Shin Kamen Rider (2023) by Hideaki Anno

The Kamen (or “Masked”) Rider character is a long-standing Japanese superhero who needs little introduction to the domestic audience having appeared in popular manga and television series. Hidaki Anno’s reboot does a great job of introducing the character to those less familiar with him. An insect-human hybrid (or “Aug” as they are known in this world), our protagonist Takeshi Hongo (Sosuke Ikematsu) has had his DNA fused with that of a grasshopper, gaining that insect’s incredible agility and other abilities. Hongo is given a brief run-down of his new powers by Doctor Midorikawa (Shinya Tsukamoto) who worked on the program that created him, before Hongo sets off with the doctor’s daughter, Ruriko (Minami Hamabe) to fight the other animal human hybrids (including a bat, scorpion, and wasp) before taking on the ultimate danger: the Butterfly Aug, Ruriko’s brother Ichiro, who is determined to steal the life energy from every living thing on earth. Hongo is also joined by a second Masked Rider in the form of Hayato Ichimonji (Tasuku Emoto), who is at first reluctant to fight alongside him.

Director Hideaki Anno (best known for the “Evangelion” franchise) was brought up on shows such as Kamen (“Masked”) Rider, with their mix of bizarre Sci-Fi action and genre bending plots. His love of the series shines through here (Anno co-wrote the film with Shotaro Ishinomori who worked on the series) as “Shin Kamen Rider” doesn’t attempt to modernise or update the original, instead retaining the feel of an older, serialized drama. The costumes may have been slightly modified, but are still recognizably those of the original. Everything from the wacky plots, the fight-sequences that take place in abandoned industrial sites, to the melodramatic score by Taku Iwasaki, it all feels nostalgic for a different era of superheroes. The higher budget is evidenced in a couple of stand-out fight sequences: the anime-inspired duel with Wasp-Aug (Nanase Nishino), and the superhero-esque battle involving Tasuku Emoto’s second masked rider. The film’s action sequences are decidedly brutal, with copious amounts of blood spattered around and the choreography is fun, again reminicent of older martial arts films. Anno’s direction is a great fit for this film, with his use of creative camera angles and willingness to utilise a variety of styles, moving from simple one-on-one battles to special effects laden sequences, creating that manic tone befitting the live-action comic action. Fans of the original series will no doubt enjoy this new take on the character, familiar but with a modern polish, while those new to Kamen Rider will enjoy the retro-action.

Perhaps surprisingly for a series based on the premise that motorbikes and insects are cool, “Shin Kamen Rider” has a surprising thematic and emotional depth. The central idea running throughout is humanity’s search for happiness, something both protagonists and antagonists continually refer to. The villains wish to either control everyone, thereby destroying free will and the potential for negative emotions; or simply remove their souls, again with the same effect. The protagonists on the other hand, realise that this is not an ideal solution and instead wonder if it is possible to find happiness while maintaining a sense of individual identity. Other ideas thrown into the mix are themes of transhumanism and the potential advances in genomic science, and Artificial Intelligence; and no retro-science fiction would be complete without a sinister capitalist corporation exploiting science for military application and profit. “Shin Kamen Rider” in many ways is an antidote to the recent slew of reboots and remakes which attempt to modernise their properties or make them more in keeping with modern sensibilities. Instead the film revels in nostalgia, with its off-beat explanations of the various elements that were perhaps never intended to be explained, and brings us right back to the feeling original audiences must have felt sitting in front of the television waiting expectantly for the next instalment. A fun, nostalgic superhero film that is sure to bring new audiences to the franchise.

Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time (2021) by Hideaki Anno

The final instalment in the “Rebuild of Evangelion” tetralogy brings things to a thrilling, poignant, and oftentimes shocking conclusion. This is in effect the third time that this story has been brought to a close. The original 1990’s anime series’ final episodes were criticized at the time for a left-field shift in style, with the use of repetitive visuals and sketchy animation, and, to many viewers, incomprehensible philosophical discussions around a collective consciousness. The manga series ends quite differently, diverging from the anime with more of a bittersweet ending. If you have seen the three preceding films in this series you will know that we are already in a significantly different timeline than either. Although there is a recap of the previous three films at the beginning of this fourth and final installment, it will make little sense if you haven’t seen those films, acting as more of a refresher for fans. This film begins with Mari (Maya Sakamoto) piloting Unit 8 in a spectacular battle with an evolved model of Eva. She is under the direction of Ritsuko Akagi (Yuriko Yamaguchi) as they attempt to restore some of the devastated earth. The film then reunites us with the trio of pilots left stranded at the end of the last film. Shinji (Megumi Ogata), Asuka (Yuko Miyamura), and the new-model Rei (Megumi Hayashibara), are recovered by an outpost of refugees who have formed a primitive communal society. They meet up again with former classmates Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga), who are now 14 years older and working to help the surviving humans. Shinji is still unable to come to terms with his involvement in and responsibility for bringing about the apocalyptic events that killed a large portion of the earth’s population. However, Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki) and Fuyutsuki (Motomu Yamadera) are continuing with their plan to bring about a final destruction and rebuilding of the universe through Fourth Impact, so he is once again drawn in to help prevent calamity.

“Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0: Thrice Upon a Time” again sees the art and animation stepped up a notch, with incredibly picturesque backgrounds and detailed post-apocalyptic landscapes. Scale has always been important to the Evangelion series, with Evas towering above diminutive buildings, and here we see that captured perfectly, with Mari’s Eva battle dwarfing the city of Paris that acts as a backdrop for the action. In the refugee camp too we get a sense of the bustle of industrious humans attempting to rebuild their lives. The increased budget from a television show is evidenced here and it does justice to the scope of Anno’s vision for “Evangelion”. It is interesting to note that given this budget, a large part of the film is taken up with simple human interactions, conversations, meals, planting rice, taking a bath, that are given as much import as the mammoth battles for humanity’s survival. This is what Evangelion does best, juxtaposing and comparing the internal mental struggles of its protagonists, and seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life, with the large-scale world-changing events of Angels, Evas and Fourth Impact. The film shifts between dazzling, psychedelic battles, a raucous, almost transcendent experience wherin the viewer is bombarded with light and sound, and quieter, more reflective moments that ponder existentialism and human relations. There are moments to please fans, with the inclusion of particular characters, locations, even penguins, sure to raise a nostalgic smile. But the film also does its best to subvert expectations, giving you everything you could want, but not exactly how you expected it. This is evident in the length of time spent in the refugee camp, away from the familiarity of NERV, Evas, or anything recognizably “Evangelion” (aside from the characters). Of course if you understand the heart of the story, it is these characters and their relationships, so these moments are perfect in moving the story forward, while feeling not much at all like an “Evangelion” film. The film is highly inventive and creative, never content to play it safe. It doesn’t always work, with the CG feeling slightly out of place at times, but the use of sketch drawings, “film-footage”, and the mind-bending finale, shows that Anno is as always interested in providing a unique experience that challenges your preconceptions.

The film offers a stunning conclusion to this saga that should satisfy fans. There is none of the abstraction of the television series, instead we have a straightforward explanation for what happens (as far as Evangelion is ever straightforward). If you can follow what is going on to the end, many questions are answered about Gendo’s actions and almost all of the main characters are given a moment to shine, expressing the core of their feelings and beliefs. Rei’s existential crisis is brought into focus, and she acts as a conduit for us to examine human relations and society. Her questioning of why we shake hands, say ‘thank you’ or ‘hello’, subtly yet powerfully forces the audience to reflect on human interactions and norms. Katsuragi’s relationship with Kaji is referenced in a touching way. Asuka’s traumas are laid bare, as are Shinji’s fears of rejection and helplessness. We also finally have a moment between Shinji and Gendo that brings to closure a tension that has been present from the very first moment between them; that explains their strained relationship and also the difference in their characters. Exceling as both an action spectacular and a heartfelt emotional drama, “Evangelion 3.0 + 1.0” is an exceptional work that brings to an end a series that has meant a lot to so many people.

Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo (2012) by Hideaki Anno

The third Evangelion film finds Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata) awakening from a fourteen-year coma following the cataclysmic events of the previous film. Shinji returns to earth to find Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) in command of a large vessel attempting to protect the remnants of a largely extinct population. Asuka (Yuko Miyamura) returns, though she appears not to have aged (explained away as a side-effect of being an Eva pilot), as does Mari Makinami (Maya Sakamoto); one of Rei Ayanami’s (Megumi Hayashibara) doubles; and Kaworu Nagisa (Akira Ishida) (a character seen only briefly in previous films). The post-apocalyptic earth that Shinji returns to is almost unrecognizable. NERV headquarters are mostly destroyed, Katsuragi and Asuka are working for an organization called WILLE, whose goal is to destroy what is left of NERV. Meanwhile, Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), along with Rei and Kaworu are working on completing the mysterious Human Instrumentality Project.

We are now in uncharted waters, with the third film in the “Rebuild of Evangelion”, being an entirely new version of events from the anime and manga series’. This film is certainly a more difficult watch in many ways compared with the previous two movies. The plot immediately takes you out of your comfort zone with the premise that fourteen years have passed, and the characters we knew and loved have changed. We feel the isolation and neglect that Shinji feels as we are in a world that is very different to the one both the audience and the characters knew. There is less humour this time around with the sombre post-apocalyptic setting and weighty philosophical and existential concerns consuming the characters. The machinations of NERV and SEELE become a little clearer here, as we discover what they are plotting. The animation blends traditional and computer generated images, utilising rotoscoping and other techniques, but maintaining the hand-drawn/ traditionally animated look. This allows for some epic battle sequences, including an incredible opening sequence in space. There are a number of quiet moments too that succeed in offering a moment of respite and a chance to contemplate what is going on and the portentousness of what is happening to the world. Shiro Sagsu’s score continues to be excellent, with both classical and rock pieces, similar to previous films, with piano music playing a major part in the story, used expertly to acknowledge both the mood and theme of the film.

This film plays on the theme of abandonment and loneliness. We see Shinji at the beginning being told that he is no longer a necessary part of plans. That, along with everything having changed around him, leads both him and the viewer to feel a sort of anger and sadness, that the world seems to have left us behind, going so far as to create an uneasy tension between viewers expectations and what is happening. This feeling is poignantly reflected in the character of Rei too, who we learn is a clone of Yui Ikari, Shinji’s mother, and therefore an expendable part of NERV’s plans. Rei’s sense of self is shattered on learning that she is not the ‘real’ Rei. This film is much more focussed on the philosophy and grand themes of human evolution and deicide than the first two. However, there are some great moments between Shinji and Asuka and Shinji and Kaworu that capture that sense of real teenagers learning about themselves and the world. As before the spectacular set-piece battles are a highlight of the film. “Evangelion 3.0” is quite different from the previous films, building on certain themes and relationships while taking things in a whole new narrative direction. The film ends with a note that it is to be continued, and it will be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

Evangelion 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance (2009) by Hideaki Anno

In this instalment of the “Rebuild of Evangelion” series we are introduced to a new Eva pilot, the feisty, confident Asuka Langley Shikinami (Yuko Miyamura), who joins Shinji (Megumi Ogata) and Rei (Megumi Hayashibara) in battling the Angels. There are a number of other subplots introduced here, with the return of Ryoji Kaji (Koichi Yamadera), a former friend of Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi) who appears to be involved in some sort of plot with the head of NERV. We also see more of the shadowy SEELE organization, and two more Eva pilots, Kaworu Nagisa (Akira Ishida) and Mari Makinami (Maya Sakamoto).

This time round there is much more going on in the story, with the film asking you to keep track of several plot threads. The film manages to fill its run-time with great character interaction, extreme action scenes with clashing Angels and Evas, and numerous mysteries to keep things interesting. Asuka is a great addition as she adds not only more firepower to NERV, but also another stumbling block for the socially awkward Shinji to tackle. We learn more about Katsuragi in this film, and even something about Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki) that goes some way towards explaining his cool demeanour. The film sees a step up in the level of violence, underscored with a rock inflected soundtrack from Shiro Sagisu as we see the Evas literally tearing Angels apart, and cities awash with blood. As in the first the animation is incredible in evoking a sense of scale. The film’s mix of mechs and metaphysics comes to a head in the final head-spinning moments when the fate of the earth and humanity are brought to a thrilling (almost) conclusion. This second film builds on everything the first did so well, the intriguing interpersonal struggles, the awe-inspiring action, while adding several more layers to everything to create a film that rewards re-watches for details that perhaps only become clearer with greater context from subsequent films.

“Evangelion 2.0” deals a lot more with the themes of family, friendship and belonging, as we see the children enjoying themselves, and even a tender scene between Shinji and his father. Asuka represents everything Shinji is not, confident and fiery, but both share a sense of selfishness and repressed fear of rejection. The film sets up various conflicts, between Shinji and Asuka, Shinji and his father, SEELE and Gendo, NERV and the Angels. It is a world in which there is no clear sense of right or wrong. Shinji is again forced to work out what he stands for. The film ends with an awesome, tantalising, bewildering cliff-hanger, that upends everything that has gone before and leaves you desperate to find out what will happen to the characters. An incredible sequel that brings together adrenaline-pumping action in a battle of truly Biblical proportions.

Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone (2007) by Hideaki Anno

The earth is under attack from giant extra-terrestrial beings known as Angels. The only hope for humanity is the secretive organisation NERV who have created huge robots known as Evas to counter these assailants. The robots require a pilot and so Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), son of NERV commander Gendo Ikari (Fumihiko Tachiki), is conscripted to command the second of the Evas (the prototype being piloted by a mysterious girl named Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara)). Shinji is soon thrown into a battle that he does not want to fight, aided by Colonel Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi), and urged on by his school friends, Toji (Tomokazu Seki) and Kensuke (Tetsuya Iwanaga).

This feature film brings together the story of the opening episodes of the popular and influential 90’s anime television series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, being the beginning of a “Rebuild of Evangelion” project. The film includes new scenes and improved visuals, utilising computer aided artwork to create beautifully detailed animation. The scale of the Evas is emphasised as they rise up from the underground base to stand alongside skyscrapers, or dwarf forests and powerlines. One scene shows the empty shell casings crushing cars as they fall from hundreds of feet. The film features a fresh soundtrack by Shiro Sagisu, who also worked on the series, that moves with the shifting tones of the drama; classical piano pieces, comedic sitcom-esque tunes for the scenes at Katsuragi’s apartment, and triumphant battle music when Shinji is fighting to save the world. The story benefits from being brought together in this way, making it easier to follow the numerous plot threads and see ideas develop without being divided into smaller episodes. Director Hideaki Anno has said that this is an attempt to present the story as he intended it to be. Although there is a lot going on, not only the vast city-sized duels between the Angels and Evas, but also complex interpersonal struggles, the film does a good job of keeping everything moving. “Evangelion 1.0” manages to create an absolutely believable world and introduce us to several concepts (Angels, Evas, LCL fluid, New Tokyo-3) naturally through the dialogue. We are brought into the story in media res and though there are numerous things that are inexplicable at first, it helps to establish a sense that these characters and events are real, that we are simply along for the ride. Only occasionally the film will slip into exposition, but largely the audience is credited with being able to keep up with what is happening. Things move from frenetic action during the battle scenes to more sombre moments as characters come to terms with what is happening in their lives.

The film is packed with mysteries that give it a forward momentum. No sooner have we got our heads around one concept, something else appears. This continues until the film’s final moment which comes completely out of the blue and provides a great hook for the future films in the series.

The strength of “Evangelion” is in its fantastic characters, who are relatable through their foibles. Shinji displays many anxieties and fears that are relatable, such as an unwillingness to put himself into danger and feelings of inadequacy. His relationship with his absentee father, who calls him back only because he needs him as a pilot is tough to watch, but creates a strong sense of empathy for him as we will him to find happiness. The character of Katsuragi, a hard-working and hard-drinking employee of NERV, is endlessly entertaining, both an incredible military commander, but also with a sense of fun. “Evangelion”, as the name perhaps implies, is a series that leans heavily on biblical allegory and references to Christian theology. The struggle of humanity against the angels can be seen as a struggle to liberate people from a dangerous ideology, or in a Nietzschean sense to exceed their current limitations. Characters not only face an external enemy, but an internal one and there is an argument that these may be one and the same. The appearance of Angel 4 at the time Shinji arrives on the scene suggests that the angel’s behaviour is in some way linked to that of the protagonists. “Evangelion” is a series that has so much to enjoy, whether it is the giant mech battles, the emotional and psychological complexity of the characters, or the philosophical ideas concerning the future of mankind. An absolute must-see for fans of thought-provoking science-fiction and beautifully scripted stories.