Roughly 24 years ago, “End of Evangelion” was released as somewhat of a giant middle finger to the fans by creator Hideaki Anno.
After receiving tons of hate mail and death threats following the, let’s say, “controversial” conclusion of the original anime series, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” Anno went out with a bang in “End” to spiritually bring the story to a far more nihilistic conclusion.
Though I would argue “End of Evangelion” is a little more nuanced than an “unhappy ending,” it is, without doubt, a dark one that leaves viewers with plenty of questions and not a ton of answers. It’s part of its twisted beauty and it’s why I continually get a lot out of it on each subsequent viewing.
But “End” isn’t exactly what Anno intended and starting first with 2007’s “Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone” Anno set out to “Rebuild” the anime and give it a new and perhaps more solid conclusion. Fans have been just as mixed on “Rebuild” as they were on the original ending, with some ironically getting now pissy that the new films don’t completely reflect the once-controversial series’ finale.
The “Rebuild” movies have taken more than a few creative liberties with the original text, starting with the final act of “2.0 You Can (Not) Advance” and going way off the original narrative rails by “3.0 You Can (Not) Redo.” So nearly a decade after 3.0 was released “3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time” was no doubt going to be drastically different from “End of Evangelion” and give fans a new sense of closure to the classic anime series.
“Thrice Upon a Time” does this and so much more while also diving headfirst into many of the same themes of the original and a conclusion that is as satisfying as it is over the top.
The fourth film in the “Rebuild” series takes place not long after the events of “3.0,” as Shinji, Asuka, and a body double of Rei wander the dystopian planes of the third impact. After searching for some food, they are picked up by some familiar faces of their past in Kensuke and Suzuhara who help nurse Shinji back to health. But Shinji has again closed himself off, taking blame and being hard on himself for almost starting the Fourth Impact, refusing to socialize and barely eating. Kensuke and Suzuhara don’t give up on him however as they try to bring him into the life of their small village in the aftermath of the Third Impact’s destruction, which the body double of Rei finds fascinating. Meanwhile, Captain Misato and the crew of WILLE prepare their ship for a final encounter with NERV who are working diligently to start the Fourth Impact using Eva 01. If the Fourth Impact is to be stopped WILLE will need their Eva pilots to help them and for Shinji to find the strength to not only confront his depression but the primary source of it himself; his father Gendo Ikari.
“Evangelion” has always been about mental health and depression. From the moment Shinji first sat in the cockpit of Eva 01 in the original classic anime, the series has been a continually fascinating journey into the minds of the troubled teenagers and adults of the story. I had originally written off the series in my early adulthood as being “fake deep” largely because of its not completely linear way of storytelling and the reality-bending narrative was too difficult for me to understand at the time. But each time I have rewatched the original series I have found that my appreciation for this incongruent storytelling style has only grown deeper. Director Hideaki Anno does a great job throughout the series of depicting the abstract thoughts of these characters and how they draw conclusions upon their troubled lives in a way that not many other stories have done and more than the giant mech and monster fights has left the deepest impression on myself as a viewer.
Through the first two films “Rebuild” streamlines quite a bit of that abstract discussion, however, to focus more on the fun parts of the series; the aforementioned mech and monster fights. It’s definitely what makes the first two perhaps the most fun and entertaining of the “Rebuild” quadrilogy but perhaps not the deepest by any stretch. But beginning with “3.0” we finally get to dive more into the philosophies of the famous series, as the narrative shifts quite differently from the original and this all culminates in perhaps its greatest moments with “Thrice Upon a Time.”
“Thrice Upon a Time” is about as bombastic and over the top as any piece of Evangelion media, with the last half of the film being narratively hard to follow in terms of plot. If you were to ask me what was exactly happening at the end of this movie the most I could say is “Uhhh…it’s the Fourth Impact.” We get many of the same visuals used in the already ridiculous nature of “End” while adding a whole new layer of mind fuckery through the setup of the world “Rebuild” inhabits.
It’s a fun time, even if it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and the animation is among the best of the series. The action is reminiscent of other anime production companies such as Studio Trigger and will definitely not bore you through its runtime.
But the real strength of “Thrice Upon a Time” is its quieter moments that run in contrast to the more high-energy sequences. Through the village that Kensuke and Suzuhara inhabit, we get to explore what makes our heroes tick a lot more. Shinji does his trademark sulking, of course. Asuka continues to put on her tough girl facade while clearly repressing her own hurt feelings. Meanwhile, through the body double of Rei we get to see through her eyes what it means to be human.
Star Trek fans, I think, will appreciate this sequence the most as Rei goes about life in the village somewhat like Data observing the actions of his human counterparts. She’s inquisitive of their nature, curious, and learning constantly and it’s a beautiful part of the story. Through this, Shinji rediscovers his own humanity and opens himself backup again, while Asuka reconciles with her own feelings toward Shinji.
It’s an impressive moment for the series, that gives fans something new to chew on. While the original anime certainly explores those same ideas and themes, the energy of those thoughts by Anno are clearly different. “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is a much darker anime by comparison to its “Rebuild” counterpart. I don’t say that to suggest that it makes it better or worse but simply that tonally its in a different place. “Thrice Upon a Time” uses these quiet moments more to uplift the audience and show there is a possibility for growth, change, and self-actualization in the darkness of extreme depression.
Unlike the original anime, we get to finally see these characters understand and move past their collective trauma, whether it’s Shinji, Rei, Asuka, or Misato and it’s truly satisfying to see after nearly two decades. It’s what makes all these characters, especially Shinji, such compelling heroes. They’re all broken in some kind of way but in each case they find a way to…rebuild themselves back together.
But what makes “Thrice Upon a Time,” I think truly different in the best way to the original is how it wraps up its most complicated relationship; Shinji and his father Gendo.
In the original anime, we don’t really get to see two reconcile or properly conclude their father-son relationship. In fact, the two barely talk to each other in its final episodes and don’t exchange a word in “End of Evangelion.” Though the original series makes its points effectively despite this, to not have Shinji and Geno get their proper closure perhaps was a mistake by Anno back in 1997.
Here in “Thrice Upon a Time” however, this relationship is the focal point and the endgame in itself. Gendo’s need to purge himself of his humanity has led him down this path to start The Human Instrumentality Project all because he could not handle the loss of his wife. Through his anguish, he shunned his only son and the one piece he had left of her. Because of his cold actions, Shinji grows up to be the emotionally stunted and troubled teenager that he is, a mark that only further divides the two. They are both unable to cope because they have closed themselves off from pain but in the process only made themselves more hurt and depressed.
Both the original anime and “Rebuild” begin the same way with Shinji coming back to his father only to be called into piloting Eva 01. In this moment when the two had a chance to say things they’ve wanted to say or embrace as father and son, they choose not to, choosing instead to continue to isolate their hearts from each other. Their AT fields, as they make mention of constantly in this series, protecting them from further pain but also keeping them far apart.
In the finale of “Thrice Upon a Time,” Shinji is finally able to allow himself the chance of being hurt again by his father because he knows the only way to reach him and the only way to bring closure for himself and for his father is to open up. To allow himself to be vulnerable. To be human.
As someone who often struggles with being completely vulnerable myself around others, including my own loved ones, this finale really resonated with me. Shinji’s growth in many ways can be charted through the original series AND “Rebuild” as an observance of Hideaki Anno’s own growth as a writer and director. When Shinji finally opens up to his father and accepts his pain, while acknowledging his own it’s a tremendous moment for the character and the series and through it, we also get a glimpse more into the troubled mind of Gendo himself.
Gendo is a character we don’t get to see do much else than his trademark scowl in the original anime but in “Thrice Upon a Time” and Shinji’s actions we get to see his more vulnerable side. The side that’s behind the facade he puts up in front of others. The movie dives deeply and literally into his subconscious and the pain he lives with and though his action throughout the series are monstrous we get to finally understand what makes him tick like Shinji. It’s because he allows himself to be weak finally.
In this way, Shinji not only redeems himself but also Gendo to a certain extent by allowing him literally inside his mind. And from this Shiji finally becomes the true hero he always was in this series and the transformation is tremendously satisfying to watch.
This more than anything is what makes “Thrice Upon a Time” worth watching if you’re an “Evangelion” fan. Though fans might be disappointed it does not perfectly resemble “End of Evangelion” (not very much at all in fact) it gives them something new to digest in this truly fascinating and profound series.
“Neon Genesis Evangelion” is of course, most popularly, known for its entertaining giant mech and monster action while many other fans know it for its mind bendy discussions on mental health. “Rebuild” somehow gives fans a new way to understand the series two decades later and “Thrice Upon a Time” gives them an ending that, whether you prefer “End” over it or not, is satisfying in its own way and will leave you even misty-eyed in more than a few scenes.
More hardcore fans might write-off this film for not being as dark and perhaps more “Hollywood” than the original but if you watch it for what it is I think you’ll find that it only builds on the classic anime’s complex legacy.
Like the original, I suspect that my appreciation for this film and the rest of “Rebuild” will only grow on subsequent viewings as I’m sure I’ll discover new things about it each time. If this is truly the new end of “Evangelion” then it’s been a truly satisfying ride from start to finish and a testament to Hideaki Anno’s creative vision.
Until next time though, sayonara, Evangelion.
4.5 out 5