How much you’ll love “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is inversely proportionate to how much you love yourself.
It’s an old online adage about a TV show whose six-month run in Japan in 1995 almost instantly elevated it to a cornerstone of pop culture there. Yes, it was another show about teenagers in big humanoid robots saving the world. But it was also an audacious, brutal mosaic of depressed kids and adults with severe abandonment issues and debilitating existential crises. For myself and many young viewers in the ’90s, it awakened awareness of our depression and childhood trauma.
But before Friday, watching “Evangelion” outside Japan meant paying hundreds for imported DVDs or pirating it. In 1997, at age 16, I rented the tapes from Blockbuster, just one of two home video releases in Western media. I haven’t seen the show since, yet it never left my mind.
Netflix gave the series its worldwide release last week. But is the world ready?
“The last time I screened it for a group of people, everyone went out to the patio together and sat in silence,” said comedian and former “Saturday Night Live” writer Heather Anne Campbell, who hosts annual marathons of the show. “A couple of people had whiskeys. Others were smoking cigarettes. Then someone finally said, ‘Man, that was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.’ ”
“Evangelion” is notable for its inextricable ties to the mind of its creator, Hideaki Anno, a patron saint of Japanese geek culture (known as otaku) who famously discovered his own depression while conceiving the story. This partially explains the infamous and jarring tonal shift throughout the show’s 26-episode run.
The series follows the story of 14-year-old Shinji Ikari, a boy burdened with the unique ability to pilot Evangelion, war robots fused with human DNA. Evangelion were built to defend the planet against Angels, apocalyptic creatures whose arrival was foretold by the Dead Sea Scrolls. (There is lots of Judeo-Christian imagery in the show’s mythology.)
Two 14-year-old girls join the fray as other pilots: the quiet, enigmatic Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, a brash, confident German-born girl who seeks meaning in life solely through her accomplishments. The show features a number of leading, powerful women and is often credited as the opening shot of the infamous Internet “waifu wars” — online arguments about which female characters are “the best,” all with myriad reasons, from reasonable to misogynistic.
Much of Internet culture is rooted in Evangelion fandom. Despite their reputation, users of sites such as 4chan are influential in how people communicate online, and a lot of that communication is via references and memes about Evangelion. Just seeing the iconic, supercharged intro, a meme in and of itself, would substantially help you understand the Internet more.
Despite its influence on culture, there’s very little official “Eva” content beyond the show and the film “End of Evangelion,” which was created and released in response to the harsh blowback that Anno and Gainax Studios received after the final, controversial, mind-bending two episodes. Gainax’s office and email inboxes were bombarded with graffiti and emails, including death threats.
“Evangelion” and the vicious reaction to it is an early progenitor of what toxic Internet fandom looks like today. The show demonstrated what PBS called “the death of the author,” when an audience feels entitled to a creator’s work.
“I was house-sitting for two comedians who were on tour in Europe. The house had no air conditioning. It did have a small television,” Campbell wrote in a blog post commemorating the film. “I watched The End of Evangelion on a hot night in July, 1999. For a half hour after it concluded, I sat in silence and felt ill.”
I also remember feeling ill. I remember wanting to vomit. I came across the movie in 2003 while swimming the pirate-infested waters of LimeWire. Once it finished, I was in shock. That can’t be what happens to the characters. To this day, the debates over the endings remain one of the oldest arguments of the Internet, a fire that still rages. I still continue to process its symbolism and meaning.
“Once you get over what you just saw, then you’re able to digest the emotional content of it, and that’s what makes ‘Evangelion’ powerful,” Campbell told The Washington Post.
And with Netflix’s release, a new fear springs from longtime fans: Oh my God, what will the discourse be like in 2019?
That’s because along with depression, the show is unflinching in its observations on many social topics, including feminism, suicide, gender roles, sexual identity, sexual assault, objectification and regression among lonely people obsessed with fantasy (an irony and hypocrisy not lost on Anno as he spawned a new kind of obsession).
Campbell has been bracing herself, especially since she has been tweeting about the show for years.
“There’ll be a new crush of fans that will bring new life to the show memetically,” Campbell said. She’s also curious about how fresh minds will receive it.
“For the first generation of ‘Eva’ fans, it wasn’t built up in any way,” she said. “Since then it’s changed the vocabulary of filmmaking. A lot of directors I’ve worked with cite it as heavily influential.”
Baltimore resident Aaron Clark, 36, is co-founder of EvaGeeks, the definitive fandom site for the West, and has been a community overseer for at least 15 years. Clark said this is the most affordable the show has ever been, a far cry from spending $600 on VHS tapes. And he can’t wait for the wider Internet to be exposed.
“Newbies are the lifeblood of fandom,” Clark told The Post. “More fans create more art, more discussion. It’s a good thing. I want everyone who laments that their favorite thing is about to be discovered by newbies to chill out in the corner and relax.”
And regardless of what the discourse may look like in 2019′s standards, the fact remains that it has already changed people’s worlds.
“The catharsis, the introspection, it all resonated within myself. I cannot say when it began, but it was an epiphany that would become more and more apparent and integral within myself,” wrote Clark in a 2004 post. “It seems odd to say that a ‘cartoon’ is what helped you cope with feelings of depression and suicide, but it’s true.”