Let’s Take A Look At: Neon Genesis Evangelion
(Originally posted on my Quora blog.)
I’m a relative newcomer to the medium of anime. As someone appreciative of a number of arts, however, I found that I had been wholly missing out. At the same time, I’m at a point in my life where the many themes and symbolisms of anime become easier to spot and appreciate, and that itself perhaps excuses my lateness.
At the same time, I embrace the “better late than never” philosophy, so let’s move on. My introduction to anime began earlier this year (yeah I wasn’t kidding when I said newcomer), with a self-imposed but recommended marathon of Attack on Titan.
It goes without saying that Attack on Titan colored me impressed. It opened me up to the vast potential of the anime genre in general, and the beautiful amalgamation of mature themes and imagery with the freedom of animation. From what I’ve seen today, it definitely isn’t the best anime in the world, but it did a good job of selling me into this strange Japanophilic occult, filled with fellow obsessed weeaboos and their individual waifus. All of which are shit, by the way. Except Satsuki Kiryuin.
In all seriousness though, emotion and themes compose what set animation apart from other works of art. Video games are limited by their game engine capacities, movies are limited by actors – but animation has no limitation when it comes to visually creating whatever needs to be created.
Japanese animation has a knack for being more mature, which also owes to the fact that the Japanese animation industry has a higher number of adolescent and adult viewers than the Western animation industry, and its less monopolized by incredibly large studios hellbent on making animation almost solely for children.
I continued to watch anime, meeting characters like the Internet’s favorite yandere, Yuno Gasai, and the perceived epitome of masculinity, Lord Kaminahimself.
(Look up Kamina on UrbanDictionary, you won’t be disappointed.)
All throughout this, I’ve been expressing my enthusiasm and veritable hype to my friends, who I feel are simply looking at me, muttering to themselves:“Isn’t he embarrassingly adorable. Oh look. He’s just finished School Days. Heh. Heheh.”
Moving on: I attempt to, in these essays, use my own words and viewing experience to list the themes, detail the plot, and analyze the characters of various works of art – anime perhaps chiefly among them.
My first exhibit in this case will be Neon Genesis Evangelion. I most likely will not stick to a structure in writing any of my essays, and the way their contents will be displayed will depend highly upon my immersion in the anime and how I feel about it.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Neon Genesis Evangelion but plan to, do not read this. If you do plan to, then watch it and read this afterwards. If you’re confused or have questions, most of them would be answered here, although a few may remain unincluded in this or were simply designed to be open to viewer interpretation.
In October of 1995, GAINAX Studios and Hideaki Anno presented Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shin Seiki Evangerion in Japanese, lit. Gospel of a New Century). The show, a science-fiction mecha genre shounen anime (meaning the show had big robots and was written with pre-adolescent boys in mind) aired in the children’s timeslot of Fuji/ Tokyo TV and went on to become one of the most influential pieces of work released in the anime world to date.
(Is Gendo… Smiling?)
The show’s premise is pretty simple – Earth is plagued by seemingly intelligent giant aliens called Angels that are unharmed by conventional weapons (even tanking what seemed to be a nuclear bomb), and in response, NERV, a shadowy organization claiming to be under the UN, has developed anti-Angel mechs called Evangelions. These Evangelions are stored within Tokyo-3, a fortress city built to serve as a battleground against the Angels, and home to the underground cavern that is the headquarters of NERV.
Pivotal to NGE is character complexity, which it indulges in regularly, and the show is heavy with themes of religion, as it takes elements from Christianity, Judaism, Shintoism and even Kabbalah.
That, coupled with the heavily psychologically damaged cast is a direct result of director and writer Hideaki Anno’s 4-year depression while preparing the show (his previous project had failed, and he was at a point in his life where he failed to see “the point”) – he himself stated that he wanted to use the show as a vehicle for children to be introduced to the harshness of reality, using his own insecurities and self-psychoanalysis as a blueprint for much of the show’s deeper themes and characters.
On that note, he went on to say: “The development of Evangelion gives me the feeling of a ‘Live’ concert. Whether it was the story or the character development, I made them without theory. During the development, while listening to various opinions, and analyzing my own state of mind, I kept questioning myself. I got the concepts from this self-assessment. At first, I thought I was producing a simple work featuring robots.”
Anno’s depression and self-doubt plagued him as he contemplated the show’s plot. Its important to understand this, as it helps explain and even appreciate the story so much more. The show becomes increasingly dark as it wears on, to the point where the last two episodes completely stop trying to tell a story, and are spent simply psychoanalyzing the main character and the two women who influenced him most throughout the events of the show, as he is trapped within his own mind and is brought under the influence of Human Instrumentality (explained later).
(A pretty good depiction of what Evangelion will do to you.)
These last two episodes, ending with a positive message of self-acceptance for all and any suffering depression, and an epiphany of sorts from Anno himself, gave way to much criticism and controversy (and relentless amounts of hate) due to the complete abandonment of the plot. Thus, two movies – “Death and Rebirth”, and “The End of Evangelion” – were released by GAINAX to replace the last 3 episodes of the 26 episode anime and provide a more satisfying ending.
They also symbolize the importance of characters in the show. Neon Genesis Evangelion, as it moves along, increasingly puts its focus on the characters of the show, who, despite existing in such a sci-fi premise, are portrayed so realistically and possess such complexity that they’re ultimately what make the show. The last two episodes embrace that, in mostly doing away with the plot and setting and condensing everything down to the most uncomfortable, impressive and polarizing part of the entire show.
For those confused towards the story’s plot, or those who simply don’t want to watch the show but want to know what happens, here’s a concrete summary of the events of the anime – a recap of sorts, in case you’ve missed any details.
– WARNING – If you haven’t stopped reading for some reason, but don’t want to be spoiled further, don’t read through this section.
NERV’s Evangelion project is revealed to be part of a Human Instrumentality Project spearheaded by a group of powerful individuals called Seele (which happens to be German for Soul). It’s revealed late in the show that the cataclysmic explosion in the year 2000 that completely eviscerated Antarctica (called Second Impact) was the result of Seele’s scientific brainchild, Gehirn (German for brain) experimenting with the newly discovered Adam – a dormant primordial alien being discovered in a cavern underneath Antarctica.
(This is actually from the Rebuild series, and depicts a meteor – the cover story of Second Impact – but you get the point.)
Adam is woken up during an expedition to Antarctica by one Dr. Katsuragi, when Gehirn uses the bident Spear of Longinus discovered at its side, causing the generation of a massive anti-AT field, destabilizing all life in the area and turning the continent Antarctica into a massive red sea. The survivors of the event are Gendo Ikari, a young researcher involved in the project who was out of Antarctica at the time, and Misato Katsuragi, daughter of the lead scientist in the project, who died protecting her.
Gehirn is dissolved and from it is born NERV, who take a now embryonic Adam from Antarctica. With Adam came an alien scroll (the Dead Sea Scrolls) that predicts the arrival of his 15 children: the “Angels”, and that the defeat of the Angels would begin the Third Impact – an event of accelerated evolution for mankind. At this point, a massive cavern underneath Tokyo-3 (warranting its construction) reveals the existence of another primordial alien being and the progenitor of all life on Earth – Lilith. Since its arrival, Lilith has been leaking a liquid dubbed L.C.L. – the primordial soup of life.
(Lilith underneath the Geofront, leaking the orange L.C.L.)
Adam and Lilith individually landed on Earth through an alien dispersal system – Adam, arriving in a White Moon, was sent to create the Angels, while Lilith, in her Black Moon was sent to create normal life and, in Earth’s case, mankind. However, only one “egg” is supposed to land on a planet. Adam landed on Antarctica, yet Lilith collided with the Moon and landed on Earth as well. To keep from both being on the same planet (as the combination of Lilith and Adam would begin the accelerated evolution of any one race), Adam locked himself into sleep with his Spear of Longinus.
Using Lilith and the now-embryonic Adam as research material, NERV began creating the Evangelions in an attempt to create a vessel for mankind’s souls on Third Impact, and find a way to combat the Angels on equal terms. To control the Evangelions, they were bound in armor plates that would interface with their nerves, and using L.C.L. as a medium, suitable individuals born after Second Impact could interface with the Evangelions and pilot them to defeat the Angels. However, lacking the unexplained S2 Engine that all other Angels possess as their energy source, Evangelions need to be powered at all times – that is, until Episode 19, when Unit 01 goes berserk once more and devours an Angel, absorbing its S2 Engine.
Episode 01 begins in 2015, with Shinji Ikari seeing an apparition of Rei Ayanami, a character introduced later in the episode. Shinji had been summoned to the newly constructed Tokyo-3 by his father, and is waiting for his escort. As the city is attacked by an Angel, the first since Second Impact back in 2000, Shinji meets Misato Katsuragi, now NERV’s Operations Manager, and later in the underground NERV facility (the Geofront, a massive underground facility built in the cavern of Lilith), Dr. Ritsuko Akagi(daughter to Naoko Akagi, the creator of the MAGI supercomputer system that aids and controls NERV, and Gendo’s lover after his wife’s death), both of whom are in charge of the Evangelion Project together with Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari, and the Vice-Commander of NERV, former-Professor Kozo Fuyutsuki. Evangelion Unit 01, whom Shinji is compelled to pilot after a confronting talk with his father, defeats the Angel, although to do so required it go berserk after Shinji was easily beaten without any experience. He is afterwards slowly introduced to his new life in Tokyo-3. Misato appoints herself as guardian of Shinji in Gendo’s stead.
In the second battle against the next Angel, Shinji manages to, against orders of retreat, defeat the Angel – although the mental trauma and pain of piloting Eva causes him to momentarily run away, only to return after a confrontation with Misato. Shinji meets and tries to befriend the cold Rei, who’s damagedEvangelion Unit 00 was finally repaired, but fails to do so due to her unaccommodating personality. At this point, the third pilot is revealed – Asuka Langley Soryu, the polar opposite of Shinji’s shy, modest and timid self. She arrives with Unit 02 from Germany, and proceeds to live with Misato and Shinji to her great disapproval.
(Don’t let that wink fool ya, mate.)
Shinji’s classmate and friend is chosen to pilot Unit 03, but loses control, and Unit 03 becomes an Angel. Shinji, unbeknownst that his friend is piloting the Eva, is ordered to kill it, but hesitates due to the possibility of the pilot still being inside. As Unit 03 is choking Unit 01 (and thereby Shinji, who’s nerves and muscles are synchronized with his Eva unit), Gendo switches control over from Shinji to a Dummy Plug System, which brutally murders Unit 03 and destroys the pilot’s Entry Plug as Shinji cries out in anger. The pilot survives, although barely, and upon seeing who it was, Shinji rebels against his father by quitting his position as an Eva pilot. His return is forced, however, when an Angel defeats both Rei and Asuka and threatens to destroy the Geofront and Tokyo-3. In the resulting battle, Eva 01 loses power, yet awakens as Shinji pleads with it – and in his efforts to get it to move, Shinji’s soul is absorbed into the Eva, leaving behind his plug suit. Evangelion Unit 01 then proceeds to devour the Angel and absorb its S2 Engine. He contemplates why he decides to pilot the Eva 01, and his relationship with his mother and father, and eventually returns, fully constituted to his human body, through Eva 01’s core.
Asuka, deeply shamed by Shinji’s defeat of the Angel that beat her, goes into a depression as an Angel shows up and attacks – Unit 00 intercepts the Angel, and as Unit 01 falls to it, Rei self-destructs to destroy the Angel and save Shinji. She appears, however, injured but alive in the hospital later that episode, and its revealed soon afterwards that Rei is a mass-produced clone of Shinji’s mother, used for the creation of Dummy Plugs. During this revelation, Ritsuko Akagi, in revenge towards Gendo, who used both her and her mother, and drove her mother to suicide, destroys the system in front of Misato and Shinji. NERV incarcerates her afterwards.
(Timeout, Dr. Akagi.)
Kaji Ryoji, Misato’s ex-boyfriend and a double agent at NERV working for the government is killed. He happened to be a point of fixation for Asuka, who in her attempts to rise above her child self and seek maturity and attention as an adult became attracted to Kaji, her momentary guardian while on the way to Japan. His death coupled with her previous humiliation by the “idiotic Shinji” and the resurfacing of her memories of her dead mother lead her to fall into a catatonic state of depression and self-loathing.
After the battle with the 16th and penultimate Angel, Shinji visits the shore of a wrecked Tokyo-3 after the evacuation of most of its citizens including his friends, and is contemplating recent events, when he meets Kaworu Nagisa, Seele’s replacement pilot for Asuka. Shinji very quickly befriends Kaworu and feels drawn to him, revealing things about himself he only now is realizing. Unbeknownst to him, Kaworu is in fact the 17th Angel, and after a brief battle in the innermost part of the Geofront that contains Lilith itself, Kaworu permits Shinji to kill him, stating that it is “the only way he can save humanity”. Following this is a famous still image scene of Unit 01 holding Kaworu, with a rendition of Ode to Joy playing in the background as Shinji prepares to crush his newfound friend for “humanity’s sake”.
(I hope you like Beethoven.)
This is where the anime diverts into two separate endings. The first one, showcased in the original series, immediately follows after Shinji kills Kaworu. The series deviates from showing what happens next in the world, and instead spends the last two episodes interrogating and psychoanalyzing the main cast in light of the events of the anime and their past. The series then ends off with Shinji having an epiphany of self-worth, and breaking through his negativity and self-hatred with the promise of a possibility of self-acceptance in the future.
In realizing this, the main cast gathers around Shinji and congratulates him upon his recovery from depression, indicating Anno’s self-insertion in the cast, while revealing over the course of the last two episodes that Kaworu’s death triggered the Human Instrumentality Project and caused all of mankind to ascent to a state of collective consciousness beyond the physical realm. It explores the issues of characters like Asuka, Rei and Misato, and spends most of its time on Shinji and his opinion of mankind, of fear, of loneliness, and the realization of Human Complementation– the concept that every single one of us possesses an inherent fear, an inherent unfillable void, and that we need each other to fill those voids and help each other find that ultimate fleeting emotion of happiness.
However, this ending leaves, many, many loose ends. In reply to the hate it received, Anno released a movie to replace the last two episodes – a movie aptly titled The End of Evangelion.
This alternate ending begins with Shinji, broken over having killed Kaworu, approaching a catatonic Asuka on her hospital bed, begging and pleading for her to come back and help him. In his desperation, he pulls her unconscious body to the side, accidentally undoing her hospital gown and exposing her breasts. He locks the door, masturbates, and stares at his ejaculate before kneeling by her bed and mumbling to himself: “I am so fucked up.”
That entire scene summarizes the mixture of emotions and conflicts between Shinji and Asuka. He’s quite naturally sexually attracted to her, and despite the fact that the two possess clashing personalities, coupled with Asuka’s constant emotional mutilation of Shinji’s self-worth, her own self-hatred and complete abjection to trusting others, her constant strive for independence and attention and Shinji’s fear of other people’s opinion and his longing for their affection, he’s incredibly lonely after killing Kaworu, his only friend, and seeing Asuka, the girl he’s been living with, reduced to an unresponsive state. The overwhelming sadness of being alone and the utter degradation of his self-worth causes Shinji to go into a similar state of depression immediately afterwards.
Meanwhile, Seele senses treachery from Gendo Ikari, and tries to infiltrate NERV by hacking into MAGI. Ritsuko is released from confinement to prevent the attack, and Seele retaliates by sending its military units to infiltrate Geofront, kill everyone, and capture Lilith, Adam and Evangelion Unit 01, which has ascended to a complete status of immortality with the devouring of an Angel’s S2 Engine in Episode 19. Misato orders Asuka to be taken from her bed, put in her Unit 02, and hid on the bed of a nearby lake to ensure her survival. She then scours through the facility for Shinji before the armed forces can find him and execute him. Getting the now unresponsive Shinji to the cage where Unit 01 is being held garners her a fatal wound in a hallway gunfight. Shinji, scared of hurting others, hating himself for what he’s done, vehemently opposes doing anything at all, yet Misato explains that everything he’s done, he’s done for a reason, and that instead of blaming it on having had no choice, he should live with the choices he’s made, and find out why he made them.
After a brief adult kiss, and a promise to “do the rest later”, she stuffs Shinji in the elevator leading to Unit 01, and collapses in her own blood, wondering in her last few moments whether Kaji would approve. Shinji, in the elevator, notices her blood on his hands, and begins to sob.
Asuka wakes to the feeling of Seele pounding the curled up Evangelion underwater with artillery, and in her helplessness, she hears her mother’s voice coming from inside Unit 02. The thought of being reunited with her dead mother rouses Asuka out of her depression, and she proceeds to make quick work of the armed forces positioned outside the Geofront. The battle goes well until Seele deploys its mass-produced Eva units, all of which are equipped with Kaworu’s thought patterns and an S2 Engine. Unit 02 incapacitates them although losing connection to her power source, causing it to shut down without managing to destroy the other Evas. They proceed to shred Unit 02 to pieces, pulling it apart and killing Asuka inside.
Meanwhile, Gendo, realizing that Seele’s overtaking is inevitable, leaves Fuyutsuki in charge and decides to speed things up by merging with Lilith. It’s revealed that he’s grafted the embryonic Adam to his right hand, and is using Rei in an effort to merge his soul with his wife’s, and be reunited with her. In a final moment of resistance, Ritsuko pulls a gun on Gendo and tries to self-destruct the Geofront with Lilith and the Evangelions and everyone, yet MAGI, Ritsuko’s mother, blocks the command in a final act of betrayal. Gendo then shoots Ritsuko, and begins the merging process – only to be rejected by Rei.
Leaving Gendo, who is anticipating his reunion with Yui through death, Rei, now imbued with Adam, prepares to merge with Lilith herself.
Shinji arrives at Unit 01’s cage, only to see that in the process of preventing Seele’s entry, the entire Evangelion was caked in bakelite. Despairing over his inability to do anything, Shinji suddenly notices Evangelion tear through the bakelite itself and invite Shinji for one last fight. Yet as Shinji ascends to the surface, he sees that the battle’s been lost and Asuka’s been killed. Confronted by the image of Asuka’s Unit 02 mangled into a grotesque figure, Shinji freezes in fear and horror, as the other Eva units proceed to begin Seele’s Third Impact ritual. At this point, a Rei and Adam-merged gigantic Lilith rises through the Geofront, somehow passing through all matter, and stands face to face to Shinji.
(Ladies and gentlemen, the face of insanity.)
Shinji, thoroughly broken at this point, screams in horror at Rei’s face, yet calms down considerably when Adam takes momentary control and Kaworu emerges from Lilith’s midpoint to speak to Shinji. Shinji and Eva 01, emotionally sedated, merge with Lilith, and the next scene is another internal deliberation as Shinji realizes his worthlessness, his hatred for others, and his hatred for himself. Convinced that he can’t find happiness, convinced that others cannot love him, he decides that no one should exist, including himself, essentially deciding to end humanity after a brief confrontation with the Asuka in his mind, which ends with him choking Asuka to death after she pushes him away, physically and emotionally. Lilith, in response, begins Third Impact by absorbing all of mankind’s souls into “the beginning and the end”, a massive red egg. People’s bodies turn to L.C.L. as their inherent AT fields are nullified, and their souls merge with Lilith as the egg once again becomes the Tree of Life and enters Lilith. Lilith’s anti-AT field then proceeds to turn the Earth inhabitable, turning the oceans red and the sky a dark crimson.
(And it all comes tumbling down, tumbling down.)
However, after further internal conflict, Shinji realizes the beauty in the normal world, and that life is meant to have both pain and joy, as much as it is meant to be lived with others. His sudden change of heart cancels Third Impact, and Unit 01 emerges through Lilith’s eye. After a final goodbye from Shinji’s mother within Unit 01, Shinji wakes up, manifested in his human form on a shore of a red ocean in a post-apocalyptic Earth. In the distance is seen Lilith’s head, who seemingly fell apart into pieces after Shinji canceled Third Impact.
Humanity’s souls dispersed over the earth, given the individual choice to either remain as they are now, or return to live on Earth once more. Shinji turns to see another apparition of Rei on the red sea, and notices Asuka beside him. For reasons debated and largely unknown, he begins to mount and choke Asuka, who, unlike the Asuka in Shinji’s mind, reassures him by caressing his face. Realizing his actions, he begins to cry as Asuka looks on, saying finally: “How disgusting.“, ending The End of Evangelion. The final line is explained to have originally been something along the lines of “I’d never be killed by the likes of you.”, yet Anno’s dissatisfaction with the line’s delivery ended with him simply asking what the voice actress would respond with if she discovered a man had snuck into her room at night and masturbated to her.
(“I want you to make me feel like I’m the only girl in the world.”)
That is the plot in its entirety. Now that we’re up to speed…
While Evangelion possesses a plot worthy of being praised, it excels at putting together a cast of genuinely crazy characters – these aren’t wacky or edgy characters, created for the sake of gore and variance – they’re emotionally damaged people, people that exist in real life, with real struggles and real problems – and the reality of Evangelion is what makes it so uncomfortable and absorbing. Despite the high octane science fiction with which it works, it manages to maintain a depressingly realistic cast of characters, each with their own complex problems. Misato has daddy issues, Asuka needs to confirm her maturity and existence through others, and Shinji fears being ignored and abandoned. Gendo is the ultimate hedgehog, claiming that people are better off when he doesn’t interact with them at all, and that his every action ends in someone getting hurt, and the Akagi mother-daughter duo feel betrayed and inadequate – with Naoko, Ritsuko’s mother, feeling inadequate as a lover to Gendo and as a mother to Ritsuko, snapping after a pre-adolescent Rei calls her a hag, and Ritsuko feeling betrayed by her mother and by Gendo “admiring her as a scientist, but hating her as a woman.”). Rei struggles to understand her purpose, her existence, and is plagued by a genuine apathy that makes her almost psychopathic in nature, given her existence as a clone and a tool in Gendo’s plans.
These real characters, existing in such a depressing apocalyptically-geared modern world set the real-yet-surreal tone that dominates Neon Genesis Evangelion and its alternate End of Evangelion.
Thematically, the biggest and most obvious themes in Evangelion are mythologies, the most obvious clue being the name of the show. Third Impact by Seele is described as the “evangelization of man”, and the entire show being the story of the assimilation of mankind into Lilith starting with the events of the Second Impact in the year 2000 reflect it as being the “Gospel of the New Century”. Adam and Lilith are, in a certain Jewish legend, the first two people on Earth. In a certain piece of lore, God created both man and woman equally and at the same time, yet Lilith would bicker with Adam and refuse to submit to him, leading to her outcast from the Garden of Eden and the creation of Eve (referenced through Evangelion) through Adam’s rib. The legitimacy of the story in Jewish lore is disputed, as some claim it to be anti-Jewish satire, although the medieval Jewish mystics accepted the legend. It’s theorized that the legend spawned due to the passage in the book of Genesis stating “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.”, suggesting both genders were created at once.
Another recurring symbol in Evangelion is the cross – although it may not specifically refer to Christianity, references to it seem heavily implied, with Misato’s cross necklace, a memento from her dead father, and Lilith’s crucified form throughout most of the anime. Another perhaps implied reference is the Spear of Longinus impaling Lilith’s side, enticing Christian imagery of Jesus being impaled on the cross. At the same time, the Spear of Longinus may be a reference to Shintoism, together with Adam and Lilith and their respective White and Black Moons referencing Izanagi and Izanami, the beings that created Japan by stirring the oceans.
Furthermore, every time an Angel is defeated, it sends forth a cross-shaped column of flame – and the world is dotted with green crosses during the cataclysmic Third Impact, perhaps to represent humanity’s loss of individuality and ascension to merge with its creator. The Tree of Life at the End of Evangelion, as well as the ritual leading to the initiation of Third Impact and the Crucifixion of Eva 01 are references to Kabbalah and Christianity, and many reoccurring texts in the anime are real-life texts in Shintoism and several Judeo-Christian circles – including the prophetic Dead Sea Scrolls, which in real life are a collection of various religious texts written in four separate scripts and languages.
On the topic of mythological themes, Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki says that they were thrown in there to make things more exotic, denying any intentional “Christian meaning”: “There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice.”
When looking at the plenty mythological themes at hand, it’s difficult to decide whether they indeed carry any meaning, or whether they’re just there for the heck of it. Some people interpret Anno’s heavy use of mythology as a way to symbolize that, when people are down on to their last bare thread, they either blame themselves, or god. In either way, it’s implied importance doesn’t necessarily affect the plot, nor does it detract from the fact that they make for amazing visuals, so it depends solely on viewer interpretation.
The final and most polarizing aspect of the show, however, are its characters – representations of Anno’s depression, the reality of humanity, and a deconstruction of us psychologically. The anime is proudly called a deconstruction of the mecha genre, although it does this mostly superficially. Its most deconstructive focus is on its characters and human nature as a whole, repetitively asking the questions that make us who we are – what do we fear? Why do we live? What is life? While on the surface it may be a deeper-than-usual mecha anime, its true excelling factor lies in its reflective ability of both Anno and the viewer’s deeper issues. It prompts the viewers to look inwards and ask themselves what they’re afraid of, and why. It prompts the viewer to take the psychological thrill ride that the series had been and use it as a cue to find a reason to look for happiness again.
We know that, over the development of the show, Hideaki Anno delved deeper and deeper into himself for direction and inspiration, and its almost as though the original last two episodes are a culmination of his journey of self-discovery, and the direct result of his own self-assessment – they embody his depression, and act almost as a source of reflection for anyone with similar problems – the anime ends off on a note of self-acceptance, as if to say to anyone watching that no matter how fucked up you are, or no matter what you did, if you can even just promise to try and accept yourself, even you can find happiness. And its that pursuit of happiness that Shinji realizes and embraces, garnering him the “congratulations!” and praise he wanted (and needed) from everyone since before Episode 01. Yet, it is at this point that he learns not to “need” that praise anymore, as he confronts his own self-hatred rather than accepting its self-perceived permanency.
The characters looked at during the Instrumentality event of the anime are Shinji Ikari, Asuka Soryu and Misato Katsuragi. Influential to these, in turn, are Gendo Ikari, Ritsuko Akagi, Rei Ayanami, Kaworu Nagasi, Naoko Akagi (Ritsuko’s mom and Gendo’s lover), Yui Ikari, Kaji Ryoji, and Kyoko Soryu (Asuka’s mother).
So let’s begin with Shinji – his development starts with the disappearance of his mother. In 2004, Yui Ikari let her consciousness be absorbed into the newly constructed Eva Unit 01, and due to her doing so willingly, no one succeeded in extracting her from it. This sudden loss changed Gendo Ikari, who was previously a lively and ambitious, if somewhat shady scientist, but became obsessed in realizing his own plans towards reuniting with his wife. Alienating his 3 year old son, out of fear of hurting him and destroying his life even further, he became an emotional recluse, even inadvertently forcing his lover Naoko Akagi to suicide due to his apathy towards her and his total determination in realizing his plans.
Gendo’s abandonment of Shinji almost immediately after the death of his mother was an incredible loss, one that lead to Shinji fearing abandonment and hatred more than anything. Thinking the disappearance of his mother and the sudden apathy of his father as his fault, he began his path to self-hatred due to blaming himself for being unwanted.
This constant self-devaluation leads to Shinji’s attitude over the course of the show – he’s superficially polite and prefers to shove as much pain upon himself, as he does not deem himself worthy of the respect or happiness others should have. He accepts everything thrown at him, and states that he simply “exists”. Furthermore, his constant distancing from others and seemingly anti-social behavior are the result of him feeling that his deep hatred for himself cannot be understood or appreciated by anyone else. This feeling of confronting (or trying not to confront) his own demons leaves him feeling lonely – a feeling he almost grew to seek. Another aspect to him distancing himself from others moves along the same vein as his father’s issue, believing that due to all the pain and self-loathing he carries, he shouldn’t become close to people because his very presence and negativity would hurt them.
His music player, shown several times throughout the show, is a symbol of him shutting out the world around him in an attempt to keep from hurting others, and getting hurt himself. Its this behavior that eventually fuels his belief that the only way he would not hurt anyone and no one would hurt him is if everyone just didn’t exist – although he later realizes the error in that and sees that simply not existing and running away would also mean never experiencing joy or any real emotion ever again, and that finding happiness sometimes requires pain and personal interaction, no matter how scared he is of hurting himself or others. He deems pain and betrayal as part of real emotion, just as much as joy, and after having proven to himself that he can experience joy, he decides that it’s better to live a real life with others than run away from all emotion in fear.
He deems himself unworthy of other people’s love or attention, and at first finds a melancholic solace in it. Nevertheless, he’s afraid of being disliked, and afraid of being unwanted, due to his abandonment. At times, especially once he begins piloting Eva 01 and begins getting momentary praise from people, he seeks to preserve and get more of that praise, making it his sole reason for piloting Eva 01. Unable to find a reason or purpose to pilot it for himself, he decides that he does it because it, for the first time, makes him feel needed. And that is his ultimate goal – to become needed, to be depended on, to be appreciated and loved – things he cannot do for himself due to his father’s abandonment. It goes to the point where he defines his very existence as piloting Eva 01, because its the only way he can get others to validate his existence and give him that sense of being necessary and wanted.
His self-inflicted anti-socialism brings about the inexperience of emotion throughout the show, as he is very easily overcome by his feelings and oftentimes makes decisions based on his emotions. He refuses to kill Unit 03 due to the single pilot inside, when its existence jeopardizes the lives of many others, and he oftentimes wishes for everyone to die due to his perceived impossibility of being understood or loved.
Another aspect of Shinji is his inability to rely on himself and his lack of self-worth. He constantly turns to others to help him and set him straight, deeming himself unable to do so alone. In the original ending, part of Shinji’s journey to self-acceptance is him learning that ultimately, its his viewpoint and perspective that make him who he is, even though these stem from the view-points and perspectives of others. He promises to learn to not accept himself despite his self-hatred, and in so gain the confidence to live a life with real emotion, despite the existence of pain and betrayal.
His fear of abandonment and his deep self-hatred make him who he is, and the show culminates with him learning to accept both pain and betrayal in exchange for joy and real emotion, understanding that if he wants to feel love and trust, he needs to also learn to first love and trust himself. In the End of Evangelion, Shinji’s character is driven crazy by isolation and loneliness, a fear seemingly all the characters share, yet the fact that he kept himself from choking Asuka to death in the end may point to him also eventually finding a happier self in that version of the anime.
The next character to look at is Asuka, who is introduced as Shinji’s polar opposite in terms of superficiality, yet shares many of the same psychological issues.
Beginning in very much the same fashion, Asuka’s character makes her first step towards development when Kyoko Soryu, Asuka’s mother undergoes the same ‘contact experiment’ as Yui Ikari, Shinji’s mother. Yet, instead of being consumed completely and utterly, Kyoko only inserted a portion of her soul into Unit 02 – the portion that loved her daughter.
This attempt to split the soul mentally broke Kyoko, who was abandoned by her husband afterwards and spent her days in the hospital, talking to a little doll she called her own daughter.
Yet Kyoko’s real daughter was standing outside the room, watching, in tears. She didn’t know what she had done, why her mother suddenly ignored her, yet chalked it up to being too much of a child. Crying for her mother’s attention, she’d throw away her toys and do her best to act past her age, to show how much better she was, and how she had matured past everyone else. “So look at me!” she’d plead to her mother (and later Kaji), who’s soul was irreversibly broken. Eventually, Kyoko committed suicide, while begging her doll Asuka to “die with her” after saying that Asuka’s father hates her and no longer loves the both of them.
Conflicted between the fear of death and wanting her mother’s attention, Asuka decided that she was no one’s doll and, faced with the cruel reality of her mother’s death and her father taking another wife, made it her complex to mature and be independent. This is where Asuka and Shinji differ most of all – both were abandoned and ignored, and both blamed themselves to the point of self-loathing, yet where Shinji became apathetic to everything and just let it all go over him in an attempt to avoid as much contact and pain as possible, Asuka created a shell around herself to ensure her own superiority, and in that, secure her individuality and independence progressively rather than passively. Yet neither is less broken than the other, as Shinji is unable to depend on himself, and Asuka’s reliability on herself becomes her downfall when she’s faced with defeat and failure.
So, Asuka’s struggle to cope with her own perceived failure as a daughter and her attempt to save herself from more pain is described in two ways – her constant individuality and independence, and her attempt to constantly outgrow herself, in an effort to prove herself better and more advanced than everyone. This sparks her constant arrogance and incredibly vicious behavior towards Shinji and Rei, both of whom have the capacity to rival and, towards the end, even outdo her. Her pride is her shield, and shame cuts through that shield like a hot knife through butter. Her individuality is a selfish version of Gendo and Shinji’s “hedgehog dilemma” – psychological phenomenon explained by Ritsuko early in the show, and a massive psychological theme throughout several characters, these two predominantly.
Asuka’s individuality and perceived superiority is a complex developed to shield her from others, rather than shield others from her. She tries so hard to differentiate herself from others that she can’t bear the thought of bathing in the same water as Shinji and Misato, and abhors the lack of privacy in Misato’s apartment due to the lack of locks. She is, like Shinji, adamant in her belief that no one can understand her, and thus she may never open up or sink down to anyone’s level, because doing so would cause her nothing but pain.
Testament to her need to outgrow her age is her attraction to Kaji, whom she sees as a “real man” in contrast to the boys in her age. She aims to mature so quickly, in fact, that she practically begs Kaji to take advantage of her, perceiving sex and sexual maturity as a surefire way to quickly put herself apart from the others her age.
Another source of her need to mature is due to her attempting to differentiate herself from the doll her mother loved in her stead. Maturing past her childhood in order to better herself and make herself superior is a way for her to assure herself that she’s worth more than the doll her mother wanted instead of her.
Yet despite her insecurity causing her to try and shun everyone away from her, it also seems that she’s striving to be understood, that she subconsciously and secretly wishes everyone, especially Shinji, could understand what she’s going through.
When she finally goes crazy due to the combination of Kaji’s death, Shinji’s clear superiority as an Eva pilot – something she identifies with and defines herself as just as much as Shinji does – and constant self-reminders of how she was so unwanted that a doll was preferred to her eventually broke her and put her in a catatonic state. This is only reversed when she begins to delve into Unit 02’s mind so much that she senses her mother in it, and realizes that the aspect of her mother that loved her had been in Eva Unit 02 all along (another reason why she seems to define herself by her superiority and importance as an Eva pilot first, and everything else second).
Asuka, just like Shinji, devalues herself because her mother didn’t want her, preferring a doll over her and selfishly committing suicide, finally abandoning Asuka.
Asuka sees her own value in other’s perception of her, and her independence is her attempting to distance herself from others so she won’t feel pain. Yet in contrast to her seeking independence, she still relies on the praises and admiration of others, fearing failure, rejection and criticism. Her mother, upon going insane and breaking apart the family that Asuka had with her and her father, contemplates suicide and asks Asuka to go with her. In her “case study” in the last two episodes of the anime, recollecting her mother’s death, Asuka had this to say: “And then, my mother was hanging from the ceiling. She… looked so happy. But I hated how she looked. I don’t want to die! I don’t want to disappear! …I hate this! I hate — boys! I hate my father, and my mother! I hate — everyone! Nobody cares about me, nobody stays with me!!”
That is what her hate boils down to. Unlike Shinji, who hates himself rather than others, Asuka’s hatred for others shines through before her underlying hate and depreciation for herself.
In the contrast in the situation she goes on to state: “So I don’t want to depend on anybody. …But I hate it, at the same time! It’s a pain! I don’t want to be alone! I don’t wanna be alone, I DON’T WANNA BE ALONE!!!”.
Loneliness is the biggest psychological enemy in the anime. Above abandonment, above rejection, being utterly and completely alone is the one thing the three pivotal psychological examples of the show: Shinji, Misato and Asuka, fear above anything else.
But, what exactly is the deal with Misato? Until now, I haven’t said much about her, yet her character is focused on much psychologically.
Misato Katsuragi’s character development starts with her relationship with her father which, according to what we know, has always been tumultuous – in the vein that she was essentially ignored.
As most adults in the show, her father was a researcher – an esteemed scientist, in fact. His was the operation that culminated in Second Impact, and the show leads us to conclude that it was perhaps the fault of his utter brilliance that he couldn’t ever really connect with people, least of all his own daughter.
We’re led to believe that she didn’t know her father, which makes the her final moments with him so pivotal in her own psychological struggles. When Adam released the Anti-AT field and caused that massive explosion, instead of saving his own life or any of his undoubtedly important research, Dr. Katsuragi chose the role of a father first, putting his own daughter in an entry plug-like survival pod.
During her college days with Ritsuko, she meets Kaji, who she begins dating. Her relationship with Kaji is one of the key details of her character, as they embody the two profound choices that make her. Following her father’s death, she is overcome with an angry will to rebel against the “good girl” image she had previously – her exceedingly sexual relations with Kaji seem to go beyond an attraction to him, and point more towards her wanting to sully herself, to punish herself through defamation and objectification.
Additionally, she sees her father in Kaji (something that isn’t wholly demonstrated), which explains why they broke up – although her attraction to Kaji may originate from the fact that she saw her father in him subconsciously, once she realized it, she ran away because she was scared of being ignored once more, and was horrified of how much of an emotional effect her father had on her mother. Her relationship with her parents is described as:
“I have to be a good child. Because I have no Daddy; because I have to be good and not bother my Mommy. But I don’t want to become like my mom; when my father’s not here, she always cries. I can’t cry, I can’t depend on anyone else. So I have to be good! That way, maybe my father won’t hate me so much. I hope. Maybe my father won’t hate me if I am good. But I hated my father… and I hated being a good child. I hated it… I’m tired of it, I’m tired of wiping myself clean. I’m tired of pretending to be pure and noble. I’m so tired of it all! I want to disgrace myself, to get so dirty that no one can stand it! I want to see my life and my reputation ruined!”
From that stems her slobbishness, which Shinji points out several times throughout the early episodes of the show. From it, also, stems her hinted promiscuity, which serves both her need to rebel from that “good girl” image and fight her loneliness.
She seeked her father in Kaji’s arms, and was comforted by them, yet when she realized it, she ran in fear. But even so, loneliness consumes her as much as it does the other characters, and chiefly among her defining characteristics are her constant search to beat away the loneliness.
She carries two conflicting personas – the Misato on the surface, who seeks to do good and look good, who strives for praise, recognition and appreciation, and the inner Misato, who’s habit is one of self-degradation, a type of self-hate that she embodies through devaluement and making a slob of herself, who constantly seeks the company of men to combat her loneliness.
She loves Kaji for giving her that sense of comfort that she missed from her father, yet fears his abandonment and fears being ignored by him, just like her father ignored her. She blames herself for her father’s behavior, just like the other characters, condemning herself as her father’s and Kaji’s “harsh reality”.
Yet her need for sexual companionship rings powerfully as well – to the point where she seeks it in anyone available. According to fan interpretation of a certain scene following Kaji’s death, it’s implied that Misato tries to sleep with Shinji – simply because he was there – something that Shinji notices and pushes her away for. It’s debatable whether her kiss with Shinji in the End of Evangelion was her trying to be with someone in her last moments, or simply her trying to “cheer” Shinji up. She also feels a kinship towards Shinji, on a maternal or sororal level, given their parental issues.
On that ending note, all three pivotal characters share not only the need to combat loneliness and very similarly tumultuous relationships with aloof or apathetic parents, and all three characters have the need to escape, the need to run away from reality and hide in their own way – Shinji ran away, shutting others out, shying away from human contact; Asuka distances herself by imposing her superiority and personality on others; and Misato runs to her partner, and uses sex as a way to escape.
Gendo Ikari’s dilemma is one not really explored until the end. Following the disappearance of his wife, he makes it his life’s mission to reunite with her, dropping everything else in favor of realizing that goal. This change in emotion makes him nigh-on unapproachable, as he devotes himself solely to his purpose. After the suicide of Naoko Akagi, who was confronted by her failure as a woman, due to being incapable of healing Gendo’s heart, and her failure as a mother, due to almost never being there for Ritsuko, he reinforces his decision to shut everyone out, fearing to connect with people due to the capacity of the emotional damage he may cause with his obsession for his wife and seemingly apathetic behavior towards everything else.
This is why he abandons his son, whom he feels is better off without him. In fact, he thinks Shinji’s always been better off when he did “nothing at all”, and he does his best never to be involved with his son unless it furthers his goals – this is both incredibly selfish and short-sighted, yet it also means that he does in some small degree care his son, trying as much as possible not to “expose” Shinji. Ironically, this, coupled with the loss of his mother, is what made Shinji miserable to begin with. Had Gendo come to terms with the loss of his wife, things would’ve been a lot different.
Ritsuko Akagi’s character is constantly overshadowed by the past actions of her mother, whose footsteps she follows all throughout the show. She works at NERV as a scientist, primarily on MAGI, who happens to essentially be her mother’s personality in a supercomputer, and it’s implied that she too was romantically involved with Gendo, her mother’s lover and her boss, and Kaji, her friend’s ex-boyfriend.
On that note, Ritsuko’s most obvious relationship is her friendship with Misato, which goes back to their college days. Misato was the first person to be genuinely honest with Ritsuko, as she details to her mother in a letter. On that note, the letter hints at Ritsuko’s resentment towards her mother, both for her constant absence, and due to the fact that the Akagi name Ritsuko’s been blessed/cursed with forces her under her famous mother’s shadow for most of her life.
Their friendship unravels when Misato realizes how much Ritsuko and NERV had been hiding, and when she finds out how much Gendo had manipulated both her and her mother, and the importance of Rei to him, she snaps and destroys the Dummy Plug system. This gets her thrown in confinement until her attempt at destroying the Geofront – which in turn is stopped by her mother in MAGI.
Rei Ayanami, on that note, is the show’s blank slate. She seems to simply exist, showing emotional interest only in one instance during an observed conversation with Gendo, and later when Shinji pulls her from the smoldering remains of Unit 02 during the battle with the fifth Angel. She is, for the most part, devoid of emotion – yet she is still human, and her relationships with the other characters, particularly Shinji, evolve into an almost rudimentary form of companionship. Confronted with the enigma that is her reason to live, she plays an interesting psychological role in the show because hers is a character that cannot really be related to.
Unlike the rest of the very real cast, Rei’s personality is derived from the fact that she is a mass produced clone and, as indicated by her role in Third Impact and kinship to Kaworu, the last angel, not entirely human. Therefore, her interpersonal role in the anime is more as a tool of reflection for Shinji and Asuka, her fellow pilots. Shinji feels at first estranged due to her aloof personality, yet cares about her as a friend, and at some point in the beginning of the show, she plays a potential love interest. Asuka, on the other hand, is struck by Rei’s total apathetic behavior and almost psychopathic lack of emotion, which in turn reminds her of a doll. Its this comparison that leads her to loathe Rei, together with Rei’s utter lack of competitive spirit as a pilot, nullifying Asuka’s efforts to brag about her skill.
It’s the characters of the show that make Evangelion so real, yet its Shinji, Misato and Asuka that carry the cast and focus of the show in terms of psychological damage and character development. The three of them have had a troubled past with their parents, fear loneliness, and handle their problems in their own individual ways. Their interconnection, interpretations and reflections of each other are perhaps what finally gets Shinji to seek happiness, as he realizes the importance of being with people.
The final lesson to Shinji’s happiness is the show’s example of a “happier life”. In this little dreamy excerpt, Asuka and Shinji go to the same school and are childhood friends, Rei is a new transfer student, and Misato is the class’s homeroom teacher. Yui and Gendo seem to share a happy marriage, as well, and the entire tone of that sequence heavily contrasts to the usual. Shinji, in seeing this alternate world, realizes the potential for happiness in each and every character, no matter how deep down that happiness is buried, and is willing to continue risking pain and betrayal for a chance to experience similar joy.
In the end, what made Evangelion move me so much was its own capacity for deconstruction. It was highly aware of itself, and allowed the viewer to participate in a screening of the characters and a sit-down session of contemplation. As someone who likes to think about particularly irrelevant things, most prominent among these being fictional characters and premises, I enjoyed this self-awareness and enticed viewer participation. Although the very same may work to alienate most viewers who look forward to an actual show, as a writer and particularly someone interested in the human mind, Evangelion definitely makes it among my top favorite works of literary art.