NEON GENESIS EVANGELION ran for twenty-six episodes. The finale aggravated much of the audience, leading to much outcry, death threats to creator Hideaki Anno, and so on. Towards the end of the show, genre trappings increasingly fell away as the focus went more and more to the psychology of the characters, themes of the show that some saw as esoteric and philosophical, and as any semblance of power fantasy withered away.
[spoilers for the show, and the film, from here on out]
The final two episodes were highly impressionistic – light on plot, but heavy on interrogating the psyche and ideology of the characters, ultimately ending on the protagonist’s breakthrough regarding his depression and sense of self. While the show itself was an immense cultural juggernaut – in fact, it stands now as one of the highest-grossing franchises of all time -, the finale confused and alienated so many (who made their dissatisfaction very loudly known) that, while Anno and others involved defended the finale, they began developing a film that would ostensibly serve as a new, definitive finale.
Some of this was coloured by production and budgetary troubles impacting the original plans for the TV finale (while the more hand-drawn style of those episodes was very much of a piece with their actual story content, it seems clear that lack of budget and time was also a factor in their usage), but it’s vital to note the essential meaningless of the entire concept of ‘original plans’. What was broadcast was what was broadcast. A finale was released. When people viewed it, it left Anno and the team’s hands and became a cultural unit to be digested, discussed, dissected on its own terms – and it was not some patched-together consolation before then either. Anno has plainly stated “Most anime fans are furious. I understand their anger. I can’t help laughing when hard-core anime fans say that we did a very lousy job, with intentional negligence. No we didn’t. No staff members did a lousy job. In fact, every member at Gainax gave more energy than anybody can imagine. I feel sad that those fans couldn’t see our efforts. Personally I think the original TV ending we showed ended up beautifully”. The series had finished. While the story of the film may rewind back before the final two episodes of the show (at least, to start with), in real-world terms it functioned as a sequel, on every level based off reception to the TV finale (the genesis of it being produced at all, the nature and placement of the story, the themes of the film, etc.).
The TV finale ended on an affirmation, with main character Shinji coming to a realisation, self-actualising, breaking out of his inactive, depressive funk and showing himself some measure of love. The other characters of the show materialised around him to applaud and congratulate his breakthrough. While some of the thornier specifics and implications of the ending could be construed as disquieting, the intertitles following the story’s conclusion (with Anno praising and thanking the children ostensibly watching) certainly frame it as a happy ending.
The film opens on Shinji, in hospital visiting his comatose roommate/teammate/classmate, masturbating over her exposed body. Later, he condemns all of humanity to die (which, as a result, they effectively do), strangles the same girl in a kind of mind-melded reality, then finishes the film brutally strangling her in the flesh.
In many ways, the film is just a more definitive finale to the show than the existing one was. More plot threads and character arcs are concluded. Mysteries are answered. Closure is had. The term ‘Evangelion’ is finally namedropped. And all that’s good! Reportedly the first half of the film (which is split into two ‘episodes’, with the credits coming in midway) is based on original material for the TV finale, where the second half is more original (and oh, it shows). The real transcendence of that film is in the second half – where the first half is conclusion, the second half is commentary, as it brings many of the show’s concepts and characters to their logical conclusions in a way that repudiates the poisonous sort of attitudes Shinji had, as well as much of the viewing audience.
The film starts with humans fighting humans, progresses to weaponised artillery fighting humans, then mecha Evangelions fighting weaponised artillery, then a mecha Evangelion fighting mecha Evangelions. The apocalypse in the second half is methodically built it to through this manner of escalation, raising the stakes and scopes beyond what the series achieved. Narrative collapse, with the setting and premise for the show detonated as the shadowy organisation driving the show’s plot destroys the actual NERV organisation all our characters worked for. Character collapse, with Asuka having lost all sense of self, Shinji back in full passive depressive mode (markedly before his breakthrough in the TV finale), Misato and Ritsuko ultimately dying throughout the NERV conflict, and Rei moving beyond being Rei.
To an extent, there’s even thematic collapse – the displacement of meaning and responsibility onto iconography, organisations, and people beyond one’s self (and the way that sees one regress in a childlike manner, unable to grow their sense of self or actualise in any meaningful sense) is basically irrelevant here, as the religious imagery is actually followed up on, in a genuine apocalyptic scenario bedecked in kabbalistic imagery, and characters don’t so much dodge responsibility as have their stunted natures brought to conclusive endpoints where there is no more to even doge. The motif of parental trauma is inverted, as we hear Ikari justify an essential passivity and retreat into cruelness – “It’s better that I do nothing….I don’t believe that I can be loved by others. I’m not worthy of love” – that we’ve heard all too many times from his son.
As for that son, well, in an early brief for the television series, Anno described him as “a 14-year-old boy [that] shrinks from human contact. And he tries to live in a closed world where his behavior dooms him, and he has abandoned the attempt to understand himself. A cowardly young man who feels that his father has abandoned him, and so he has convinced himself that he is a completely unnecessary person, so much so that he cannot even commit suicide”. Through the series, Shinji is the (mostly) sympathetic main protagonist, his inactivity and passivity and self-loathing and depression traits traits we find frustrating in unison insofar as his own frustration over himself. The series does end on his breakthrough and self-affirmation, after all. Sure, he was a hormonal teenager, unlikable at times, but mostly in ways where one was inclined to be frustrated with him, but more in the pursuit that he could do better, rather than outright condemning him – for instance, his complete inactivity when his guardian Misato was crying, distraught over her (basically) partner dying, when her personality and relationship with him across the show had made it absolutely clear to him that any sort of presence or show of affection at that time would have meant so much to her.
However, starting the film with Shinji masturbating over Asuka’s comatose body that he exposed frames him differently. It’s completely in check with what’s come before – the way he nearly kissed her while she slept, his dizzying objectification of women in general (particularly noticeable in his constructed anime parody reality in the TV finale, where he gleefully tells of seeing his construction of Rei’s panties when she didn’t meant to expose them), and the way he simply flat-out doesn’t seem to care for people much at all. He wants others to care about him, to understand how he feels, but very rarely demonstrates any sort of capacity or interest in reproofed in any sense. None of this was quite in focus on the series, where we were inclined to treat him more as a child, but those kid gloves are thrown off in the film, where he is openly violent and lecherous. In the film’s Instrumentality sequence, where all minds are melded together in a shared consciousness, Shinji is disgusted by seeing memories of Misato having sex, an action completely disconnected from him and from her maternal guardianship of him (the sometime disturbingly pedophilic undertones of their relationship – one too many jokes about Misato seeing him as like a “boyfriend”, her subtly offering him sexual favour in a time of emotional distress, her giving him an “adult kiss” as she dies, in an attempt to motivate him – play into this to a degree, but I doubt they form the entirety of his reaction given how much the sequence plays off the disgust at seeing the totality of people beyond their roles in one’s life).
His stunted social development and trauma are tragic. They also left him unable to see other people beyond objects, as entire human beings unto themselves. There’s a point where understanding why Shinji is the way he is isn’t enough anymore. It’s sad he ended up this way. At a point, it no longer excuses his actions – just contextualises them. That point is where he began openly violating Asuka, regardless of whether that’s defined as his choking of her, or his masturbation over her unconscious exposed body.
The Instrumentality sequence, to Shinji, shows the hell of having zero separation between people. Seeing all of what a person is disgusts him; he is incapable of dealing the entirety of what people are. Hence, the hedgehog’s dilemma, the difficulty in finding the exact amount of opening up to do with others to not inflict mutual harm, that central and earliest telegraphed theme of the show. Unable to cope with the totality of the other souls he experienced (Asuka, Misato), he condemns the angelic godhood of the film to essentially kill all humanity, to cease their individual existence. The apocalypse ensues, as every soul is absorbed and enveloped into a shared consciousness. Discordantly jaunty music plays along to an awe-inspiring, glorious, horrifying sequence of this happening, in what is easily the most inspired, original, complicated visual sequence of the franchise.
After a series of Instrumentality sequences (in which the last two episodes of the show could more or less fit, as long as the show’s actual ending was retroactively considered more just one possibility and variation of a construction within), Shinji grows dissatisfied with the fundamental unreality of an existence (a dream, as he calls it) so removed from the regular, discrete world, and so he wishes things reverted back to a world where consciousnesses were separated, and it is made so. Is it running away, to wish the world reverted to as it was, or is not running away, in that it’s Shinji rejecting a dreamworld where reality can be whatever he wants, with no autonomy of others? In any case, Shinji’s essential negativity – frustration, anger, hatred, perhaps shame and violation at Asuka seeing the totality of him – sees him choke Asuka when she appears back in the real, physical world after he does. She mollifies him by pandering to him, stroking his face as he chokes her to death. At this, he breaks down and stops. Asuka utters a phrase that roughly translates to “how disgusting”, or “I feel sick”.
In the 90s, there were numerous ways to communicate online, especially about media and in fandoms. And there became more and more ways to research online, to find answers. This became more and more prevalent in the 2000s, and the 2010s. Now YouTube is rife with “ending EXPLAINED!” videos, where someone blithely offers a definitive “explanation” (interpretation) of a movie’s ending to millions of viewers. Fan wikis pretend to authority as they list (often completely unsourced) “answers” to questions and concepts raised in media. Across messageboards and comment sections and all sorts of websites, fan interpretations exponentially gain mock-authority as they’re repeated ad nauseum. A perverted type of fan orthodoxy neutralising the need of a viewer to actually think about, to process media, when instead one answer can be spoonfed to them, the more comforting or ego-validating the better.
It’s ironic to address this with a quote from Anno, but he himself did say “Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give his/her own answer. In other words, we’re offering viewers to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine his/her own world. We will never offer the answers, even in the theatrical version. As for many Evangelion viewers, they may expect us to provide the ‘all-about Eva’ manuals, but there is no such thing. Don’t expect to get answers by someone. Don’t expect to be catered to all the time. We all have to find our own answers”. Nonetheless, people online plunder all sorts of material – anything that is not the film itself, the actual text asking for rumination – to provide “answers”. The ending “actually” means this. Fan prescriptivity overrides the need to actually process any media. There could not be a more ironic punctuation to the film itself than the utter lunacy of this thought-terminating that sees fans insist the “reality” of the film as monolithic.
What’s commonly bandied about is that the film, more or less, actually has a happy ending! Shinji was just strangling Asuka to, uh, check that they were actually out of Instrumentality, or something! No, choking someone is a completely understandable and forgivable action in that circumstance! There was absolutely no other way he could have checked such a thing, and the fact nothing in that scene directly lends itself to that reading is irrelevant! The fact the film opens on Shinji violating Asuka, and has Shinji consciously choke her not long after the midpoint of the film, is irrelevant! Instead, the film is a comfort – a wild, shocking, bizarre experience, sure, but one that ends with Shinji having made the right choice in bringing the world back to normal, and with the promise of Shinji and Asuka alive. There are multiple popular fan projects that even see Shinji and Asuka become a couple after this ending!
If this was just one of many readings, I’d be inclined to just dismiss it personally as a reading I found silly, but the sheer weight of fan orthodoxy that pushes this reading as “correct” – as if there could be such a things – maddens me in how far it misses what’s literally in the text. Everyone is dead at the end of the film except the boy that violates a girl for the third time in the film, a boy proven without doubt incapable of processing other people as anything beyond objects without having a complete mental breakdown. It doesn’t matter what some obscure playing card or spin-off video game offers as mollification. Perhaps many viewers took onboard what the film was saying and so naturally drifted away from the sort of communities that would chronicle and discuss the franchise for years upon years, and so fan orthodoxy resulted out of only those sort of people being the ones maintaining the wikis, making the “EXPLANATION” videos, and so on.
The television show’s themes of critiquing the fellow passivity of the audience is escalated to screeching points in the film, through Shinji. He breaks out of his passivity by violating someone. He critiques Asuka as the source of his inability to get close to others, to which she responds that he doesn’t reach out meaningfully at all. Asuka asks how others could love him when he doesn’t even love himself, he responds that maybe he could learn to love himself if others were nice to him, then he strangles her. He chokes her. He violates her.
Yes, Shinji gets over his fear of rejection insofar as he reverts the world to one where people can be discrete individuals again. That is not the totality of the film, or his character progression, and to treat it as such is beyond absurdity in how much it ignores the focus of the film on the danger in not looking beyond one aspect of an individual. Shinji is happy to have the world reduced to a single-consciousness ocean where there is no ego, emotion, individuality, no possibility to hurt or be betrayed. Then, the unconditional love and acceptance of a godhood figure (or two) convinces him the reality of pain is worthwhile as at least it doesn’t further compound his essential emptiness and hollowness. Perhaps he thought more people would voluntarily return from that state of shared consciousness. But time passes, and only one does. And he strangles that one. And how does she escape death? By pandering to him. Physically, no less.
Instrumentality’s opportunity of everyone understanding one another didn’t lead to everyone accepting one another; every soul being in complete empathetic empathetic union was hellish and disgusting for Shinji in a brutal externalisation of his narcissism and inability to selflessly empathise with others. The film functions as an additive recontextualisation and extension of the TV finale in robbing Shinji, or at least minimising, his breakthrough through his depression, or at least accentuating the temporal nature of it (”But in the end, I’ll simply realise the obvious things again and again in order for me to continue to exist as myself” he says in the film as he leaves the Instrumentality shared consciousness). He is selfish. He loves to receive validation. He isn’t just passive, he’s passive-aggressive. Early in the Instrumentality sequence, he literally conceptualises ASuka and Rei as dolls. Dolls are meant to entertain a child, to make them feel good. When people don’t make Shinji feel good, he lashes out. When Asuka throws that reality in his face, he chokes her.
Neither of them are mature enough to internalise the moral Anno constantly stresses – to try and tolerate and communicate with other people, and not to retreat to escapism or inaction instead -, but one of them resorts to murderous, violating tendencies, and the other does not. The fact Shinji’s upbringing was so fractured, negligent, at-times abusive meant he never properly went through the stage of childhood where one conceptualises other people as subjects unto themselves with their own wants, needs, complicated internal worlds, etc. He knows how to be nice. But he doesn’t really know how to care. And rather than ever make any possible sort of misstep, he would prefer to simply not act, falsely believing inaction displaces responsibility rather than simply relocating it to a failure to do anything at all.
Orson Welles once said of Woody Allen “That particular combijnation of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge….He is arrogant. Like all people with timid personalities, his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he’s not. He’s scared. He hates himself, and he loves himself, a very tense situation. It’s people like me who have to carry on and pretend to be modest. To me, it’s the most embarrassing thing in the world—a man who presents himself at his worst to get laughs, in order to free himself from his hang-ups. Everything he does on the screen is therapeutic”. This deeper reading of shyness and self-loathing, that refrains from just extending unconditional kindness to it and instead explores the social nature of what it actually accomplishes in interaction with other people, applies well to Shinji. When Shinji doesn’t want to kill someone in the show (like Toji or Karowu), it seems in some ways more the horror at committing an action that undeniably is his. Of something unquestionably being his responsibility. He pilots an Evangelion because he is told to, because he is praised and validated for it, but beyond that, he crumples. He all but says as much plainly in the Instrumentality kitchen scene where he first strangles Asuka.
Towards the end of the film, during one of the Instrumentality sequences, the footage switches from animation to live-action. We see a city, people, animals. We see a cinema audience of people watching a NEON GENESIS EVANGELION clip-show film. “DO YOU FEEL GOOD?” is superimposed over them. A man in the audience can be seen visibly holding two dolls of Rei and Asuka. We see an empty room where the colour layout of the chairs suggests the image of a cross. Rei intones to Shinji “This convenient fabrication is your attempt at a revenge against reality….You escaped into imagination, and distorted the truth….That is not a dream. It would just be compensating for reality”.
Some people responded to all this by pushing a fan orthodoxy that the film had a happy, affirming ending, and that presumably indulging in decades of trivial discussion and merchandise purchase surrounding the show was a healthy course of action. One of the prevailing discourses surrounding the show, even now decades on, is which of the two fourteen-year-old girl main characters are more attractive. When describing otakus, Anno once said “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”. He followed up that thought by saying “I would like to add and say to those fans, hey, go out and visit towns. I am 35 now and I am realising the importance of human contact little by little…”.
THE END OF EVANGELION brings all the meat of the television series to a grander finale with more closure than the more introspective TV finale, but it’s the recontextualisation of Shinji’s character, and the outright condemnation of the attitudes and tendencies that mark people like him, that see it transcend the series. In-universe it sees the depth of characters psyches be focused on to the point of disgust, and to the viewer it does the same to its protagonist Shinji, who received an affirming ending in the series, which was then rejected, and so in turn came the film as a response to that rejection. The death threats Anno received in reality flash up on the screen in the Instrumentality sequence. The story is pretend, but the viewers are real, and I don’t think Anno can be accused of didacticism when his points are so widely rejected and missed decades on. A masterwork of characterisation, realised with stunning artistry. An unforgettable argument against the toxicity of self-deluding escapism. Five AT fields, and a blood-stained moon.