As part of a series I shall run called “Anime Legends” – which will be detailed posts which analyse and reflect on the themes, motifs and ultimately more subtle meaning of certain anime legends – Neon Genesis Evangelion will be my first. With the eagerly anticipated fall 2012 coming of Evangelion 3.33, I couldn’t help but re-watch the Neon Genesis Evangelion series and of course the End of Evangelion movie. Many years on from having first watched these, I was reminded of just how much I loved this series, and why I did. This anime isn’t just an anime. It is an exploration of basic human emotion.
The author isn’t just writing an anime, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto hardly ever puts in a wasted line in this anime, everything was meant for something, and whilst I really do want to try to avoid anime snobbery, NGE is possibly one of the most loose yet aloof – and subsequently, most misunderstood – animes ever written. Gainax is commonly known to produce anime which are supposed to appeal “intellectually” rather than aesthetically or just increasingly uncontrollable (I’m looking at you FLCL). I would say Evangelion achieves isn’t necessarily intellectual however, definitely has a lot more to it than at first glance meets the eye , with the recent remakes of 1.11 and 2.22 adding stunning animation to boot. NGE is praiseworthy for a number of reasons, but the main focus of this post will be in regards to the character development that really gives this anime its originality and unique aroma; the message and meaning behind Shinji’s actions and the development of his person – which is all too relatable to us as an audience.
The deeply confused and emotionally stunted, Ikari Shinji. I’ve always loved Eva due to its character development. To a lot of people, there seems to be a huge lack of character development in the series, as supposedly Shinji is the same at the end, as he was at the start; cowardly, withdrawn, emotionally malnourished and still not having made any significant bonds with anyone. However, I would contest these claims. I would argue that actually – assuming we are going by the true (End of Evangelion) ending as opposed to the original series ending – Shinji grows a lot and whilst it is true his inability to change is the reason that the Third Impact is triggered, it’s also a direct consequence of Shinji’s development that the crisis is averted. It is generally known that Shinji is reflective of Sadamoto’s personal life, as he suffered from depression and social anxieties prior to and during the writing and production the series. We see a lot of these anxieties reflected in Shinji and not only do they come out very naturally in his character, they are also the chief mechanism by which the story is driven.
It is by Shinji’s inability to forge human connections that he inevitably seeks instrumentalisation, falling prey to his father’s plan. It is by Shinji’s depression that he seeks to hide from others, rather than engage with them, meaning he alienates himself and insulates his own suffering. It is by Shinji’s inability to handle the friendships that he does manage to desperately forge, that he seeks to abandon any romantic notions of friendships or love meaning he wishes for instrumentalisation; he would rather forego any possible happiness if it meant being rid of his great unhappiness. There is a lot of emotional/psychological (I use that loosely as Evangelion isn’t a psychology book) involved in the series, which is sadly, often overlooked by fans – it is all too often that I hear Evangelion is ‘crazy’ or just ‘messed up’ or “Freudian quantum chromatography” but this is not the purpose of the show at all; Sadamoto isn’t trying to make decadent or disgustingly pseudo intellectual characters, rather, trying to show us the simply truth of human emotions, relationships and resulting outcomes. The show is filled with awesome mechas , detailed animation, an amazing environment and really superb action scenes, but some of the most gripping moments in the anime for me did not have any kind of action in them, rather they were when Shinji was thinking over his life and struggling with the various ultimatums that presented themselves. All of these things play part in Shinji’s decision to merge Eva 02 with the Rei Lilith and thus cause the human populace to have their AT field neutralised and their physical being to be reduced to primordial soup, which then forms Lilith’s Egg and almost leads to Instrumentality.
The story is so intimately tied in to the various emotional struggles of Shinji and the people around them, that I don’t understand how you can fathom the entirety of the show without really empathising with Shinji and Sadamoto’s intention. A lot of people say the dialogue in the story is often brittle and comes across as stale, but I would argue that as aforementioned, lines in this anime aren’t put in for any reason other than that they are completely necessary. Sadamoto creates atmosphere and relationships. Outside of this, I don’t think he bothers. To say that Shinji doesn’t develop much, is to completely fail to understand the premise of the anime. Shinji’s role isn’t to become a different person, its to understand who he is as a person, what his role in the world is and to show how we really aren’t all that different to him. His development doesn’t come via a revolution of personality but, via his actions and motivations.
Moreover, growth is reflected in his ability to make his own considered decisions towards the finale. When the Instrumentalisation occurs, he looks back on his journey as an Eva pilot, the bonds that he made and broke and his life in general. He considers what it is to live, and he thinks about what the worth of living is. The same insecurity and despair that lead him to wish for there to be no more social anxieties by simply reducing everyone to a primord, is also the same fuel that powers his rejection of the instrumentality. People also seem to see Evangelion as the expression of psychologies that are only for abnormally dysfunctional people, as if Shinji’s (and other characters’ states of mind) are not things the average person would experience. I disagree with this completely. Shinji seems to agonise over whether he is actually doing something he wants to do or whether he is simply running away, i.e. whether he is being honest in his rationality or not. If this is not something we agonise over all too often, then we are not being honest with ourselves. I don’t think Shinji’s character is of an extreme disposition, if anything, Shinji seems to be the collective troubles of the everyday people personified. I can’t understand how one cannot empathise or connect with Shinji; he is simply an exposition of the human psyche.
Shinji is a plain kind of person because his thoughts give him more flavour than any amount of peppery action could do. As I said, it is by Shinji’s development that he actually get into these predicaments – though predicament might be too light a word to describe the magnitude of his decisions – but it is also through that same development that he averts the catastrophe.Through the melding of his and others’ memories, he sees his life, he questions it and he reflects. Shinji then decides that, instrumentality actually, is not what he wants – it’s just his cowardice; his cowardice would rather give up trying to find happiness than live with his unhappiness. It sounds a lot like the reasoning one may have for committing suicide, which is pretty much what Shinji is doing – not to mention again linking back to Sadamoto’s own experience. Shinji however, accepts that to live is be hurt, this hurt is a key part of life and also a key part of being able to find any happiness. At this point the Lilith Egg breaks apart and the giant Rei sprays out blood – or it could just be all the souls she absorbed – thus stopping the Third Impact, which also reverses the instrumentality. This clearly shows the deep character progression that Shinji goes through, in my opinion.
In addition, there is also quite a (little bit) philosophy entangled within the series. A say a little because I don’t want to conflate Evangelion’s philosophical merits, it has meaning deeper than face value encounter but it is not a philosophical masterpiece by any means. In any case, one of the major points of discussion for this revolves around Asuka and her relationship with Shinji at the end of ‘End of Evangelion’. After Shinji rejects Instrumentality and the Rei Lilith dies, releasing all the souls, only those who have enough will power to remember themselves as individuals are able to reform their bodies by rebuilding their AT Fields – because apparently, we are all made of AT Fields. Asuka, with Shinji, are the only one’s who manage to do it right away. There are multiple interpretations on the last scene where Shinji proceeds to strangle Asuka after she reforms – seeing as there is no clear reason for his action – however, my view of it was: Shinji leaps on Asuka and strangles her not because he actually wished to harm or kill her rather, to feel that he is alive and so is she. That this is real and not some dream and to verify that he is back to his life of happiness but also pain – in a messed up kind of way, he is trying to feel and connect to Asuka by strangling her. Asuka then replied with the long debated line, “Kimochi warui” which translated directly means “How disgusting”. Seeing as the Japanese do not have much place for personal pronouns, I think this term is more of an expression of feeling than of description of an action. Therefore, I took it to be that Asuka was spiteful towards Shinji, not because he strangled her, but for being who he is; someone who has to depend on others, someone who can’t even take action when he despises his surroundings and for being someone who would want instrumentality as they are too weak to live their life.
Asuka throughout the whole series always complains about sharing missions, baths, toilets and even washing machines as she sees the idea of sharing and dependence as weak traits, whilst strength and independence are desirable traits. She sees Shinji’s weak moment of giving into instrumentalisation as disgusting as she doesn’t wish to share her thoughts with others, nor know the thoughts of others in such a way. Shinji constantly desires affection and acceptance in Evangelion whereas Asuka (though insecure herself) constantly wants independence and strength for herself. Due to this, she manages to collect her being again from the collective primordial soup and is disgusted at Shinji’s weakness and when she comes back realising so has he; she is disgusted she is not the only one who has come back but also that Shinji has made it back – he denies her solidarity. She wanted to be alone but Shinji brought her back to the sea of people and to himself – who she doesn’t want to be near. I would take it as Satre said: “Hell is other people” Anyway, that’s my take on the line and on Asuka. It is contestable, I am by no means claiming this is the absolutely correct way to view the situation or the characters, but I just feel this kind of interpretation fits the attitudes and mentalities of the characters best.
So there you have it, that is probably the most superfluous examination of an anime I’ve ever done. Not that it was particularly long or even incredibly in-depth – there are so many other talking points – however, I felt that an anime like Evangelion isn’t done justice by superficial discussion, as it isn’t a superficial anime. I eagerly await for concluding 3.33 and 4.44 movies. As someone who doesn’t buy a huge amount of anime, it should be testament enough how much I love Evangelion, that I will happily buy the Rebuild of Evangelion set on Blue-ray. An anime that is this deep and is remastered this well, deserves the best! The rebuild series has gone through some changes already and aren’t sticking to the original storyline however, I do not mind as long as they do not divert too much. It is inevitable that there are changes as they are movie remakes however, I think this series so far has kept the Eva feeling and will definitely go down along with the original as a classic. You will definitely hear about it once I watch it!
Rather long for a first post however, drop me a comment as I’d like to hear other people’s thoughts on this too. Thanks for reading!