Understanding Evangelion

by Mike Crandol, Jun 11th 2002

Understanding Evangelion

Editor's Note: This article was not possible without a number of spoilers, we don't feel that the spoilers a big enough to ruin a viewer's enjoyment of Evangelion, but be warned that they are there.

With the recent series' Box Set release and the highly anticipated American debut of its two theatrical follow-ups approaching, Neon Genesis Evangelion is once again on the minds and mouths of the anime fan community. Since it's premiere in 1995, director Hideaki Anno's dark mecha-masterpiece has left it's indelible mark on the anime industry, and....as such works that forever alter the course of all that follow it are wont to do....it has alternately been described as a work of Sheer Genius and the most Overrated Piece of Crap in recent memory. Whatever your feelings regarding Evangelion, it cannot be denied that the limits of what the animated film could convey were expanded to a level that had never previously been reached. Perhaps no other work in the history of anime has been as scrutinized, psychoanalyzed, and generally picked-apart to such an extent. But to paraphrase a less-complicated American 'toon, Evangelion is like an onion: layers of allegory and hidden meanings are peeled back only to reveal several more underneath. With new legions of fans poised to experience this complex psycho-roller-coaster for the first time in the coming months, it seems like a good time to try and get to the core of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion began as a 26-episode anime television series but quickly evolved into a cottage industry of models, merchandise, feature-films, and even a sort of quasi-religion. Teenager Shinji Ikari is summoned to NERV, a secret organization headed by his estranged father Gendo. Huge creatures known only as Angels have mysteriously appeared and are ravaging the earth, and only NERV's gigantic humanoid Evangelions can defeat them. Shinji must enter into the Evangelion and control it in hand-to-hand combat with the Angels if mankind is to survive. Together with fellow Eva-pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Sohryu, Shinji must work under the guidance of his commander and surrogate mother Misato Katsuragi to defeat all 17 of the enigmatic Angels and prevent the dreaded Third Impact which will trigger the end of the world.

Like many works of fiction Evangelion is an allegory, but most allegories function on only two levels: the story itself and it's symbolic meaning. One of the remarkable things about Evangelion is that it functions on no less than four distinct levels. It can be enjoyed at face value as an expertly realized sci-fi action adventure, but it is also a bleak satire of the genre, a coming-of-age parable, and a treatise on confronting loneliness and uncertainty in the adult world. Early episodes bely the true nature of the series, and indeed after viewing the first few installments one wonders what all the fuss is about, as Evangelion appears to be nothing more than another ho-hum entry into the already overcrowded Boy-Pilots-Giant-Robot genre. But very quickly is becomes apparent that there is much more here than meets the eye, as a global conspiracy of literally Biblical proportions is slowly revealed in tandem with the degeneration of the main character's psyche, illustrated...in a marvelous breakthrough use of animation...inside Shinji's mind. As if this weren't enough, Evangelion is at the same time a revisionist parody of the Giant Robot show, even as it masquerades as a serious entry into genre. On a simpler level it is an extraordinary character piece, containing some of the most believable and involving personalities ever put to film, be it animated or live-action.

It was perhaps inevitable that in trying to contain all these weighty elements that something would break, and in Evangelion's case it was the story. The labyrinthine plot is constructed with the delicacy of a House of Cards, and as later episodes pile on multiple questions for every answer given it becomes impossible for Anno to resolve any of them by the series' end. Instead Evangelion's infamous final two episodes are devoted entirely to examining the internal conflicts of its troubled protagonists, which had at any rate become as much a part of the show as giant-robot battles or apocalyptic conspiracy. Still, from a pragmatic standpoint this is hardly an ending at all, and from this perspective Evangelion is a very unsatisfying viewing experience...like eating a chocolate only to find the nugget in the middle is missing. An attempt at supplying a more conventional conclusion to the story was made in the two Evangelion feature films that followed in 1997: "Death and Rebirth", which was a recap of events from the series with a few new tidbits of information added, and "The End of Evangelion", which revealed the ultimate purpose of the Evangelions, the Angels, and the mysterious Human Instrumentality Project. While the second movie provides a definitive finale to the Neon Genesis Evangelion saga, it still cannot explain the reasons behind the actions that take place, and ultimately in the final section of the film Anno returns to the animated psycho-analysis of Shinji that marked the end of the television series.

Creator/Writer/Director Hideaki Anno has claimed that, in his opinion, the movies were not a necessary conclusion to his work, and that the television ending, told in abstract animation entirely in the character's minds, was all the ending that was needed. Though it is hard to justify the series' abandonment of it's own plotline, Anno is correct when he says that at it's heart Evangelion is not about giant robots in the slightest. The Evangelions, the Angels, and the myriad other plot devices present are all allegorical symbols for more basic struggles of a personal nature. Anno continues to use these symbols in the final episodes but dispenses with the unimportant (to him) story they were engaged in and instead applies them directly to the meanings they hold for the various characters, who at this point are themselves allegorical representations of different sides of Anno's, and by extension our own, personality.

At the heart of this maelstrom of symbolism and allegory is Shinji Ikari, the classic Tragic Hero. Imbued with character flaws that ultimately prove his undoing as he spirals into depression and insanity by the series' end, Shinji is a departure from the more idealistic heroes commonplace in mecha anime (or adventure fiction in general, for that matter). Adventure heroes customarily represent the audiences' aspirations: they are people we'd like to be. Shinji, conversely, is representative of the audiences' realizations: his flaws we recognize in ourselves. While he certainly qualifies as an "adventure hero" (he single-handedly saves the world no less than 10 times in Evangelion), he has much more in common with the doomed protagonists of Greek Tragedy and Shakespeare than Indiana Jones or Amuro Ray. Abandoned as a young child by his seemingly uncaring father, Shinji believes himself unworthy of love and acceptance, which gives rise to a total lack of trust in himself and in others. The first half of Evangelion sees him build confidence in his own abilities (through piloting the Eva) and develop friendships for the first time with his classmates and coworkers. This is all destroyed in Evangelion's second and third acts, when through an unfortunate series of events Shinji plunges into an even more despondent state than which he began. Ultimately, Shinji is left utterly alone to question the meaning of his existence. It is during Evangelion's final soul-searching episodes that Shinji becomes a mirror on our own selves, and his fear, doubt and loneliness is the fear, doubt and loneliness that exist in us all.

Evangelion is about being alone, about feeling alone and coming to terms with loneliness. But Shinji is not alone in feeling alone. Evangelion's other main players suffer from the exact same fears and uncertainties; they just deal with them in different ways. The reclusive pilot of Eva Unit-00, Rei Ayanami, is completely introverted....even more so than Shinji; one might say she represents the end result of Shinji's downward spiral. NERV Operations Major Misato Katsuragi masks her loneliness with a playful, carefree attitude....and large amounts of alcohol. In "The End of Evangelion" it is revealed that even the minor characters have this fundamental emptiness at their core. But of these supporting players it is most interesting to compare Shinji with the hot-tempered pilot of Eva Unit-02, Asuka Langley Sohryu. At first glance the two are complete opposites: Shinji is passive, quiet, and unassuming, while Asuka is aggressive, outgoing, and seemingly full of confidence. But through the lens of Evangelion's extraordinary character development we learn that deep down Asuka is exactly like Shinji. Fundamental feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness drive Asuka to proclaim herself "the best" at whatever she sets out to do, and her fear of abandonment is allayed by convincing herself that "she doesn't need anybody". When it becomes apparent that she is in fact not "the best" Eva pilot, she begins a mental collapse that parallels Shinji's. Their mental breakdown, and that of the similarly troubled Rei and Misato, is illustrated onscreen in a spectacular manner that redefines the boundaries of animation, taking the medium's potential to portray anything the mind can conceive to a new extreme.

Midway through the production of the television run Hidekai Anno suffered a nervous breakdown, and it is at precisely this point in the series that the first of many animated "head-trips" occur. Anno begins to use his characters as sounding boards for his own internal struggles, but rather than have them voice their concerns in a more traditional manner Anno utilizes the medium of animation to take us inside their own thoughts. Ironically the first subject of these experimental character-analyses is not the protagonist Shinji but Rei. As her subconscious speaks offscreen her train of thought is illustrated through quick cuts of abstract animation and static backgrounds. Random images of flowers and sky segue into Rei questioning the meaning of her very self, and a transparent image of Rei floats by which in turn is replaced by a vision of many Reis in an endless row. The effect is jarring, and more than a little surreal. Most of the ensuing hallucinations are devoted to Shinji although Asuka and Misato get some time under the microscope as well. These scenes appear with increasing frequency in later episodes, and eventually their length and intensity are compounded to the point where it is no longer Shinji and his friends who are being mentally examined but the viewers themselves.

By the final two episodes these animated therapy sessions have completely overridden the rest of the show, and as stated previously Evangelion's finale is played out entirely in the minds of the four main characters. A barrage of existential questions such as "What do you fear?" and "Why do you pilot Eva?" are flashed across the screen as Shinji and company struggle to answer them, and the audience listens for solutions to questions of identity that plague all mankind. As the questions are repeated their answers gradually change until the root of all their troubles is laid bare: all fear being abandoned by others due to a perceived lack of worth. The last episode zeroes in exclusively on Shinji, and as his very mind is deconstructed the animation complements the process in Evangelion's boldest artistic endeavor. Full animation regresses to storyboards that in turn give way to a black-and-white scribble of Shinji floating in a white void. Told that he is free of all worldly restraints, Shinji is uncertain of is own existence. The voice of his father, Gendo, obligingly offers to give his son a restriction to orient him, and a black line is scrawled across the screen for Shinji to walk upon. "You now have a top and a bottom," Misato tells him, "but you may no longer fly." (The effect is not unlike the classic Chuck Jones' Looney Tune "Duck Amuck", in which Daffy Duck finds his cartoon universe deconstructed by an unseen animator). From these innermost recesses of his mind Shinji is told he can create whatever reality he desires for himself, and as this bleak series comes to a close it's ultimately positive message is revealed: Our world is what we make of it, truth is subjective, and one must learn to love oneself before they can love another. Shinji chooses to face his fears and return to the world he knew, and the other characters welcome him back.

Throughout these final episodes...indeed throughout the entire series, Anno continually brings to our attention the many symbolic values of Evangelion's characters, creatures, and events. Gendo Ikari, Shinji's estranged father, is the specter of Rejection, Misunderstanding, and Betrayal. Shinji's brief friendship with the cryptic Kaoru Nagisa is representative of blind, total and unconditional love and acceptance, but like those things Kaoru turns out to not be real at all. The most complex symbol in the series, however, is the Evangelion itself. Piloting the Eva provides the means by which Shinji and Asuka acquire their sense of purpose. Emotionally stunted in all other areas of her life, Asuka has focused exclusively on the Evangelion, her "job", to give meaning to her existence. As she loses the ability to control her Eva late in the series she loses the only sense of value she knew. Shinji also feels that his "job", piloting Eva, is his only worthwhile quality. Unlike Asuka, who happily turned a blind eye to this dilemma until it was too late, Shinji frets over finding meaning to his life outside his work. Thus, the Evangelion is representative of our duties and responsibilities....those things we don't necessarily want to do but have to do. It important to take pride in them but it is also important to find other things to take pride in as well, else they become your only identifier.

Were that all the Evangelion represented it would be impressive enough, but there is an additional, Freudian side to the mecha monster as well. The central Evangelion, Shinji's Unit-01, is literally and figuratively his own mother. Yui Ikari was absorbed into Unit-01 in an experiment during her son's toddler years, and the perceived indifference of his father has made it impossible for Shinji to come to terms with what he was told was his mother's accidental death. Ironically, years later Shinji is dependant on Unit-01 for a means to survive. Beginning his journey into adulthood, Shinji is both resentful of this dependence and at the same time afraid to leave the comfort and safety it provides. It has even been suggested that Shinji's entering into Unit-01 is a Freudian "return to the womb", and that his struggle to be free of the Eva is his "rite of passage" into manhood. Shinji must learn to let go of his mother before he can grow as person if he hopes to attain a serious adult relationship with the girl he cares for. Not surprisingly, his dealings with his female costars are marked by a severe love/hate relationship.

Shinji harbors semi-romantic feelings for the three women closest to him, but his distrusting nature prevents him from developing any kind of meaningful relationship with them, and inside he angrily believes them of intentionally building barriers to prevent him from getting close. Again it is Asuka that it is most interesting to consider in this light. Sensing a kindred soul beneath her aggressive exterior (or perhaps admiring the determination he lacks), Shinji comes to love her, but does not know how to express it. Likewise, it is hinted that Asuka has similarly romantic feelings for Shinji, but her ego prevents her from admitting it even to herself. This is illustrated in an hilarious sequence in which Asuka, feigning boredom, asks, "Hey Shinji, you wanna kiss me?"; Shinji stammers and blushes until an exasperated Asuka walks up and kisses him until he literally turns blue. Afterwards she runs off screaming "Eww, gross!". Set against this lighthearted sequence is a similarly staged scene in "The End of Evangelion" that is one of the most disturbing moments in the entire Evangelion canon. In another of his head-trips, Shinji imagines the time he and Asuka shared their first kiss, although instead of said kiss Shinji confesses his love to Asuka. Asuka accuses him of loving her purely for selfish reasons; that he is only running to someone...anyone...for comfort. Unsure of his own self, Shinji has feared this to be true all along. At the end of his rope, feeling absolutely rejected and angry at her for denying him, Shinji strangles Asuka. Driven mad by his internal struggles, Shinji almost strangles Asuka for real later in the movie. She is saved by finally admitting her feelings to him, and as she gently caresses his cheek he snaps out of his delusion and collapses in tears. By opening their hearts to one another Shinji and Asuka at last have a chance at happiness. Unfortunately the brutality of this scene obscures its tender meaning, and the Evangelion saga ends on a dour note despite reprising the positive message from its television conclusion.

In fact the entire film is marked by a pervasive darkness that eclipses the already dark television series. Illustrating the real-world events that occurred during the final introspective TV episodes, the action is as savage and uncompromising as the internal struggles that complement it. As Shinji's mental world collapses, Third Impact is at last initiated and the physical world begins to end as well. Mirroring the darkest hours of its protagonist's breakdown, the apocalyptic events of "The End of Evangelion" are fittingly nightmarish. While Shinji eventually decides that his life is worth living, his return to a barren and ravaged reality reminds us that merely changing your perspective on life will not immediately alter it. Shinji must continue to strive to attain happiness: no one is going to hand it to him on a silver plate.

Clearly Neon Genesis Evangelion has a lot to say. The garbled manner in which it sometimes says it, however, has lead some to accuse Anno of crafting an elaborate Wild Goose Chase, pretentiously spewing a bunch of existential babble with no real meaning. While it is true that Evangelion takes the long road to get to it's conclusions, the basic truths at the journey's end are no less valid. Anyone who has ever felt alone, unsure, and afraid should be able to identify with Shinji's plight, and I daresay that includes every one of us. Ultimately deciding to take the good along with the bad, Shinji will continue to plug away at Life, even if he is literally the last man on earth.

But one must dig even deeper to get to the true heart of Evangelion's lasting appeal, and it ultimately proves to be remarkably simple. Many of Eva's detractors believe, incorrectly, that the show owes it's widespread popularity to it's psychological mumbo-jumbo. The fact is, however, that none of Eva's existentialism would work without totally convincing human personalities to back it up. The real marvel of Evangelion is not it's abstract ending but the carefully crafted characterizations that inhabit it. Had Anno not taken the time to carefully delineate his character's personas the experimental sections would be meaningless and insufferable, a point many of Evangelion's imitators fail to take into consideration. Eva's more sane, early episodes are chock full of intense character development, sometimes even to the exclusion of the action...something unheard of in a so-called "action show". Anno will often spend two-thirds of an episode's airtime exploring the interplay between his various characters, devoting only the closing minutes to Eva-vs-Angel action; hinting that even early on Anno is less concerned with mecha battles than with what makes Shinji and company tick. One would think that this would make for a very dull action show, but nothing could be further from the truth. Anno fleshes out his characters so completely that the viewer becomes totally engrossed in their actions, and every Angel battle (all excellently animated) is an edge-of-your seat event. Wisely choosing Tragic over Epic heroes, Anno also makes it easier for the audience to get inside their heads and behind their cause.

Evangelion's critics are quick to point out that the series' celebrated cast members are mere stereotypes of classic mecha anime characters. Shinji is the timid youth piloting a giant robot built by his mad scientist father; Rei is the shy introverted girl with the dark secret; Misato is the sexy, boisterous lady-in-charge; and Asuka is the angry, impulsive competitor. Conceived in part as a postmodern take on earlier shows in the Gundam tradition, Evangelion's characterizations are indeed adapted from what has come before.... though there is nothing "mere" about them. Imbued with extra dimensions to their familiar personas, the heroes of Evangelion are much more believable than their predecessors. The ways in which they interact with one another bring all sides of their personalities into focus, and the result is sometimes somber, sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious...but always entertaining. Asuka's competitive nature piques a similarly competitive side in Shinji's usually passive, compromising personality. Shinji's vocalizations of his troubles invariably elicits an angry "What are you, stupid?!" from the seemingly confident Asuka, which serves to bring into sharper focus the fact that she too suffers from the same doubts. His superiority in battle creates feelings of resentment in Asuka, and she masks her concern for Shinji's safety when he is in danger with an air of nonchalance, though her telltale dialogue subtly reveals her true feelings. The chronic drinking habits of Misato amplify her sense of playfulness and fun when she's around the young Eva-pilots, but a night on the town with her ex-lover Kaji reveals the dependent and insecure woman underneath. Even the quiet Rei is given depth to her otherwise one-sided persona by her interactions with Shinji and Gendo, which reveal a growing mistrust of the elder Ikari and an increasing love and respect for his son. By the time Evangelion comes to a close, even comparatively minor players like Gendo and NERV scientist Ritusko Akagi have revealed multiple facets to their personalities, making for an anime world inhabited by a cast of totally convincing human individuals.

It is because of this remarkable depth of characterization, seldom achieved so successfully in anime or any other medium, that the audience sticks with Evangelion through its tangled and ultimately unfinished plotline. By the time the story begins to unravel in the series' third act its players have been so well established they are able to entertain on a blank stage (which indeed they do). If nothing else, the narrative abandonment serves to illustrate that in the end it is the characters that make or break the success of any work of fiction.

Paradoxically, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a work that suffers major shortcomings yet still has managed to become a resounding critical and commercial hit. Few animations dare to attempt such an enormous encompassment of story, character, and philosophy, coupled with innovative artistic endeavors. It is a work that is fantastic escapism even as it is a grim reminder of reality. It's heroes live out the ultimate fantasy adventure only to find it cannot compensate for the basic humans needs of love and friendship. Their quest to attain inner peace is so passionately conveyed it holds it's audience even as the very framework of the show falls apart. Though in the end Evangelion falls short of filling it's own shoes, it's feet are bigger than many other anime series put together. Love it or hate it, it is destined to forever stand as one of the most significant and influential works in anime history.


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