By its conclusion, Eva touches on sense of self, the very concept of personal identity, the importance of individuality, the nature of the soul, the evolution of humanity, the quest for parental acceptance, teenage sexual awakening, the evaluation of self-worth, complex psychoanalysis of one's actions, and the personal apocalypse.
Also, there are giant robots.
So, the year is 2015. The place is Tokyo-3. It's been fifteen years since Second Impact, a catastrophe that resulted in the elimination of half the Earth's population. And now, immense, alien-like creatures—known as Angels—have begun attacking. Conventional weapons have proved ineffectual. The only way to defeat them is with the aforementioned giant robots—known as Eva—which are piloted by carefully selected fourteen-year-olds, the only people able to properly synch up with the machines and control them.
You may already have questions! What was Second Impact? For that matter, what was First Impact? What are the Angels? Why are they attacking? What are the Eva? Well...don't expect answers to those questions for a while! Or possibly ever, unless you dig through Wikipedia or pay very very close attention to everything (an actual paraphrased quote from Emily, emphasis mine: "This is making a lot more sense the fourth time around.").
Eva focuses on Shinji Ikari, a sad sack of a kid who gets roped into the giant robot biz because his dad just happens to be head of NERV, the underground (literally) organization in charge of the Eva. Much of the series is about his experience piloting an Eva, how he wrestles with having to commit so much violence in the name of defending the world and how he must accept his duty. It also seems to be about making Shinji scream as much as possible. The Japanese voice actor does a really good scream.
In Misato Katsuragi, however, we have a more appealing protagonist, and not just visually (she has dark blue hair and resembles one of my first animated crushes, Eliza Maza from Gargoyles). Misato, operations director at NERV, is pretty damn awesome. She's the one always coming up with impossible plans that have a 0.000000001% chance of success. Shinji has to live with her, and he finds out what Misato-at-home is very, very different from Misato-at-work. It threw me at first to see such an obviously competent woman being all nutty and drinking beer for breakfast, but the character really grew on me until I saw that Eva was just as much her story as it was Shinji's. Later in the series, she becomes the audience surrogate by directly asking the questions we've been asking for many episodes. (And then finding out the answers, goddammit!!)
Rei Ayanami is an enigmatic blue-haired Eva pilot. Unlike Shinji, she's very certain about her role: she's a damn good pilot, and she will use that skill, even it means her own end. She acts really weird, though, and "What the fuck is up with Rei?" became a constant question of mine.
In contrast to everyone is Asuka Soryu, a boisterous German redhead who has found her purpose in life: kick ass and take names. Without the "take names" part. She's supercompetitive and feels threatened by anyone who's better than her. Unfortunately, both Rei and Shinji are kind of better than her.
What's impressive about the show is that despite the fact that there are a fucking lot of episodes that made me exclaim, "Again?!" the basic formula of Eva vs. Angel never gets stale because each Angel is different from the previous one and presents new problems and obstacles. In addition, new and terrible things can go wrong, not just on the technological side but on the character side, since these constant battles are really rough on our poor pilots, both physically and mentally.
A lot of the early episodes are like that, as we get to know our characters. There are hints of bigger things (and some of my larger questions continued not to be answered), but you don't really know what they mean. Then, about halfway through the series, there's an almost seismic shift, and shit gets hardcore. We start to learn more about what's going on, and we learn more about the pasts of some of the characters. And, I repeat: shit gets hardcore. It's some of the most intense and distressing stuff I've ever seen; it just hits you at your core (like Emily said, "It's not about making sense; it's about being affecting").
And then there's the ending, which is very controversial, as the combination of running out of money and the creator having a mental breakdown resulted in a finale that, while incredibly freaky, interesting, thought-provoking, and emotional, is unsatisfying as an end to the series, to say the least. If you imagined three billion ways episodes 25 and 26 could go, that would not be one of them. In order to get what I think was the intended ending, you have to watch End of Evangelion, which—despite being one of the weirdest things I have ever seen—works much better as an ending.
I should note that Eva sometimes appears as if it were edited by a crack-addled monkey. Scenes will abruptly cut to the next a half-second too early. Episodes will suddenly end on the TO BE CONTINUED card with no fanfare or warning at all, causing me to yell, "Oh, motherfuck!" And the editing in the finales is just psychotic. For an example, you only need watch the totally sweet opening credits, which contain seizure-inducing flashes of words like "ADAM" and "TOKYO-3" and my favorite, "ABSOLUTE TERROR FIELD." Now you'll have the theme song stuck in your head all day. Nyah.
Also, I was surprised by the somewhat-inconsistent tone at times. Because on the one hand, you have giant robots fighting terrifying behemoths in totally awesome battle sequences, and on the other, you have wacky antics in Misato's apartment...and a pet penguin (named Pen-Pen) for no apparent reason. I understand what comic relief is, but it felt like the lighter stuff didn't always fit. Not that I didn't welcome it after all the pain and agony and suffering.
Trying to recommend Eva is difficult because I went in knowing nothing but "giant robots, crazy ending," and I think that's probably the optimal experience, although I thankfully had Emily by my side to clarify things and tell me whether I was supposed to understand something yet. So I'm trying to be vague, since much of what makes Eva unique and interesting is that it steadfastly refuses to tell you what's going on; they don't waste time passing the Exposition Stick around. It's fun to be slightly confounded and attempt to put the pieces together.
What I found really fascinating about Eva was how very unexpected it was. It's very experimental in its storytelling style, sometimes jumping past important events and then flashing back later, showing you scenes it knows you can't possibly understand, delving deep into the characters' psyches, dropping hints here and there that only make sense later, etc. Because it never confines itself to something, it's free to do whatever it wants.
By its conclusion, Neon Genesis Evangelion went quite literally beyond my imagination. There's simply no other way to describe it. If that's not a convincing enough argument, I don't know what is.