Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo

“In time we rewrite who we are”

Spoilers for a lot of Evangelion to follow…

The third entry in the yet to be finished Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy is a difficult experience. It’s a film unambiguously in dialogue with itself, past entries, and its audience; and it isn’t a particularly smooth conversation. The Rebuild project, a series of four movies set to retell the 1995 original TV series with modern animation techniques, an eye towards accessibility for a new audience, a new ending, and a “refreshed frame of mind” from series creator (and now the singular voice of the property moving forward) Hideaki Anno, saw two relatively smooth and largely straightforward entries with You Are (Not) Alone (2007) and You Can (Not) Advance (2009). But unlike those, 2012’s Redo isn’t content whispering the sweat pleasantries of Evangelion of days past in your ear. In fact, the film is openly hostile to the idea, shoving its protagonist and audience into an unknown and challenging future, loudly signally a drastic shifting of priorities by dispensing with much of the established worldbuilding and narrative trajectory in favor of a far more gutsy, thematically driven approach. The international title here is an open condemnation of the previous two entries’ complacency. Either by painstakingly remaking the first six episodes with plenty of new CG electrical poles, product placement, and barely a hint of anything substantially fresh or taking a familiar route through a not quite new, not quite old view of episodes 7 through 18, neither truly felt like an actual step forward from material seen in 1995. In many ways, You Can (Not) Redo feels like a bitter wake-up call and easily the most personal piece of filmmaking this project that began its life all the way back in 2002 has seen yet. It is a return to form for Evangelion and I adore it.

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It just so happens that this form is one of wild creative risks that swing for the fences even as it threatens to tear itself apart in the process. The original Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s fraught production saw Anno and original studio Gainax literally go for broke and jettisoning more or less all of the long building apocalyptic science-fiction plot to zero in on the main character Shinji’s innermost struggles with himself, dealing with the world around him, and self-love. The theatrical follow-up, The End of Evangelion (1997) went even further, not only realizing aspects of the show’s final stretch that had to cut in the face of a dwindling budget over sponsor loss with a new—and yes, clearly distinct—ending, it was an open wound. Painfully gushing Anno’s emotional plasma with reckless abandon over its audience with his feelings from the experience of making the show and putting his heart on the line with the finale, only for the reaction to be less than open-armed.

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In 2009 Anno compared the path the Rebuild project would take to a railroad line, where the first entry would start at the same location as the original, eventually hit a different switch point and begin seeing different territory in the second, with the third and final installments assumably being completely new lands. And while this analogy holds true for Redo, in the sense that it has entirely moved past covering events depicted in the original series, it feels more apt to say it has flown from the tracks altogether. Instead, Redo functions more as a soft reboot of Rebuild itself. Just as the previous films leaned on familiarity with the original series to fill in the gaps, the adult cast especially being a casualty of the condensed narrative, Redo accepts past events as happening, more or less. In particular the finale of Advance where Shinji took the initiative to save Rei after being consumed by an Angel only to inadvertently trigger Third Impact. But that “next episode” style preview at the end of Advance showing the direct aftermath of Kaworu shutting what has since become known as “Near Third Impact” off with a well-placed lancing, mysterious meetings with Seele, Mari being a major player in the narrative, and that donkey I’ll forever insist Gendo named Shinji for a cheap laugh to himself? All out the window. One could squint and try to place these events but I’m confident Anno simply doesn’t care.

Right off the bat, the film separates itself in look and texture from Rebuild‘s first half, replacing the washed-out colors, murky bloom sheen, and stiff storyboarding inherited from their TV roots with pronounced, solid colors using a palette firmly skewed towards deep, sinister reds, purples, and blacks, a more active and dynamic camera, and in general, a much firmer visual identity. The integration of CG imagery is much better melded into the overall aesthetic, no longer coming off so jarring next to the traditionally animated assets. Yoshiyuki Sadamato’s iconic slender character designs are more focused and given noticeably more freedom to move around and express themselves. And mirroring the narrative, Redo‘s visual language takes on a leaner and meaner approach. Stripping down much of the complicated urban background detailing of the past, Redo leans in to starkly depict life struggling in a world ruled by death. Shinji’s journey is punctuated with few moments of respite and ever few victories and Shiro Sagisu’s score imbues the action with a sense of dreadful chaos, only seconds from careening into even greater disaster, along with a helping of barbed electric guitar riffs and the quieter moments with ever-present choral menace. This all combines to give the film a strongly pointed sense purpose and impact.

The dense urban backdrops full of layer after layer of meticulously placed powerlines and signage has given way to a barren, bloodsoaked Earth. Nerv HQ, once full of life and activity, is now rendered more of a necropolis than the last bastion of hope for humanity. Its halls now littered with the abandoned accessories of everyday life, automated factories mindlessly churn out Eva weapons for a fight that has long since passed, weapons of traditional conflicts lay cast-off in piles, Nerv’s logo has been replaced with a lifeless QR code-esque design, and even the wall partitions have begun falling away as the familiar location quietly rots. Anno even goes so far as to give several major locations a stage-like setting, with vast rooms whose walls are far from view and pronounced overhead lighting. While not new to the franchise’s visual language, memorably showing up during the TV series finale and in Death and Rebirth, it underscores Redo’s minimalist approach to focus on these intimate conflicts.

“All the more reason to shake things up and make a break from the past” a hardened Misato, now sporting a steely Captain Okita glare, announces when faced with an approaching enemy. Declining the sound advice to flee once again and put together a better plan another day, she orders the launch of the battleship Wunder to face this obstacle head-on. So kicks off a solid 10-minute long launch sequence, directly evoking the New Nautilus take-off scene from Anno’s own Nadia: Secret of Blue Water, which was itself homaging the iconic Space Battleship Yamato scene. While Redo discards much from the past, Anno’s self-indulgent referencing of his past works and influences is baked into the very core of Evangelion and isn’t going anywhere, though if you’ve made it this deep into the franchise, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. As the vaguely skeletal bird battleship takes flight and triumphantly blasts away at the automated Angel/Eva hybrid, Redo‘s opening statement is clear: things aren’t how we planned and we’re not on the best footing, but we’re moving forward anyway.

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Shinji and the audience are then brought up to speed on the goings-on of this new world and it’s not great. Misato, Ritsuko, Asuka, and Toji’s sister Sakura coldly inform Shinji that fourteen years have passed since he cracked open the apocalypse door to save Rei, who never came out of Unit 01’s entry plug, and most of the Nerv staff defected—and from the state of HQ, we can infer it wasn’t a peaceful break— to form WILLE with the goal of shutting down Gendo and Seele’s plans once and for all. During the earlier fight, he is strapped with a bomb around his neck and told to do nothing, and here he is treated as a liability who needs to be contained. After spending the first two films settling into being a useful pilot, Shinji having his perceived victory at the end of Advance yanked out from under him is about the last thing he wants to hear. He doesn’t react well to this news and when Rei, or another Rei to be precise, shows up in an Eva looking like Unit 00, he decides these familiar icons might be able to take him back to a world that makes sense.

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The pair return to Nerv HQ, a place almost as integral to Evangelion‘s identity as the Evas themselves, but there is no going back to those sunny days of the routine of going to school, fighting Angels, and getting into silly domestic squabbles. No smash cut from a bloody fight to the citizens of Tokyo-3 on their morning commutes. No ironically upbeat music to signal the status quo has been shakily maintained. Aside from the stillness the facility has been enveloped in, the malice that was once hidden is now out in the open with no one to hide it from. Anno’s use of loaded quiet here is masterful as Shinji wanders through the ruined halls of the location so central to his life. Outside things are worse; the bloodied moon hangs close to the surface, countless crystalized Eva bodies litter the surroundings, Nerv HQ itself has relocated from underground to an inverted pyramid atop a pillar jutting from what appears to be an iris in the middle of Tokyo-3, and a canyon running to the horizon lined with teeth. The post-credits scene of Advance implied the effects were limited, but as we see during Asuka’s rescue mission in the stratosphere and up-close at the epicenter, that wasn’t the case.

In the depths of this open grave, Anno reveals the emotional core of the film as Shinji meets Kaworu, a young man who has been a very important piece of Evangelion iconography since the beginning but has always remained a relatively minor presence up until Redo. Through piano lessons and gently delivered sage advice, Kaworu helps Shinji begin to open up and unpack his guilt. He offers kindness and an open heart without judgment or conditions, something that Shinji desperately craves in a world where he has only been met with the indifference and anger of others not revolving their entire lives around him. Their scenes together often say more through subtle body language, delicate lighting, and soft storyboarding work than a script could. But Shinji still can’t stand on his own and even worse, cannot even consider that he could. His self-hatred is merely pushed to the back burner by another distraction to throw himself into. But it remains, simmering. Kaworu’s unconditional love isn’t enough. Another can never truly fill the void, even when their entire existence is literally for your benefit. Kaworu says he was born to meet Shinji, in an obvious nod to these two meeting across incarnations, and even this ideal person cannot fix him. Shinji still doubts himself at every turn, finding ways to reduce himself to nothing. This Anno ripping out his heart and examining its deeply rooted and crushing truths. Evangelion has always shined brightest when these painfully intimate portraits of flawed humanity take center stage and these moments stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best.

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The final act has Shinji presented with the possibility that his mistakes can be rolled back and this tragedy-to-be only emboldens him to rush in. That the world can go back to the comfort of the past and all these hard to deal with problems can be erased is a fantasy and one he embraces wholeheartedly. When WILLE shows up to put a stop to this, Shinji uses the most thematically appropriate weapon he could: a shield. Not a shell to block out the stimuli of the world, but a transparent one similar to an AT Field that he can see through and reposition to bluntly stamp out Asuka’s criticism. When she calls him on his hopelessly childish belief he can make the world right again and not address his responsibility, he beats her to the floor asserting his heroism. But You Can (Totally) Redo isn’t in the title, sorry, and Shinji and Kaworu find themselves caught in yet another of Bad Dad Extraordinaire Gendo’s plots to pull the end of the world script out of Seele’s hands and bring back his dead wife. You just know things aren’t going well when a harsh rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” kicks in. In the chaos of Fourth Impact starting and then abruptly stopping at the cost of Kaworu’s life, a catatonic Shinji, grumpy Asuka, and the current Rei are left alone and isolated from the adult forces that have been guiding their fates up until now. Setting out into the wasteland, the three head into the unknown.

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You Can (Not) Redo isn’t a film I think Hideaki Anno planned to make in 2002 and certainly not in 2009 when finishing Advance. I see him during the 2000s, newly married and by accounts close to him, emerging from a depression that he suffered from for at least a decade, of the mindset that Evangelion could be “fixed”. That the imperfections brought on by its troubled production could be ironed out with careful planning, a cool head, and presented as a more digestible product. And somewhere along the way, this stopped being his modus operandi. The past, here literally the previous films, is framed as an escape, something that held value but must be put in the rearview in the journey forward. Shinji’s desperation to recreate the comfort of the past only sends the world farther down the path of annihilation, into the hands of a man who wants to live in a state of perpetual nostalgia. We feel along with Shinji that urge to go back having journeyed through those films and then being hit the harsh confrontation that that’s not a place that needs to be returned to. The original series often placed the roots of Shinji’s sorrows, especially the tension with his father, as a flashback, but with the experience of Rebuild, planned or not, we are along for the ride of having the safety of the familiar being violently stripped away.

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If End was Anno’s open wound reaction to Evangelion in 1997, Redo is undoubtedly the gnarly scar that formed in the fifteen years since that still aches. For as much as Evangelion has been about the end of the world, facing and accepting others and one’s self, or just big robots fighting monsters, it has been carrying on a conversation with itself and its audience about itself and those watching along. Just before losing his head once again, Kaworu gently tells a sobbing Shinji that “even when a soul is lost, its aspirations and curses remain in this world” and it is difficult for me to see this is as anything other than Anno acknowledging that this world and characters will remain with him forever. Try as he might to put some distance between himself and his most famous work, he cannot help but return to it, for better or for worse. Kaworu follows that up by saying “in time we rewrite who we are”, which reads as the defining statement of what Redo sets out to accomplish. As the Wunder lifts off early in the film, Anno untethers Rebuild from the narrative and worldbuilding of the past and heads into a more boiled down clash of symbols and ideas. Evangelion isn’t set in stone, and like its creator and characters, it can move ahead, and Kaworu’s parting words say that Shinji must keep moving forward to find happiness, not going backward.

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I keep bringing up End because even years after first seeing the film, it is the closest analogous experience to watching Redo. Both are technically expansions of a story but function more as direct and very confrontational discussions with their audiences about the nature of those stories. Evangelion has always been an exploration of Anno’s personal issues writ large across an apocalyptic psychosexual nightmare, and here he focuses on lost souls searching for themselves, a purpose, or just a way forward in their current hellscape. The adult cast has been even further abstracted into looming symbols that surround the children. Misato and the WILLE are hurt guardians that still carry affection under their cold exteriors. Mari has seemingly been discarded as a planned central figure, now taking up the role as Asuka’s wingman who may know a little more than she lets on. A more active and bratty Shinji struggles to comprehend this new world and his place in it even as his age-old depression takes on a new dimension and threatens to swallow him up entirely. Asuka has cooled off and become bitter over the years. The current Rei begins grappling with her nature as a clone and reaches out for an identity that exists within others. Only Gendo remains unflappable and still, dead set on sacrificing the entire world and his very soul to chase to memory.

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This more allegorical approach compared to Alone and Advance‘s much more narratively driven route, full of detailed lore with hints that answers were just around the corner also lines up more with End. The exact mechanics of Evangelion‘s metaphysics have always been vague and opaque, sometimes fleshed out in out-of-text design documents, a movie program, or video games. And really, always out of arms reach and never directly stated is very on-brand for Evangelion. It may have appeared the Rebuild was going to finally come out and say phrases like “Black Moon” and “First Ancestral Race” for a few movies, but ultimately that doesn’t enhance the character drama. Anno returns to placing far more value on the images as a means of splashing these personal struggles across apocalyptic showdowns than as a lore delivery mechanism. The Judeo-Christian imagery and naming are secondary to these character level conflicts and in the end, have always been a way to spice them up.

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Now that isn’t to say Redo is a slouch or foregoes playing up the evocative imagery. Taking a new aesthetic route, Redo is like a descent into an Evangelion-flavored hell. Atop a mountain of giant skulls, the formerly crucified Lilith in Central Dogma has transformed into a bloated, rotting corpse merged at the neck with an impaled Eva. Wunder looks like WILLE hastily bolted together a bunch of leftover Angel parts and battleships. The malevolent new Eva Unit 13 explodes from an artificial womb with a shower of blood. Unit 02 has a vicious new sabertooth tiger beast mode. Anno litters the film with beheading images, pairing them with revelations of twisted forms and centered around Rei. While it isn’t that Evangelion didn’t have death lingering over the proceedings before, but never has it been so upfront like a scene where a headless Unit 09, looking like the Grim Reaper’s assistant with a scythe, stares down a giant Rei head made of blood. And I can’t think of a more perfect image of Gendo than him addressing the displaced head of Lilith, now a hollow likeness of his dead wife, bleeding from empty eye sockets, grimacing, and enshrined atop a pile of failed Eva copies reaching out for her. It is a gorgeous slow-burning nightmare.

Honestly, You Can (Not) Redo is a movie I could probably ramble on about forever. There is an intimidating density of images and meaning under its hood that makes it particularly hard to talk about divorced from the works that came before it, but it is such a rich experience. Evangelion at its best has never been easy and when it is firing on all cylinders it’s a Bloodborne visceral attack to the soul. The franchise has always been about adolescence, that turbulent transitionary phase between childhood and adulthood, and messy change. Even as its cast struggled to reckon with themselves, the production also found itself doing the same. Just as the original series began in a fairly straightforward manner and ended in a very different way, Redo very much marks this change of direction for Rebuild. Only this time Anno isn’t on a weekly schedule and that fourth film, now in production seven years after Redo and set for 2020, is still an unknown. I don’t think Anno knew where he was going with this whole business when Shinji, Asuka, and Rei walked over that ridge and the credits rolled. Whatever plan he had for this project got crumpled up and tossed in the trash some time ago. And there’s something amazing about seeing this unfold. Whatever comes next—and I am fascinated to see how Anno ends this cycle—Redo is always going to stand in my mind as a singular event. One that stops to quietly contemplate what even means to make more Evangelion when it should be rushing towards a conclusion. I may be hard on Alone and Advance because Anno simply coming back is itself a very loaded event, but I truly love this wild conversation that has been playing out for nearly twenty-five years.

Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo is available through Funimation on Blu-ray and DVD.

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