I didn’t plan to write this. I didn’t plan to spend one of my rare weeks off work as yet another geek, out of doubtless many others, writing yet another a long blog post about the new Evangelion movie. But Thrice upon a Time is a good movie. So here I am, writing about it.
Some context: Evangelion was the first anime show I watched back in the early 2000s, so I have some sentimental attachment to it. Macross Plus, Noir and everything else came after that. The announcement of the final Rebuild film was therefore a source of relief as much as anything else.
Then there were the other three Rebuild movies. The first two were mostly a familiar story told with more streamlined pacing and a bigger budget, but the third felt like a misfire that forgot what story it was trying to tell. In fact, I’ve yet to rewatch it, and at one point nearly got rid of my blu-ray copies of 1.11 and 2.22 because I was so disappointed with the tack that 3.33 took. You Can (not) Be Arsed. Or something.
The problem I felt at the time was that the entertainment industries in general are so concerned with cynically exploiting existing IPs rather than giving new people and ideas a chance to shine. I now understand that this issue was on the minds of the Rebuild production team: although many of us weren’t aware of what was going on behind the scenes, the studio had deliberately set out to invest in new talent and delegate work to people who, it is hoped, will find their own paths in the future.
Prior to the fourth outing, Rebuild of Evangelion was a retelling of a popular story with a notoriously contentious ending, but it also gave the outward impression of a huge creative and marketing juggernaut that jack-knifed at a crucial moment in its journey. The intimidating task that the studio faced was how they could bring it to a stop in a dignified and satisfying way.
It’s now clear that Rebuild wasn’t just a cash-in. Instead, it’s an attempt to capitalise on the benefit of hindsight to give the story a new, more satisfactory conclusion that does its predecessors justice. You know what? I think it’s succeeded.
I often feel frustrated when criticism of big-budget films and prestige TV shows glosses over the huge range of talent and hard work that’s invested by numerous people. What we see and hear on screen may be the final decision of an overall director, but it’s also the product of many others who don’t always get the credit they deserve.
In getting that particular beast over the finish line, I want to recognise the input from voice actors, studio staff and the role of the director’s wife Moyoco Anno, who by all accounts has overcome personal adversity to become a hugely talented artist in her own right. There’s some artwork of hers visible in a studio photo of the director’s PC desktop background; there was also a candid admission that he wished he had been more supportive towards her in the past, and that he finds her skills as a visual storyteller to be a source of admiration. I now suspect that she played an indirect, yet crucial, role in Rebuild’s success.
It’s impossible to ignore the role of the director himself though, because this always was Hideaki Anno’s most “personal” work. The troubled production of the TV show and each of the Rebuild films offers snapshots in the career of someone who was constantly aware of his own shortcomings. Despite his high profile, he still engaged in self-reflection in how he could have been a better husband, colleague or director in the past, and how the present day offers a chance to improve.
What’s most interesting about the movie series – and this is only obvious now that I’ve seen the concluding one – is that it’s not a prequel or sequel, nor does it ignore where the TV show succeeded or failed. It acknowledges this, but also highlights the troubled production process and missteps of its principal director. The emotional ups and downs of its characters feel like reflections of the production process, which includes easter eggs to those who are observant enough to spot them. There’s one of Moyoco’s books in a library; a poster for one film by Anno’s lifelong mentor, Hayao Miyazaki, in the background; a dramatic moment in the latter half that was so reminiscent of the earlier SF series Gunbuster that I refuse to believe it was accidental; and that final shot that’s very…Anno. Saying anything more about it would only spoil it for you.
Evangelion never was subtle about where it draws inspiration from, nor is it completely flawless…even in its final instalment. I won’t claim that I understand the technobabble, or pretend that I’m comfortable with the way that the franchise sexualises its teenage cast. Neither of those aspects feel necessary to me, and it might be better – and possibly more widely popular? – without them.
Very few productions get everything right, after all. Most of our favourite media titles are our favourites because their flaws are outweighed by the things that they do well. Rebuild also asks a lot of its audience: there’s the gratuitous fanservice and the obtuse jargon; the protracted release schedule that led to the time between the TV broadcasts and the first Rebuild movie being shorter than the interval between that first remake and its conclusion; and the bold decision to once again portray its protagonist for most of the running time as so emotionally damaged that he’s often not deserving of the role of “protagonist” at all.
All good art that’s made for entertainment – even the stuff that makes you feel frustrated, uncomfortable or outright disappointed at various points while experiencing it – resonates with its audience, but also contains something personal from the people who made it. I remember those reports about how the ending of the Evangelion TV broadcast caused so much ire among viewers that the studio received death threats; these days, internet trolls are so commonplace that hearing about the cast and crew of a high-profile movie and TV show receiving online abuse is a depressingly regular occurrence.
Despite the potential for some viewers to miss the point of what it’s trying to say, the film’s production team seemed to promise us that, if we stuck with them, we’ll eventually be rewarded with a resolution that respects the vision of its creator, the journey of its hero, and the patience of the fans who waited for it. Anno can now draw a line under it and move on, but the same can also be said of the cast of characters, and the fans as well.
This is usually where I’d reward your patience for reading a wall of text with a glib pun or wisecrack, but all I can really say is that existing fans are unlikely to be disappointed with this movie. If on the other hand you didn’t get into the franchise in the first place, a lot of its emotional power will be lost on you. And that’s okay. Evangelion really isn’t for everyone. Thrice Upon a Time does however conclude in a way that’s every bit as heartfelt and appropriate as I’d dared hope, and better than I expected.
A couple of Twitter mutuals pointed me towards this review of the third movie, and another excellent article that were both written by the late Zac Bertschy for ANN. I didn’t know about them when they were first published and never knew Zac personally, but I do know that he was highly respected in the fan community. Those articles are well worth a read, because he was apparently way ahead of the rest of us in figuring out where this film series was going.