It is with a lot of joy that I can say that Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time is a fantastic film, a towering achievement of animation, and a deeply satisfying conclusion to a series that has been with me for nearly a third of my entire life. The film is by no means perfect, but there is a unique pleasure in watching a film that proves to be more than the sum of its parts.
We open with an action sequence that had previously been shown to fans at Anime Expo 2019. While it is relatively light on plot significance, enough happens narratively to justify its existence. Plus, the sequence satiates fans’ nearly nine year wait with scenes of robots fighting, right off the bat. Where the film really surprised me was the almost immediate abandonment of anything action related in lieu of a pastoral setting for the next 40 minutes. Gone are the giant robots and in their place are scenes of characters tending to farmland and communal living. The closest point of comparison, at least in the world of Japanese animation, would be the Studio Ghibli film Only Yesterday (1991). In addition to adopting a major change in scenery, the sequence must also wear many narrative hats: explain the 14 year time gap between the second and third films, provide moments of more grounded character development, and start to set the stage for the metanarrative conceits that the film would eventually dive headfirst into in the third act. Somewhat miraculously, the film pulls off this juggling act.
Much of the second and third acts do return to the familiar territory of giant robot fights, eldritch horror imagery, and a teenager deciding the fate of the world, but those moments are executed with the same levels of technical mastery and creativity the series has always been known for. I have always appreciated the more out of the box nature of the enemy designs for the Angels, as well as the dedication to using the medium of animation to really show off the weight, size, and scale of the Eva units in a way that live action often seems unable to do. The film knows how to use a combination of hand drawn animation, CGI, and deeply evocative and exciting music to construct an audio-visual experience that is truly deserving of the word “epic”. My favorite little moment of visual action was when one of the enemy ships breaks through the surface of what appears to be ice, ambushing the heroes. There’s almost an animalistic nature to the ambush, and it’s an image that truly deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
As much as I enjoyed the technical aspects of the film, the part that resonated most with me was the extensive use of self reference and metanarrative. It is common practice for films these days to exist within long running or shared cinematic universes, thereby having ample opportunities to reference prior works and contextualize the present action. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is far and away the most successful and salient example of this trend. Neon Genesis Evangelion is no exception, as 3.0 + 1.0 is more than willing to construct moments that respond to scenes from earlier entries, or even lift and transplant imagery directly. On some level, these moments can operate as simple fanservice, but they are also cathartic and highly enjoyable. Seeing Shinji show willingness to confront his father and pilot an Eva after years of “Get in the fucking robot Shinji” memes or Ritsuko shooting Gendo after failing to do so in The End of Evangelion does scratch that itch in the way that only fanservice really can. What makes 3.0 + 1.0 really special is how self reference is able to take on new meaning beyond “this is fun because I remember it from the older entries.”
The film recycles an especially significant amount of imagery from The End of Evangelion in what I think is a deliberate effort to stage a do-over of that film’s attempt to marry emotion with metanarrative commentary. The series as a whole has always been about at least two things: the need for the characters to grow past their childhood angst and emotional trauma, and the need for fans to move past their childlike possessiveness of fiction franchises and the artists who create them. The End of Evangelion tried to communicate this message by having Shinji make the life-affirming choice to reject the apocalypse and open himself up to human connection, the implication being that the viewers at home or in the theater who consider themselves to be equally socially isolated can work reach out to others in the same fashion. My only issue is that the tone and imagery of this movie largely did not align with this otherwise positive and life affirming message. The actual ending of the film is, in my mind, still too fraught with ambiguity and nihilism, while much of the film’s imagery is deeply disturbing and relies extensively on explicit violence and eldritch horror abominations.
By re-staging the apocalypse and Shinji’s decision to shape the world in a new image in 3.0 + 1.0, director Hideaki Anno is attempting to communicate the same messages as he did 24 years ago, but with the sense that he himself has grown into a warmer, happier, more mature person. He does this by having Shinji wish for a world without Evangelions. In doing so, he and all the other characters are free to live their lives as normal people, free from the science fiction conceits that caused them so much pain and turned Anno into both an otaku god and a reviled pariah. The film ends with Shinji and Mari moving out into the real world, as visualized by the combination of their animated figures with live action footage of Anno’s real life hometown of Ube, Japan. I interpreted this multimedia approach to mean that Anno, like Shinji, was able to find happiness in his life by moving on the work that defined him for so much of his life. Moreover, he only wants for fans to experience this same type of happiness and join him in moving onto greener pastures.
Ending on a note that not only affirms the fundamental need to engage with the real world but also abandons the fame and fortune that comes with a world famous anime franchise is both a bold move and a deeply welcome one in a world dominated by highly serialized and overly commercialized blockbuster franchises. As far as said franchises go, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far and away the most successful, and once again serves as a very useful point of comparison with Neon Genesis Evangelion.
While the two films are seemingly unrelated, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time serves as something of a response to Avengers: Endgame. Both films share the distinction of serving as the conclusions (more or less) to their respective long running, highly successful media franchises. A less obvious similarity is that both works find narrative justifications for recycling imagery and scenes from prior works. But, where 3.0 + 1.0 is willing to delve into metanarrative, be introspective, and offer up a deliberate artistic message that is both honest to the entire series and antithetical to its commercial status, Endgame shows no such willingness.
Take, for instance, the recreation of scenes from Phase 1 and 2 MCU films. At first glance, they don’t seem to be any better or worse than the use of imagery from The End of Evangelion in 3.0 + 1.0. But, with Evangelion, I see this upcycling as an attempt to not only please longtime fans, but also synthesize new meanings and reflect on the very idea of memory as it informs impulses such as obsessive fandom and nostalgia. With Endgame, I get the creeping feeling that recreating iconic moments from The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: The Dark World is more about banking on cheap nostalgia points and less about reflecting on the deeper meaning of the MCU. In general, the film seems to be unwilling or unable to break out of the commercial restraints of the MCU to tell a story that is compelling on its own. It is either too reliant on the past films to fill out its runtime or required to set up the next TV series of film or whatever else that needs to follow it up. One example of this phenomenon involved the marketing campaign for Spider-Man: Far From Home. Because the fictional universe of that film spoiled the death of Tony Stark in Endgame, trailers were delayed and deliberately truncated in order to avoid that plot point, despite the fact that it was central to the character arc of its version of Peter Parker. Further examples can be found in the realm of the television entries. While I personally didn’t watch Loki or WandaVision, I did follow the critical reviews and plot summaries closely enough to see that whatever attempts there were to perform serious character studies had to be given up in order to further the lore of the MCU and establish new recurring antagonists. The original draw of the MCU was the novelty of knowing that these disparate stories were interconnected and that every few years, we would receive a big event movie to have those connections pay off. But after ten years, that novelty is gone. Now, the films and television series reveal themselves as shockingly shallow pieces of entertainment that not only provide very little reason to return to them, but are also perpetually obligated to sacrifice subtext to the demands of future entries.
While Neon Genesis Evangelion is no stranger to frequent spin off and non-canon continuations, we can hopefully take Anno at his word when he says that he is done with the series for the foreseeable future. At most, he has said that he would like for Evangelion to become a platform for other artists to tell stories. We have already started to see some of this potential through the animated shorts from the younger artists at Studio Khara (Anno’s animation studio and the current home of the Evangelion franchise) including until You come to me and Evangelion: Another Impact. While the merchandising and new entries will inevitably continue, we can look at the world that Anno had a hand in personally and see a completed, deliberate, (usually) cohesive collection of works that can stand on their own as an artistic statement.
Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time stands as a bold piece of filmmaking that is able to simultaneously exist within capitalist modes of film production and marketing while still professing deeply introspective and humanistic ideas to audience members willing and able to put the time and effort into engaging with them. I have had the opportunity to grow up with the franchise. So, while the ending is somewhat bittersweet, I’m glad this is the ending we received after so many years of waiting. Bye Bye, all of Evangelion.