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If you ask an anime fan to recommend a show that you’re bound to love and that encompasses everything that makes anime so special, Neon Genesis Evangelion will probably be among their suggestions. Airing between 1995 and 1996, Neon Genesis Evangelion only has 26 episodes, but it managed to become one of the most influential anime series, not only through its graphics, which were very good for the time, but also through its gripping plot and deep psychological and philosophical undertones. Today, you can still watch Neon Genesis Evangelion on Netflix, which goes to show that this series has remained relevant and that it can impress every generation. Ever since it was launched, Neon Genesis Evangelion inspired five manga adaptations, one light novel, six anime films, and there are even rumors of a live action film – plus merchandise worth millions of dollars. So, what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion so popular, and why is it worth your time when you have so many other titles on your watch list?
The action in Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place in the year 2015, in the futuristic city of Tokyo-3, after a cataclysm that affected the entire planet. Well, it might not sound very futuristic, but you have to remember that this anime television series, Evangelion, was launched in 1995. Shinji, the main character, is only 14 years old when he’s recruited by his distant father into a secret organization called NERV, whose purpose is to save the world from extinction. The threat comes from so-called “Angels” – monsters on which traditional weapons have no effect and which can only be destroyed by biomechs. These mechs can only be piloted by certain 14-year-olds, who create a connection with them. Each episode takes the characters on a new adventure, where they have to take on Angels in different forms. For example, in one, the Angel can take the form of a huge monster threatening to destroy Tokyo-3, while in another, it’s a computer virus that can infect all NERV computers.
If you watch this anime series as a child or teenager, the most exciting part of Evangelion will probably be the action – the heroes’ quest to take on whatever monster is threating the world. And that part is definitely exciting. The series is superbly paced, and the original score composed by Shirō Sagisu does a great job at keeping you on the edge of your seat. However, watching the series as an adult unveils more complex themes, especially surrounding mental health and religion (in fact, the show was deemed as too controversial in some countries because of its references to Judaism and Christianity). The characters are also incredibly complex, and so are the relationships between them – particularly the one between Shinji, the protagonist, and his estranged and calculated father. Shinji also makes a fascinating main character because even though he could easily fall into the Hollywood trope of chosen one saving the world with a smile on his face, he is instead troubled by his fate and by his relationship with his father. Shinji is emotional, contemplative, and vulnerable, which is precisely what makes him relatable and the impact of certain scenes so much deeper.
The other children recruited for this difficult mission are equally interesting, each struggling with their own demons. The director, Hideaki Anno, was inspired by his own experience with depression, which is why mental health is an important underlying theme. Neon Genesis Evangelion was praised for introducing psychological elements from the works of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Arthur Schopenhauer, and tackling difficult themes such as depression, the Oedipus complex, schizophrenia, and death drive. Today, that might not seem so uncommon – after all, mental health is no longer a taboo topic and we see it depicted in many movies and TV shows but, at the time, this was really rare. Neon Genesis Evangelion was a pioneer in tackling mental health and many people actually understood that they were struggling with depression from watching the show. In one iconic scene, Shinji sits alone in a movie theater, contemplating the reason for his existence. In 1995, there wasn’t any awareness of depression. It was still something that people struggled with alone, without anyone to validate their feelings, so seeing it depicted in a popular anime series made a huge impact.
To this day, Neon Genesis Evangelion remains one of the most popular anime series, and it recently made its debut on Netflix. The show has a 8.33 on MyAnimeList, 8.5 on IMDb, and a whopping 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Before Neon Genesis Evangelion came out, the anime industry was struggling, but this series added something fresh and helped its resurgence. Neon Genesis Evangelion gained record numbers of watchers, both in Japan and abroad, and became a powerful brand. Following the success of the series, several manga adaptations and anime films were launched, all breaking sales records. Merchandise even sold well internationally, which was quite rare at the time. In the 90s, only series like Pokémon, Sailor Moon, and Dragonball Z managed to achieve similar figures, so it doesn’t come as any surprise that several major studios are considering producing a live action adaptation of Neon Genesis Evangelion. This anime series also influenced other media forms, such as Japanese pachinko slots. For those who don’t know, pachinko is the Japanese equivalent of slot games, and it’s tremendously popular there. After the show, Evangelion-themed pachinko slots became a massive hit because fans wanted to interact with the theme and characters in every way possible. By 2015, Evangelion pachinko slots had generated over 700 billion yen, which is the equivalent of around $6.3 billion. We don’t have pachinko in the US or Europe, but we do have slot machines, and, in the past few years, there has been a growing trend to launch anime-themed slots, and, to no one’s surprise, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most popular ones.