DIRECTED BY: Hideaki Anno
FEATURING: Voices of Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Yuko Miyamura; Spike Spencer, Amanda Winn-Lee, Tiffany Grant (English dub)
PLOT: Three children are recruited to defend humanity from a series of monstrous Angels.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While certainly bizarre, there’s no reason to put an uneven recap of a television series in the List when a superior candidate exists in End of Evangelion.
COMMENTS: Despite its reputation as the seminal weird anime, for the majority of its original 26-episode run Neon Genesis Evangelion was not particularly unusual, aside from its penchant for psychosexual and biblical imagery. The series’ most notable quality, its focus on the emotional and psychological well-being of its cast, was remarkable in its depth but hardly unprecedented. Mobile Suit Gundam, arguably the most iconic and influential mecha series of all, made the traumatic nature of war a core part of its storytelling nearly two decades before Evangelion’s existence. The bizarre, surrealist elements that Evangelion is best known for today mostly comprise the last third of the series, culminating in its astonishing final two episodes.
The depletion of the series’ budget forced creator and director Hideaki Anno to complete it using narration over a combination of concept art, storyboards and stock footage. Whether by necessity or choice, the last two episodes of Evangelion more or less abandon the series’ narrative. Instead, they are expressionist psychological studies of the series’ protagonist, Shinji Ikari, and seemingly of Hideaki Anno. Today, Evangelion’ s final episodes are jaw-dropping, but in 1996 they were reviled by fans seeking resolution to a series they loved.
Evangelion: Death and Rebirth only makes sense in the context of the backlash to Neon Genesis Evangelion’s final televised episodes, because it clearly targets jaded fans of the series rather than newcomers. Death and Rebirth feels like a make-good from Anno to fans disappointed by the series’ finale. It is split into two parts: the first, Death, is a 70 minute compilation of clips from the original series, while the second, Rebirth, is a 30 minute preview of End of Evangelion, the film released four months later as a replacement conclusion to the television series. Death serves to remind fans why they loved the series, while Rebirth promises them a more satisfying ending.
Summarizing a plot as dense and labyrinthine as Neon Genesis Evangelion’s in 70 minutes is likely an impossible task. Death and Rebirth makes no effort to actually do so, and is a better film for it. Instead, Death uses events from the series to summarize the emotional journey of its three main characters: the anxious and self-loathing Shinji Ikari, the depressive and reserved Rei Ayanami, and the competitive and narcissistic Asuka Langley. The trio of teenagers are tasked with piloting giant robots known as EVAs in order to combat “Angels,” mysterious supernatural beings seemingly intent on the destruction of humanity. NERV, the organization responsible for overseeing the destruction of the Angels, treats the EVA pilot like tools, caring about their physical and mental well-being only inasmuch as it effects their ability to fight the Angels.
Much of the television series is dedicated to exploring the mysteries of NERV and the Angels, but these matter little to story Death tells. Death is about suffering of the innocent, and the suffering the innocent cause each other. Each of the children are abused and manipulated by their caretakers into destroying their minds and bodies, but the threat of humanity’s extinction gives them a moral obligation to stay. Late in the film, Shinji abandons NERV, only to return when he is the only pilot left to defeat an Angel. Shinji saves humanity, but the battle is so gruesome, and Shinji’s pain so visceral, that the audience is left to wonder if we’re worth it.
In a film about children battling super-powered monsters, the most memorable pain is that which the children cause each other. With no recourse against the adults who hurt them, the EVA pilots have only one another as targets for their anger. Shinji objectifies and lusts after Asuka in scene after uncomfortable scene, while Asuka verbally abuses Shinji and Rei, who shows almost no emotion or empathy. The tension between Rei and Asuka makes for one of the film’s most gripping moments. With less than 70 minutes to recap a 26 episode television series, Anno spends 42 seconds on a motionless shot of two girls standing in an elevator, not talking or looking at one another, before Asuka finally explodes in rage. It’s a moment scarier and more riveting than almost any of the Angel fights, and a testament to Anno’s masterful sense of timing, and one of only a few moments where the full power of the original series’ style and storytelling can be felt.
Death and Rebirth excels at showing the pain felt by its three main characters, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up well as a standalone film. For all its focus on the emotional story of Evangelion, the compressed running time still forces Death to rush through some of the series most captivating mysteries. The revelations of the real nature of Rei and the identify of the seventeenth and final Angel in particular come off as abrupt and disjointed, to the point it may have been better to exclude them. Death and Rebirth is rarely discussed today, because there’s little reason to watch it. In 1997, it renewed Evangelion fans’ faith in the franchise and in Hideaki Anno. In 2018, it neither adequately summarizes the original series, nor stands alone as a film like End of Evangelion. Neon Genesis Evangelion isn’t an especially long series to begin with, so even the need for a recap film is questionable, but Death and Rebirth is an interesting relic from a time when Evangelion had yet to be canonized.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…like watching an episode of Robotech directed by Ingmar Bergman… cramming the events of so many TV episodes into sixty minutes is an impossible task and will leave viewers new to the show simply bewildered.”–James O’Ehly, Sci-Fi Movie Page (DVD)