First, a quick guide to the anime itself:
Neon Genesis Evangelion - The original 26-episode TV anime, broadcast weekly from October 1995 to March 1996.
Evangelion: Death and Rebirth - The first of two cinematic releases that act as an alternate ending to the TV series, premiering in March 1997. The first part, Death, is a recap of the TV series, with some scenes reanimated and some new footage added. The new footage, in addition to providing new backstory, also added two plot points not originally in the series that would become important to the story that would come next. There have been three versions of Death: the original, an edited version called Death (true), broadcast on Japanese TV in early 1998, and a second edit called Death (true)^2, considered the final version. The second part, Rebirth, is an all-new animation that picks up where episode 24 left off.
The End of Evangelion - The second cinematic release, premiering in July 1997. The movie is 'split' into two parts, episode 25' and 26' - note the prime symbol ('), which denotes a variant. The first half of episode 25' is the Rebirth part of Death and Rebirth with some scenes reanimated and some new music; the rest is all-new. The two theatrical movies were later re-edited together in a single theatrical re-release called Revival of Evangelion, composed of Death (true)^2 and The End of Evangelion. Revival of Evangelion was released in March 1998.
Director's Cut episodes - New footage was added to episodes 21-24, creating the Director's Cut episodes, numbered 21'-24'. The additions are composed of the new footage from Death, including the two new plot points. The simplest way to tell the difference between the original broadcast and Director's Cut episodes is to just look at the running time: the Director's Cut episodes are longer than the broadcast episodes. Some are only longer than a typical broadcast episode by a minute or so; others are several minutes longer.
If you are considering watching the quickest way would be episodes 1-20, then 21'-24', then 25-26, then The End of Evangelion.
If you have more time, I would recommend the full original series, then the Director's Cut episodes, then The End of Evangelion. This is so the viewer can appreciate the changes between the original broadcast episodes and the Director's Cut episodes. At the same time, they'll get the extra details needed for The End of Evangelion.
For the 'full experience', watch everything in its release order. Note that the US release of Death and Rebirth from Manga Entertainment doesn't contain the animation differences between Rebirth and episode 25'; they're identical save for the titles, so if you're watching this release, you can stop at the end of Death, skip Rebirth, and go straight to The End of Evangelion if you want. You'd be effectively watching Revival of Evangelion this way.
The manga was written by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the character designer for the show. The Neon Genesis Evangelion anime was conceived in 1994, but the manga was released first, with the first volume published in December 1994. While the manga broadly follows the same storyline as the anime, there are several notable differences. Like Star Wars in 1977, Evangelion’s famous debut wasn’t actually its debut. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto released the first issue of a manga also entitled Neon Genesis Evangelion at the very end of 1994, 10 months before the show started! Sadamoto was the character designer for the TV show, and as a result, the art in the manga is extremely consistent.
What is Evangelion?
Neon Genesis Evangelion is the name of an anime and also a manga series that both started in 1994. Since then, it’s grown into a major franchise with numerous spinoffs and merchandise. Beloved in its homeland of Japan and by fans all over the planet, Neon Genesis Evangelion still holds up to the very best even today!
The TV Series
The original show (NGE) ran for a single season of 26 episodes between 1995 and 1996 in Japan, and each episode aired in a half-hour timeslot, so episode lengths are generally 21-23 minutes each. It won’t take you long to get through it unlike many other long-running franchises.
The Director's Cuts episodes
Versions of NGE released after the airing of the show include an alternative “director’s cut” for episodes 21 to 24. The director’s cuts include several minutes per episode of additional footage. These extra scenes are critical to understanding the story.
Episode Titles If you want to talk about specific episodes with other fans, you may want to try and remember the episode numbers. The titles work too, but there are two of them for each episode, and there are numerous translations of each.
For example, episode three is titled 鳴らない、電話 in Japanese, which roughly translates to “The Phone That Doesn’t Ring”, but it also has an English title, which is “A Transfer”.
The original Japanese voice actors deliver a phenomenal, iconic performance. My personal preference is to watch the show in Japanese with English subtitles, and the main reason is because I love the Japanese voice cast and I think they do the best job of conveying the emotions of the characters.
The show is set in a version of Japan, and cultural references to Japan are frequent. In my opinion, these references feel more natural in the original Japanese language, as compared to the dubs which have to find ways to make them make sense in American-accented English.
Most versions of NGE use the same translation for the subtitles, and I think it’s a great translation that captures the intention of the original Japanese whilst making sensible choices to ensure that it reads naturally in English.
The downside of watching a subtitled anime is the same as always: Your immersion in the visuals is hampered by the need to keep an eye on the bottom of the screen to read subtitles, and NGE’s dialogue can get a bit hectic at times. You’ll need to be an attentive reader to keep up with the play at some points. I find that I can still appreciate the visuals of the show while reading the subtitles, but for many, it’s far more preferable to hear the dialogue in their native language.
The English dub was produced by ADV Films not long after the show started airing in Japan, and the studio were operating on a tight budget, short timeframe and a limited pool of voice acting talent. Despite this, the dub has many passionate fans, and as the series progresses, the performances increase in quality. Most of the main voice cast returned for Death and Rebirth and End of Evangelion!
Shiro Sagisu composed the music for NGE, and it’s fantastic. You’re in for a treat. The series’ opening theme is famous! All I’ll say is if you only heard the opening theme and had to guess what the show was like, you’d be very, very wrong.
The core Evangelion story is about otherworldy monsters (known as Angels) who attack a city in Japan, and the only way to fight them off is by using giant mechanical robots (Evangelions), who all happen to be piloted by teenagers.
It sounds like a straightforward mecha show (like Dual!, Gundam, or even RahXephon). Glad you said that, because NGE is indeed an entry in the mecha (giant robot) genre of anime.
Prior to 1995, mecha anime and manga were very popular, and they tended to follow a pretty rigid set of tropes. One of NGE’s calling cards is that it intentionally dodges many of the clichés of mecha shows by trying to show how teenagers piloting giant robots against a mysterious enemy would really go down in real life.
NGE was animated by Gainax, a famous anime studio, and the director was Hideaki Anno. If you’ve seen the 1984 Hayao Miyazaki film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, you might see things in NGE that remind you of the scene where the Giant Warrior attacks. Guess who animated that scene!
You don’t need to read any philosophical papers or religious texts. Just go into NGE with an open mind, and perhaps a reflection on what your own life goals are, how you motivate yourself to achieve them, and also your experiences trying to create and maintain relationships with others.
Get in the right headspace before you hit play. The vibe established in the first episode is one of pure dread. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
You’re going to see some weird things. Roll with it.
Turn off all background noise or wear headphones. This series deserves to have your full attention.
If you’re going to watch this with others, their attitude will make or break your experience. If they’re attentive and respectful, you’ll love experiencing the story with them and having heated conversations after each episode.
NGE is very story-heavy.
You’ll see lots of Christian symbolism in the show. Don’t get too bogged down in trying to assign it all meaning, some of it is just there to look cool.
Each episode concludes with a preview for “next week’s” episode. It’s tempting to skip these, but there’s some good stuff hiding in them.
The End of Evangelion is the conclusion of the core story. You could not watch it, and leave the story as it is concluded at the end of the TV series, but you really shouldn’t. This movie is too good to skip, even if it has some notable differences from the series in terms of its general feel and vibe.
You may see the film referred to as episodes 25’ and 26’ (note the apostrophes), or as a replacement ending for the TV series (which also has episodes 25 and 26). Don’t overthink it too much – the film and the end of the series overlap in some ways, which is why the film is structured as two “episodes” that share a number with the final two in the series.
All I’ll say about The End of Evangelion is that you may think after finishing the series that you have been desensitized to the types of things the franchise throws at you. You are wrong. This movie is an even wilder ride than the show, and you are really going to want to take some time to go for a long, meditative walk both before and after it.
Now, for Death and Rebirth. It’s a recap of the series, plus an early edit of the first third of The End of Evangelion. You will not miss anything by skipping it (provided you saw the director’s cuts of episodes 21-24). Death(true) and Death(true)2 are re-edits of the recap part of Death and Rebirth. If you hear about The Revival of Evangelion, it’s simply an edited together version of Death(true)2 and The End of Evangelion.
The manga xists in a separate continuity to the show. Certain plot points play out very differently, and the characterization differs in many places, but the overall story arc is the one we know and love from the anime.
I highly recommend the manga to fans of the show, despite it telling a very similar story. You’ll appreciate it best if you’ve taken a bit of a break between the anime before starting the manga.
The Video Games
There are quite a few video games that are part of the series, but most were only released in Japan and aren’t considered canon. The exception is Neon Genesis Evangelion 2, originally released for the Playstation 2 in 2003 in Japan only. As a reward for completing each scenario, the player is given access to increasingly-detailed information on various Evangelion topics (Called the “Classified Information”). The complete Classified Information includes a lot of information not found anywhere else in the series, and what’s more, it seems to be aligned with the original anime’s continuity.
What Makes Evangelion Special?
I think Evangelion is special because it genuinely changes people’s lives.
Hideako Anno has struggled with depression on-and-off throughout his life, and Evangelion is a product of that struggle. Evangelion tries to grapple with the “why am I really here” question in a way that very few other stories have. I still remember the moments after I first finished the series, my heart beating fast, and in the ensuing days I mulled over what it all meant. After a while, and some discussions with other fans, I started to put together my own interpretation. The immense satisfaction and comfort I felt after deciding on the meaning that I wanted to take away stays with me to this day, and the lessons I took from it are ones I still regularly use to navigate my own life.
Ask any Evangelion fan and they’ll have a story similar to this. That’s why they’re so fiercely protective of it. It’s much more than a media franchise – it’s an introduction to a lifelong practice of self-reflection and conscious growth, and that’s not a small thing.