This Gorgeous, Bizarre Anime Series Should Be Your First Binge-Watch of 2015


Science fiction has a thing for 2015. Much has already been made of Back to the Future II‘s vision for the year versus our tragically hoverboard-less present; Kubrick nerds have pointed out that despite 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s title, 2015 is when humanity finds the ominous black monolith on the moon. But 2015 is also the setting for a dystopia that’s far less well-known, at least in American circles. Which is why I’m taking the new year as an opportunity to plug one final weekend binge-watch before the real world starts up on Monday.

To get a few things out of the way: yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is anime; yes, it’s possible to get over the stigma and watch it anyway; yes, the ending is a total mess and requires a feature-length revision to understand. And no, the 26-episode series isn’t available on conventional binging platforms like Netflix or Hulu (though it is on Comcast’s Xfinity service).

While a mid-’90s animated series is hardly typical prestige TV fare, NGE does offer a few points of reference for the uninitiated. For one, it takes the form of virtually all the American series that get the credit for kickstarting our contemporary “golden age” — it’s a genre deconstruction. To use the most obvious examples, what The Sopranos is to mob movies and The Wire is to cop procedurals, NGE is to the “mecha” genre, also known as “people in giant robots.”

If you’re like me, you know about mecha because you grew up watching English-dubbed Gundam reruns on Cartoon Network, but a more socially acceptable source of knowledge is point of reference number two: Pacific Rim. Those who found themselves into Guillermo del Toro’s kaiju-fest for reasons beyond Idris Elba’s face, and the merciful absence of a superhero plug, now have a whole new franchise to tide them over until the 2017 sequel.

One final endorsement: most prospective viewers may not have heard of NGE‘s creator, Hideaki Anno, but they’ve certainly heard of Hayao Miyazaki. Anno helped out with the animation on Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s own story of humanity on the brink of environmental collapse.

The basic premise of NGE is the stuff of standard post-apocalyptic sci-fi. In the “far future” — which, for the 1990s, was right about now — the planet is 15 years past a global cataclysm called the Second Impact. Massive beings called Angels regularly attack a futuristic version of Tokyo, and to fight them off, a paramilitary force called Nerv has developed Evangelions, or Evas: part-organic, part-mechanical beings controlled via psychological bonds with their pilots. The first episode introduces viewers to the protagonist, Shinji Ikari, a withdrawn teenager summoned to Tokyo-3 to serve as an Eva pilot. The twist, of course, is that Nerv’s Machiavellian chief is actually Shinji’s father Gendo — the first of many, many Freudian subplots of NGE.

Going any further into plot details involves a lot of jargon and even more spoilers, but suffice it to say that NGE packs in enough psychodrama and religious imagery to fuel a thousand dissertations. There are references to Kabbalah and the Dead Sea Scrolls; there are metaphors for mental illness and social alienation; there are final episodes so maddeningly abstract it required a 1997 movie, End of Evangelion, to clear things up (with mixed results). It’s no wonder the show has a devoted Internet following that’s already celebrating its newfound relevance.

Neon Genesis Evangelion may not be for everyone — few post-apocalyptic, semi-mystical religious epics are — but it’s surprising the series hasn’t found more of a niche in a hyper-fragmented media landscape where niche obsessions trump mass appeal. Certainly other ahead-of-their-time ’90s shows have managed to find a figurative, and eventually literal, second life; if all goes well, 2015 will get NGE some more of the cult appeal it deserves.