You Can (Not) Undo: On Hikaru Utada's Songs for the Evangelion Rebuild Series
A look back into the icon's contribution's for the anime film series and how they now tell a complete story of its own
This feature is part of This Side of Japan issue #40. You can return to the main newsletter here.
Like its associated film, “One Last Kiss” starts with a recap to explain all that had transpired in the life of Hikaru Utada. “There was no such thing / as my first Louvre / I already met / my first Mona Lisa,” the awe-struck singer begins in the theme song for Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time. “The wheels started to turn / the day I first saw you / A premonition for loss that I couldn’t stop.” While her reminiscences provide a beautiful distraction, she ultimately can’t escape her fate where she must inevitably face the end.
The story of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the Rebuild movies looked more extravagant than its TV counterpart, revealing far grimmer scenarios over the course of four films made in the span of 14 years. But all of the new developments in the story couldn’t distract the series from leading to the same conclusion as the original—the end—and we, the audience, have to come to terms that it is now complete. “Shinji Ikari is a truly hopeless protagonist who seems to be cursed to play out his own undoing for all eternity in different realities from now until the end of time,” Willow Catelyn Maclay wrote on Mubi in 2019 about the three Rebuild movies. “It is Shinji Ikari’s fate to bear witness to the end of everything, and it is Hideaki Anno’s to tell this story again and again.”
Appropriate, then, for Utada to also be in the mood to look back for the final song in the Rebuild series. After a clean break, the singer reflects what she once had using her head as she does her heart—a privilege only earned when the experience sits at a far enough distance in hindsight. The production glows more muted and subdued perhaps than what one would imagine from a song in collaboration with A.G. Cook, but the idyllic prettiness befits the sober head space of Utada. She now resides at a place on the other side of the aftermath where she can confidently sing “I love you more than you’ll ever know” as an easy-to-hum refrain but also as an obvious truth.
Utada’s songs for the four Rebuild films now also stand as a complete series of sorts with the last film finally out, telling their own story of loss sometimes parallel to their attached films. The songs, too, are in conversation with one another, making sense of familiar catastrophes while haunted by the same ghosts. While the unwavering perspective of “One Last Kiss” is admirable on its own, it resonates more powerfully after witnessing Utada’s decade-long journey to settle on such steady ground.
Utada’s sense of peace and emotional clarity in “One Last Kiss” is already well-earned following a starker, more obvious process of grief. “Sakura Nagashi” from Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo finds the singer during the immediate stage of loss. And while the song also relies on reminiscences to bandage the pain like “One Last Kiss,” here the barren present is too imposing for memories to offer a sweet distraction. “I can’t believe it that I can’t see you ever again,” she cries out during the song’s guitar-squealing peak. “I haven’t told you anything yet.” So much is left unfinished while the world moves along without a care.
“One Last Kiss” by Hikaru Utada
“Sakura Nagashi” is accompanied by the most forlorn ballad arrangement out of the three singles. While the other songs for the Rebuild films glowed with a warm, synth-led pulse, “Sakura Nagashi” is devoid of much besides Utada on an upright piano. The somber music befits a film that brought the harshest upset and destruction. During the first half of You Can (Not) Redo, Shinji Ikari bears witness to the irreversible damage he has brought to the world. He’s also shaken by the present timeline with once-familiar peers who he can no longer recognize. The first act is especially disorienting to reflect the perspective of Shinji, who can only cling on to the good things he once knew to keep moving forward.
After seeing the tragedy unfold in the later songs, it’s bittersweet returning to the fresh, wide-eyed perspective of “Beautiful World,” written when the Rebuild movies after Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone were yet to be made. The weightless R&B production sounds free from much of the burden plaguing the other two songs. Taken by its face, a lyric like “if I can have one wish / let me sleep next to you, it doesn’t matter where” sounds like a tender request in a soft teen-pop song and not one dedicated to a violent doomsday tale. The brooding concepts had yet to be in motion in the background of the songs, and deep loss had yet to color the lyrics into something more devastating and rooted in reality.
So when Utada revisits “Beautiful World” for Thrice Upon a Time, it adds new, powerful meanings to the old record. Titled the Da Capo version, the re-recording of the song for the first Rebuild film was commissioned to fill more time during the end credits roll. But Utada was also into the idea conceptually since the act of creating new material by revisiting the past lies at the core of the Rebuild movies.
As if inspired by You Can (Not) Redo, the new somber arrangement of the Da Capo version suggests the cruel effects of time with it containing hardly any traces of the original’s synth beats. The titular refrain arises from the void specter-like, and the rest of it floats as if in a vacuum. But while it sounds like a ghost of its former self, Utada holds as much faith, if not more in the future as she did almost 15 years ago. The original may have benefited in retrospect from her finding bliss in ignorance in the outcomes of both the beautiful world and the beautiful boy over the course of the series. But she sings here with reassured conviction, her wishes still echoing with optimism despite all she has experienced. “It’s only love,” she nonchalantly sighs, like of course she believes—it’s what unconditional love is about.
Fourteen years later, Utada isn’t free from the catastrophe of her past in “One Last Kiss” despite the rich perspectives gained. But her memories from the events now are less haunting ghosts than precious treasures to remind herself of all the good that existed. She knows she can’t undo all that already happened, knowing the story will reach the same conclusion no matter what. But it only inspires her to tell her own satisfied version of her story of love and loss. “Can you give me one last kiss / let’s have a kiss that’ll make us burn,” Utada asks in the chorus. She rewrites the end in a way she’d like to remember it. If she’s not pleased, she can always rebuild from scratch.
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