Until recently my exposure to anime had consisted primarily of a satisfying addiction to anything Miyazaki. But then I learned of Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series written and directed by Hideaki Anno which spans 11 hours of television episodes and a concluding movie.

If Miyazaki’s work embodies classical art cinema à la Kurosawa, NGE comes off as a kind of mad dog masterpiece which strains so hard at its genre seams that it finally bursts into something entirely one of a kind. (Think Wagner making Saturday morning cartoons.)

NGE themes include rampant Christian symbolism, sex, opera, penguins, budget battles, gods, angels, robots, Nevada, domestic chores, death battles, clones, computers, mental illness, the United Nations, hubris, teen angst, global warming, bad parenting, motherly love, mushroom clouds, beer, Antarctica, spies, aliens, poetry, human extinction, crotch shots, Tokyos, origin myths, psychoanalysis, Beethoven, the Dead Sea scrolls, global conspiracies, existentialism, homosexuality, watermelons, and more, all set in a plot line as elliptical and labyrinthine as any novel you’ve ever tackled, and laced throughout with a pervasive underlying sadness.

Anno, who clearly knows his art house, created such a compelling pop series that when in the final episodes he abruptly took the story in a 720-degree left turn, the resulting viewer uproar included not just blistering criticism, but death threats. Hence the concluding feature film, End of Evangelion, which attempts to tie up various loose ends. See this one for the ending alone: a hallucinogenic apocalypse unmatched in the history of cinema.

If you’re willing to invest 12 hours in close-attention viewing — a task made considerably easier by the oft-beautiful imagery (Anno launched his career working for Miyazaki) — you’ll come out with a pretty good handle on how far anime can be pushed as an art form. The general consensus on the net is polarized between WTF and “the most moving story I’ve ever experienced”, which given the work is only to be expected.

The TV series and movie are available on Netflix, and can also be found (in bits and pieces) on YouTube.