Set in the alternate wold glimpsed in the final episodes of Evangelion, The Shinji Ikari Raising Project sets the cast in all new roles, with romantic entanglements and new mysteries to solve.
The series boils down to a romantic comedy/drama featuring the entire Evangelion cast in a world no longer on the brink of extinction. While purists may balk at the idea of a world without raging mecha fighting Angels and ultimately redefining the existence of mankind, many may also appreciate the opportunity to see their favourite characters lead less depressing lives - I guess it comes down to just what made you an EVA fan in the first place.
The changes are certainly plentiful. In this universe, Shinji and Asuka are childhood friends, brought together by their parents sharing late nights working in the lab. Although openly hostile, Asuka secretly has a crush on Shinji, which causes tension when his beautiful and shy relative Rei arrives on the scene. Cue jealousy, misunderstanding and angst.
For the manga's part, it certainly looks the part. Takahashi's lines are crisp and detailed, perfectly capturing the look and feel of the series (though the sight of Rei genuinely smiling may well cause some fans to implode in despair). The writing is equally charming, and the story reads pretty much like any other romantic high school comedy with vague sci-fi overtones.
This then is the dilemma. Everything that made EVA unique and compelling is completely absent from this book, and what we're left with is a serviceable, if bland, slice of teenage romance. That's not to say that there aren't some unsolved mysteries in these early books - both Shinji and Asuka's parents are working on a project for SEELE and Kaworu is under secret orders to interact with Shinji, all of which adds up to something sinister, but nothing quite as showstopping as the original series.
The books do come with some notable extras, with some comedy panels at the rear of the book alongside interviews and a letters page. It's quite an unusual assortment in any manga, and helps to give the series a sense of community. Other manga take note!
You don't have to be an EVA fan to appreciate this book, but it certainly helps. The references are all there if you look for them, and half the fun is seeing your favourite characters act in a whole new way, but as to whether this book will become a meaningful addition to the Evangelion library, or just cash-in fluff remains to be seen.