Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
2023, NR, 155 min. Directed by Hideaki Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Katsuichi Nakayama, Mahiro Maeda. Starring Megumi Ogata, Yūko Miyamura, Megumi Hayashibara, Fumihiko Tachiki.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 15, 2023
In the long history of mecha anime – the Japanese genre of giant robots smashing and crashing into each other – the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise fills a remarkable and unique position. It provides some of the best robot-on-robot action sequences of truly epic scale, but it also explores questions of destiny, predetermination, inherited trauma, and societal existential threats. After all, such ruminations seem inevitable when the biblical second coming is really an invasion by giant monsters called angels. They're dubbed apostles in the Japanese version – not a mistranslation, but a deliberate choice by series creator Hideaki Anno.
Anno's decisions are core to the series due to his constant revisiting of the story: first as the original 26-episode anime, then the manga (published first but really an adaptation of the in-progress anime), then the three-part Revival of Evangelion series, and now the four-part Rebuild of Evangelion, which culminates in the monumental Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time.
Anno's not simply rehashing but revisiting and revising, much as he has done with the rest of what has been dubbed the Shin Japan Heroes Universe, involving contemporary retellings of several of the key figures in Japanese pop culture: the greatest monster for Shin Godzilla, the greatest hero in Shin Ultraman, and the greatest bug-helmeted motorcycle-riding Nazi-smasher for Shin Kamen Rider. In this film (confusingly, the only part of Rebuild that is also under the Shin banner), the core is anime's greatest embodiment of angst, Shinji Ikari (voiced by Ogata in the original Japanese language version and Spike Spencer in the U.S. dub). Or, as series grump and cult favorite Asuka (Miyamura/Tiffany Grant) puts it, he doesn't want to live, but he can't bring himself to die.
Each of the Evangelion pilots has been broken by the war, trapped in perpetual teenhood, and haunted by their lost childhoods. Asuka is an angry nihilist plagued by her own shielded humanity; Ayanami (Hayashibara/Amanda Winn Lee) is an imitation of herself, her memories and identity wiped away; and Shinji is trapped within his PTSD and guilt about his failures, and the carnage he has wrought in his victories.
The continuity – stripped down as it has been for Rebuild – is still almost impossibly convoluted. Anno seems to know it, and almost playfully goads the audience with a long but lightning-paced "previously" intro and no title card until over an hour in. The narrative is massive and dense, although the underlying story is now less about the engineered Evangelion versus the semi-organic angels and more about how humanity faces the apocalypse (a recurrent theme across all iterations of Neon Genesis).
Not that there's no epic combat: The opening defense of Paris is as bombastic as the franchise has ever got, while Asuka's enraged raid into the gates of hell is kinetic, animalistic, and tragic. But there's tenderness, too, in the opening act in which Shinji, Ayanami, and Asuka are given a moment of peace in a village where the simple joys of life – family meals, planting rice, harvesting rice, the satisfaction of predictability – survive under the threat of the apocalypse.
Without those scenes, the final conflict with the ultimate religious zealot, Gendo Ikari (Tachiki/John Swasey) would have less weight: With them, it adds both emotional and metaphysical weight. It's the ultimate summation of Anno's grand design, highlighting the extraordinary visuals of the franchise, from the verdant Japanese countryside to nightmarish biomechanical automata and Kabbalist symbolism, all centered around Shinji's embracing of what "neon genesis" really means. Operatic, overblown, and yet still touching, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time may be a mouthful, but it's also full of heart.