Even though (Evangelion) is being made on the second floor, I know absolutely nothing about the plot. Maybe that's just as well. But having seen the already finished episodes, all I can to say to those who haven't seen any of it is, I don't understand it. Having said that, it does seem that (writer/director) Anno is unusually relaxed about the series.

-- Takeda Yasuhiro, Gainax (1995)

I don't understand (Gainax's) Honneamise in the least. Therefore it has to be terrific.

-- Yamashina Makoto, Bandai (1987)

From the above quotes, it would seem that Gainax, the legendary studio of fans turned pro, has accomplished a remarkable artistic feat; whereas its first production, 1987's Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise was incomprehensible only to its corporate backers and the general public (Gainax dryly refers to it as their "little-known masterpiece".), its latest production, Neon Genesis Evangelion, which began on TV this last fourth of October, is opaque even to Gainax itself.

Without going too far with the joke, though, there do seem to be two things the otherwise distant Honneamise and Evangelion share in common. Both mark the beginnings of eras for Gainax--namely, their first (1987-1991) and now, second era of producing original animation. And both appear to be dominated in their viewpoint by one man. Whereas Yamaga Hiroyuki last year said that Honneamise reflected his opinion of the world at the time he wrote and directed it, Anno Hideaki declared in last November's issue of Newtype that he's going only by his own value system in judging the series. That, combined with Anno's surprise remarks at the end of vol. 1 of "Eva" character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki's Evangelion manga (itself a similar, but "alternate" version of the anime story) that this project represents the end of four years that were for him no more than "simply not dying," indicate this TV anime series is personal and deeply felt to Anno.

That kind of personal feeling might seem like a risky thing for Gainax, raising the possibility that Evangelion might suffer what Okada Toshio, Gainax's first president, described as Honneamise's fate--to be understood by only a fraction of the audience the first time around. Yet, Okada's remarks on the unique nature of Gainax also suggest that it is inevitable, indeed necessary, that Eva be founded in personal feeling. Despite their own satirical, Fortune 500 fantasy life as the anime production arm of a merchandising conglomerate as portrayed in Otaku no Video, Gainax does not play this role in real life as many studios do, turning out "product" as a means to selling other people's toys. And, although Gainax is bursting with ideas, a million ideas, says Okada, are never sufficient for them to make an anime. Making anime is impossible for them if it isn't in their hearts to do so. Pioneer was at one point to finance a sequel to Honneamise, written by Yamaga and directed by Anno, yet the project fell through because, Okada relates, Yamaga's heart wasn't in what he was writing; his script was becoming a parody. Today, Yamaga says he is once again looking at the world with eyes ten years older in order to write a true sequel; but now, is the moment for Anno Hideaki's heart to show with Eva.

And they're enjoying the show: unlike Honneamise, the audience is opening up to Evangelion; it's pulling good ratings and, as a mecha show, is beating even the Bandai-backed Gundam Wing. Eva has thus far been on two Animage covers and four of Newtype; at the recent Winter Comic Market, Eva doujinshi were the hot item for both male and female readers. It is the most talked-about show in the industry, the hot topic among Japanese fans, and the subject of a fierce and as yet unresolved bidding war among multiple companies for the American rights, which has already gone well beyond triple the opening price.

So What's It All About?
A lot of things, actually. Here is your basic plot background. The year is 2015. Fifteen years before, the history books record, the fabled millennial last judgment nearly came when a meteor accelerated to near-light speed struck the Antarctic continent. The half of the human race that was still alive a year afterward called it the "Second Impact," recalling the asteroid strike thought to have once rendered the dinosaurs extinct; the force of the Antarctic detonation changed world wide climate patterns, wobbled the Earth's axis and raised the ocean levels by 60 meters, submerging the heavily-populated coastal zones.

The Second Impact, however, was said to have been no act of cosmic chance, but the work of mysterious entities called "Angels". Their motives and true aims unknown, the Angels have returned after fifteen years to challenge the reconstructed remnant of humanity at Tokyo-3, a newly-built city in Japan's Hakone area designed as a mechanized fortress for the defense of humanity. Underneath Tokyo-3 is the gigantic underground base of NERV, a secret organization under the aegis of the United Nations. There, NERV has developed the Evangelion units, robots designed to defeat the Angels, whose "AT (Absolute Terror) Field" renders ordinary weapons--even nuclear mines--useless.

The Evangelion units, though, can only be piloted by 14 year-olds with certain characteristics, and at the story's beginning, a worldwide search by the mysterious Marduk Institute has found only three: the third being our protagonist, Ikari Shinji, who is summoned to NERV on the day of the Angels' reappearance to meet Katsuragi Misato, NERV's Operations Chief and his new guardian. Compounding the problem that Shinji is suddenly expected to pilot the Evangelion, whose very existence was unknown to him before today, is the fact that NERV's Supreme Commander is his estranged father, Ikari Gendou. The strain on Shinji is immense, but neither he nor the human race have any choice but to fight.

The Complications Begin
Those are the basics, the first few episodes of the 26-episode series (If there are no pre-emptions, Evangelion will end on 27 March.). But Eva is a show that has been having people wondering since long before it premiered on 4 October of last year. Early in 1995, the first rumors started to come out of Japan of some of the unusual premises of the show-to-be: What is the nature of evolution? What is humanity's relationship to what we call the divine? Does "God" exist? And ask yourself--what would it mean for the human race if we could finally answer "yes" or "no"?

Unusual premises, indeed, for what Anno himself describes as a "robot and cute girl anime". Anno has already directed what some would describe as the ultimate robot and cute girl anime, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, back in 1988, but the script for Gunbuster passed through Okada's and Yamaga's hands as well as his own, and Anno, for the personal reasons related above, desires Evangelion to be a more serious take in general than the half-comedy, half-drama Gunbuster (though Evangelion certainly displays a similar mix at times, notably in episodes 8 and 9).

Fundamental to Anno was the question he posed to Newtype last spring: "If a person likes robot or cute girl anime, can that person get past the age of twenty and still really be happy? Maybe they can be if they don't know that there is greater happiness out there in the real world--I guess I've begun to doubt such happiness." Anno is a master of occult knowledge as a super-otaku, and a wielder of mighty powers as one of Japan's top animators--but like Nicol Williamson's Merlin in Excalibur, he is also given to cryptic and ironic utterances such as the above--reflections on the SF-anime otaku "world" and the way he himself has shaped it.

Like Gainax's previous works (even Honneamise, to a small extent), Evangelion is chock full-o'otaku in-jokes and references: The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, Ultra Seven, UFO, The Andromeda Strain, even The Hitcher. But its overriding influences are not the world of SF movies and television, but literature. Anno acknowledged early on how Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End informs the show, but there is also Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man series (from which is taken the name of one of Eva's most mysterious elements--what is sometimes translated as the "Human Competition Project," but which Anno says should be rendered in English as the "Instrumentality Project"). And most recently, the influence of Philip K. Dick has come to the fore. The title of episode 12 is a reference to one of his stories and reveals interesting similarities now apparent between Evangelion and Dick's 1981 novel The Divine Invasion, which also postulates an extraterrestrial connection to human religion and an interpretation of the Kabbalah. (continued)