For being one of the most iconic and influential anime series of all time, Neon Genesis Evangelion is also one of the most confusing; as of the franchise’s most recent film, released on Amazon Prime earlier this month, the series has officially ended four times. But the new—and truly final—movie, Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time, delivers a real capstone to the series, as well as a new argument for how to watch the series as a whole.
In case you’re totally unfamiliar with the series, the gist is as such: Three teenagers, Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), Asuka Langley Shikinami (Yūko Miyamura), and Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara), serve as the pilots of giant robots known as Evangelions. Though their initial function was to fight against mysterious beings known as Angels, they know serve as pawns between the organization NERV, led by Shinji’s father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki), who seeks to cause a mass extinction in order to reunite with his late wife, and WILLE, a group of former NERV employees who are now NERV’s only opponents.
The Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy, of which Thrice Upon a Time is the last, serves as a sort of retelling of the events of the original TV series. The first of the Rebuild movies, You Are (Not) Alone, essentially recaps the first six episodes of the anime. However, the second, You Can (Not) Advance, starts to take things in a new direction, with the third, You Can (Not) Redo, presenting an all-new twist and storyline. Thrice Upon a Time picks up from there, both surpassing and playing with the original anime’s ending.
It’s revealing as to what kind of story director Hideaki Anno is ultimately trying to tell that, following a bombastic opening fight sequence, Thrice Upon a Time abandons the Evas for a good chunk of its runtime. Instead of fighting aliens or other robots, the three pilots—now adults, but stuck in teenage bodies as a side effect of a previous major cataclysmic event—adjust to life in a small town of survivors, taking the time to process their traumas as well as to learn how to be normal people again (or, in one case, for the first time). In other words, they’re learning how to grow up and move on, which is exactly what Gendo has failed to do.
When the characters are finally forced out of this idyllic interlude and back into the fray, there’s no skimping on the dazzling mecha battles, but the real final confrontation between Shinji and his father—and the other characters too—doesn’t involve giant robots either. It’s a reality-bending trip through these characters’ psyches and the world of the show on a more meta level; at one point, two combatants tumble through familiar locations that turn out to be sound stages. Though it’s not necessarily that far off in tone and message from the original anime series’ finales—both the final episode and its own feature-length redux, The End of Evangelion—Thrice Upon a Time gets there in a much clearer manner, and feels much surer of itself as a final note to the franchise.
Thrice Upon a Time ultimately feels more hopeful than the endings that have preceded it. It’s much less ambiguous than that of the original series, providing a much more clearly “happy” ending totally divorced from the Evas that have dominated the franchise up to this point. Like the bulk of Thrice Upon a Time, the film’s final scene is a relatively quiet one, making it clear that the robots have largely been a means to an end—what has really distinguished Neon Genesis Evangelion from its mech anime peers is its interest in its’ characters’ emotions. It’s what these characters feel that has dictated the entire arc of the story, from Shinji’s actions as the series’ lead to Gendo’s as the primary architect of the show’s events.
To that end, Thrice Upon a Time makes a strong argument for the Rebuild tetralogy as the definitive version of Neon Genesis Evangelion, or a better shortcut to familiarity with the series for those who might not have time to take in every single episode and prior films. The original series is crucial to understanding the initial rise of the series, and is perhaps still the way to go for those longing to fit in at the cool kids’ table, but the Rebuild films are more successful in telling a coherent story. Then again, maybe that was inevitable, given that the movies are being made by an older, wiser Anno. It feels fitting, in that regard, that this new ending to the series doesn’t really leave the door open for more. The franchise’s whole arc involves learning how to move on (End of Evangelion famously included footage of real-life cinema audiences taking in the film as the narration espoused the virtues of going outside and experiencing life), and in the case of this final film, it’s a little meta. The characters are embracing new lives, and moving on from the world of Evangelion. After 26 years, perhaps so should we.