Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
I first saw The End of Evangelion in a packed convention viewing room at some point early in 2002, when it was circulating as a promo for the inaugural English-language DVD/VHS release later that year. It was my most mind-blowing experience with anime (and maybe animation in general) then, and even 19 years later that assertion still remains mostly true. It was bold, brutal, utterly uncompromising in its vision of humanity, and awash with more symbolism that could be adequately digested in a single viewing, including some rather bluntly directed at petulant fans of the franchise. It told a story on the grandest of scales, but its ultimate resolution came down to the most basic of human foibles and desires.
Thrice Upon A Time feels like a deliberate effort to recapture the magic of that creation, except with a more thoughtful and accommodating approach about how it wants to speak to the fanbase. Whereas the the original version of the franchise’s conclusion has sometime been referred to as director Hideaki Anno giving a middle finger to audiences who complained about the end of the TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion, this is a more focused effort on truly bringing the overall story to a conclusion and more thoroughly (if not necessarily completely) examining the underlying issues of characters beyond just Shinji. It also proves that, this time, Misato’s comments at the end of the third movie about “more fan service” were not just a tease.
While the way things play out is quite complicated, the plot is relatively simple to describe: Shinji sulks for about an hour of movie time while a Rei clone gets a chance at a normal life in a village of Third Impact survivors and Asuka hangs around at loose ends. Meanwhile, both NERV and Wille prepare for the final confrontation over Evangelion Unit 13, which is to be the trigger for the Fourth Impact, which will finalize the Human Instrumentality Project. The entire second half of the movie is then the attempted implementation of the Fourth Impact. Altogether, that makes for a 155 minute runtime, which clocks in as the sixth-longest animated movie ever. (See here for a list of the titles which beat it out.)
Although the first half is certainly the slower of the two, it has its own merits. It allows the grown-up versions of a few familiar faces to show up and the offspring of some characters from the original series to appear. On the larger story front, it delves a bit more into why the Eva pilots haven’t aged (though a full explanation on that should not be expected) and shows the extent of the damage wrought by the aborted Third Impact, but the focus is more on a personal level. Each of the original trio of pilots gets a different experience: for the Rei clone, it’s a chance at a completely normal life (or as normal as one in a post-apocalyptic setting can be, anyway), away from anything to do with NERV, even if she cannot ultimately escape that connection. For Asuka, it’s a partly-self-imposed separation from the normal humanity she’s dedicated to protecting. For Shinji, it’s a chance to work through all of the mental and emotional trauma he has been subjected to. He needs time away from the insanity of NERV and Wille to come to terms with what’s happened. While his near-catatonia can get annoying after a certain point, could you really expected even a well-adjusted adult to be coping any better, much less a teenager?
Once the climactic battle against NERV begins, though, all bets are off. The rest of the movie is as much pure, sometimes nonsensical spectacle as End of Evangelion was, to the point that I’m not even going to begin to try to explain it; I’ll only add that a new class of technobabble might have been created here. This is mecha action and symbolism the way only Hideaki Anno can envision and execute it and an Evangelion title can produce it. While the exact details may be different, it follows the same general plan as End of Evangelion: giant Reis, oddly disturbing insert songs, and alternate-art interludes from the intense visual action. The main difference is that, this time, Gendoh is the one getting the most intensive introspection. The original never fully showed where he was coming from; there were hints, and he was clearly obsessed with Yui, but not a full rundown on why he was the way he was. In fact, that is the biggest new contribution that this movie makes to the franchise: showing how Gendoh came to be who he was and how he interacted with others, and how everything he does is derived from that. And if all of that makes him come off like a school/workplace shooter candidate, well, that was likely intentional.
The ending will doubtlessly be talked about for years to come, in part because it seems a bit too simple and clean. (Do watch that scene very closely, though, or you will miss background details.) Another reason will certainly be the role Mari plays in it. If I have one major complaint about the movie, it is the handling of Mari – or, rather, the lack thereof. Who she is, how she came to be involved in this, and why she seems more well-adjusted than the other Eva pilots is not explained in the slightest, nor is her strong connection to any of the others except maybe Asuka – and even that does not get much attention. A name drop late in the movie suggests a Biblical connection, but her role here does not fit well with that. She seems merely to exist to fill action slots that the other pilots cannot, and so her prominence presence at the end makes little sense.
The movie is strong in a technical sense as well. The visuals in the action scenes do lean heavily on CG, sometimes to the movie’s benefit (it emphasizes the artificiality of what’s transpiring) and sometimes not (it’s too artificial at times). Even so, this allows for some glorious action scenes in the latter half and a wealth of small visual details in the first half. Both Eva and character designs are as sharp and iconic as ever and the musical score is well-used. Oh, and let’s not forget plenty of sexy Asuka fan service and a lesser amount for Rei.
I watched the movie in English on Amazon Prime, which means that it reuses the cast that Amazon Prime used on its redubs of the first three movies. That means that Amanda Winn Lee is back as Rei, although even fans of the original English dub of the TV series will have to listen closely to tell the difference from Brina Palencia’s performances in earlier dubs of the movies. That and other carry-overs from the redubs at least assures that there will be no vocal inconsistency if you watch the movies straight through.
Ultimately, the biggest difference between this and previous franchise entries is the message sent at the end. I have always felt that the essential message of the TV series was about learning to like one’s self and accepting one’s own identity, while the essential message of End of Evangelion is that individual identity should not be subsumed to group identity. Both of those elements are present in the earlier movies of this tetralogy, but this one seems to boil down to a different truth: no matter what happens, life moves on. Staying mired in the past is very human but also counter-productive, to the point that dwelling there too long damages everything. Nearly every character in the movie who cannot do this is unhappy, while those who have done it seem well-adjusted despite difficult circumstances, and the movie’s climax basically hinges on this point.
While I am still somewhat ambivalent about the ending, this should be the final installment in the franchise, as nothing much of consequence is left to say. It is a movie that everyone who has followed the franchise to this point should see, though I do recommend rewatching the third movie first.