Story and Art by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
Original Concept by Khara and Gainax
After nineteen years, fourteen volumes, and twelve Angels, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s manga adaptation of Neon Genesis Evangelion has come to an end. Originally serialized in Shōnen Ace, Sadamoto’s Evangelion began as a straightforward adaptation of the seminal 1990s giant robot anime, but continued long after the show’s twenty-six episode run ended—it ran so long, in fact, that it lived to see three Rebuild of Evangelion films reboot the franchise. In some ways, Sadamoto’s manga feels like a foreshadowing of the reboot, as both begin with almost scene-by-scene recreations of the anime’s first six episodes, before developing their own identities and going in new directions.
Neon Genesis Evangelion Vol. 14 adapts the final act of 1997 film The End of Evangelion, featuring a mix of new and familiar scenes as if the gigantic Evangelion robots have been given a shiny new coat of paint. The Third Impact is at hand, and Rei Ayanami has merged with the colossal Angel Lilith. In scenes of apocalyptic power, Lilith absorbs the souls of humanity into a state of pure being, beyond pain or love. But deep inside Lilith remains the free will of Shinji Ikari, the pilot of Evangelion Unit-01. Inside Instrumentality, Shinji faces his inner demons, and Rei gives him a choice that could destroy or redeem humanity.
The manga’s final chapters recreate much of The End of Evangelion’s surreal imagery: human bodies explode into puddles of LCL, Evangelion Unit-01 bursts through a giant eyeball, and a vaginal opening appears on Lilith’s forehead. But it feels like something’s missing. Sadamoto’s manga has always been a condensed, simplified version of the anime series. It’s beautifully drawn (of course, Sadamoto was the character designer for the show) and never suffered from budget constraints or reused animation. The original Evangelion series was a deconstruction of the giant robot genre, and the manga feels like a more conventional boy’s adventure tale. Shinji was more proactive, less “wimpy” (he even tried to punch his father!), Asuka was more tsundere, and Rei was much more open and emotional. Sadamoto’s characterization felt a little too easy, a little too pat, where the anime was much more psychologically incisive and brutal. Think of the manga as The Nice End of Evangelion.
Perhaps after working on the manga for nineteen years, Sadamoto felt too attached to the characters to fully recreate the film’s darkest scenes. It feels a bit like he’s playing favorites—the Evangelion manga has been predominately about Shinji’s relationship with Rei, often to the detriment of other characters. In the anime series, Asuka Langley Soryu was a major and highly complex character, and her complicated relationship with Shinji was a major plot point in End of Evangelion. Throughout the manga, however, Asuka’s characterization was depressingly one note, her relationship with Shinji is barely significant, and in Neon Genesis Evangelion Vol. 14 she only has two scenes. Okay, I’m an Asuka fan; I’ll go to bat for her every time—she deserves more than a cameo. Shinji’s connections to the people in his life—Asuka, Misato, and Kaworu—fuel The End of Evangelion and the choice he makes. But in the manga version of events, it only comes down to Rei, Rei, Rei. If you’re bored with Sadamoto’s version of Rei, like I am (too emotional and not creepy enough), it’s a disappointing turn of events.
The biggest change Sadamoto makes to The End of Evangelion—aside from the new ending, which I’ll let you discover for yourself—is Gendo Ikari’s redemption. Gendo Ikari, who’s made every “Worst Anime Dad” list written after 1995, inexplicably gets a happy ending. He does nothing to deserve it, but after being mortally wounded by the woman he shot, Gendo is reunited with the spirit of his beloved wife Yui, rediscovers his love for Shinji (THE SON HE ABANDONED AND TURNED INTO A GINNEA PIG AND—sorry, I have a lot of intense feelings about Eva), and is able to make peace with Shinji inside Instrumentality. He’s the closest thing to a traditional villain the series has, and he ultimately gets everything he wants without ever having to be sorry for all his, you know, crimes against humanity. It’s a bizarrely sentimental way to end his arc, and much less satisfying than Gendo being bitten in half by a spectral Unit-01 that embodies the rage of the son and wife he hurt.
The End of Evangelion was an intensely personal film, into which series director Hideaki Anno poured depression, rage, and psychosexual angst. (“I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion…My only thought in making this was to burn my feelings into film,” Anno wrote in his afterward to the first volume of Sadamoto’s manga.) Sadamoto’s manga certainly isn’t without heart or power, but distanced from its source material by over a decade, and without Anno’s seething intensity, this retelling of Neon Genesis Evangelion loses its vitality. Though Sadamoto’s manga has previously held some major surprises, including one character death not in the original series, this ending is neither shocking nor surprising. How a reader responds to the manga probably depends on their feelings for the original film. If you found the film too dark, too dense, too inexplicable, the manga may seem like a relief. Gone are the extreme gore, abstract symbolism, and unsettling character actions. This is End of Evangelion without “I’m so fucked up” or “How disgusting.” The manga strips away the most controversial, groundbreaking elements of the series, and what’s left can’t really compare.
Neon Genesis Evangelion Vol. 14 also includes an original bonus chapter, “Eden in Summer,” which is notable for introducing Mari Illustrious Makinami into the manga canon. Mari is a new Eva pilot introduced in the Rebuild of Evangelion films, and wasn’t a glimmer in Sadamoto’s eye when he began drawing the manga, but it’s a cute, simple story. “Eden in Summer” casts Mari not as an Eva pilot, but as a young contemporary of Yui and Gendo’s before the Second Impact. In some ways, it feels more like the first chapter in a new shōjo manga, with its young genius protagonist involved in a love triangle. It’s a nice little addition to the world of the manga (Gendo and Yui’s first meeting is bizarrely innocuous for two people about to change the course of human history), even if it’s Mari’s only appearance.
It’s strange holding the final volume of Sadamoto’s Evangelion manga in my hands. It’s the longest-running manga series I’ve followed; I was about the same age as Shinji and Asuka when I first read it, but now I’m as old as Misato (no pet penguin, though). It’s run so long that the American manga industry has almost completely changed from when it was first published—I still have some old, flopped, single issues in a box somewhere, and now it’s available in a tight, compact full volume. For a twenty-something Evangelion fan like me, this is like an end of an era. There’s no way in hell this franchise will ever die (there’s still one more Rebuild of Evangelion film to go!), but Sadamoto’s manga was ultimately an imperfect labor of love.