What They Say:
Misato and her anti-NERV group Wille arrive at Paris, a city now red from core-ization. Crew from the flagship Wunder land on a containment tower. They only have 720 seconds to restore the city. When a horde of NERV Evas appear, Mari’s improved Eva Unit 8 must intercept. Meanwhile, Shinji, Asuka, and Rei (provisional name) wander about Japan.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
After all these years, it’s finally here: the conclusion to the Rebuild of Evangelion. It’s impossible to describe how impactful this occasion is, both to Evangelion and to anime as a whole. It’s been eight years since 3.0 came out, 15 years since the Rebuild series began, and more than 25 years since the original Neon Genesis Evangelion first aired, and the franchise is just as culturally impactful as it’s always been. In a landscape where 20-30 new shows air every 3 months and are mostly forgotten as soon as the new season begins, maintaining this kind of relevance for so long is downright incredible. Now, this isn’t going to be a review of Evangelion as a whole, but it’s vital to address that background. Thrice Upon a Time isn’t just presented as an end to the Rebuilds, but as a capstone on all of Evangelion. With that in mind, it’s impossible to fully address the film without getting into major spoilers for the ending, as well as all the previous movies and the series itself, so be warned going forward.
Thrice Upon a Time begins right where 3.0 left off, with Shinji, Asuka, and Rei stranded on their own after the aborted Fourth Impact, and Shinji borderline catatonic after all the trauma he went through. They’re found by a group of survivors, including Shinji’s old friends Toji and Kensuke. This sets the stage for the first third of the film, with the three Eva pilots getting a chance to live ordinary lives for once. No mechs, no Angel attacks, no manipulations, just living life like regular kids. What’s more, they’re surrounded by functional, caring adults for the first time. Kensuke, Toji, and the other villagers aren’t looking to get anything out of the kids or absorbed in their own issues. They’re just kind people who want to help.
This segment of the film is striking in its simplicity. Shinji, Asuka, and Rei have never had that kind of life before, and even though we know as viewers it can’t last, it’s hard not to wish it could. Even Shinji slowly begins to open up, confront his issues, and really begin to move forward as a person, while Rei slowly begins to form an identity of her own. Asuka, on the other hand, is a somewhat different story.
Though she still looks like a teenager, this Asuka’s 14 years older than the one we knew before, and it shows. She retains her sharp tongue and temper but also has a new sense of perspective and self-understanding. When she yells at Shinji and berates him for giving up, she’s also insightful enough to see why he ended up like that, and why it makes her so angry. It’s a stark departure from the arrogant teen she once was, and adds an extra layer to the dynamic between the three.
Of course, their moment of peace does have to end, and once it does, we’re thrust right back into the conflict between WILLE and NERV. This is the weakest part of the film since the sci-fi aspects of the plot are mostly incomprehensible technobabble. It’s just enough to let the audience (mostly) follow along with what’s happening and give context to the character beats, but not particularly rewarding on its own. And then it goes full End of Evangelion.
[spoilers for the ending from here on, skip to the In Summary section if you haven’t seen it yet]
Thrice Upon a Time’s climax features the same type of surreal apocalyptic imagery the End of Evangelion is known for, and it’s just as striking as it ever was. The parallels are obvious, and clearly intentional. This is the End of Evangelion with one key difference: this Shinji has had time to be around people who genuinely care for him without reserve, and time to heal after all his trauma. This Shinji is ready to get in the Eva and confront Gendo. And confront him he does, although not in the way you’d expect. Evangelion’s always been a story about connecting with others, so it’s fitting that Shinji’s climactic battle with Gendo turns into a conversation, the first real conversation the two have ever had. For the first time, we get to see who Gendo is as a person, and just how similar he is to Shinji. The film never makes excuses for all the harm he did, only asks for empathy and understanding for what led him to that point. And after all that, Shinji listens and finally connects with his father. It’s a catharsis he was always denied before and is incredibly satisfying after all these years of seeing them butt heads.
In the end, Thrice Upon a Time proves that not only is it possible to advance, but it’s also healthy to do so. Only by creating a world without the Evas are the pilots allowed to finally grow up. If the End of Evangelion concludes with a message of faint hope, Thrice Upon a Time concludes with a firm statement: things will get better, you can grow and change, build connections with others, and ultimately be happy. It’s a conversation with the End of Evangelion and is only possible with nearly 25 years of perspective on its predecessors.
Is Thrice Upon a Time a perfect film? No. Some plot points are under-explained, the CGI can often be awkward, and it never quite gives Mari the development she needs. But Evangelion has never been perfect. It’s always been a flawed and messy story that brims with ambition. It’s this aspect that spoke to so many when the series first aired, and has continued to speak to people in the decades since. It won’t satisfy everyone, but for my money, it’s hard to imagine Evangelion ending any other way. If this really is the last mainline Evangelion work, it’s a worthy ending.