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Revisiting Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' manga

Manga and Anime

Revisiting Yoshiyuki Sadamoto’s ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ manga

Before the movie drops, now’s a prime opportunity to delve deep into the manga.

So. Evangelion: 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time is on its way. It’s been a long time in coming, but at last Hideaki Anno and his creative collaborators’ new telling of Anno’s massively influential anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion will be complete. On its own, Rebuild of Evangelion is a fascinating series of films — a creator and his team returning to a signature work and both revisiting/interrogating it. It’s Evangelion, but it isn’t Evangelion as it first was. It’s been shaped by Anno’s life in the years since the original series aired, by the ways his perspective has shifted. It’s a heck of a project, and I’m very curious to see how it concludes.

But here’s the thing. Rebuild, as distinct as it is, is not the first time that one of Evangelion‘s key creators has reinterpreted the series through their own lens. From 1994 to 2013 character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto adapted Eva as a manga. And over the course of his telling the tale, Sadamoto made this version of Evangelion his own. The questions are these: How do Sadamoto’s illustrations work? How does his writing? How does his interpretation of Evangelion dovetail with its animated counterpart and how does it differ? And with 3.0 + 1.0 on its way (albeit delayed by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic), now’s a prime time to dig into the comic and see what there is to see.

Viz Media has translated and released the Evangelion manga in both 14 individual volumes and five omnibus collections. For the sake of (relative) brevity, these essays will be drawing from the omnibi releases. We’ll start with volume one, which collects volumes one through three of Sadamoto’s manga and corresponds to the events of episodes one through six of the original television anime.

Fair warning: Beyond this point, there be angels spoilers.

1. How to Bring a Biomechanical Abomination to Life

While animation and comics are cousins to one another, they use different language and different tools to tell their tales. Sadamoto’s approach to Evangelion‘s titular weapons is a prime example. The Evangelion Units are gargantuan, mighty, and thoroughly unsettling creations. In an essay included in the manga’s backmatter, mechanical designer Ikuto Yamashita writes:

“The director instructed me to make ‘the image of a demon,’ A giant, just barely under the control of mankind… What I had in mind was the fairy tale Gulliver’s Travels. Enormous Power Restrained.”

Consider the following scene from Evangelion episode two, where Evangelion Unit 01 goes berserk against Sachiel, the first of the bizarre “Angels” who spend the series laying siege to the fortress city Tokyo-3:

(Note: This clip combines the original television version and the movie version.)

Aside from the sheer viciousness of the fight choreography, Unit 01’s movement is downright eerie. For being a towering biomechanical superweapon, she moves alarmingly, but not totally, like a human. She possesses a vicious grace. This furious fluidity, combined with Unit 01’s gangly limbs and penchant for howling, invokes the ever-disturbing uncanny valley effect. Unit 01’s movement is close to human, but not quite there. And that slight gap makes the similarities unsettling.

Sadamoto’s version of the fight uses comics’ storytelling tools to achieve a similarly disquieting brawl. Consider this image:

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Courtesy of Viz.

Sadamoto uses his page layouts to emphasize the sheer power that an Evangelion brings to bear and simultaneously point towards Unit 01’s possible sentience. He narrows the page’s center panel to draw the reader’s eyes to Unit 01’s knee pads and follows up with a closeup whose sharp border parallels the sharpness of the armor. And in the final panel before impact, Sadamoto focuses on Unit 01’s face. Even behind her merciless mask, she’s thinking. Step by step and blow by blow, this adds up. Sadamoto illustrates the power and speed of the Evangelion. Compared to the utterly inhuman Angel, she’s familiar. Compared to us all too tiny and fragile humans, she’s a monster. Sadamoto finds the sweet spot between these two poles and builds his take on the Evangelions there. It’s impressive comics craft, and it lays the groundwork for later revelations about the true nature of the iconic mecha.

2. Hey Kid, Shake a Leg

Revisiting Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' manga

Courtesy of Viz.

Storywise, the first Evangelion omnibus hews pretty closely to the events of the first six episodes of the anime. Teenager Shinji Ikari is summoned to Tokyo-3 by his long-estranged father Gendo, the head of a secret organization called NERV. Gendo hasn’t called on Shinji to apologize for abandoning him. No, he needs his kid to pilot Evangelion Unit 01, because the Angels are coming. And if they aren’t stopped, well, that’s it for humanity. Shinji wants nothing to do with Gendo but ultimately agrees after learning that the only other possible pilot is already badly injured.

The early days of Shinji’s life as a pilot see him nearly die horribly several times, move in with his commanding officer Misato (whose hyper-competence on the job contrasts with her slacker lifestyle when she’s off-duty), make two friends at school (one of whom starts as an enemy), and repeatedly question why he’s doing a terrifying, traumatic job that he hates. Most importantly, he begins to befriend his fellow pilot, Rei Ayanami, an enigmatic, reserved, and deeply lonely girl who, by her own admission, doesn’t really know how to interact with other people. Nevertheless, the two bond.

As a writer, Sadamoto’s biggest additions to Evangelion‘s text in this first volume are a willingness to dive into Shinji’s head and the addition of a somewhat caustic sense of humor to the kid. The page above, which opens the comic, gives Evangelion‘s readers a much more direct view of Shinji’s worldview than the anime does. If the anime’s audience was thrown right into everything alongside its’ Shinji, the manga’s audience has a smidgen of distance from him – and with it a bit of a different perspective on what all is going down. Shinji’s sarcasm and willingness to snark also directly differentiates him from his animated counterpart – he’s a bit less reserved and a bit more open at this point in the tale than he is in the show.

He’s as bemused by the dramatic and strange turns his life has taken as he is scared and traumatized by them. Sadamoto extends this same openness to Rei. She’s just a little more comfortable communicating with others in the manga than in the anime. When she and Shinji clash over Gendo’s character, she tells Shinji that she has faith in Gendo – indeed, that he’s the only thing she has faith in. In the anime, she says nothing and slaps Shinji. While the general dynamics of Shinji and Rei’s relationship hew fairly closely to their animated selves so far, Sadamoto is laying the seeds for significant deviation down the road.

Revisiting Yoshiyuki Sadamoto's 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' manga

 Courtesy of Viz.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Courtesy of Viz.

And that deviation is coming. As the manga progresses, it will gradually tell a tale of its own. Sadamoto will develop Evangelion‘s cast and shift parts of the story around in different ways — some minor, some significant. We’ll dig into that more starting next time. In Neon Genesis Evangelion Volume 2, Sadamoto introduces his take on Asuka Langley Sohryu — Shinji and Rei’s infamously hot-headed co-pilot, and a character whose history differs significantly between the anime and Sadamoto’s manga.

Given that Evangelion‘s closing theme is “Fly Me to the Moon,” it seems only fitting to close out this essay the same way. 

Stay tuned for part two in the coming weeks.


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