The Rebuild of Evangelion movies, which together constitute a subsequent and/or parallel timeline to the original series and End of Evangelion, finally culminate in the appropriately convoluted and gratifyingly peaceful Thrice Upon a Time. Where 2012’s You Can (Not) Redo broke from its constant blistering action only to spend short stretches of time with Shinji (Megumi Ogata) and his love interest Kaworu (Akira Ishida), after a brief opening action sequence Thrice Upon a Time spends its opening hour in the quiet domestic setting of Village 3, a cordoned settlement where Shinji’s now-adult classmates and many others eke out a living in the midst of a world blasted by repeated apocalyptic violence. Gorgeously run-down backgrounds and intimate, attentive animation make the sequence equal parts heartwarming and bittersweet, and the delicacy of the sequence imbues the film’s later bombastic action with a sense of gravity and reality often missing from the previous Rebuild films.
Director Hideaki Anno leads us gently through the establishment of the film’s stakes, using the inexperienced Ayanami Rei clone (Megumi Hayashibara) to look briefly at foundational human social bonds. The experience of holding a baby, the institution of communal labor, the social practice of holding hands. Quietly, without ceremony, she becomes a complete person for perhaps the first time in her long fictional existence as a psychosexual dolly manufactured so that a grown man could avoid dealing with the loss of his wife. The care lavished on each moment of her journey is extraordinary, from the baby Tsubame’s lovingly animated expressions to the quiet beauty of the rice paddies where the clone, referred to by the townsfolk as Ms. Look-alike, works alongside the town’s boisterous and welcoming women. Less interesting is the material involving Ritsuko (Kotono Mitsuishi) and Misato (Yuriko Yamaguchi), characters who enjoyed complex and deeply ugly stories in the original series but are here reduced, respectively, to a background scientist and an absent mother hiding behind sunglasses.
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If Less Is More, Think How Much More ‘More’ Will Be
These early pastoral scenes are slow and engrossing, channeling the same hypnotic emptiness and stillness which filled so much of the original series. Shinji is comatose with trauma after seeing Kaworu killed by a remote-detonated choker, Asuka (Yūko Miyamura) disgusted with him and preoccupied with their mission, and Ms. Look-alike wandering toward personhood against the backdrop of exhausting but fulfilling group survival. You know from the get-go that it can’t last, but its tranquility echoes through the rest of the film as much as the Shire’s bucolic pleasures echo through Lord of the Rings, providing the audience with something to treasure, and to fear for as things tip toward chaos and apocalypse. They do, of course, with mixed but always ambitious and thoughtful results.
The film’s final hour and a half, overlong by any measure, is replete with spectacle. Some — like the endless swarm of transmigrated evangelions hurtling through space — come off relatively flat, hampered by shoddy CGI, while others — the terrifying uncanny valley repris of the gigantic Rei head from End — use the same constraint to tremendous effect. Thrice Upon a Time may not offer much that’s new thematically, but in retreading ideas of being and nothingness, connection and isolation, it delves into the human elements of the rolling catastrophe that is the Human Instrumentality Project, a union of all thought and matter into one great undifferentiated sea. It’s clearer here than ever before that the entire project is born out of Shinji’s father Gendo’s (Fumihiko Tachiki) inability to cope with loss, his fundamental denial of his wife’s death and search for a way to undo it at any cost. Shinji’s rejection of this supremely nihilistic act of thumbsucking may be a little corny, but Ogata injects so much warmth and wonder into each line as the self-loathing boy finally grows up that it’s hard not to feel the pull of, at long last, some kind of happy ending.