* This review contains spoilers from Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time
We find Shinji where we’ve often found him before – struck down by trauma, catatonic with grief, and stuck in a limbo between the living and dead. He doesn’t want to live, but he can’t die either. His instinct for survival remains despite his best efforts and he’s disgusted by himself because of it. However, he can’t stay curled up for long, as much as he’d like to, because the final installment of Hideaki Anno’s legendary series, Evangelion 3.0+1.0, pulls back the curtain on the Eva’s and angels and brings with it a new apocalyptic fury to contend with, bruised egos, damaged relationships and the need to build anew despite it all. With some of the most stunning imagery the series has ever produced, marrying together the crisp scenic animation with CGI as well as callbacks to the bare-bones cells of the budget cut affected original series Neon Genesis Evangelion, the latest and final installment is a visceral sensory overload that asks viewers to take a journey on one last voyage through the particular brand of despair that Evangelion conjures up like nothing else. Where it splits apart from the familiar, however, is in the vital introduction of seeking forgiveness, contemplation of atonement, and finding hope. It is all that we’ve expected from the series while being unexpected throughout. It’s a magic trick from a magician who has laid his trick out for all to see and yet still, we leave wondrous.
Having found themselves in the outskirts of Tokyo-3, Shinji, Aska, and Rei spend much of the first half of the film, following the devastating, near-catastrophic effects of the fourth impact that took place in Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo, in this desolate city trying to recuperate. While it takes a deal of time for the true action of the film to start, it is the beginning that contains some of the most affecting moments of any “Evangelion” property to date and it is these moments and character beats that inform the latter grandeur when the world once again faces near-certain peril. In the outskirts of Tokyo-3, that potential doom exists, but the inhabitants have been given the ability to live with that suspended fear and have learned to still live each day as if it’s both their first and last – the first because of the joy they infuse it with and last since, due to that happiness, they understand what a threat against it weighs.
If there’s a way for those who deeply connect with the “Evangelion” series to separate their own demons from projecting themselves onto the richly drawn and deeply damaged characters, I’d like to know how. With the longest time frame the Eva’s and Angel’s remain off-screen, the fourth film of the reiterations of the series finds lost fragments of humanity – to better parts at least – to lean into as Shinji, Aska and Rei are left rudderless in a town full of faces that have aged without them. They’re in a place they’re meant to protect and yet they sit caged in by their walls and offers of aid, food, and compassion that they have no idea what to do with.
Much happens beyond this town – from anti-universes to rewritings of reality. But the heart lies in that seaside village, in the cassette tape Rei passes to Shinji, in the way the elder farming women look to understand Rei. If Neon Genesis Evangelion was about an abstract loss of youth and End of Evangelion about deranged toxic masculinity and confronting your own shortcomings as the end of the world looms large, Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time is about making peace with one’s failures and the work it takes to rectify with the burdens of one’s parents.
The end is the greatest sense of triumph we’ve ever been gifted in this series—and my god is it a gift. Being released from obligation, family trauma and mental fatigue sets Shinji free—quite literally, in fact, as the world around them in the film’s final moments dissolves into the real world, detailed animation being torn down for the transition to reality. It is, in a way, both a playful nudge from Anno to viewers to stop being so wrapped up in the series and experience the world around us alongside Shinji while also being an acknowledgment of what the original series and End of Evangelion represented. Both dealt with depression in both literal and figurative manners, both derivatives of the creator’s own mental space. Both allowed a filmmaker the tools to visualize great depths of existential dread, exhausted apathy, and wanton manipulation. And, for all the time that our protagonist spends wishing to not spend time in an Eva, it’s while piloting it that he is able to fully escape his most human, most hurtful emotions and it is where he, the creator, us viewers also got to disappear into.
This in part is what makes Rei’s storyline at the start of the film so immersive in its emotional potency. She, the furthest from a typical “human” of the characters and the one who has been built and puppeteered to seek no semblance of personal happiness or connection, is the one who is trying to achieve just that, despite all that stands in her way. She becomes the heart of the entire series because she spends so much of the first act of the film determined to understand not only the humans around her but what motivates them to push forward even when faced with insurmountable odds. Her curiosity in the world around her is childlike and open, making her both a triumphant and tragic figure who only wishes to reconcile who she’s been ordered to be, who she’s learned to become, and who she aspires to grow into.
It is in her understanding of humanities fundamentals where the throughline of the latest batch of films comes to light clearest and where the greatest character missteps of the original series and the first film are seen with clarity. Shinji isn’t sure he wants to live, but he doesn’t want to die either. What he does know is that he wants to be cared for, to be given stability, to be told a loved one will be there tomorrow and that they hope to see him again. He wants to say hello, goodbye, thank you, and goodnight. He wants to feel human, he wants to feel alive. We are given a visual representation of this as he waits on the seashore for Mari, his makings being undone continually as he goes from full rendering in vibrant animation to being sprayed by tangible sea mist until he’s made of lines so fair they could’ve been sketched into the margins of a notebook.
In Evangelion 3.0+1.0 he is granted his wish and us the ability to live through that level of deep breathed, bone-rattling catharsis. Someone reached out their hand to him, someone forgave him, someone returned. For once, Shinji meets his demons on and that natural maturation granted him the ability to find those palms to meet his own, to forge ahead, and to grant himself the relief he’d been so desperate for a reason to live.