What Is 'Neon Genesis Evangelion,' and Why Is It Such a Big Deal That It's on Netflix?

neon genesis evangelion

On Friday, Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the biggest, weirdest, and most influential TV series ever made, is dropping on Netflix. If you've heard about the show, you've probably noticed its weird, long name, or maybe did enough Google searches to find out that it's an anime about giant robots fighting giant monsters called "Angels," and also crying children in cool outfits, and also Jesus? What? The ending is also bad? Or maybe it's good now? Or does it depend on which ending we're talking about??? (Yes, there are a few.)

Don't worry, it all makes sense (well, most of it makes sense), and if you need any more convincing to watch before diving into the show, here's your chance. Or maybe you started and got kinda lost; that's cool too. There's a lot crammed into those 26 half-hour episodes, and we have the unenviable task of explaining what it's all about.

What is a 'Neon Genesis Evangelion'?

You can directly translate the title of the show to "The Gospel of a New Century," which is apt since Evangelion uses a ton of themes and names and events from the Kabbalah, the Bible, and Judaism to flesh out its story. It's about fighting Angels who were put on this earth by Lilith (sort of) and one of the weapons used against them is the Lance of Longinus (for you Bible-heads, the spear that pierced the torso of Jesus). The first Angel's name is Adam, the task force fighting the Angels uses a trio of supercomputers called the Magi, the robots are called Evangelions or EVAs (or Eve... you get it).

But, the show uses those themes to tell a story about people using giant robots to fight monsters, a type of story that had been big in anime for decades before Evangelion hit everyone's TV sets. Basically, the entire thing is a deconstruction of the mecha genre, which led to some contention with fans on its initial release back in October of 1995.

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What is 'mecha'?

Mecha is a genre of anime (which has now spread to Hollywood blockbusters) that incorporates giant robots (usually, but not always, humanoid) into a sci-fi narrative about how dope it is to use giant robots to fight stuff and save people. Gundam is mecha, Transformers is mecha, Voltron is mecha. What Evangelion did that pissed a lot of people off was it took the mecha genre and all its conceits and turned them on its head, creating a claustrophobic, sometimes downright horrific meditation on what it means to be human and why people suffer and whether death and oblivion is better than the constant struggle to survive in a world that wants to kill you.

What is 'anime'?

Okay, you might be… in the wrong place.

Why is it such a big deal that Evangelion is on Netflix?

Neon Genesis Evangelion has never been streamable before. It came out in the mid-1990s, which was way before streaming, obviously, and had a few runs on TV on American channels, like the Anime Network and Cartoon Network, but unless you were lucky enough to catch it there or have enough money to spend on the pricey DVD and Blu-ray versions, you're pretty much out of luck when it comes to watching it online legally. (There are, of course, plenty of sketchy anime streaming sites with those horny sidebar ads that you can try, as well as the requisite bays of pirates, but I can't in good conscience recommend that.) It being on probably the biggest streaming service known to man means it's readily available to everyone, fans as well as newbies, and we won't have to go through any complicated backchannels anymore to get at it. Not to mention it's on Netflix worldwide, so we can all go on this journey together!

What's it all about?

It's the extremely futuristic year of 2015 (this came out in 1995, remember), a semi-secret organization called NERV has built giant battle robots in order to fight off a very scary and very powerful force of beasts called Angels, who appear from an unknown source. Fifteen-year-old Shinji Ikari arrives at Tokyo-3 on the summons from his estranged father, and it's explained to him that he's the only person who can pilot one of these robots, a huge purple and green EVA called Unit-01. Over the course of the season, Shinji meets fellow pilots Rei Ayanami, a quiet, resigned girl who is nonetheless very good at fighting in her robot, Unit-00, and the fiery and overconfident Asuka Langley Soryu manning Unit 0-2, as well as his commanding officer Misato Katsuragi, scientist Ritsuko Akagi, and very hot and rugged detective Ryoji Kaji. But all is not as it seems at NERV, presided over by Shinji's father Gendo, who seems to have a secret understanding about the Angels, where they come from, and what it's all leading to.

Okay, now I'm ready for some of the real deets. What's an EVA?

That's a can of worms for which you should click over this way to figure it out. Fair warning: Knowing exactly what's going on with the EVAs is a pretty major plot spoiler.

neon genesis evangelion
Adam, the First Angel | Gainax

What are Angels?

Angels are giant beasts that come from some unknown place (which you find out about later in the series, along with a whooooooole lot of other, increasingly weird revelations) to terrorize humanity. It all started with something called the "Second Impact" on September 13, 2000, which the United Nations claims was a meteorite crashing to Earth in Antarctica at light speed. It altered Earth's axis and caused a global cataclysm, changing weather patterns and launching devastating tsunamis. The survivors rebuilt the world in the ensuing 15 years after enduring more weather catastrophes and civil wars, but still suffer from the trauma of the years in between.

Of course, in stories like this, governments lie. Without spoiling too much, the Second Impact actually has to do with an experiment conducted using one of the Angels -- the first one, named Adam. After the Second Impact occurred, a mysterious global shadow organization called Seele could predict that, 15 years from that event, the first Angels would appear and try to destroy humanity.

The Angels all have wildly varying shapes and sizes, some animal in nature, some modeled after insects, and some after simple geometric shapes or shapes we've never even seen before. They're all named after angels that appeared in Judeo-Christian texts: Shinji and his fellow Evangelion pilots fight off Angels with names like Ramiel, Sandalphon, Gaghiel, and Bardiel, who all possess major destructive power, as well as a special core that must be pierced to kill them.

What is NERV?

The series picks up in 2015, 15 years after Second Impact, when the first Angel, Sachiel, attacks the rebuilt Tokyo-3. Underneath Tokyo-3 is a massive underground space that houses NERV Headquarters, the organization that was put together after Second Impact to find a way to fight the Angels. They answer directly to the United Nations. NERV -- and its commander, Gendo Ikari -- built the Evangelions.

What is an AT Field?

Throughout the series, you will hear the phrase "AT Field," which all the Angels and Evangelions possess. (In the title sequence, the phrase "Absolute Terror Field" flashes for one half of a second.) It's a forcefield that can be projected around an Angel or an EVA to protect it, varying in strength, depending on how strong the Angel or the pilot-EVA synchronization is. They're usually octagonal in shape, and invisible unless making contact with a powerful force. Some of the Angels use them to attack stuff, too, Sahaquiel using its AT Field to destroy a bunch of satellites.

Does Shinji ever get in the robot?

"Get in the fucking robot, Shinji" is a very popular EVA meme about characters being forced to do things they don't want to do that is better explained here. All you need to know is that he does get in the robot in the first episode, and many times after that. Yes, I was shocked, too.

neon genesis evangelion
We love you Penpen!! | Gainax

Is there a cute animal?

YES there is a PENGUIN and his name is PENPEN and he is VERY GOOD we LOVE him.

Should I use Netflix's 'Skip Intro' function?


Should I watch the sub or the dub?

*looks straight into camera like I’m in The Office*

Yes, okay, anime fans can be assholes about this sometimes, but, look, more often than not, the sub -- that is, watching the show with subtitles in your preferred language if you don't know Japanese -- is always better. The only case I know of where this is not true is Cowboy Bebop, whose English-language voice actors are commonly thought to be really, really good.

neon genesis evangelion
A good portion of the last two episodes looks... like this. | Gainax

The show is controversial, right?

As I said before, it's a deconstruction of a beloved genre. Before 1995, it was dope to pilot huge robots and become heroes fighting kaiju and saving the world. What Evangelion posits is… what if it actually sucked? What if having the weight of saving the world on your shoulders, as well as the prospect of watching your friends suffer and possibly die every day sent you spiraling into a major depression and gave you nightly panic attacks? The show is tricky about this, too: when it starts off, it seems to follow the beats of any other mecha show before revealing its true intentions. A lot has been said about the creator, Hideaki Anno, who fell into a deep depression himself after completing his previous project, an anime series called Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (inspired by the stories of Jules Verne and a concept by Hayao Miyazaki), and after a planned sequel to another project he worked on, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise, was scrapped.

In its back half, Evangelion sheds the mecha format altogether, becoming a mind-bending, almost psychedelic (but not in a fun way) psychological examination of the minds of all of its main characters, as well as extensive philosophizing on the nature of humanity itself. Anno himself has said that the arc of the series reflects his four-year depression. Episodes 25 and 26 look and feel completely separate from the rest of the series, partially due to truncated funding, which forced the animation studio to use a lot of still images and hand-drawings, and also due to the fact that Anno simply couldn't decide on an ending until the eleventh hour.

As the show began to reveal its true intentions in the second half of the series, some fans began to sour on its weird psychoanalytical mumbo-jumbo and focus on character examinations rather than plot and cool robot-monster fights. The final two episodes angered tons of viewers, who had no idea what to do with this odd, ambiguous conclusion to something that started out so cut-and-dry. (You thought Game of Thrones fans were mad????) Anno responded to the fan outrage, which led him and animation studio Gainax to retool the ending a few more times in new projects after the series ended: End of Evangelion and Death & Rebirth, which also hits Netflix the same time as the core anime.

neon genesis evangelion
It gets weirdddddddd. | Gainax

It has multiple endings!?!?!???

The ending of Evangelion has been retooled twice, in response to fan demands, with a new one on the way in the next year. (Yes, as in, like, 2020.) We have the originally broadcast Episodes 25 and 26 of the series. Then we have 1997's Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth, the first of a number of films to come after the series, which retold the first 24 episodes in a 67-minute clip show (Death) before redoing the ending with 27 minutes of all new animation (Rebirth).

Then came the gorgeous, bruising End of Evangelion, also in 1997, which uses the new bits of Rebirth as well as more new animation to completely re-do the final two episodes of the show… again. This ending is more along the lines of what fans of a mecha anime would expect (i.e. big battles, sacrifices, explosions, and the hero winning in the end… sorta), but still contains Anno's original themes of psychoanalysis and introspection, culminating in one extreme downer of an ending.

And then there are the new movies, collectively referred to as Rebuild of Evangelion (which Netflix won't have), which totally reboot the entire original series with new animation, the use of CG animation, and new directors. (Anno is still credited as a general manager and writer.) Rebuild consists of four films, the first in 2007, the second in 2009, the third in 2012, and the fourth scheduled for 2020, that retell the original Evangelion story, adding new scenes and characters and generally intended to be more accessible to a wider international audience of new fans. And, yes, the fourth movie will have another new ending. What did you expect?

neon genesis evangelion
For a good period in the late 1990s, everyone wanted to be Rei. | Gainax

If it's so damn weird and confusing, WHY is it such a big deal?

Evangelion is notable for many, many reasons. It turned an entire decades-old genre of anime on its head, angering many but impressing far more. It pretty much singlehandedly created worldwide otaku culture -- that is, the obsessive fan culture surrounding anime and manga in all its forms -- bringing a subculture of Japanese fandom into the mainstream, which was actually part of Anno's intentions when creating the series. Mind you, things like Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z didn't exist yet. Evangelion aired when anime TV shows were in a major slump after Japan's economic crisis in the 1990s, revitalizing the art form and paving the way for countless projects that came after it. It sold -- and continues to sell -- approximately a gajillion dollars' worth of merch, from T-shirts to amiibos to $400 vinyl figurines to wigs to duvet covers to cell phones to laptops to pachinko machines. Characters from Evangelion can be seen in posters in stores and on walls of buildings around Japan sans context. Everyone knows who they are.

Its influence can be found in a boatload of anime series and movies that came after it, and it's even seeped into some of today's Hollywood movies (more on that below). The character design of Rei has been copied over and over, and is still one of the most popular characters in cosplay. The design of the EVAs themselves, sleeker and stealthier than mechas had looked before, influenced mecha designs in tons of subsequent series.

'Gundam' is one of Japan's biggest hit mecha franchises. | Sunrise

This sounds cool. What else out there is like it?

Evangelion both influenced and was influenced by a massive feedback loop of pop culture spanning roughly the last six or seven decades that is honestly too intimidating to even try to get into here. For starters, though, if you're at all familiar with the concept of movies, you've probably heard of this little indie series called Transformers, which is itself based on a number of animated TV shows about giant robots engaged in perpetual civil war and the little humans who help them out. Transformers is a property of toy company Hasbro; the thing about anything mecha is that it you're pretty much guaranteed to sell A LOT of toys.)

If you just want to get your grubby little paws on some of that real, real good mecha anime shit, there are a few easy places to start. You can always go with the classics, like 1979's Mobile Suit Gundam, the very first Gundam series that launched a similar global phenomenon about battle robot suits piloted by genetically enhanced psychics who fight in space against a colonizing force in the future. Like Evangelion, Gundam merch continues to sell through the roof, and plastic Gundam figurines even have their own term! (Pro-tip: A lot of the Gundams are available on Hulu.)

Netflix recently rebooted Voltron, an American mecha series from the 1980s about a team of people who pilot a giant super-robot made up of a bunch of smaller robot vehicles that can combine themselves together. Sometimes the vehicles are animals, like the lion-robots of the first series, and sometimes they're more like the cars of Transformers. You can also try out Gunbuster, a very Ender's Game-y mecha anime about a team of girl pilots who learn how to control giant robot suits, that was Evangelion director Hideaki Anno's directorial debut. If you're looking for another modern series, Hiroyuki Imaishi (an animator and animation director who worked on Fullmetal Alchemist and one of the Rebuild movies) created the hilarious, slick Gurren Lagann in 2007: an anime series about a young boy in a dystopian future who discovers a giant robot head buried in the ground that fights with a big drill. Normal and cool! (And available on Netflix!)

Guillermo del Toro's 2013 movie Pacific Rim, about giant robots powered by teams of humans that fight off giant alien beasts from deep in the ocean, borrowed a ton of concepts from the genre, and is said by the director himself to be his own love letter to the stories he loved as a kid. I can't necessarily say that the 2004 reboot of classic sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica was influenced by any anime, least of all Neon Genesis Evangelion, but that show took a similarly daring (and controversial) approach to telling a sci-fi story steeped in recognizable religious allegory and imagery. It has a cool name, though, and that's very anime.

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.