scholmates, Eva, co-pilots, or his superiors are not enough to show that he’s socially inept. No, Anno’s trying to present Shinji’s struggle as a grand drama, showing that his alienation is the focal part of the show’s existentialist malaise regarding how little agency mankind has over their own actions. Selling material that dense to a teen audience is tough but Anno persisted in making in the show’s finale, no matter how many glaring plot holes he created in the process.
It’s impossible even in You Are (Not) Alone, which is essentially a condensed version of the first few episodes of the series with a few elements from later episodes tossed in to make the show’s climax appear more grounded, to understand the logic of a show where only children are able to pilot robots, that are themselves sentient creatures, that fight Angels whose destruction causes blood to rain down around a giant cross with a rainbow at its pinnacle. It’s a kid’s show, I know, but Christ on a crutch, why the hell do things happen the way they do in it?
There is no right answer because Anno was and apparently still is more interested in provoking than explaining. In You Are (Not) Alone, he refuses to add anything new except better special effects during the robot-monster fight scenes and scenes of expository dialogue that spell out in a few seconds what took whole episodes to explain before. There are no new explanations here, just a better packaged version of what Anno already delivered, which makes You Are (Not) Alone very attractive but fundamentally pointless.