Let’s at least be clear about one thing: although I’ve watched the original 90’s Neon Genesis: Evangelion television series, the End of Evangelion film, and the Rebuild of Evangelion film series (even re-watching the previous three this week in preparation of this review), I am far from an Evangelion scholar. Sure, I have my interpretations and opinions, however anyone who has delved into the series beyond merely watching it knows that the episodes and films themselves are as complete a portrait of the franchise’s intentions as describing Evangelion as a “big robot” series is to capturing the sheer breadth of psychology, mysticism, meta-fiction, and personal commentary director Hideaki Anno packed into a series of cartoons about depressed teenagers fighting angels (or as much as NERV is a global defense organization). Thus, this review is written as a semi-knowledgeable reaction to watching the fourth and final Rebuild entry. As much as I’d love to analyze the themes and iconography, not only could such material spoil the film, but it may also be better suited to those who have dwelled on this franchise for far longer than is healthy than I have.
Following a previously-released opening action sequence over Paris, Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time spends its first hour in what we’re told is one of several small clusters of humanity remaining in the world. Whereas Evangelion 3.0 existed in some nebulous expanse, Thrice provides much needed grounding, letting us see characters that had been absent as well as how our Eva pilots live, or don’t, outside of their plug suits. It’s also in this sequence where we witness the divergent developmental paths undertaken by each with Asuka so separate from humanity that she barely participates in it, tabula rasa Rei introduced to life outside NERV, and Shinji being the same sulky teenager he’s always been, albeit for good reason following the tragedy of 3.0.
Like the best of Evangelion, this sequence alternates between heartwarming and horrifying, while occasionally leaning too heavily on Rei learning basic human interaction – including how to use “thank you” and “good night” – again resetting a character who has spent the better part of 25 years playing the outsider. At more than two-and-a-half long, there’s room to hold some of the more mundane interactions off screen since so much essential backstory is contained there. More interesting is seeing the effect the pilots have had on the lives of the non-pilot population, particularly following a time jump which aged the characters well beyond the end of the original series and learning that such supporters as Toji and Kensuke exist independent of Shinji, despite how much of their of lives still revolve around getting one mopey teenager to stop moping long enough to save humanity.
This bucolic pleasure is of course upended in the second and third acts when the beautiful depictions of nature are replaced by floating battleships, giant robots, mass-produced cannon fodder, and, as always, fan service (Anno is clearly a butt guy). Beautiful as previous installments of the Eva franchise have been, Thrice Upon a Time includes some of the most spectacular traditional animation ever put on screen. From photo realistic trees and crumbling concrete to the squiggles of a furrowed brow, Evangelion‘s 2D drawings contain more depth in their shading and realistic movement than most 3D renderings. As with the best anime, minimalist facial designs allow single lines to carry greater emotion than a thousand pixels. What’s more, traditional animation allows Anno to shift the style, letting the film’s visual presentation match its narrative elements, and even contrast the computer-generated imagery which appears later on. In fact, the film is so beautifully drawn that it makes one wonder why, particularly in an early character sequence, computer rendering was used at all. If these artists can handle such intricate and delicate work, then why not let them, especially during times when the CG simply can’t match the hand drawings.
The use of computer art has been one source of recurring criticism for the Rebuild series. Sadly, from the first five minutes through to the very end, Thrice continues this trend. Amazing as the film looks in general, no single moment reaches the same euphoria, visceral brutality, and terror as Asuka’s fight against the Eva series in End of Evangelion or even the Eva vs. Eva conflict in 2.0. In contrast to most of the film, the crisp computer lines seem to flatten the composition, while smooth camera movement erases any physicality in how these massive metallic creatures move. It’s hard not to feel that some of the soul of Eva is lost when the lumbering of a giant robot and the pull of swinging a huge sword are replaced by Michael Bay-esque camera spins and effortless strikes that carry no weight. Even worse, the wonderful grounding of the first act disappears in the later film, making it seem like the machines are falling through an endless void with no sense of scale. The CG does look great, but hand drawing and a better sense of place could have made it better. Thankfully, however, with the exception of the previously mentioned character sequence, and perhaps one other considerably more successful moment, the CGI seems limited to the machines, leaving the characters to feel more alive.
Even as Thrice Upon a Life demonstrates advancements in animation, there are times when the film feels very dated in its storytelling. This may be a result of the version I watched (for the record I am a subs over dubs guy, but with so much incredible imagery flashing over the screen, I let my ears absorb the story while my eyes were busy) but, as with most animation translated into English, the script can be too direct in how characters talk to each other, flatly stating what they are doing, and also too overloaded with pseudo-scientific technobabble, continuing the trend of Evangelion both under and over-explaining itself. Even as much of the overt discussion of the Freudian concept of the self has been removed from the Rebuild films, the constant referencing of obscure Judeo-Christian mythology creates a sort of verbal ephemera that makes an already confusing story even more so. But then, as was in the beginning, this search for meaning is part of what has made Evangelion so engaging, keeping its audience digging for symbolism and allegories long after the original viewers have moved from being contemporaries of the characters to a generation apart.
If there is one absolute constant in Evangelion it’s that people love these characters, as proven by the stranglehold Rei and Asuka have maintained on merchandise sales and cosplayers for decades. Carrying over from 3.0, Thrice advances these characters several years beyond their original versions. Without going into much detail, it’s clear that a lot has happened to these people in the fourteen in-universe years between 2.0 and 3.0 (and in the eight real world years since 3.0 and 3.0 + 1.0) making them more depictions of who they have become than who they were. If anything, the Rebuild series has managed to smooth out a few of the characters’ edges – Asuka is less punishing, Misato is less blatant, Rei is more of a person, and Shinji still sulks, although a little less – lending them a greater maturity that is furthered in this film. They aren’t exactly well-adjusted, but at least they have a better understanding of who they are and why they act the way they do. Even Gendo, the most impenetrable character in the franchise, is at last made clearer. The only character we can’t make this statement of is Rebuild-original Mari.
Like with 2.0 Mari is our literal introduction to this final film as she’s the only pilot operating an Eva at the start. Although she gets a lot more screen time in Thrice than she did in 3.0 and is better ingrained into the story than she was in 2.0, it’s debatable whether or not her inclusion is necessary to the film or the franchise beyond her most apparent trait of typical giggly, jiggly, anime girl “with glasses and big boobs.” She’s fun for sure, with her singing and love of piloting, and the revelations in Thrice make for some interesting theorizing, yet her role could have been occupied by a previously established character. This becomes more apparent when a beloved original character’s new story too closely hues toward another’s established one, effectively making that character redundant. On the flip side, an argument could be made that Mari’s inclusion is what marks Thrice as a definitive end for the Evangelion franchise, at least as far as Hideaki Anno is involved.
Considering the franchise as a whole, Thrice Upon a Time serves as the inverse of End of Evangelion (which itself was an inverse in a different direction of Neon Genesis). Where End opened on all-out action before descending into metaphysical despair, Thrice begins on hope, something that’s long been absent from the Evangelion series, finally giving characters a moment of happiness before crushing heartbreak. This is Eva after all. Even at its darkest, Thrice never reaches the existential dread that End exudes in nearly every moment. It feels as though Anno, having worked out the depression which plagued his younger days, wants to offer the viewer the same peace he has found, thus establishing Thrice as both thematic and structural balance to End, yan and yang, hope and despair. This doesn’t mean the Rebuild series is better than Neon Genesis, nor does it mean the opposite. Both have their strengths and weakness, and will appeal to different segments of the audience. They are equals, both in thematic narrative and cinematic quality.
Following Evangelion‘s overall themes of growth and maturity, End of Evangelion is our angsty teenage years, when existence is meaningless, and Thrice Upon a Time is adulthood, when we decide to find our own meaning. One may come precede other, but that doesn’t mean the latter isn’t equally important. If anything, both ages, and both series, are necessary in understanding their total existence. Of course, to anyone who hasn’t seen the original series, or the previous films, any possible connection between interations means nothing. This is one of the biggest problems with Thrice Upon a Time.
Perhaps the most important question left to answer about Thrice Upon a Time – other than What does that mean? Why was he there? What just happened? Seriously, what the hell just happened? – is if this final film will appeal to people who haven’t seen the series or delved beyond the original television show. And perhaps unlike any other question about Thrice and Evangelion itself, there is a definitive answer: No.
Although recapping at the start and including a coherent-by-Eva-standards story, it’s impossible for a layperson to appreciate Thrice Upon a Time. Sure, there’s the surface-level enjoyment of pretty pictures and big robots and so many butts, but the obfuscation and technobabble would be difficult for anyone who hasn’t already started on this ride to jump on now. Fortunately, as part of a different series, it is possible to appreciate and understand Thrice having seen only the Rebuild films, and given how entertaining it is, this finale should satisfy anyone who has stuck with the franchise until now, even if full understanding may not be possible without also having seen the original anime. Or without having read the manga. Or read the novels. Or played the games. Or cosplayed as one of the characters. Even then, it’s debatable whether or not you understand every allusion and reference, and anything less would be a greater disappointment to Eva fans than learning the whole story was Pen Pen’s elaborate toilet time daydream. Twenty years from now we’ll still see hour-long analyses of Kabbalah mysticism and meta-commentary by people who will continue to dwell on Anno’s series longer than he will than is healthy.