Hideaki Anno’s “Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time,” which begins streaming on Amazon Prime on Aug. 13, is the film that anime fans have awaited for 25 years. The fourth and final theatrical feature in the “rebuild” of his landmark 1995-96 television series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” brings the epic adventure to a definitive conclusion.
A compelling, complex work that mixes mecha battles with apocalyptic Christian symbols, Jewish mysticism and teenage angst, “Evangelion” (pronounced eh-van-GEH-lee-on, with a hard G) ranks among the most widely discussed TV series in anime history. Its influence is extensive and includes Japanese animated fantasies and Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi adventure “Pacific Rim.” And fans continue to debate its significance, subtext and details.
“My influence on other creators isn’t something I think about when I’m working on a film,” Anno told me in an interview. “I decide what to make based on what I’m best suited for and what interests me most at the time. The ‘Evangelion’ project repeatedly came up, so I made the new theatrical movies. I don’t think that kind of opportunity will occur again.”
In the series, which takes place in the not-too-distant future, humanity is locked in a mortal struggle with bizarre, staggeringly powerful creatures known as Angels. The only effective weapons against them are the Evangelions or Evas, gigantic cyborgs guided by psychic teenagers. The hero is Shinji Ikari, an alienated 14-year-old who is drafted by his brutal father to pilot the Eva 01.
Despite its popularity, “Evangelion” never had a satisfactory ending. The original series failed to resolve the intricate plot, with its theological and ontological overtones. Shortly before “Evangelion” aired, Anno wrote that he had created it after four years of severe depression when he was “a wreck, unable to do anything” and that “the story has not yet ended in my mind.”
“I don’t know what will become of Shinji or (the other characters), or where they will go,” he wrote.
Anno was clearly not satisfied, as he continued to look for a conclusion, recutting the last episodes and reworking them in the feature “Death & Rebirth” (1997) and again in the second 1997 feature “The End of Evangelion.”
In 2002, Anno announced plans for a four-feature “rebuild,” a reimagining of the story, unconstrained by the financial and technological limits he had originally faced. “Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone” (2007) was a flamboyant retelling of the first six television episodes. “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance” (2009) and “Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo” (2012) took the characters and story in completely new directions. Nine years later, “Thrice Upon a Time” brings the saga to a surprisingly upbeat conclusion.
Speaking from Tokyo via Zoom and a translator, Anno said, “For the rebuild series, I intended the first ‘Evangelion’ movie to be similar to the TV series, the second would gradually change the story, and third and fourth would be totally different. From the first, I didn’t intend to do the same thing as the TV series.”
These four films showcase Anno’s skill at using new computer-graphic technology to create more powerful iterations of his original visions. In the TV series, when troops attacked the Angel Ramiel, it destroyed the humans and their weapons in a series of unremarkable explosions; in “You Are (Not) Alone,” the audience can almost feel the heat when the Angel reduces the tanks and missiles to glowing slag.
In the rebuild, Anno also delves deeper into the fragile psyche of his flawed, traumatized hero and the eccentric personalities around him. When Anno described his approach to the characters, he spoke with an intensity that crossed linguistic boundaries.
“In animation, nothing is real. But I wanted to bring more of a sense of reality into this made-up world — I wanted to make the characters more human,” he explained. “There’s a gap between what people say in real life and what they truly mean. In animation, unless the characters are intentionally lying, they always say what they mean. I wanted to reverse that: When the characters in ‘Evangelion’ speak, they don’t necessarily say what they mean. I wanted to add this human behavior to animation.”
“People feel Shinji is an unusual hero,” he continued. “I think that’s due to the sense of reality I brought, drawing on my experience and knowledge. But Shinji and the other characters are not just a reflection of me; they include elements of the personalities of all the artists on the creative team.”
The original “Evangelion” was a huge hit that helped reverse a slump in the Japanese animation industry: When the final episode was broadcast in March 1996, more than 10 percent of all televisions in Japan were tuned to it. “Evangelion” remains popular, with hundreds of millions of dollars in sales of videos and related merchandise. The newer features continued that success: “Thrice Upon a Time” opened in Japan on March 3 and played for more than 135 days in theaters there, earning more than 10.22 billion yen (about $93 million) — despite the pandemic.
Reflecting on that continued popularity, Anno said, “As a creator, I want to make things that are entertaining but have depth. I didn’t want our show to be some escape-from-reality type of entertainment, I wanted people who watched it to feel encouragement to live their own lives.”
Anno is shifting to live action for his next project. In April, the Toei Company announced he would direct “Shin Kamen Rider,” part of the 50th anniversary celebration of that popular superhero franchise. It’s planned for release in March 2023.
When asked how it felt to bid farewell to “Evangelion” after more than 25 years, Anno concluded, “I don’t feel a need to see Shinji and the other characters any time soon. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to see them ever again: There might come a time when I meet them again.”