End of everything
(Details of plot twists and narrative discussed in detail)
I remember my initial reaction to Neon Genesis Evangelion, from TV series to expanded film versions, ending with the assertion that Anno has "some growing up to do". I take back my dismissive attitude towards the TV finale--no matter how experimental End of Evangelion became (and it admittedly got pretty experimental with money to burn, a tribute to the financial success of the series) that finale only proved how truly radical the series was, almost entirely by accident (a combination of cost and time overruns plus Anno's own indecisiveness as to form)--I mean, an intricate narrative involving mechas that ends with neither mechas nor narrative but a group session in a high school gym? It wasn't fair to viewers (Who shot Kaji? Why kidnap Kozo? What happened to NERV, or for that matter the rest of humanity?) but definitely wasn't run-of-the-mill.
You can't, I submit, think up of a wilder conclusion and Anno to his credit doesn't try. Neon Genesis Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0 Thrice Upon a Time doesn't so much veer from the original as it does revisit the story a second time, suggesting that the whole franchise (Once: series plus Twice: films plus Thrice: second batch of four films (three retellings and the fourth a totally new ending)) is Kaworu's (or Anno's?) metaphysically recursive attempt (Groundhog Day with giant robots) to try yet again yanking Shinji Ikari's constantly downturned head from out his constipated ass. It's Anno's umpteenth attempt to assert that for all the intricacy and beauty and fascination the EVAs inspire they can't compare to the intricacy and beauty and fascination of an ordinary human life.
The film climaxes Anno's Rebuild series, his fourteen-year quest to create a definitive version of his most famous work, and starts with a stunner sequence: EVA 08 defending a team of hackers against wave after wave of NERV mechas, high above the skies of an incarnadined Paris. As with his previous three films (Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone; Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance; Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo) the animation is extravagantly rendered, done in the slow motion not of speeded-up film but of massive objects flinging themselves across vast reaches of space. The firepower is staggering, the amount of metal crushed and twisted and shredded into tinsel enough to delight the most insatiable of demolition derby addicts.
And it's still not enough; Anno has to sharpen the hostility between Shinji and his bete noire of a father Gendo Ikari, arguably the most successful tweak of the series. This Shinji is retinkered to be more openly rebellious (though he does do his share of whining); daddy Ikari is if anything more imperiously sadistic, and their clashes have the epic feel of the clashes between EVA and angel. Asuka's self-centered brattiness has been toned down; she's more frank about her anti-social nature, which allows us to sympathize with her more easily. A new major character is introduced: flirtatious Mari, who literally stuns Shinji on their first meeting (she drops in on him via parachute). Only Rei remains relatively unchanged, her passivity as enigmatic as ever, and there's a reason for that.
(A note on Mari, who's been criticized as being relatively unruffled compared to the other EVA pilots--if anything she (unlike the other pilots) seems to thrive on the sometimes painful psychic link she has with her EVA unit. That leaves her a touch colorless, a kind of compromise between serene Rei and self-pitying Asuka that ends up registering less vividly than both (she compensates by humming tunes in the background and flaunting her generous curves to the puritanical Shinji). Apparently there's a reason for that too--but more later.)
Not everything Anno does here is successful, despite the seemingly bottomless budget. The Evas look most drawn by hand (can't be 100% sure nowadays but it's a comfortingly old-fashioned look that at least gives the illusion of a human limb involved), the angels rendered in visibly digital animation; this often gives the angels an unearthly feel but can lead to unexpected results (I'm thinking of Sahaquiel--in the TV series an alarming trio of oversized eyes, onscreen a giant chintzy hairtie--black, with cheesy rainbow bands). The Wunder is supposed to look impressive, an armored hawk with wings that stretch across the horizon, but its smoothly digital lines make it look like an expensive impulse buy from Toys R Us.
What I think justifies the film series and Anno's attempted thesis (ordinary life > mecha-assisted life) is the middle portion, where smooth serene Rei suddenly steps up to the position of MVP. Rei and Shinji are deposited in a small village near Tokyo 3. It's a survivors' village, and we're immersed in their story: everyday folks trying to live their lives with limited resources, and Anno animates the sequence with all the loving detail--more, perhaps--that he pours into EVA vs. Angel battles (I read in the Wiki entry that Studio Ghibli animators were involved in rendering the sequence and thought "how appropriate"). Shinji exiles himself to a neglected corner of the village (part of the ruined NERV headquarters) while Rei becomes the village's self-appointed witness. "What's that? It's shaped differently from a dog," Rei asks, pointing; "that's a cat," is the bemused response (you've never seen one before?). "Why do you say good morning?" Rei asks; "it's something we say hoping we can live together for the day." "What's goodbye?" "It's something we say hoping we'll see each other again." Rei learns that much of this straitened simple life is predicated on the emotion of hope, the not always fulfilled wish that things will get better not worse, and she--it's implied but gently with very little fuss--begins to see how this is a perfectly valid if not logical or intelligent way to live.
Love it; can't help feeling that way. It's no high school gym, but it's almost as wayward, and arguably more poignant. Rei's usually inscrutable face gradually takes on the wide eyed innocence of the child she's been given charge of, and the hint--maybe not even a hint, just a suspicion--of growing affection for this quotidian existence she's found herself in is Anno's metaphor for all the incel geeks among us suddenly finding themselves in a community and gradually realizing they like it. Reading reports of Anno talking to his cast and crew, soliciting input from them on what direction the film should take, and just enjoying their company adds subtextual pleasure to the viewing.
The film's final conflict and conclusion--not much to say save it's interesting to see father and son in their respective mechas wrestling over the various battlefields we've known for so long, but not as battlefields (hospital room, classroom, Misato's messy apartment, Rei's empty quarters) and then just y'know talking ("This is not something that can be resolved through might"). Having Shinji hand over to Gendo his battered Walkman, that long-running motif of alienation and symbol of father and son's loneliness (what incidentally does that Walkman play? A recording of Yui singing? An Air Supply album? Every cover of "Fly Me to the Moon" that ever existed? Would love to think it's the latter). Saying goodbyes. Seeing characters change after not just fourteen years (the period over which Rebuild was built) but thirty-five (the period over which the entire series was built). Seeing Shinji not just look like an adult but act like one, even mildly flirting with Mari (and at this point we learn one possible reason why Mari's been kept so uninterestingly balanced; she's asked to step up at the end, to be the adult with few hangups with which Shinji can have a mature relationship--the blank slate you might say on which the couple can write the rest of their life together). We see a succession of empty film studios, abandoned digital camera equipment, metal gates rolling shut; the sequence is repetitive but low-key, maybe a tad self-involved, with thankfully little self-pity. Yes it's yet another privileged heterosexual (But what about Kaworu?) male's long-protracted rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood but I'm thinking if the world has room for just one more, let it be this one. Now we can move on.