“Neon Genesis Evangelion” is one of the most celebrated and adored anime series of all time. When the series arrived, after years of only being available on what can charitably be described as the gray market, on Netflix in 2019, Vulture described the show as “equivalent in acclaim, auteurship, and cultural footprint to America’s ‘Twin Peaks’ or ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’” And they are right. The show, the brainchild of mastermind Hideaki Anno, is a colossal, complicated achievement – a joyful celebration of giant robot media and a barbed deconstruction of the same media.
It is also a somewhat daunting proposition from the outside, with the entire “Neon Genesis Evangelion” franchise spread across the initial 26 episodes of the original show, plus several movies and an entire film franchise that essentially remade the series in a much weirder, more visually sophisticated way that is very much its own thing. (We’ll be ignoring much of the ancillary material, including several videogames and manga series.)
If you’ve ever wondered how exactly you were supposed to watch “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” we are here to help. You don’t need to feel overwhelmed anymore. It’s relatively straightforward. And the journey of going through “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is a rewarding and rich experience. We promise.
What is “Neon Genesis Evangelion?”
The most succinct answer is that it is a Japanese anime series that aired between October 4, 1995 and March 27, 1996. This original anime series inspired several films, including a new series that just concluded in 2021.
Both the show and films tell the story of Shinji Ikari, a young boy who is picked to pilot an experimental robot called Unit 01, an evangelion unit that is meant to fight giant monsters (called “angels”) who are attempting to trigger a worldwide catastrophe called The Third Impact. (The Second Impact, which took place before the events of the series, are what brought the angels to earth and decimated much of the population. Many of the characters are still dealing with this grief,) Shinji’s deadbeat father Gendo is the leader of NERV, the organization that established the evangelion program and whose alliances remain shadowy … They live and work in Tokyo-III, a new version of the city which is housed, in part, in a giant underground dome.
As the series goes on we are introduced to new characters, like plucky pilot Asuka Langley Soryu, as the characters deal with their loneliness and trauma (informed, in part, by Anno’s very public battle with his own mental illness). There are definitely moments of pure joy and the animation is frequently jaw-dropping, but the psychological and emotional contours of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” are part of what has established it, appropriately, as an era-defining masterwork.
Where can I watch “Neon Genesis Evangelion?”
All original 26 episodes, with a number of language options, along with “Evangelion Death (True)2” and “The End of Evangelion,” two movies that were released following the conclusion of the original series are streaming on Netflix.
Wait … original movies?
Yes, the first movie, known here as “Evangelion Death (True)2” is basically a clips show recounting the first 24 episodes of the series, along with some extra or alternate footage. It is entirely skippable in terms of watching the whole shebang. It runs a cool hour+ and is only if you want a giant, “Golden Girls”-style reminiscence of what happened earlier in the show.
And what about “The End of Evangelion?”
This is an alternate version of the end of the series, which was famously controversial, waylaid by budget constraints and Anno’s own battle with depression. The finale of the series, without giving anything away, is punishingly brutal and also elliptical, ending with a series of flashing still images, character voice over, and psychological unrest. In short: it’s a lot. And the public responded loudly. After it aired, Anno’s friend and mentor Hayao Miyazaki told him he needed a break. About a month after the original finale to the series aired, it was announced that a redo (the first of many) would be attempted.
Initially, “The End of Evangelion” was meant for the home video market, what is known as an original video animation (OVA), but it was ultimately released theatrically where it became a huge hit.
Is “The End of Evangelion” noticeably different?
Yes, on both a storytelling level and in terms of tone, “The End of Evangelion” is vastly different. Not only does this wholly rewrite the end of the initial “Neon Genesis Evangelion” saga, but it does so in a way that is considerably more violent and explicit than in the series. (One of the characters sexually assaults another of the main characters, and that’s in the first few minutes of the feature-length movie.) Whether or not you prefer “The End of Evangelion” to, well, the end of “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is up for debate. A writer for io9 considered the original truly special and dismissed “The End of Evangelion.” “It’s nihilistic and full of despair for humanity, and, to be honest, it kind of bums me out,” the outlet wrote. Whether or not “The End of Evangelion” is the true end of the initial series or the serial finale is the true conclusion, well, that’s up to you. The franchise has an elastic sense of both time and canon, which we’ll explore more in just a minute.
Just checking in – as far as the initial series and the first two movies go, what is the order you would recommend?
The original 26 episodes of the animated series, followed by “The End of Evangelion.” You can skip “Evangelion Death (True)2” unless you’re really into clip shows. It’s an interesting artifact but inessential to the overall narrative. All are available (right now) on Netflix.
Onto the Rebuild of Evangelion film series!
More than a decade after the initial series ended, Anno returned to “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” originally plotting what was then supposed to be a trilogy of films; something that had the essence of the original television series but could open up the franchise to a new audience, with the voice cast returning for the fun. The first film in the planned trilogy, “Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone” was meant to incorporate elements (and animation) from the original series but that idea was abandoned. While the first film is based on the first six episodes of the series, there are some pretty wild deviations and major swings, which only get bigger and bigger as the “Rebuild” series goes on. By the end of the second movie, we’re in wild, uncharted territory and a three-movie arc soon turned into a four-movie arch. New characters are introduced and old characters have different story beats. Everything is upside down (sometimes literally). By the time we get to 2021’s “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time,” a stone cold masterpiece and maybe the greatest thing in the entire franchise. If the original series is, like Vulture suggests, analogous to “Twin Peaks,” then the Rebuild series is “Twin Peaks: The Return.” It retains certain elements but is otherwise on a very different path. It both challenges and delights what you know from the original series. And they absolutely have to be viewed after you watch the original series and “The End of Evangelion.”
In what order do you watch the Rebuild of Evangelion movies?
These names are incredibly cumbersome but here we go – first it’s “Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone” (2007), followed by “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance” (2009), then “Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo” (2012) and finally “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” (2021). “Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time” is also a part of the Shin Japan Heroes film series, also overseen by Anno, that includes “Shin Godzilla,” “Shin Ultraman” and “Shin Kamen Rider.” There is even some insane merchandise that melds Godzilla with Unit 1. You’re right, we must have it.
And where can you watch the Rebuild of Evangelion movies?
They are all currently streaming on Prime Video. And if you are as big a fan of physical media as we all are, there is a gorgeous 4K disc set coming from GKids and Shout Factory coming on October 17. If you become a “Neon Genesis Evangelion” superfan through this process, then the 4K collector’s set will be nothing short of a must-buy.
You should definitely watch the Rebuild of Evangelion movies after watching the original series and “The End of Evangelion,” right?
Absolutely. While there is a world where you could just start with the first Rebuild of Evangelion movie, watching the Rebuild movies is a much richer experience if you have the understanding and knowledge of the original “Neon Genesis Evangelion” series (and, later on, “The End of Evangelion”). Not to hammer this analogy home but it would be like watching “Twin Peaks: The Return” without watching the original “Twin Peaks” (think of “The End of Evangelion” as like “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” in this analogy). You could technically do it. But it wouldn’t be quite the same experience.
Is this the end of “Neon Genesis Evangelion?”
Supposedly. Anno has said that he is finished with the franchise, at least for now. Considering that it took nearly 10 years to finish the last film in the Rebuild of Evangelion series, that’s more than understandable. Maybe in another 10 years, we’ll climb into a new evangelion. But for now, it’s done.
What is the definitive order to watch all things “Neon Genesis Evangelion?”
The original 26 episodes of “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” then “The End of Evangelion,” followed by all four of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, in order of theatrical release. Afterwards, you can watch a bunch of YouTube videos breaking down various theories and thematic concerns. You know, as a treat.