Genesis Evangelion: a Retrospective

For all that’s been written about it — exhaustively, I might add — comparatively little has been said about Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s previous incarnation, Genesis Evangelion. I was shocked when I found a fansub of the six episode OVA in a VHS bin at Goodwill, but, well, that’s how we find these things sometimes. They fall into our lives when we are able to appreciate them, not when we think we’d love them best.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, as you probably know, is the story of Shinji Ikari, a young man recruited by the secret organization NERV to pilot a gigantic mech and battle the Angels, bizarre invaders from space that are seeking to obtain something that NERV has hidden deep inside its base. Shinji’s father, Gendo, is the director of NERV, and has been estranged from his son for nearly a decade. Their relationship is easily as important as the battles against the Angels. There’s plenty more, and the show begins to go in some interesting directions around episode eight, but that’s the gist of it.

But while the influence of  shows like U.F.O. and Space Runaway Ideon, and the Ultraman and Godzilla franchises have been well documented, curiously little has been said of Hideaki Anno’s use of the framework of the original anime Genesis Evangelion to make his program. This is hardly something new; shows are updated all the time, and their old concepts mined for ideas that can be made relevant for today, so I’m not accusing him of plagiarism, if that’s where you think this is going. I just think it’s an interesting lens to look at the show through.

Genesis Evangelion is the story of a young scientist, Gendo Rokubungi , a brash but kind young pilot, Yui Ikari, a daring inventor, Naoko Akagi, and a hot headed but loyal German-Japanese pilot, Kyoko Soryu. The story has a very strong environmental theme, with the end of the world being immanent in the year 2000 if things aren’t done to prevent it. This culminates in an immanent meteor strike being called down on the South Pole by ENGEL, the organization that has been orchestrating the attacks throughout the show. Unfortunately, this climax is left unresolved, as episode seven was never produced.

As you can imagine, a series starring one young man and three young women has a steady love triangle going. Gendo is your typical 80s protagonist in this regard, though it is a unique choice of the OVA to make him part of the support staff, rather than one of the pilots. Normally he’d be heading up the trio of pilots, in the most “average” of the robots, while one was faster and the other tougher, but instead, Yui and Kyoko are basically evenly matched, their mecha (Units 000 and AAA) differing only in color scheme. Gendo instead spends most of the program buried in computer screens and text books, trying to locate weaknesses and relay potential maneuvers to the pilots, while Naoko coordinates the construction of new weaponry to be rapidly deployed to defeat the various monstrosities. One might think that focusing on the backroom, supply chain aspects of combat would detract from the exciting drama of mech-on-monster combat, but they manage to make it compelling, treating timing an explosive hammer blow or calculating rocket trajectory with a slide rule and paper with all the tension and sweat-dripping pressure that the situation deserves.

This is a decent pick for anyone into 80s fighting robots, though its a bit difficult to track down these days. For the convenience of those unable to find a copy, I’ll provide episode summaries below.

Episode One: Dig For Greatness? Underground Base Attack! — Gendo arrives at NERVE’s underground headquarters, and is shown around by the base commander, Langley Lorenz. He meets the two pilots, Yui and Kyoko, and his direct partner, Naoko. Naoko is the inventor of the MAGI system, a complex computer network that keeps the base running via voice activation. She demonstrates its abilities, having it fetch her coffee, her clipboard, and sliding her chair into position as she sits. Unfortunately, when Gendo tries to use it, he ends up with a tub of water dumped on his head, and is knocked to the floor by a speeding ottoman. The MAGI system flares up with an alert, showing readings on the seismograph that don’t correspond to any known earthquake activities in the region. Listening through the vibrational speakers, there’s a constant grind, as if a huge drill were making its way towards the base. What can they do to defend against it? Units OOO and AAA can’t operate in solid rock? Gendo, however, comes up with a plan. By setting up their own drilling torpedo, they can bore under the source of the drilling and blow whatever it is up to the surface, where the two Units can engage with their full capacities. A quick montage later, the torpedo is launched, and there’s a tense moment of radar watching as they make sure to detonate it directly under the source of the sound. They’ll only get one chance. With a pull of the trigger, the torpedo explodes, knocking the nose straight up, and sending the mechanical worm/drill beast to the surface, where Yui and Kyoko pummel it to pieces. The base is safe. But who could know about its location? Who could be attacking them? Back inside, Yui and Kyoko argue about who did more work in defeating the monster. An exhausted looking Gendo tries to order himself a glass of water through MAGI, end gets a bucket of water on his head, followed by the pan, for his trouble.

Episode Two: Computerized Confusion! What Good Are They If the Radio is Out? — Yui and Kyoko are relaxing after a long training session. Naoko enters and asks them what they thought of her new training programs. They laugh, and Yui explains that if the real monsters were half as tough, they’d be out of a job. Kyoko wonders why they don’t just send out the training robots instead, and save her and Yui for the real dangerous situations. Naoko wonders if that isn’t a half bad idea, and says she’ll bring it up at her next staff meeting. Yui whaps Kyoko over the head with the magazine she was reading, and explains that if they do that, they’ll be out of a job. They wrestle in a big cloud of smoke, with Kyoko maintaining that they’re too important to ever be fired, and Yui worrying about what’d happen if they were replaced by machines. Meanwhile, Gendo is reviewing the events of the previous episode (a convenient way to save the studio’s animation budget), as well as a few attacks that haven’t been filmed. He’s noticed that the attacks seem oddly spaced out. Why don’t they just commit a huge all out assault if they have all these resources? What’s holding them back? Naoko presents the robot idea, and Gendo is somewhat keen on it. It would keep his friends out of danger — he doesn’t like the idea of Yui or Kyoko being hurt. Naoko teases him about it, asking him which he likes better, while leaning over his desk and stroking his chin. Gendo’s face turns red, steam comes out of his ears, and he babbles incoherently about how he couldn’t possibly decide because they are all so wonderful and such precious friends. She taps him on the forehead with her clipboard, and laughs. That evening, once everyone has gone to bed, the proximity alarm blares, and a gigantic centipede creature makes its way towards the base. It skitters around the trees, careful not to knock a single one over. Naoko activates the training assault robots, while Yui and Kyoko watch on, irritated. It seems to go well at first, with the centipede being pummeled left and right, but then it quivers, and sends out a big electric shock. Naoko loses control of the training robots, and they begin to march on the base alongside the centipede. Yui and Kyoko rush to their Units and launch, and now have to battle not only the centipede, but their own trainers. They trade quips as they bash their way through the smaller robots, complaining about “bright ideas” and “wanting a challenge then receiving it”. The centipede tries its electrical attack again, but because there are no radio waves to hijack, it doesn’t work. They stomp the centipede into the ground with a double kick, and it explodes in a shower of debris as the two mechs high five. Back in the base, Yui and Kyoko are relaxing in some reused footage from the beginning of the episode. They aren’t sure how they’re going to keep up their training regimen since all the robots have been destroyed. Naoko enters, excited, and begins explaining how she’s used this opportunity to build newer and better robots that’ll be even tougher and stronger than the last models. Yui and Kyoko mug at the camera as it iris wipes to black, centered on their grimacing faces.

Episode Three: Arial Assault! The Secret of ENGEL Revealed? — Naoko’s cousin, Makoto Katsuragi, has come to visit. This handsome young doctor has some theories about where the monsters are coming from, but doesn’t think its safe to discuss them in the base. He continually fiddles with a small pendant around his neck, a gift from his senpai. Yui and Kyoko both jockey for his attention, assuring him that he’s completely safe, and that they’d kill anything that tried to harm him. This irritates Gendo, who can’t seem to articulate why he’s missing the attention he doesn’t normally seem to be able to handle. Naoko ends the fight by suggesting that they discuss things in the new plane she’s been experimenting with. With a full air guard supporting them, the huge, high tech craft takes to the air, and Naoko shows off all the various armaments, radar packages, and other technological wonders that she’s packed into the warplane. Around a table in the plane’s “war room”, Makoto explains that a secret organization, ENGEL, has been attempting to undo the damage that mankind has done to the Earth, and seeks to restore the world to its previous state of “Oneness. No pain, no separation, no time, no loss. All are one”. Gendo doesn’t think that this is such a bad goal, because there’s a hole in the ozone layer, the rain forests are being destroyed, the oceans polluted, animals are regularly going extinct… Naoko agrees with him, but explains that ENGEL’s methods are simply going too far. They wish to reduce the Earth’s population to a fraction of its current size, by any means necessary. There is an explosion outside, and through the window, an attack plane has blown up one of their escorts! Naoko quickly assigns Yui and Kyoko to gunner stations, and they fend off the assault in an homage to Star Wars. Makoto can’t understand how they found him. Gendo wants to take a closer look at his necklace. Inside is a small transmitter, which Gendo crushes under his heel. Gendo asks when the last time Makoto saw his senpai was. He admits it’s been years. They bring down the last of the attacking planes, but their own crash lands. Thankfully, none of them are injured due to the special modifications that Naoko installed — an impact resistant foam that held them in place and absorbed the blow. Outside, they are confronted by a downed enemy pilot, bleeding from a severe injury in his side, but still aiming a pistol at them. Yui demands that he take off his helmet before he shoots them. The pilot, it turns out, is a beautiful woman — Makoto’s senpai, Barbara. Makoto demands to know why she is doing this. She tells him that if he has to ask, he has already forgotten. She tries to fire, but Yui and Kyoko have used Makoto’s talking as a distraction to rush her, and her shot goes wild. The pistol is knocked from her hands. “Why?” Makoto asks as she dies in his arms. “Why does it have to be like this?”

Episode Four: Enemy Insertion! Who is This New Pilot? — Langley Lorenz introduces a new pilot to the group, Ray Ayanami, a pretty direct palette swap of Ray Amuro from Mobile Suit Gundam. This albino gentleman is charming, if quiet, and seems to fit right in with the group, making the occasional joke and quoting aphorisms wrong. The team sorties against three identical monsters that resemble praying mantises. Ray’s Unit 111 is damaged, but he disables two of the enemies while Yui and Kyoko finish them off. They chastise him for fighting so recklessly, but they’re glad he isn’t hurt. His mech, on the other hand, is going to be grounded for an extended period of time. The mantis severed numerous cables and circuits that will need to be replaced, a lengthy and personnel consuming process, unlike the usual replacement of Armor Trauma shields that is done to the Units. Gendo puts his mind to devising a way to repair the mech quicker, while Naoko tries to synthesize a new alloy that would resist the cutting force of the blades. The next day, two mantises attack the base, both larger than the previous ones. Yui and Kyoko deploy the Impact Hammer and Vibra Sword to dispatch their foes. Meanwhile, Ray sneaks deeper into the NERVE base, and begins to copy something from the core of the MAGI computer. He radios to his companions, and tries to transmit the data he’s copied, but is caught by Gendo, who had wondered where Ray had wandered off to. Shocked by his new friend’s betrayal, they wrestle, and Ray’s radio transmitter is shattered. Gendo asks him “Why?” as they tussle, and Ray shouts that Gendo would never understand, that he’s never cared for something like this, loved something so deeply he’d kill to save it. Gendo asks why they can’t work together, and Ray says that it’s far too late for that, that if they don’t do this now, there won’t be a world left to save. They struggle against a guard rail, and Ray throws himself over it, not wanting to be captured. Naoko and a team of armed guards rush in just as Ray disappears over the edge. They don’t find his body at the bottom of the drop. Gendo, shaken, wonders what could possibly be so bad that they feel the need to do this. Naoko promises to try and figure out what data Ray was trying to steal, in the hopes of figuring out their motives, and to try and reverse engineer the smashed radio and locate the ENGEL base. Once they’re alone, Naoko gives him a kiss and tells Gendo she’s glad he’s alright. That evening, Yui visits Gendo in his quarters, where he’s laying in bed listening to his Walkman. She asks if he’s alright, and offers to teach him how to fight so he’ll be safe if that ever happen again.  He thanks her, and asks how Ray could betray them like that. Wasn’t he their friend? Yui doesn’t have a good answer, and says that that’s just how some people are. But he’s not hurt, and that’s the important thing. She leans in and gives him a kiss.

Episode Five: Two By Sea! Aqueous Mecha Attack! — Naoko is able to decipher some of the data from the smashed radio, and determine that it was broadcasting a signal to somewhere in a triangle of water in the pacific ocean. Yui and Kyoko are excited to have an opportunity to go sailing, Gendo looks forward to doing some fishing, and Naoko is excited to try out the new frog suits she’s designed for Units 000 and AAA. Langley reminds them that this won’t be a trip to the beach, it’s going to be work, and all four grumble. They assemble on the Isonami, and Naoko takes them on a tour of the ship’s various technological wonders, from its gravametic cannons to its geostationary satellite uplink targeting computers to its built in pool and theatre. It seems half-cruise liner, half war-ship in terms of comfort and armaments. Because this is the closest the show comes to a “beach episode”, we get a sequence of the girls romping on deck in swimsuits, swimming, wrestling, splitting watermelon, sunbathing, etc. as the Isonami makes its way towards Triangle Delta set to Triangle (トライアングル) by popular idol singer Hiroko Yakushimaru. As they approach, the team suits up, and the song continues, but the montage transitions into them arming for combat, getting the mecha prepared for deep sea use, modifying the weaponry to fire underwater, studying radar patterns and maps. They stop directly above the enemy base, and using steel cable, the Units descend down onto the sunken fortress. It is crucial that the cables not be severed, else the Units will not be able to be retrieved. On the way down, they are attacked by a large, manta ray like monster, that swoops in from below, practically invisible in the swirling sand and mud that it kicks up. By trusting Kyoko’s judgement, Yui is able to slice the ray’s side and tail off, and it crashes into the depths. The base itself has been abandoned, but the information the team is able to retrieve about ENGEL is crucial. Their leader, Keel, has been contacted by a group from space calling itself The First Race, and they plan on returning to their planet. It must be made ready for their arrival. They are displeased by the treatment that humanity has given their old homeworld, and they see to set it straight. Keel begged them to give him a chance to solve the problem, and the First Race consented, albeit under strict constraints. They would return in two years, and if the world was not as they left it, they would cleanse the planet entirely and start humanity over from scratch. After watching this exchange, our heroes realize that they’ve been led into a trap — the base is rigged to explode. Yui manages to hurl one of the bombs up into the stratosphere, where it detonates harmlessly, but the secondary bomb can only be delayed, not removed, despite Naoko and Gendo’s best efforts. Cramming everyone into the cockpits of the mecha and leaving behind the smaller submarines that they took down, the four of them begin a desperate climb up the cable, racing back to the ship before the base explodes and takes them with it. Another manta-ray appears, and attempts to slice the cables apart. Naoko and Kyoko attempt to sacrifice themselves to stop the ray and save Gendo and Yui by diving down onto the ray and stabbing it through the back, but their fall is halted by the other mech catching them by the hand and hauling them back up. “I can’t abandon you,” Yui says. “Who would I compete against?” They make it on-board the ship as the explosion rocks the surface of the sea, and sends the Isonami flying across the waves, but thankfully not overturning her due to the various stabilization and water thrust systems built into her.

Episode Six: Discovery! ENGEL Base is Go! — Assembling every piece of information they’ve ever gathered about ENGEL, Gendo and Naoko work late into the night, calculating the trajectories of every monster, every transmission, every sighting, every stray probability that might lead them to finding their enemy. After the data is fed into the MAGI system, they sit in front of the printer, waiting for a response, sipping tea. Naoko asks Gendo why he joined NERVE. He replies that he was listless, drifting after university, and needed a place where he belonged. He asks her the same question. She replies that no one else would give her the freedom and resources to build things like this — everywhere else she went, people tried to box her in, tried to force her into positions she didn’t want to take, to work towards goals she didn’t care about. “And you care about this one?” Gendo asks. “Saving the world? I’ll do for now,” she replies, and kisses him. Before it can go any further, the screen flashes to life, and the printer begins to ratchet back and forth with a scroll of results: ENGEL is based out of the South Pole. The team is scrambled, cold weather modifications are made to the Units, and soon they are airlifted towards the ENGEL base. What follows is an amazingly choreographed fight sequence, where Units 000 and AAA battle multiple beasts across the snowy surface, while Gendo and Naoko speed towards the base in a tracked transport. The animators really outdid themselves here, and I didn’t notice any reused animations for attacks nor and loss of detail even in wide shots. Each beast is unique, as well, ranging from a Lovecraft inspired giant penguin to a bizarre hippo/giraffe hybrid to a strange bird/squid thing. This sequence is a good third of the episode. With the mess of battle strewn behind them, they arrive at the base, and Yui tears off the front of the fortress. NERVE troops rush in, and quickly the base falls to their forces. Keel is brought before them, and the team questions him. He raves, explaining that it’s too late now, that the time is up, that they know he’s failed, that they’ve doomed them all, that they need to look at the sky. Up above is a gigantic meteorite, just approaching the moon. They don’t have long to figure out how to destroy it and save the planet. It’ll be a difficult thing to hit, because it’s coming at the Earth from “below”. Gendo assembles all the paper and graphs required to do the math for firing an explosive laden rocket at the meteor, and Naoko checks his work. “Will this work?” Yui asks. “If it doesn’t, this will be worse than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs,” Gendo replies. Yui grabs him by the shoulders and kisses him, in full view of everyone present, for much longer than perhaps is proper. “For luck, and because I might not get a chance to do it again later,” she explains. Naoko looks sullen as she transmits their firing solutions to the Central Missile Authority. The missiles are launched, and as they approach the meteor, the screen pauses, and cuts to the familiar “to be continued” that every other episode has ended on.

Only, in this case, there was no seventh episode. Why, precisely, I haven’t been able to track down, but its exactly the sort of frustrating ending that encourages someone to pick it up and finish it, or, in Anno’s case, re-invent the series with a much darker tone, and turn it into an allegory for growing up and learning to live without your parent’s (or anyone’s, really) approval. This is definitely a show in the post-Tomino era, unafraid to show people being killed in the crossfire and emphasizing the military role of the robots, but it also isn’t nearly as extreme or groundbreaking as its contemporaries. I won’t lie and say that it’s a hidden gem that’s so much better than NGE, or that viewing it vastly enhances your understanding of the sequel, because, honestly, so much was altered that you get all the broad strokes of “new continuity” from the flashback sequences in NGE. It’s more of a curiosity than an essential part of the viewing experience. Ideon and U.F.O. are far more “necessary”, if you’re the sort who makes assertions like that.

I certainly don’t feel that my time or my $1 was wasted. If you can find a copy, it’s probably worth it. This isn’t some 40+ episode monster you’ll be devoting a week or more to; it’s a relatively short OVA that you can finish up in one sitting. Don’t break your head looking for it, but if it falls into your lap, give it a watch.

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