'Evangelion 3.0+1.0: Thrice Upon a Time' Ends the Legendary Anime Once and for All
The fourth of the Rebuild films, 'Thrice Upon a Time' revisits our favorite Eva pilots for a final, relatively hopeful sendoff.
The creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion Hideaki Anno once cryptically referred to the series as "a story that repeats," a statement that has dual meaning. One explains the existence of Evangelion's Rebuild films, a tetralogy of sort-of remakes, sort-of sequels to Anno’s hugely popular 1995 anime series. The other is more in an emotional sense, a story that is by-and-large a reflection of the author’s state of mind. Evangelion 3.0+1.0:Thrice Upon a Time—the latest and final Rebuild film co-directed by Anno, Kazuya Tsurumaki, Mahiro Maeda, and Katsuichi Nakayama and streaming now on Amazon Prime (along with the other Rebuilds)—crystalizes Anno's statement into a series sendoff after 26 long years that feels equally definitive and daring.
The original series had three young Evangelion pilots—the reluctant Shinji Ikari, the flamboyantly confident Asuka Langley Shikinami, and the reserved Rei Ayanami—fighting on behalf of the government agency NERV against Angels, extra-dimensional enemies with mysterious purpose, later revealed to be tools in the machination of NERV itself. The first Evangelion Rebuild, Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone, was more or less a one-to-one remake of the first six episodes of the show; the second, Evangelion: 2.22 You Can (Not) Advance, followed a similar route for a time before veering violently off-course, revealing the new series’ true intentions. At this point in the new Rebuild series, the Angels are all but gone, and—once again—humanity’s last enemy is one man’s continuing, cyclical inability to deal with grief.
The new film picks up shortly after where Evangelion: 3.33 You Can (Not) Redo left off, bringing focus back to the series’ trio of lead teenagers. Shinji (Megumi Ogata), in his desperation and regret at being manipulated into nearly ending the world in 2.22, nearly did it again in 3.33—an event only thwarted at the cost of the life of Kaworu (Akira Ishida), an Angel in the appearance of a human, and one of the few people to love Shinji seemingly unconditionally. Meanwhile, the conflict between NERV—now led by Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki) and consumed by fatalism—and WILLE, the resistance force led by Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi), Asuka (Yūko Miyamura), and Mari Illustrious (Maaya Sakamoto) operating as Eva pilots.
Fourteen years have passed in Thrice Upon a Time's world, now so different it's practically alien. The entire surface of the earth has been stained red by the Near Third Impact, or N3I, a cataclysm that Shinji caused by accident. Humanity is left on the brink, and much of what remains is split between the Wunder, the floating fortress as seen in 3.33, commanded by Misato and engineer Akagi Ritsuko (Yuriko Yamaguchi). In fact, it’s the first thing we see, as WILLE comes into conflict with a horde of NERV’s wild Evas that now more closely resemble Angels, their mechanical design is still enticingly weird, a macabre and idiosyncratic mix of flesh, machine, and the divine.
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After the utterly off-the-rails, Jesus-take-the-wheel madness of the previous two films, Thrice Upon a Time reigns things back in, especially in its first hour. This long, meditative act feels like a return to the early stages of the original show, where Anno would deliberately obfuscate and avoid action through enigmatic editing and long stretches of still frames and silence. After the battle of 3.33, Shinji, Asuka, and the new Rei clone (Megumi Hayashibara) seek refuge in Village 3, a small safe haven founded by the thousand-odd survivors of the Near Third Impact. It’s a welcome, even subversive choice, a patient unspooling of the main trio’s emotional states: Shinji’s numbing grief over Kaworu’s death; Asuka’s annoyance at seeing herself in Shinji’s self-isolation; Rei, at this point a clone of a clone, piecing together a completely fractured identity.
Shinji’s inability to change has always been a part of his character, but it’s rarely been more visually apparent than in Thrice Upon a Time—Village 3 shows that everyone he used to know has literally grown into an adult, while he remains a teenager, him and the other pilots frozen in place. The “Curse of Eva” is used as an explanation as to why Shinji, Asuka, and Rei do not age, but it could also be seen as Anno reflecting on never moving on from a franchise he had already ended technically three times before. Thrice Upon a Time is full of such considerations, its lore less important as world-building than it is as emotional metaphor. All its body horror, its imagery of the grotesque and the divine, it’s all in service of allegory, so the logistical specifics aren’t all that important—and perhaps they never really were.
While it’s generally more optimistic than the likes of TheEnd of Evangelion (a low bar, admittedly), Thrice Upon a Time does illustrate that much of the joy has left these characters’ lives. But it’s all in service of a move away from self-hatred and growth towards newfound faith in humanity. It’s extremely moving to see these characters—even the curmudgeon Gendo—share their feelings with a clear-eyed understanding of each other, themselves, and their needs.
Evangelion has long been in conversation with itself, so of course the film intended as its final, final ending would have one more look back at its tumultuous past, and then remix it. That in itself could be seen as another iteration of the series' original story, an allegory about making the difficult choice to exist in the world, to acknowledge and live with pain, to potentially open yourself up to more. Amongst all the talk of gods, Adams and Lilim, all you need to know is that Shinji’s father Gendo is doing all of this because he retreats from people and into himself in reaction to pain; Shinji ultimately chooses a different path from his father’s misanthropy, not in a grand gesture but in a series of small, cumulative moments of healing. Some of these moments work better than others—such as an amorphous, incomprehensible space that appears to the characters as places they’ve been, but Anno messes with scale and perspective and metatext, revealing these locations to be backdrops and standees as though on the set of a film, the characters quite literally fighting through the staging of “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”
All of Thrice Upon a Time's visuals, all of its ideas, its wide range of emotional weaknesses and triumphs converge into a huge and messy and, ultimately, humanist rather than fatalistic conclusion. Evangelion has always been a self-aware reflection of its creator, and the optimism of Thrice Upon a Time demonstrates how Anno has changed both as a creator and a person in the time since that first iteration of Evangelion. It feels like the ending that Anno has always wanted for himself but seemingly could never nail with any certainty, as baroque and ambitious and wildly inventive as any of the other series high points, but now with a secure sense of hopefulness. Hideaki Anno, and the characters he created, are finally free of Evangelion—and for their sake, may they never return.