To call Neon Genesis Evangelion one of the most successful animes of all time is hardly controversial. Enigmatic director Hideaki Anno’s career-defining tour de force ran from 1995 to 1996, but those original 26 episodes were destined to not stand alone.
We’ve seen spin-offs with their own spin-offs; enough merchandise to clothe a country for an intemperate winter; a dedicated Pachinko gaming system; over 8 billion USD grossed under its franchise umbrella. A cultural object has become a culture itself.
As is the way with animated undertakings, especially those by a ground-up founded studio like Gainax, any attempt to bequeath an individual auteur the pedestal of credit risks misattribution. Anno, prolific filmmaker and storyteller though he is, made Evangeleon with a team of talented animators, producers, writers, brainstormers, coffee-getters, etcetera. It’s an intensely collaborative medium, animation, a fact that aggrandizing figureheads obscures.
That said, there is a member of the NGE team whose particular work on the series and subsequent work for the franchise bears some acknowledgement: artist and Gainax co-founder Yoshiyuki Sadamoto.
Sadamoto’s official designation on the original NGE production was the head of character design. He did Story and Art for the NGE Manga and worked on the subsequent NGE movie spin-offs and rehashes. The credits are numerous and not always specific enough to be more than vaguely informative.
There are few reasons why, general predisposition against individual eulogization aside, this particular eulogy feels earned. Character design is a hugely pivotal job in an anime - something especially true of NGE. Much of the thematic work NGE accomplishes is mirrored on the level of character appearance, making Sadamoto’s work a neat entry point into consideration of the anime’s famous subtext.
Additionally, Rei, a character Sadamoto took almost paternal care in developing and designing, embodies one of NGE’s lasting imprints on character design generally. And Sadamoto's skill was top-tier. Take it from his contemporary Yasuo Otsuka, who named Sadamoto as one of only three people whose skill exceeded Otsuka’s own.
This skill is undoubtedly part of what landed Sadamoto in charge of story and art for the NGE manga. Intended originally as a promotional supplement to the series, the Manga counterpart both preceded and outlived its supposed primary, spanning two decades from 1994 to 2014.
The story differs marginally in content from the animated serial, but Sadamoto described the tone difference in a 1996 interview: “I think the anime is...I can't say cuter. But it has the feel of an honors student. The manga is a little more twisted...the feeling of a flunk-out.”
Depravity of content aside, the characters are essentially identical in appearance across the media. This is true of Sadamoto’s other work as well. From the 2-D drawn technique of the original animation and Manga, to a hybridized digital style of later movies, Sadamoto’s characters recur, polished, sure, but fundamentally the same. In this sense, Sadamoto’s character work for NGE is crossmodal.
Full appreciation of Sadamoto’s work in NGE requests, or perhaps even requires, one to first grasp the importance of the show itself. The original airing’s societal backdrop was a Japan in economic crisis - one acutely felt by the animation industry, which was at that point defined by heavy reliance on source material and commercially inhospitable to artistic innovation and risk-taking. As the century turned, however, the industry exploded, morphed, diversified.
Obviously, one show didn’t single handedly revitalize the animated serial in Japan, but NGE’s role in the redemption arc wasn’t insignificant. Cultural critics and academics the likes of Tim Hornyak, Andrea Fontana, and Davide Tarò have pointed to NGE’s impact in terms of expanding the medium's reach, capturing international youth attention, and repositioning anime within Japan’s cultural and artistic hierarchy.
This legacy is tied up in the rise of the Otaku market for anime in Japan. Prior to NGE, Otaku (literally meaning one with an increased perception of sight, but more generally used to reference scrutable anime fanatics who bring a critical, technique-forward eye to viewership) anime was typically thought to appeal to a shallow, young to middle aged Japanese male demographic.
Thomas Lamarre’s 2009 book The Anime Machine analyzes this cultural relationship in depth, pointing out that an emphasis on technique, process, and technology were core tenants of early Otaku style, which represented a turn away from the Disney inspired art-animation of companies like Studio Ghibli. Gainax’s ventures became in some ways a litmus test for the commercial viability of the new market, one it passed.
Cultural and commercial success, yes, but not even just those. NGE succeeded on the level of the televised anime medium, the giant mecha genre, and artistry, both narrative and aesthetic.
You get it.
Re-enter: Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Sadamoto’s work in the original NGE anime run was confined mostly to character design, and is thus primarily concerned with the human form.
This likely sat well with Sadamoto, who has expressed anxiety about overstepping his artistic limits. “In general, I don’t want to draw something that I have to study further in order to draw,” Sadamoto confessed in a 2013 interview. “I could not draw a medical manga because it’s impossible for me to make a lie about medicine.”
This desire for truth in image was reflected in the larger industry at the time. The prevailing character design of the mid 90s placed an emphasis on realism and anatomical accuracy. In some ways, NGE conformed to these trends - some of the proportions (eyes, head size, certain glandular apparati) strain the credulity a bit, but the style wasn’t of the hyper-Moe, blimped-pupils tradition that was soon to become commonplace.
But Sadamoto eschewed hyper-real detail in favor of more general forms in many of his characters. Central protagonists like Shinji and Misato are relatively muted, harsh anatomical realism cast aside in favor of something else.
Sadamoto said he “designed the characters so that their personalities could be more or less understood at a glance.” And as Lamarre points out in The Anime Machine, this goes beyond just color and hair - affectation, posture and stylization all becomes sites of character inscription.
Sadamoto’s sacrificing pure anatomical detail allowed space for more semiotic experimentation. Sadamoto’s designs are characterizing in and of themselves.
The discursive relationship between character design and character nature, even plot, is a common thread in animation. There are many relevant dimensions: costume, accessory, color, and line shape.
Digital artist Tato, for instance, has an excellent breakdown of Overwatch character design, boiling each character into one of three shapes (square circle or triangle) or some combination of them. Shape reflects the sensibilities of character, and can foreshadow plot. Sadamoto’s work, then, serves a function that hyper-real design struggles with.
Lack of brute detail doesn’t prevent Sadamoto’s characters from being distinct. Color and costume factor heavily into this success. Take Misato, for instance. Sadamoto envisioned her as a sort of military girl next door. The paradox was intentional.
Internal contradiction is mirrored in her character design - while working Misato wears a jacket that makes her torso blocky and solid, and from certain angles her head shape and hair offer similarly sturdy shape lines.
But this implied dependability is fleeting. At home Misato wears sparser clothes that reveal more angular body features. Her face shape, seen from above, tapers off into an angular bottom. These vacillations of character design mimic Misato’s emotional, narrative, and psychological vicissitudes within the series. Misato’s contradictory design becomes a microcosm of her character.
We can also contrast Misato’s vibrant color scheme in hair and costume of the more muted scheme of her coworker and best friend, Ritusko. Ritsuko also wears a blockier work uniform, but unlike Misato’s red jacket, Ritsukos is a muted white, and one we almost never see her without. This belies her commitment to her work, and ultimately, the level to which she is ingrained in the NERV apparatus itself.
Shinji is another instance of Sadamoto’s form becoming content. NGE’s main protagonist is a vision of the ordinary. Dark eyes, average length brown hair, pale complexion, uninspiring white button up. His face in round, its angles soft. Not only is he indecisive, but intermittent periods of despondency leave him ever on the edge of heroism. As Sadamoto put it, Shinji isn’t a “reflection” of a hero, but a “refraction” of one.
Shinji is a personification of the tabula rasa of adolescence - an innocence stolen from him when he steps into the complexly detailed mech suit. Shinji’s ectomorphism is still on display, but it’s primed to be plugged into something more, and when he steps into the entry plug, as his surroundings darken, as he grasps the console and appropriates a power beyond, something changes in his face. Eyes narrow, shadows increase, angles define.
It is in these moments that Shinji looks most like his father, Gendo. Gendo’s design is angular, detailed, ever enigmatic behind glasses that only periodically afford view of his eyes. The hyper masculine style of drawing the male form is displaced from our hero, and slapped on our villain.
Rei and Asuka present another useful juxtaposition. Both protagonist characters pilot Evas into battle against the Angles, where divergent design in regards to color and shape, even just on the level of hair, is immensely consequential.
Where Asuka’s florid red hair exhibits a blocky durability and her ambiguously dark eyes a certain gravitational reliability, Rei’s pale blue hair hangs loosely, splitting and at times obscuring a pair of burning red eyes. Rei’s versatile design allows a range of actions to appear germane to her character, which, as you know if you’ve seen NGE, is vitally important to narrative on the plot level.
The significance of Sadamoto’s work on Rei’s design extends beyond the confines of the show. Rei is largely regarded today as catalyzing a paradigm - shift in the cultivation of Moe in character.
Moe, a slang term used to denote a certain proclivity for animated characters appearing in media, has been a driving force in the development of anime character design.
Cultural critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma argued that Rei “changed the rules” of eliciting Moe in viewers. Her pale complexion, blue hair, near perpetual state of injury, and withdrawn persona have been mimicked in Moe characters ever since.
In this sense, Sadamoto wasn’t just practicing good character design with Rei. He was altering the symbolic structure of animation itself. Rei became an entry on the new logic of making a Moe character.
Apart from juxtaposing character types, Sadamoto utilizes character design to erect a thematic and conceptual schism as well. This is particularly acute on the level of gender and family roles. Gendo’s design, for instance, subverts the archetype of the protective paternal, and forces us to question centralization of power in male hands.
There’s also a remarkable moment in NGE where characters are literally deconstructed, walked back in the animation process from their polished product to their original sketches, and then pieced back together again.
Here, Sadamoto’s work becomes the ultimate Otaku product - a deconstruction of technique and technology that the viewer watches as part of the narrative itself. It’s the esoteric made forcibly primary.
All of this to say: Sadamoto’s work in NGE is as important as any plot twist or undertone. The coherance of symbol and theme on the level of character is part of what makes NGE the masterwork we remember. It doesn't draw attention to itself, but when that attention is given, its accomplishment is obvious.
If you’re interested in seeing more of Sadamoto’s work, he has a few recent projects available for streaming. He’s doing character design for The Great Pretender, which is on Netflix, for instance. You can find a full listing of his credits on animenewnetwork.com, and watch the original NGE series, as well as several related movies, on Netflix.