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What Netflix Got Right and Wrong About Its Neon Genesis Evangelion Release

No more "Fly Me to the Moon"? Bad!

Noel Kirkpatrick

If you were on TV Twitter this past weekend, or you have a friend who is into anime, you were probably wondering what all the fuss was about over an animated series titled Neon Genesis Evangelion. The fuss was that Netflix made the difficult-to-stream cult 1996 anime series available in an accessible, cheap, and legal sense for the first time since the early 2010s. And it did so with a brand-new translation for the subtitles, a brand-new dub, and a shiny new restoration of the show's 26 episodes.

If you're not familiar with Evangelion, here's a broad, spoiler-free summary. Earth suffered a mysterious and cataclysmic event in 2000 that changed global sea levels and temperatures. In 2015, Shinji Ikari (Casey Mongillo) is summoned to Tokyo-3 by his father, Gendo (Ray Chase), who intends for Shinji to pilot a giant mecha to battle entities known as Angels. Over the course of these battles, Shinji and the other characters must come to grips with how to make connections with others and with themselves. The show veers between standard mecha battles, hijinks and psychological interrogations informed by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, and is presented in an increasingly avant-garde style.

The Netflix release was not without controversy, however, which is somewhat fitting for a series with a controversial reptuation, particularly its final two episodes. Here are six reasons -- three good and three bad -- why the Netflix version of Evangelion is a big deal.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion



1. It's on Netflix. Evangelion hasn't been legally and cheaply available, in the U.S. anyway, since the early 2010s, after the original American licensing company of the series, A.D. Vision (commonly known as ADV), saw its rights to the show tangled up in a legal quagmire. Since then, the series hasn't been available in the U.S. unless you were willing to shell out at least $200, which is the going price for the basic boxed set that I picked up in 2006. (Different sets go for $500.) Bootlegs are available, of course, and torrents, too, but we're speaking in the legal sense. The series hasn't been on American TV for a while, either, following its airing as part of Cartoon Network's Toonami block in the early aughts.

For a show that is decidedly important and influential in anime history (it was referenced by the anime Sarazanmai, a show that just finished airing in Japan, for instance), it's a big deal that the show is now relatively easy to watch. The show is also influential for American animation today. The people who were teens and college students in the aughts are making shows now, and references to Evangelion can be found in the likes of Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, and Regular Show. Indeed, if there was a weird reference in Steven Universe that you didn't get, it was probably an Evangelion reference (if it wasn't some other anime; creator Rebecca Sugar sure loves anime).

Evangelion is a major cultural touchstone, if not one of the more important TV shows of the 1990s, and the fact that it is now easily available to around 150 million people around the world is a pretty big deal.

2. The restoration is gorgeous. This is by far the best Evangelion has looked. The transfer on my DVD set is decent, but the Netflix stream is a next-level restoration. (A high-definition version of the show has been available in Japan for a while, of course.) The darks and shadows are wonderfully inky and the overall image quality is incredibly crisp. If it weren't for the character designs, you'd be hard-pressed to say this was a series produced in the '90s.

It pretty much goes without saying: Beautiful transfer for anything is important. But I think it's particularly important for animation in general and Evangelion in particular. The show has kinetic scenes of giant mecha battles that benefit from a sharp restoration, but it also has long moments of stillness where you're forced to stare at barely animated frames. Those frames are sometimes tough to watch by design, but animators also spent time on these frames, and the better they look, the easier you can feel immersed in the tension, not distracted by blemishes or fuzziness.

The one negative about the transfer is that it's a bit inconsistent. Some episodes' original prints haven't survived and so those episodes look about on par with the DVD transfer I own... and then you can tell the series is from the mid-'90s.

3. Casey Mongillo as Shinji. While I'm going to dig into the new dub in a moment, the voice acting is generally fine, even if it sometimes sounds like the ADV dub in a different key, something new viewers won't even be aware of. But Casey Mongillo stands out as Shinji, the series' protagonist. I like Spike Spencer's performance in the ADV dub, but Mongillo does a better job of capturing Shinji's pre-teen voice. It's softer and slightly more feminine (it's not uncommon for women to voice young boys in Japanese dubs, which is the case for Shinji), and it really works for Shinji. Mongillo also excels at the difficulty of needing to switch between sarcasm and sadness, delight and detachment. On top of that, they handle the psychological and philosophical monologues that drive the latter episodes with aplomb.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion



1. It's on Netflix! I know I just wrote that it's a good thing Evangelion is on Netflix, but it's also not a great thing. Most of the reasons were outlined by Gen Fukunaga, the chairman of Funimation, one of the few major U.S. licensors of anime, when Netflix announced it acquired the license to Evangelion. While speaking to Polygon in 2018, Fukunaga pointed out that Evangelion deserves to be more than just another piece of content in the Netflix library, complete with an unceremonious release, and that the price that Netflix paid for Evangelion was likely too high, according to Fukunaga. He would probably know, as Fukunaga acknowledged that Funimation really wanted the series license, but seemingly lost the bid to Netflix. (Funimation currently holds the license to the Rebuild of Evangelion film franchise, a cinematic retelling/reimagining of the TV series.)

It is a bit of sour grapes on Fukunaga's part, but he wasn't wrong, either. Evangelion arrived on Netflix with minimal fanfare or notice -- the TV Guide editor who asked me to write this didn't even know it was happening until he checked his Twitter -- meaning that, for Netflix, this was just another bit of content for its massive library, instead of something special for what is undeniably a huge release. This is par for the course for Netflix's anime releases, though; lots of series just appear with next-to-no notice, even brand new shows that finished airing in Japan a few months prior to their Netflix release just sort of appear. A historical release like this not getting much promotion outside a niche targeting effort on social media is a big deal, and unless the Netflix algorithm has picked up on you liking anime, or something tangential to it, you may not even know it's on the platform.

2. An overly faithful translation. Particularly among anime fans, debates rage about which is better: dubs or subs (subtitles)? What happens, however, when you end up with bad translations for both the subs and the dubs? Well, you get the Netflix release of Evangelion. The translation for the dub was handled by Studio Khara's in-house translator. Dan Kanemitsu, and David Fleming, a veteran in anime subtitling, took care of the subs (Khara is the animation studio headed up by Evangelion's creator Hideaki Anno), and while the subs don't match the dub script exactly -- this is a common occurrence -- both suffer from aiming for a more literal translation of the original Japanese than a translation that, while perhaps less linguistically accurate, still captures the spirit of the text.

You can see this in the Netflix release of Evangelion, particularly with the use of the phrases "first children," "second children," and "third children" to refer to the individuals Rei, Auska, and Shinji, respectively. It sounds grammatically bizarre in the dub, and it is clunky to read in the subs. However, the translation is more in line with the Japanese text. Faithfulness is good in translating, but being too faithful can result in these sorts of odd phrasings that don't necessarily make sense in their new language.

Also more accurate is a statement of affection between two characters (I'm being vague to avoid spoilers). It has become "I like you" instead of "I love you," the latter of which is how ADV translated the line. "I like you" is a less powerful phrase in English, but also is, as Zack Davisson, a translator and scholar, explained on Twitter, less unclear in its meaning than "I love you" (please note that the Twitter thread has spoilers). The switch undermines the dramatic intensity that follows in that episode, at least for American audiences. (The switch does help Netflix dodge decency laws in other countries, however, but this is likely just a bonus for them.)

3. The loss of "Fly Me to the Moon." Bart Howard's jazz standard, popularized by Frank Sinatra, is played in some form or another at the end of every episode of Evangelion. Sometimes it's an instrumental arrangement and other times it's a karaoke version done in different styles. The use of "Fly Me to the Moon" offers a slight break from the intensity of the later episodes while managing to capture a desire for connection that pervades the entire series. An instrumental version also plays during a powerful emotional scene between Misato and her ex-flame Kaji.

Netflix chose not to shell out the money necessary to obtain the global licensing for the song, so it's been excised from the show entirely. The credits now play a piano arrangement of Rei's theme, a haunting melody to close out every episode, and the cicada noises are cranked up to 11 in the aforementioned scene. (The song remains in the Japanese Netflix stream, however.)

The decision not to pay for the licensing rights for music is not an uncommon thing for re-releases in old shows, and it has even held up the release of other shows. For Netflix, this decision makes a lot of sense, however, because Netflix doesn't care about the end credits. They shrink the credits to a small picture on your screen and kick you to the next episode in 10 seconds, unless you specify otherwise. So why pay through the nose for something that no one is going to watch and that only folks who know the ADV version will even know about in the first place? While it harms one scene, "it's only one scene" was likely the discussion Netflix executives had at whatever meeting decided this.

Losing "Fly Me to the Moon" and only using the new dubs and subs instead of acquiring the ADV ones and making them available in conjunction with the new ones does a certain degree of violence to Evangelion as a historical object, however. The ADV subs and dubs stand the risk of being lost to the slow march of time, and that would be a shame. It would be like losing all the different translations of Beowulf or The Divine Comedy and just keeping one version as the version. History requires these different versions to survive.

Still, Evangelion being available on Netflix for however many years the contract is for, is also a good thing, overall, since the show should be easily accessible due to its overall quality and significance.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is now available on Netflix.