Show of hands: how many here have heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion?
That may be because the Japanese anime series came out in the mid-1990s and was brought over to the States by ADV Films. Originally released on VHS, eventually, the series wound up on DVD; however, the DVDs were relatively difficult to get a hold of and now that ADV Films is no more and the series only has a finite number of copies, acquiring it is difficult to do without paying through the nose. Which is a shame, as Evangelion is widely considered one of the most critically acclaimed anime from the 1990s, with even the late Robin Williams being a fan. What makes this series still relevant today is, in part, due to its dark and psychoanalytical approach to its characters and also for rarely giving clear cut answers to both moral and plot dilemmas: it is a series that got people talking and involved, if only so they could figure out the heck was going on.
Fortunately, for those that missed out on the series or wanted a more in depth and relatively straightforward (by comparison) take on the story, the manga AKA comic version is much easier to get a hold of, brought to you in quality form by Viz Media. Recently, it was completed in Japan, but it has been going since the early 1990s, before the show began. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: a Space Odyssey, both were worked on at the same time—however, here the comic began about 10 months before the TV show did and diverges from the story occasionally and interprets some of the main cast ever so slightly different. Granted, it was both drawn and written by the series’ character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, so while slightly different, it is still a valid, canon way to experience the story, even if it can be even more effective if read as a companion to the show.
So, with the final volume due out for us in February, the main question is: can this adaptation stand on its own?
Answer: Yes, and honestly the Viz omnibus collection of the first three volumes is the best way to experience this comic through its high quality presentation.
Before we get to the bells and whistles of the release though, let us first shed some light for the whooping 99% of you who may not know the story.
Fifteen years before the beginning the story, the world was decimated by an incident known as Second Impact. This explosion led to the sea levels to rise and half of the world’s population to die off. 15 years late, the world has slowly put itself back together, only to have a mysterious creature known as an “Angel” attack Japan. Naturally, traditional weapons are useless against it and its trek towards Tokyo-3, the country’s capital, seems inevitable. Fortunately, it appears that the United Nations was ready for it, as the secret organization of NERV leaps into action. Recruiting Shinji Ikari, the son of NERV’s mysterious director, he is to pilot a synthetic android called an Evangelion and fight the Angel and others like it in order to prevent another Impact and save humanity . . . so long as he can be saved from himself first.
That summary may make the story seem like the usual “let’s recruit a kid and have him save the world” routine; however, even though the story is quickly revealed to be much more complex and layered than its initial sounding premise, one of the most effective and divisive things that really sets Evangelion apart is in its main protagonist, Shinji. On the very first page of the story, Shinji confides in the audience that he does not have any particular ambitions or dreams: he isn’t the type that wants to be the best or summon his own strength to solve problems—instead, as he says, life just dictates where he goes and he feels little control over it. Things happen as they should, regardless of his feelings or input, so his own investment in himself is all but nonexistent. This is a far cry from the normal protagonist, where they have a set goal and ambition to see it through; at the same time being the moral center of the show. Nope, Shinji is very much introspective and suspicious about how others view him. He struggles with the balance of not caring and daring to hope that people can actually care about his existence because they like him instead of what he can do for them. For that reason, he pilots the Evangelion. Not for humanity or any more heroic motivation: because he is trying to reach out to a someone to acknowledge him.
Now, this may sound like a dreary protagonist—and yet, he has a personality beyond that: he is sarcastic and often acts as the straight man to the crazier individuals around him. His sense of humor is dry, but he can quip and roll his eyes at Misato’s exaggerated attempts at levity or his classmates’ attempts to look tough by picking on him. At the same time, he can be surprised, like when he encounters Pen Pen the penguin or visits the apartment of his college, Rei. He can act normal and the humor grounds him in a way that makes the angst bits not feel overwhelming or redundant. It is clear that he is desperate for affection in a world where he has been ignored and dismissed. It’s fascinating to watch him and makes him feel surprisingly well rounded: his border-line depression and cynicism lives alongside a fearful, normal person who often openly confesses his fear about situations that, logically, he has every reason to be afraid—to have protagonist that actually freaks out at the idea of piloting a giant robot against a monster that could survive a nuke is, honestly, very refreshing. However, what really sells Shinji, at least for me, is that the manga honestly feels less like it’s about stopping monsters and saving humanity so much as it is about Shinji’s psychological state and how he, as a regular kid with self-esteem issues, tries to cope with his status as a tool. It feels like a quest for Shinji to grow and accept himself, which, by being balanced with his humor, makes the character arc and the story attached worth following.
One of the other character types that the manga puts a surprising spin on is Misato Katsuragi, a 29-year-old NERV commanding officer who could have easily just been an excuse for fan service, especially after she has Shinji move in with her in an effort to stop him from isolating himself further. Yes, Sadadmoto does set the camera angles and often gives her cloths that emphasize her figure; however, shockingly, the fan service is not that prevalent. This could be partially due to the fact that Sadamoto draws her and the other women with actually reasonable proportions. His tendency to make waists too thin sometimes is apparent, but generally, his female characters are portrayed tastefully and Misato is no exception. She demonstrates her range as she shift gears from comedic to commanding officer barking out orders during the first Angel’s attack in volume 1. Afterwards, despite being Shinji’s superior, she quickly becomes the big sister Shinji never had as she picks on him for chores or possible crushes he may have. At the same time, at work, she gives Shinji orders and berates him when he does not do them: she is his boss and that makes their relationship confusing for Shinji, especially when he finds out that she keeps official notes of him and his activities to report. Both of these sides to their dynamic serve as a powerful contrast to the struggles their relationship goes through as Sadamoto explores the nature of their relationship as friends and as commanding officer to soldier. Is there a middle ground? Once again, Evangelion follows through and capitalizes on the characters’ social situation to explore how it would logically affect them, instead of prioritizing action.
This idea of following through with practical consequences, emotional and physical alike, takes a surprising turn when we are introduced to Toji Suzuhara, a classmate of Shinji’s who hates him because of Shinji’s recklessness and lack of skill with the Evangelion, his sister was disfigured and critically injured during Shinji’s fight in volume 1. Yet again, Sadamoto manages to take what could have been a stock bully character by emphasizing the civilian damage to someone we never see, and the sense of powerless that accompanies it. We see just how much the rage and frustration is eating away at Toji after he punches and continues to berate Shinji for his recklessness, who just says “Don’t you get worn out from being angry all the time?” Still, as nice as the emotional twist on Toji is, readers may have a harder time understanding what he says, as Viz translated his accent along with his dialogue, so “pervert” is “poivoit” in Toji speech as he speaks with a New Yorker accent and while it isn’t difficult to get the gist of what he’s saying, it can be a little offputting.
Which leads us to the quality of Viz’s translation and product: overall, they deliver a high quality production, both in translation and presentation. They do not edit the artwork by translating the sound effects, instead opting to have each sound effect listed as an endnote in the back of the book, with each one labeled for page and panel number. Granted, having to keep flipping to the back of the book in you want to know what the sound effect said may interrupt the reading experience; however, reading through the story, it is pretty easy to forget the sound effects are there, as Sadamoto’s artwork sells itself. Whether it be his incredible designs for both the Angels and the Evangelions, the decimated city landscapes, or interesting, reasonably proportioned character models, Sadamoto sticks the landing well. He draws the detailed armor of the Evangelions well and the fights are well choreographed, with the action and panel layout effectively pacing the fight so that it is easy to follow, so long as the reader remembers to read the panels right to left and typically read each line horizontally and move on the next row. Granted, there is one occasion where Viz either forgot or just chose to have Shinji’s screams of pain be left untranslated after he has been blasted by a particle beam. This stands out as an inconsistent and odd choice, given that the rest of the characters’ dialogue, screams and talking alike, are translated. Meanwhile, terms such as A.T. Field or Instrumentality are not explained right away, but that is part of Evangelion’s method of getting the reader involved: there is not too much handholding in the actual manga in terms of the plot. Fortunately, there are are extra features that help explain, but those are in the other omnibuses.
Still, as far Sadamoto’s artwork, the sheer variety of tones of black or grey he uses to help distinguish colors are greatly effective: I had no idea that so many shades of grey existed, but he brings out a different shade to distinguish night and day, like he does to distinguish red from purple—he even sometimes leaves inked lines with some gaps to suggest light shining upon the characters or if the scene is more of a sentimental one. This stands out well in a black and white manga, but Sadamoto also can skillfully color as well, which can be seen in Viz’s omnibus release, which includes not only each volume’s respective cover, but also most of their color pages too. There is one color page in the middle of the second volume that is left black and white, but otherwise, each volume has two or three color illustrations at the beginning of their respective volumes. Printed on quality paper and standing taller and wider than the individual volumes, the artwork and colors get a chance to shine in a size where they can be appreciated, with few speech bubbles or artwork being absorbed by the middle binding. On top of the quality release, at the end of each volume is a brief message from Sadamoto as he reflects on cosplayers and whether or not people are enjoying the manga, which serve as fun ways to get to know him a bit. Even better is that after the message are bonus features, such as interviews with Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion, and Shinji’s and Rei’s voice actions, while also including some insight by Sadamoto into his method of character designing and how the manga is different from the show it’s being released alongside of. In the omnibus edition, these features are flipped from having to be read by tilting the book sideways like they were in the original volumes, so now they can be read normally without straining eyes for tiny print.
Overall, with Sadamoto’s character focused and artistically talented hand, the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga is definitely worth your time, especially at a price that can’t be ignored: it is a challenging work that may surprising you with its twists on typical genre clichés, and Viz’s release of it in omnibus form is wonderful. Sure, Viz offers the omnibus digitally as well, but to get the true feel of the paper quality and the quality binding, the physical copy is the way to go.