“All you do is wait, wanting people to give you happiness.”
NEON GENESIS EVANGELION more or less translates to “Gospel of the New Century”. It broadcast over 1995 and 1996. The show’s creator, Hideaki Anno said in 1996 “I think the people who are very much involved with the Net have very narrow views toward life and the world. They’re always in their rooms and don’t go out very often to communicate in person. Because of their information on the Net, they feel they know everything without searching the real truths. They easily and anonymously say things that they would never say in person. Their messages are like graffiti in a public toilet. They attack each other while they are staying in a safe place. They don’t have anything certain to hold on…that’s probably why they watch anime shows.”
This is not the sort of show that can only be understood by a fan of the genre, by someone already familiar with certain tropes, already immersed in a certain subculture. The depth of characterisation, the coherency of its themes, the artistry and imagery and universality, these all inoculate it from being something so insulated. The degree to which psychological motivations behind sexual expression, the effective function of depression and self-loathing, projection of meaning onto systems beyond one’s self are woven into the characterisation of the show’s leads is impressively deep. The show’s many themes – how the subjectivity of human interaction operates on people’s limited and faulty characterisations of others (and how those individual constructions of other people in one’s mind form a sort of bicameral mind through which identity is developed), the difficulty in finding the degree to which to open up to others without inflicting mutual harm, how much parents and the possible traumas they inflict imprint upon a person’s later behaviour, the way an individual is the only person who can truly “save” or change themselves, the cyclical nature of depression, and the tendency to displace responsibility and meaning onto externalities like organisations and religions stunts self-actualisation in ruinous ways – are woven through the show’s many characters and arcs with a grace and purpose that indicates how well thought-out it all must have been, or at least how holistically it was built from the ground-up. Such things don’t require existent knowledge of anime to understand and appreciate. And yet, the context of the subculture that birthed the show, and who in turn the show was (at the very least initially) overwhelmingly received by, is nevertheless enlightening.
In very specific terms, this group of people are called otakus in Japan, with their western equivalents basically being nerds or geeks. People with obsessive interest in escapist media, as the stereotypes go. There are specific attitudes and tropes relevant here – the power fantasy of piloting giant bipedal robot “mechas”, the pined-after girl character of desire dubbed one’s “waifu”, the superficial use of random imagery as pretension to try and confer a sense of mystique or higher meaning -, but the key impulse being interrogated is the desire to escape. To run away.
For viewers, that escape would theoretically be the show itself, or any media used to escapist ends really. For the show’s main character, Shinji, it’s more pathological. We’re introduced to him as a diminutive, hormonal fourteen-year-old boy, with a mother out of the picture, and a father that couldn’t care less about him. Functionally, an orphan. In the show’s very first episode, he is pressed to pilot a giant bipedal robot, marking the show as another in the long line of Japanese “mecha” animes, shows about characters (often teenagers) mounting the immense power fantasy of fighting as a giant and mightily powerful robot.
Relatively blank, functionally orphan, offered what basically amounts to supernatural aid (the mighty and arcane mecha, dubbed an “Eva” in the show) along with warm mentorship (from a cheery operations director in her thirties instead of his father, but still), it’s all classic hero’s journey. But how does Shinji respond to the call to adventure? He turns it down. Repeatedly.
Well, characters need arcs. There has to be some dynanism lest even a show as cinematically realised as this one grows dull. Eventually Shinji does pilot the Eva and fight the first monster in a line of many (”Angels”, as they’re called in the series – mysterious, bizarrely-shaped beings seemingly hellbent on attacking Shinji’s new city of Neo-Tokyo 3). But the extent to which he resisted not just mantling any kind of hero role, but just any sort of active role in his own life, raises discomfort. It’s too clearly pathological. He’s a shy boy, who doggedly avoids conflict of any kind. He watches much – usually girls he pines for, or his father from afar – but says little. He is non-committal, indecisive, and tremendously insecure.
For around the first two thirds of the show’s run, the active narrative of the show offers the opportunity to obscure the tension of Shinji’s characterisation, the deep sense of foreboding raised by the fact he legitimately wracked with issues rather than someone zooming along the conveyor belt of character growth into a hero (this is all exceptionally accentuated by Megumi Ogata’s performance, the subtly discordant music and sound design, and the shot composition that frequently frames him in confined spaces when it’s not obscuring him outright either through extreme wide shots or stylised colourisation).
While it’s notable that there are episodes with no action or greater plot conflicts, “just” character dynamics, most episodes do follow Shinji and his fellow Eva pilots (initially just Rei, the one fourteen-year-old even quieter than Shinji, and later Asuka, loud enough to make up for the two of them) neutralising a new Angel threat. Why do these Angels, seemingly some kind of alien invading race, only target the city these pilots live in? What are they, in the first place? Why was the solution deemed to be unbelievably expensive gargantuan robots? Why do those robots have to be piloted by teenagers? Why do all the teenage pilots happen to be emotionally unstable and lacking their parents in their lives? And why is everything drenched in imagery and terminology from Abrahamic religions? In the genre and medium itself, these aren’t really questions – they’re simply axiomatic. They’re robots because that’s cool, they’re teenagers because the viewers are nominally teenagers (let’s just set aside the clashes with the censors, long-term industry impact of said clashes, and move to late-night broadcast), the Angels are bad because, well, they’re the bad guys.
Around halfway into the show’s run, Shinji finally raises some of those questions, only to have them dismissed. What’s important here is that, especially in the decades since the show’s original transmission, the animation context and metatextuality isn’t necessary for parsing any of the show’s themes, dynamics, or characterisations. By the time I watched the show, I was aware of its heady reputation. Even without knowledge of that, the sense of foreboding and oddly detailed characterisation in the early episodes would have kept me intrigued and engaged. It’s not even a case of such things enticing one to watch long enough to get to “deeper” material or some such, as the deepening characterisations episode to episode are strong enough content in their own right even before the show moves to more experimental grounds. But context does enhance and frame much of the show in a fascinating light, even before getting to the two-way symmetry of how fandom response to the show itself prompted Anno’s response in turn, in 1997’s THE END OF EVANGELION. What’s germane here is how the show highlighted the fundamental unreality in escapist media, and how that reflects unhealthy attitudes in broader society.
Rei is the “perfect waifu”, in her submissive and isolated nature, ways the protaganist’s “love” cures her (after Shinji saves her in an early episode, he proclaims some nice-sounding words about how he can’t stand to see her sad and some such, to which she smiles – “at that moment, Rei, for me, was finished” says Anno), and her visual appeal. Her age frames her in terms of relatability to younger viewers, and an abject leeriness to older audiences. For instance, in the fifth episode there is a typical anime lurid hijink, wherein Shinji accidentally falls on a naked Rei, tumbling her underwear all over them in the process.
Even setting anime aside, in most television (escapist media in general, really) this would be played for comedy. I recall how Joss Whedon played a similar gag (minus the nudity) in both “The Avengers” and his version of “Justice League”. But here, the editing doesn’t accentuate any comedy in the situation, nor does the music. It holds still, and becomes uncomfortable. Rei is such a shell of a character it’s difficult to imbue her with any sort of characterisation that might lend dynamics to that interaction, so all that’s left is sexualised projection for the sort of viewers that would engage in such things. In Anno’s words, “Rei-chan is very popular… I think that she’s very quiet and doesn’t wish to talk very much, and doesn’t complain. In Japan, I suppose that girls like that are very much desired. They’re quiet, patient, and don’t complain and work hard.”
So while it’s apparent that a character like Rei is a deconstruction of a specific trend in anime, Anno identifies it as a broader societal trend in his country, and the widespread response to the show demonstrates how it rings true in multiple other cultures as well. The character of Asuka functions similarly, in that she satirises a specific set of tropes, but those tropes speak to attitudes held by people in general. Asuka is what’s known as a tsundere, a combative character that asserts dominance but ultimately runs hot and cold, as their harsh exterior eventually gives away to a gooier soul beneath. When she’s introduced in the eighth episode, she seems by far the most mentally healthy of the Eva pilots. She rejoices in being given the opportunity to pilot a giant robot and fight alien baddies. She has fun, exults in looking cool, and reprimands Shinji and Rei for being such gloomy sadsacks in what should essentially be a glorious, fun set of circumstances (that is, the show itself). But what would actually drive the psychology of such a person? Her active role in the narrative and way she asserts her personality and modes of domination over others enables her to be much more deeply characterised than her counterparts, in what becomes a strikingly well-defined realisation of all the dynamics (of insecurity, of envy, of sexuality, of competition, of parental figure complexes) of an ostensibly “bratty” teenage girl.
Fellow female lead Misato, the operations director for the Eva pilots as well as guardian for Shinji and Asuka (Rei lives alone, something apparently the other two fourteen-year-olds were also permitted to do should they have chosen – well, Shinji had preferred that for himself, but Misato wisely browbeat him into a living situation that enabled some level of socialisation) , is more keyed into the stereotype of the “cool girl”. She chugs beers, eats nought but junk food, wears revealing clothing when she’s not at work, has a bubbly personality, flaunts her sexuality, and takes charge in steering situations to be to the best interest of those she cares for. As an adult, the sexualised shots of her are the ones that can be most reasonably be scrutinised in terms of what is actually being achieved by the show. What does it indicate that the very first we see of the character is a postcard of her with an annotation (written by her) congratulating her cleavage? Or that for nearly all the men she principally associates with – including Shinji, the fourteen-year-old child she’s the caregiver of – how much she introduces sexuality as a component of relationship-building?
[spoilers for all the show’s episodes beyond this point]
When Shinji is traumatised by Rei’s death, Misato’s first response when they get home is to touch his hand and say “Shinji, this is about all I can do for you right now”, as she makes an overture of sexual interaction to him. He is disgusted, or scared, or both, recoils, and Misato swiftly exits his room. She then thinks to herself “But he must be feeling lonely. Is he afraid of women? No, he’s afraid of being intimate with people.” She then calls her super-intelligent penguin pet/roommate Pen-Pen over for her to pet, and when he declines, she thinks “I see, it doesn’t matter who. I am the one who is lonely.” When her lover is murdered, she quickly starts a sexual relationship with a barely-characterised coworker who in turns risks his life out of some misidentified shared love he sees them as having.
The point is that Misato and Asuka – Rei is sexualised to a degree as well, but more in the fashion Shinji is, with her occasional nudity presented more matter-of-factly than luridly, as the character doesn’t exhibit a sexualised projection of their body – have their sexual senses of self probed deeply enough by the show that it becomes impossible for a viewer on the show’s wavelength to perceive sexualised shots of the characters as “fanservice”, or titillating. The characters are humanised to such effect that, at best, they are too rounded a set of characters to reduce to objects for gawking, or, more cynically, the insecurities and neuroses driving their senses of sexuality and how they relate sexually to others make it impossible to look at a “fanservice” shot of them and have one’s prevailing emotion be lust instead of some expression of empathy.
In the finale of the show, where Shinji conjures up a world where Rei exists purely as a shallow figure of sexualisation that accidentally exposes herself to Shinji (which he eagerly gossips about to his classmates), and Asuka exists as a feisty yet ultimately subservient and very accepting companion also pining after Shinji, the impulse is to cringe at the objectifying wrongness of Shinji’s dream conceptions of these girls. The fact a to-this-day prevailing discourse surrounding the show is “who is the best waifu, Rei or Asuka?” is extraordinarily damning of the fandom, but of course such things are only addressed in the show’s follow-up, THE END OF EVANGELION, not the show itself.
That finale (the last two episodes of the show) completely does away with any pretence of plot, and just drills down into the psyches of the lead characters, presenting itself as a kind of psychological investigation, ending with a moment of self-actualisation as Shinji seems to overcome his…well, what exactly are Shinji’s issues? He’s depressed, and Anno has spoken openly of how his own lifelong struggle with depression informed the character and the show in general. Shinji’s passive. He avoids conflict at nearly any cost. He feels like a completely unnecessary, unwanted, unloved part of the world. He hates himself. He’s lonely, yearning for human interaction and acceptance he rejects if the burden of birthing or maintaining it falls too much on him. These traits aren’t just treated as some neat package of shyness, the sort a more typical protagonist might have before slowly overcoming them over the course of a series. One of the opening episodes of the series sees Misato and her coworker Ritsuko (a scientist/technician type that’s also one of the show’s leads) discuss Shinji’s shyness and passivity as a form of cowardice, and the show would go on to probe at how his personality was also built off narcissism, selfishness, social and intellectual laziness, stunted social development, and a difficulty in processing people as persons unto themselves rather than objects or entities just meant to enable him and make him feel better.
“You wished for a closed world in which you alone are comfortable, in order to protect the weakness of your heart. In order to protect your pleasures in life.”
The show doesn’t outright condemn Shinji, but the ways the stereotype of a shy, socially awkward fourteen year-old that quietly judges and lusts – the type of character nearly every film or series would portray sympathetically as an audience avatar – are psychologically probed are deep, consistent, and uncomfortable. Consistent themes of the show like the role of the hedgehog’s dilemma in human interaction (the difficulty in finding the degree to which to open up to people that doesn’t result in mutual harm, akin to hedgehogs pricking each other with their spikes when they get too close), how the subjectivity of human interaction works off people considering constructions of others they’ve built in their own minds rather than people’s actual distinct and discrete personhoods unto themselves (literalised in the finale), an individual being the only person who can actually change themselves, how much psychological trauma drawn from one’s parents imprints on them and affects their personality as they mature, the cyclical nature of depression, and how the human tendency to displace meaning onto external forces (other people, organisations, religion, etc.) prevents self-development and leads to ruin – all these themes filter so clearly and cohesively through Shinji and his nuanced, flawed personality.
As far as that theme of displacing meaning goes, many who worked on the series have said the Abrahamic imagery in the show wasn’t born of specific purpose so much of its use as exotic stylisation – but that essential lack of meaning is completely in tune with the show’s themes, as we see characters time and time again project their own neuroses and purpose onto systems and imagery and beliefs that give them an out from having to actually assess themselves and work on their sense of self, and relationships with other people. Investment in the religious imagery – for the characters, or for the viewer – is essentially frippery, offloading the responsibility attached to the more psychological side of the show onto the meaninglessly mythic.
In many ways Asuka and Misato are more deeply characterised and well-sketched figures in the show (Shinji’s issues are inevitably more generic even if only for how much more they are covered in media due to demographics and prevailing wisdom, in comparison to the more taboo and of-less-appeal-to-the-boys-mecha-merchandising-targets psychology and sexuality of Asuka and Misato). But Shinji is the prism through which all the show’s themes shine. So while the two-part finale has lengthy sections devoted entirely to probing the minds of Asuka, Misato, and even Rei, deconstructing the delusions they operate off of, it’s on Shinji that the show ends. The vaguely defined Instrumentality event that the show’s plot built to occurs, seeing humanity unified in a kind of pooled consciousness where individual minds segment off into their own constructed realities, populated by personal conceptions of other people rather than the totality of another person in their own right. Shinji is repeatedly told “only you can find your own worth” and such things, as the visual style of the show increasingly breaks down, highlighting the artifice and constructed nature of both his constructed reality, and the fiction of the show in general, for the actual viewer.
When offered a world completely free of others, the meaningless of it dissatisfies Shinji, and sees his consciousness start to completely slide off and melt away. Restrictions come to the world (initially a line, marking a separation between the heaven and Earth, thus making Shinji walk instead of fly), and the more restrictions means the more displacement of responsibility, the less culpability for Shinji. But a mere line on the ground isn’t enough. Shinji comes to think that it’s only through the interaction with other people that one can really exist. In an earlier episode, quasi-father figure (perhaps older brother figure) Kaji tells Shinji of how so many people existing in the world with all their contradictory conceptions and personal truths is what makes life interesting and worth living, and Rei also shared thoughts on how the passage of time compounding with contact with others is what develops humanity, but Shinji’s struggles with processing the agency of others in an empathetic way don’t see him extend his thought process quite that far.
“There are as many truths as there are people, but there is only one truth for you. One made from your narrow perception of the world, and from information that was altered to protect yourself. A warped truth.”
So he constructs a world that the viewers understand as a satire of anime. In this world, Asuka is a tsundere very supportive of Shinji, even for all her brattiness (coded as more endearing to Shinji, in this world). Shinji’s parents are together in this world, and he lives with them. Rei acts like a normal schoolgirl, and even accidentally flashes herself at Shinji in this world. The artifice rankles more and more as this sequence continues, and the visuals reflect this, to the point where we actually see sketches with scribbles on them instructing animators how to draw the movement of characters. Shinji struggles to deal with that the real world is made up of billions of individual people with their own conceptions of reality; he struggles to view people as persons in their own right. He doesn’t respect himself – how can he respect others? He offloads the need to process such things by throwing his hands up and wallowing in self-loathing.
“Anyone who hates himself can’t come to love and truth others.”
And yet, at the very end of the finale, he comes to a realisation – “I’m a gutless, hypocritical, wimpy coward….I hate myself. But maybe I can learn to love myself. Maybe it’s okay for me to be here! That’s right! I’m me, nothing more, nothing less! I’m me. I want to be me! I want to be here! And it’s okay for me to be here!” His settings swirl into a globe with no land, just ocean on it, with him standing atop it, surrounded by the people that populated his life. They applaud him, and each cry out “congratulations!”. Setting aside the circumstances behind the development of these episodes, and the fact they ended up not being the actual finale to the series (thanks to the sequel film THE END OF EVANGELION), it’s still curious how this development sits. It’s followed by some intertitles from Anno that thank his parents and say “congratulations!” to “all the children”.
It’s completely reasonable to read the ending as, more or less, unironic. Shinji developed some self-awareness, saw the artificiality of the restrictions he’d been placing upon himself, and let himself love himself enough to let go of the self-loathing that poisoned him and his interactions with the world. His issues with objectifying others, not really processing other people with legitimate empathy, well they’re not that uncharacteristic of a fourteen-year-old, and with this breakthrough – and more time – perhaps the Shinji of that scene could grow into a healthy, well-adjusted person. The ill-defined circumstance of the Instrumentality event perhaps would forestall such a thing, but the many visions and voiceovers of the episode very much suggested character development was essentially the focus of that event, so such a development on Shinji’s part doesn’t seem that out of the cards. It’s a decidedely hopeful ending that doesn’t play so much into the darker nuances of the show, but surely that’s the point – it’s some well-earned hope that people can grow, a call to shake viewers out of self-loathing and escapism and to self-actualise insofar as their own self-worth, and to hopefully continue to personally develop from there.
Still…it feels odd that after a very pointedly artificial and stunted anime parody sequence of a constructed world, that a final scene that sees Shinji’s mutilated mother and abusively negligent father happily side by side, cheerfully congratulating Shinji. Perhaps the implied assumption is that his father went through a journey of self-development of his own in the Instrumentality event, but it veers closely to feeling like a pandering fantasy in much the same way the preceding anime parody sequence did. Parental trauma was such a long-running subject of characterisation in the show, with Asuka’s mentally ill, ultimately suicidal mother leading her to develop much of the insecurity that drove her personality. Misato’s judgemental father neglecting her before dying in a disaster contributed to her flat-out not even talking at all for a couple of years, and eventually filtering relationships through the lens of similarity to her unreachable father. Shinji’s anxiety and introversion very much draw from the death (more or less) of his mother when he was young, and his negligent abandonment by his cold and unloving father. All these things tie deeply into why the characters mantle the tropes of the genre in the first place, working at the NERV organisation, piloting mechas and so on. So for Shinji’s father to nearly explicably have such a turnaround at the end feels strange. Perhaps my perception is cynically coloured by my knowledge this didn’t end up being the – well, at least the only – ending to the show, but the surreality of the final scene does seem to naturally invite questions.
Characters with deep, grounded, nuanced characterisations, more than enough to rival countless shows of all formats. Complicated, yet coherent, themes, woven deftly through multiple characters and arcs. Striking artistry and inspired imagery. Malick-esque monologues alongside what are essentially multiple clip-show episodes that nonetheless feel absolutely vital and coherent. Everything here feels so completely unified, so purposeful, so transcendent even, that is completely understandable why this series remains so popular and frequently discussed over two decades since its release. Many of my thoughts on the series are developed only in in its definitive ending, THE END OF EVANGELION, but for the twenty-six episodes that make up the series…four entry plugs, and the lance of Longinus.