Neon Genesis Evangelion: Legend of the Piko Piko Middle School Students Volume 1 takes a classic cast of characters and places them in a setting that is both familiar and different from their original context. As with any reinterpretation of a beloved franchise, this manga begs the question: is it good?
Writer: Yushi Kawata
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
The premise behind this manga is an odd one. Shinji, Rei, Asuka, and Kaworu are still minors who have been recruited by NERV to pilot gigantic robots known as Evangelion. In this version of the franchise, however, there’s not much getting in the robot. Instead, the kids spend all their “training” time playing video games. The majority of this volume essentially takes the non-action aspects of Neon Genesis Evangelion and meshes them with video game references and meta commentary that is as varied in quality as it is bizarre. Think of it as the Eva pilots going through their domestic lives, with their life-or-death struggles replaced by increasingly absurd uses of shtick and fourth wall breaking.
This volume definitely has its good points. There is a lot of genuinely funny comedy derived from writer Yushi Kawata poking fun at how nonsensical his own plots are. The original Neon Genesis Evangelion anime was always very dramatic and spent a lot of time depicting the core characters’ traumas and emotional troubles. As such, it’s nice to see this manga make significant changes in tone and narrative structure. Kawata takes a memorable cast and shines an absurdist light on them, rather than subjecting them to heavy psychoanalysis.
The volume’s downfall is that the cast doesn’t receive much in the way of innovative characterization. While some of Kawata’s comedy is effective, a lot of it feels stale and predictable. This is due to characters frequently being shoehorned into the same archetypes that the fandom has often thrust upon them. While Kawata does deliver plenty of amusing jokes and moments for most of the characters, he also reduces each of them to a version of themselves that is largely akin to what one would find in memes based off of the show. Kawata does his best work in the volume when he is putting the characters through zany new experiences rather than repeating all too familiar gags about getting in robots or Kaworu’s affection for Shinji being creepy. It is also worth noting that not all of Kawata’s meta commentary is successful. There were times when I was reading the volume and wished the characters would inhabit their fictional world rather than endlessly comment on it.
Most of the art here is pretty good. The illustrator, Yukito, does a great job of matching the original anime’s style and making all the characters instantly recognizable. There are some moments where it isn’t visually clear what is happening, but for the most part Yukito does a solid job. The best part of this volume is probably its final three chapters, in which an Angel finally attacks and the pilots finally get to use their Eva units. After ten chapters of video game parodies that were too mixed in quality to really make up for not advancing the plot, it was nice to see some action finally taking place.
Ultimately, there’s a lot of potential here, and the creative team deserves praise. They deliver a lot of effective comedy, and the ending three chapters are especially good. The ending doesn’t make up for the slow beginning, however. The first ten chapters blurred together a lot with an over-reliance on predictable tropes and fourth wall breaking that sometimes felt more grating than amusing. Overall, this volume is worth picking up if you’re a hardcore Evangelion fan, but your mileage may vary if you aren’t already knowledgeable about the franchise.