Neon Genesis Evangelion

-Article by Paul Ewbank-

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First thing you need to know about this anime series is that the opening theme song is absolutely badass. Go check it out.* Right now. Second thing you need to know is that it’s one of the most messed up things you’ll ever see. Third things you need to know is that even putting it on this blog might constitute a spoiler, so don’t read anymore if you think you might ever watch it.

So I don’t pretend to know much about the world of anime but I know that Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most universally praised series in the medium. So as a starting point for a guy wanting to explore Japanese animation I figured I could do worse. After watching all 26 episodes and the accompanying feature film I am none the wiser as to how the rest of anime works. Despite being built from all the same blocks as your standard issue show- giant robots, schoolboy protagonist, archetypal characters, lots of fanservice- Evangelion is an entirely singular thing. Created originally as a Manga by Hideaki Anno and adapted to anime by the same guy, Evangelion is a mesmerising deconstruction of mecha anime and reflection on depression, isolation and religion. Famous not only for its powerful themes and controversial imagery, Evangelion has also had a painful production history and a rather rocky relationship with its audience which are fascinating in their own right.

Some time in the future the world is devastated by an event called “second impact” which destroys Antarctica, triggering immense tsunamis and climate change which eradicate half the world’s population. After the impact, Earth comes under attack from beings known as angels, creatures which take many forms but are all bent on destroying the remnants of humanity once and for all. They are combated by the Evas, giant humanoid robots developed by the shady military organisation NERV. Evas can only be piloted by children born after second impact, so our protagonist Shinji Ikari is brought to Tokyo by his estranged father and head of NERV Gendo Ikari to pilot the Eva robot and fight the angels.

Sounds pretty standard, right? Well truth be told there’s a lot more to it but that’s the basic setup. Where most shows would use this as a jumping off point for a series of cool robot fights interspersed with winking teen drama and some heavy handed lessons on the power of friendship and believing in yourself, Evangelion goes a million miles in the other direction. By halfway through the series the robot fights have been shoved totally into the background to make way for some deeply painful psychological examinations. Initially a highly reclusive child lacking in any self esteem, Shinji does not learn the power of friendship and believing in himself. He learns that he has absolutely no control over his own life, his actions are totally meaningless and everyone he knows, especially his father, is merely using him and will eventually betray him. The mental strain of piloting the Eva takes a tremendous toll on Shinji and he begins to shut himself off from humanity altogether. Anno allegedly drew much of the inspiration for the show’s psychological elements from his own battles with depression, and it really shows; all the symptoms are there-learned helplessness, withdrawal, apathy, self-loathing and irrational bursts of anger and suspicion- and it all rings incredibly, uncomfortably true. Explorations of Shinji’s past and his relationship with his parents are uncommonly deep and give real weight to his emotional battles. By taking the pain and loneliness of his own life and making them the most important thing in this imagined world, Anno created a dark, oppressive world where everything goes wrong and happy endings seem completely out of reach.

Oh, but lest you think Shinji is the only messed up person in this thing, let’s have a look at some of the others. Upon arrival in Tokyo (it’s actually called Tokyo-3 and it’s an advanced, militarised city that can lower itself underground at the first sign of danger, but whatever) Shinji stays with Captain Misato Katsuragi, a highly attractive 20 something gal who commands the Evas in battle. Misato alternates between trying to be a mother/big sister to Shinji, yelling at him to man up and awkwardly flirting with him and anyone else she comes across. She lives in squalor, frequently gets drunk over breakfast and is revealed to have some pretty substantial daddy issues of her own. She also has a pet penguin but I don’t really have anything to say about that. Then there’s the other Eva pilots. Rei Ayanami is a pale, seemingly emotionless girl who speaks in a rather creepy monotone and seems almost unhuman. Meanwhile Asuka Soryu is a fiery, high strung redhead with some serious rage issues, deep seated insecurities she hides by lashing out at those around her and a bloody minded desire to be recognised as the best. Carl Rogers would have a field day. Conditions of Worth, anyone? Um, yes. Asuka has her own tragic backstory and her flashbacks are some of the most brutal in the show. I could go on. There’s nary an unscarred or even a likeable character in the whole damn thing. Shinji is well meaning but so damn whiny and cowardly, and his inability to see anything is a positive way is incredibly annoying despite it not being his fault. All of the female characters are initially portrayed as attractive but by the end are so messed up, so damaged that you’d feel dirty thinking of them in that way (not that that’s stopped an entire subculture of fanart and fiction from springing up but then, that’s the internet for you).

As you’re probably gathering, this is not a happy show. There’s nary a shred of light to be found for the most part. Even the robot fights, when you get round to them, focus more on the internal struggles of the pilots than the mechanical mayhem they are wreaking. The Evas and their action scenes are admittedly pretty cool, well designed and not as overblown as a lot of other anime tends to be. The angels are bizarre, abstract looking things which seem immensely threatening even as they seem totally incomprehensible to human minds.

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Shamshel, the Fourth Angel
Sahaquiel, the Tenth Angel.
Sahaquiel, the Tenth Angel.

Amidst all the moping there’s still time for a highly complex but very interesting plot to unfold. Expect to be in the dark as to what’s going on a lot of the time, but if you can piece all (or most) of it together then you’ll find an elaborate, twisty narrative full of scheming, big concept sci-fi and powerful religious metaphors. It’s interesting that so much of the look and feel of Evangelion has been based around Christianity, a religion with an adherence rate of about 1% in Japan. And yet everything from the title onwards is just dripping in references to the Trinity, Adam and Eve, the Cross and all sorts of other stuff. Working out what it all means is no easy task, but it certainly gives Evangelion a distinctive, imposing look even as the animation budget dwindled as the series progressed. But I’ll get to that.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is the kind of work which you could spend a lifetime poring over, noting every tiny reference and alluded concept. Not least of these hidden meanings is a hard look at how the rest of mecha anime operates. Evangelion is in part an attempt to show what would really happen if you put a bunch of teenagers in control of giant robots and tasked them with defending the planet. The result would be a lot less fun than most shows seem to think. And when the true nature of the Eva robots is reveaeled, it’s pretty jolly unpleasant and throws the whole concept into dubious light. But for me the cleverest aspect of the show is how it goes one step further and looks not just at the other anime shows of the day but at the people watching and making them. Anno reportedly became increasingly disillusioned with the so-called Otaku lifestyle during the production of Evangelion, and his frustration really comes through. The kind of guy who would be drawn in to watch shows like Evangelion in Japan probably resembles Shinji in a lot of ways: diminutive, reclusive and isolated. In Japan they even have a word for young men who voluntarily shut themselves off from society, and it’s this mentality which Evangelion takes issue with, both through its depiction of Shinji and through an ingenious plot device called the Human Instrumentality Project.

Gonna be droppin’ some pretty major spoilers from here on out, folks.

So it is eventually revealed that Second Impact was caused by NERV themselves as part of this Human Instrumentality Project, the goal of which is nothing less than uniting all of humanity with God. The idea is that when the last angel arrives it will fuse with Adam, a creature NERV discovered frozen in Antarctica, triggering Third Impact and reducing all of humanity to a primordial stew with a shared consciousness. Thus united, humanity would be free from all suffering and selfish desires. NERV aim to play god by forcing human evolution to the next phase. Pretty heavy. Late in the series their plan actually succeeds, uniting all of humanity in one mind, and Shinji has to face his ultimate fear of having all his faults and insecurities on display for literally the entire world to see, a fear shared by much of the target audience. And so this boy who wants nothing more than to hide himself away forever gets to chose the fate of humanity- do they stay united or become separate again and face the horrors of life on earth after Third Impact? It’s a brilliant concept. How does it end? Which does he choose?

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Well, that’s where we run into difficulties. Anno decided to drastically change the focus of the show during the course of its running partly to reflect his new interests and struggles but also in response to a rapidly dwindling animation budget. Internal human conflict is a lot easier to draw than giant robot fights. And so when the notorious final two episodes roll around, there’s not even enough left in the bank to use proper animation. The last two episodes are…well. I’ve said many times on this blog that X or Y makes no sense or is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, but this, this is hands down the weirdest of the lot. Things like narrative, characters, time and space break down completely, leaving nothing but the disembodied voices of the cast floating around as random images, photos, flashes of light and stick figures appear on screen. Yes, stick figures. Drawn on what looks like lined paper. All this is a shoestring budget representation of the Instrumentality Project- all of humanity melded into one and Shinji battling his inner demons with the whole world watching. What exactly the outcome is is hard to say since the whole thing is so abstract, so darn unfathomable that concrete facts don’t really apply. There are a whole lot of interpretations floating around the web as to what the hell happens, but one thing is certain- the series draws to a much happier close than could be expected. Whatever the fate of the rest of life, Shinji finally accepts others into his life and tears down the wall he has built around himself. Smiles and hugs all round. Shame none of that positive energy translated to the shows audience.

Here's a picture of the aforementioned penguin. About as out of palce here as it is in the show.
Here’s a picture of the aforementioned penguin. About as out of palce here as it is in the show.

The fans, already understandably miffed at having been sold a giant robot anime and getting a convoluted, depressing mess of psychoanalysis (the show was initially aired as part of the kids after school cartoon slot) didn’t take too well to having the final two episodes take place entirely in the characters heads and reach no real conclusion. Complaints were made. Criticism was levelled. Death threats were sent. Genuinely. So what did Hideaki Anno and cohorts do? They caved. Or perhaps they too wanted to make a more definitive ending, so once the show found a receptive adult audience and the money started pouring back in, they set about making a proper conclusion to the story. The result is the film End of Evangelion. Essentially two 45 minute episodes intended to either replace or compliment episodes 25 and 26 of the original anime, End of Evangelion is a long way from being the crystal clear, all loose ends tied conclusion people were hoping for, but it does improve on the original in a lot of ways. First, it finally gives fans the climactic robot battle they’d been hoping for. And it’s set to this really sombre classical music and it’s totally awesome. Second, it makes some of the ideas and plot points hinted at in the show much more explicit, allowing most viewers to finally figure out what the hell was going on the whole time. Most importantly the Human Instrumentality segment is significantly altered, and whilst it’s still trippy as balls it is at least a lot clearer what the outcome is regarding the fate of humanity. Plus a whole bunch of characters die. Fun fun.

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There’s an awful lot more going on in the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion than I could ever cover in one article. Other films were made after End of Evangelion which seem to either be a continuation or alternate version of the story. There are also various manga titles, each offering s different version of the NGE universe. So yeah, there’s a heck of a lot to uncover but hopefully this article has given you come kind of idea of what we’re dealing with here. If I have one complaint about the show it’s that the plot is vastly over complicated, told in a very confusing way and all of the symbolism, referencing and such doesn’t really seem to add up to a whole lot. Yes it’s all very clever, yes its leagues ahead of every other animated show I’ve ever seen, but what does it all mean? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Sometimes I’m tempted to say that the overall point Anno was trying to make was nothing more profound than ‘life sucks’. I coulda told you that myself, bro. And it wouldn’t have taken me 26 episodes of moping and whining.

So yeah, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a massive mess of a story, its unrelentingly bleak and depressing and unless you’re willing to put some serious effort into deciphering it you’re not going to get very far. And yet, the sum total is still utterly fantastic. Widely regarded as a landmark in animation and frequently placed atop lists of best anime or even best cartoon altogether, NGE is that rare kind of show that manages to totally blow away and expectations you might’ve had and leave you totally dumbfounded time and again. A must see if only because you’ll never see anything like it, and an all time classic.

*Yes, I have jsut discovered how to put links in my articles. And yes, I intend to use this newfound power to the full.

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