The 1995-96 anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion was both a deeply personal and experimental work and a massive financial success. The series’ popularity caused major changes to anime that are still being felt to this day. With Evangelion recently re-released on Netflix, and the final movie in the Rebuild quadrilogy set to finally be released, the influence of Hideaki Anno’s mecha anime is more apparent than ever.
Evangelion features a number of elements familiar to anime fans, most notably teenagers piloting giant robots to fight monsters, but from the beginning something is different. The robots are fleshy, angular creatures, and the opposing monsters, called Angels, are often abstract and strange. Rather than being a hot-blooded anime protagonist in the tradition of Dragon Ball‘s Goku, Evangelion‘s Shinji Ikari is a withdrawn, depressive teen trying to connect with his distant and commanding father. The people around him, from his guardian Misato to his fellow Eva pilots Asuka and Rei, are revealed to be just as flawed – which many have interpreted as a reflection of the fact that creator Hideaki Anno wrote Evangelion as a meditation on his experiences with depression.
A mixture of budget shortfalls, behind-schedule animation, and Anno’s creative vision caused the last two episodes to be told through a series of line drawings, repeated animation, and fixed images, garnering a mixed response from viewers upon release. Like other ambitious series like Lost, Evangelion‘s ending was highly controversial when it aired, and lead to a more explicit but equally strange conclusion in the End of Evangelion movie. Despite being such a personal, introspective, and often difficult work, Evangelion was a massive financial success, making $400 million within the first two years of its release through video sales as well as related merchandise such as CDs, manga, and figurines. The franchise and its characters have proven to have enduring popularity, appearing on everything from pachinko machines to the sides of planes. This success led to a number of changes in the anime industry, including creating opportunities for more experimental works, creating popular character archetypes, and bolstering Studio Gainax. The Evangelion franchise continues through the Rebuild movie series, but its influence is much broader.
Many have credited Evangelion‘s massive success with revitalizing the anime industry as a whole. Anime had been struggling following the 1980s Japanese economic crash with production decreasing, and most projects being either lengthy franchises aimed at children or limited-run VHS series targeting hardcore fans or otaku. Evangelion showed that a project could be deeply personal, beloved among otaku, and still be very profitable. Creators like Your Name‘s Makoto Shinkai have cited the series as an inspiration for pursuing more ambitious content in animation.
Evangelion was far from the first series to present a darker and more mature take on the mecha anime, as Mobile Suit Gundam had combined the genre with the political war drama decades earlier, but it was unique in its focus on the psychological lives of its characters and its creative use of symbolism. A number of series, such as RahXephon and Brain Powered, tried to directly copy the qualities that made Evangelion special. However, its biggest influence can be seen in the number of unusual, artistically oriented anime projects that aired in the following years.
Anno’s deeply personal involvement with Evangelion encouraged studios to give more control to creators, who had previously often been restricted by production committees worried about merchandise sales. Productions invested their budget in fewer, higher-quality episodes, leading to the 13- and 26-episode runs that are now common in anime today. This increased creative control led to several series such as Cowboy Bebop, and The Big O, which were both popular worldwide and received critical acclaim. Evangelion‘s use of symbolism instead of literal plotting paved the way for even more abstract and cerebral series like Serial Experiments Lain and Revolutionary Girl Utena.
Evangelion didn’t merely appeal to viewers’ intellect – for many, it also had a romantic appeal. Most notably, the mecha pilots Rei and Asuka became a dyad of romantic archetypes, both characters whose seeming hostility to the male lead Shinji betrayed a secret affection and insecurity. While this type of character had been percolating in anime and manga, with early examples such as Ranma 1/2‘s Akane, Evangelion‘s female leads became the exemplars of these tropes and led to countless imitations.
The fiery, frequently verbally abusive Asuka popularized the tsundere archetype which is still seen in anime everywhere from shonen action characters like Naruto‘s Sakura to romantic comedy love interests. A tsundere is essentially a female character who frequently insults and belittles the main character only to show affection for him in a vulnerable moment. The craze for tsunderes would reach its apex in the 2000s when Rie Kugimiya became one of Japan’s most sought-after voice actresses by portraying tsundere leads in series like Shakugan no Shana and The Familiar of Zero, and the character type is a staple in romantic comedy anime to this day.
For her part, Rei inspired a smaller but still considerable number of kuuderes, an archetype that is similar to the tsundere but replaces anger with cool indifference. “Ice queen” characters ranging from Eureka Seven‘s Eureka to Teen Titans’ Raven have been viewed as successors to Rei. All of Evangelion‘s characters were influential and imitated, but in particular Rei and Asuka created a prototype for entertaining romantic interests that future series would use again and again.
The success of Evangelion was most of all felt by Gainax, the animation studio which created the series. Evangelion‘s success allowed the studio to pursue more creative and ambitious projects. These included the classic miniseries FLCL; Gurren Lagann, which similarly deconstructed the mecha genre; and the manic cartoon Panty and Stocking with Garter Belt. The latter two series were created by Hiroyuki Imaishi, who later left Gainax to found Studio Trigger, which would create some of the 2010s’ biggest anime including Kill la Kill and Promare.
Hideaki Anno has never quite been able to escape the shadow of his creation, but the success of Evangelion allowed him to work on projects ranging from Toho’s recent Shin Godzilla Movie to the His and Her Circumstances TV adaptation. Anno also split off from Gainax to form Studio Khara in 2006, which lead to the creation of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies. Anno’s clearly personal connection to Evangelion both elevated his own fame as a director and helped to create the role of the auteur anime director.
After the Trigger and Khara departures, Studio Gainax is now mostly defunct, with what remains embroiled in legal issues. Nevertheless, the impact of Gainax’s work, most notably Evangelion, is still felt in modern anime in everything from its characters to episode lengths. The series’ multiple endings and interpretations are still divisive among many fans, but the massive impact that Neon Genesis Evangelion had on anime is hard to deny.