2019 Film Essays

‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’: Subversion, Psychoanalysis and the Lasting Appeal of Demanding Art

The screams of children are ever-present in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Cries of fear, anger and despair accompany the most emotionally fraught scenes of the series, often while adults — parents, guardians, soldiers — stand on impassively as they demand that the children behave obediently. But it is children whose emotions and actions are the focus of much of the series, and whose choices ultimately shape the fate of the universe.

Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, known as Evangelion, aired in Japan in 1995, and tells the story of 14-year-old Shinji Ikari, who is called upon by his father Gendo Ikari to pilot a large armored cyborg called an Evangelion to combat extraterrestrial beings (“Angels”) that have begun to attack the futuristic Tokyo-3. What begins as a standard entry in the popular mecha genre of anime quickly becomes a more challenging story that uses science fiction to expressionistically depict the pain inherent in adolescence. While science fiction elements make up the bare bones of the plot and are entertaining in their own right, they largely exist in service of drawing the viewer into the internal journey of Shinji and his teenage peers.

Evangelion has been considered an anime classic in part because of how much it subverts expectations on various fronts; in its aesthetic, dialogue, narrative and tonal choices. Many of Anno’s decisions are effective in shocking the viewer into a more active viewing experience — into both vigilance and introspection. Shinji’s exhausting behavior, his instability, and his lack of self-esteem, also call attention to the viewer’s own childhood behavior, and the in depth exploration of his psychology reminds audiences of the fears and insecurities of adolescence, and by extension the way those same feelings manifest in adulthood. Discussions about Evangelion (as well as its standing as a classic) have persisted because works that challenge audiences and create opportunities for analysis and introspection are works that people will return to time and time again.

“God’s in his Heaven / All’s right with the world!”

In Evangelion, coming of age is shown to be a harrowing existential experience. Adults have ulterior motives, feeding misinformation to children expected to obey without question. Sexuality is terrifying but enticing. Intimacy and trust, so desperately desired, feel impossible. All these issues are raised to an apocalyptic scale, which — rather than making the issues harder to relate to — gives them the emotional weight that they had when initially experienced as a young person.

The heightened emotion of Evangelion is due in large part to aesthetic choices, particularly the frequent use of Judeo-Christian iconography. Angels have biblical names, two of which (Sachiel and Zeruel) produce towering crosses of light using particle beams. The first two Angels are named Adam and Lilith, the latter of which is crucified by what is referred to in-universe as the Lance of Longinus, and these two beings are integral to Gendo’s plan for the rebirth of mankind, his Neon Genesis Evangelion — literally, his “Gospel of the New Century.”

Christian classical music also features in several climactic scenes of the series; for example, George Frideric Handel’s “Messiah” is used throughout the 22nd episode of the series, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” is used in End of Evangelion, an alternate ending film released in 1997, and Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is used in the climactic scene of the third Evangelion Rebuild film, Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo.

Evangelion is a story about an internal and external apocalypse, a spiritual awakening, and is presented as such, with all the bombastic music and religious iconography that entails; this is not a series that fears taking itself seriously, on the contrary, it demands with its every aesthetic choice that the viewer on this journey of heightened imagery, emotion and narrative.

“Of course nobody understands you.”

A central element of Shinji’s development is his struggle with connections with other people. He deals with what is known as the Hedgehog’s Dilemma (the title of the fourth episode of the series), a metaphorical situation explored by Sigmund Freud and Arthur Schopenhauer that describes the struggle to pursue human intimacy despite the inevitable reality that human beings will harm one another. Here, both the fear of and desire for intimacy are in constant conflict.

This dilemma is also what drives Gendo’s actions — his entire goal, viewers find out, is to instigate a process called Human Instrumentality using the Angels and the Evangelions. As a result of Instrumentality, human consciousness would be connected to a single being, without individuality, without loneliness, and without insecurity. He, too, hopes to escape loneliness and allow others to do the same, with the goal of reuniting with his deceased wife’s consciousness. All of Gendo’s scientific knowledge and military resources are in fact used in service of assuaging the same neuroses that Shinji experiences. All the adults in Evangelion operate on the same emotional impulses as the children of the story — anger, sadness, grief, shame, jealousy — but they have learned in their adulthood to hide their insecurities behind the pretense of duty, ambition, scientific endeavor, etc.

Psychoanalysis has been aptly applied to Evangelion since its airing, and evidence to support various interpretations can be found not only in the subtext, but within the text itself. In the final episodes of the series, Shinji explains that he is suffocated by what is essentially the psychoanalytic concept of the gaze; the fact that that there is a version of Shinji that exists in the consciousness of others; the fact that others’ perception, expectations and identification of him is out of his control is the source of much of his angst. “You’ve never learned how to deal with fearing what others feel about you, and so you avoid it,” Misato says to him during this final conversation. Jean-Paul Sartre explains this lack of total subjectivity similarly to Misato, saying in Being and Nothingness that “Shame…is shame of self; it is the recognition of the fact that I am indeed that object which the Other is looking at and judging.“

A purely psychoanalytical reading of Evangelion could easily be explored further; I include this brief exploration only to show the dedication Evangelion has to imbuing its characters with a fascinating level of complexity. As a result, when the show proceeds in a deeply dramatic and grandiose way as it hurtles toward its existential finale, it is easier for the viewer to feel invested in Shinji’s emotional state.

“I’m no more and no less than the sum of my self awareness.”

The final two episodes of Evangelion are part of what have made the series so memorable, and it is these episodes that were a formative experience for many anime viewers. The finale was controversial enough upon release to prompt the release of the alternate ending film End of Evangelion; the episodes are undoubtedly revolutionary. They take place entirely inside Shinji’s mind, with variations in art style, from loose hand drawn animation to slideshows of storyboards and photographs. The visual impact alone is enough to make these episodes remarkable, much less the philosophical discussion happening in conjunction with these visuals, which is essentially a Socratic dialogue between Shinji and those in his life, in which they debate conceptions of identity, love, loneliness and agency.

Shinji, at this point in the series, must decide whether or not to return to the universe to its former state or accept Instrumentality, and again,  Evangelion’s science fiction elements are used in service of psychological goals. But by this point, the fate of Gendo’s plan has largely fallen to the wayside; the focus is Shinji’s personal, individual decision.

“My life is worth living here!” is Shinji’s final conclusion. As simple and profound a revelation as that is met with thunderous applause and congratulations from other characters from the series. A wide-spanning, complex science fiction story has narrowed to the coming of age story of one young man. The ending of Evangelion is not one of heroic destruction of extraterrestrials, but rather an emotionally effective conclusion about a young man choosing hope over emptiness and despair.

“If you know yourself, you can take care of yourself”

Evangelion was many Americans’ first foray into anime when it aired on Adult Swim in 2003, and has been considered a classic ever since, on top of producing millions of dollars in sales of DVDs and merchandise. Classics often earn this designation because of their ability to maintain relevance across eras and resonate with different demographics by tapping into universal truths about the human condition. In this case, the universal truth is a difficult one to confront — that childhood is traumatic, and the trauma of childhood continues to manifest in adulthood, but it is man’s responsibility to persevere and maintain hope despite the inevitability of that pain.

In Evangelion, youth is depicted not as an event to look back on with nostalgia, but as an arduous task to be overcome. Shinji’s story is one that demands he confront rather than escape; “I mustn’t run away” is his mantra throughout the series. With its baffling, sometimes inconsistent imagery and complicated science fiction plot, Evangelion is not perfect in terms of legibility. But it undeniably has a memorable emotional impact. It demands that viewers not run away from their discomfort, confusion or frustration with the series’ protagonists, and it is both disorienting and exhilarating as a viewer to be expected to confront one’s own demons, to be made to pay attention.

Evangelion has remained remained talked about for decades because, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Catcher in the Rye and other coming-of-age classics, it wraps philosophical conversations of life in the story of one young man, and urges the viewer to invest, remember and acknowledge; to not seek escapism in fiction, but rather to experience the hard-won catharsis of self-examination and self-acceptance. Evangelion remained in my mind for those same reasons; when I first saw it, I was a young woman of similar age to Shinji. I was struggling with loneliness and depression, and I connected with the challenging but meaningful experience of relating to a piece on such a personal level while also having deep artistic and academic interest. Evangelion had implanted itself in my life, right in the midst of my own coming-of-age experience; I was so excited to research, to understand, to relate to all the layered and symbolic meanings, all the ways the show could be interpreted. I bought books about Freud and psychoanalysis, I read about the show’s esoteric lore; I read other people’s thoughts and theories for hours and hours. Even now, years later, I’m just as eager to do the same.

Christina Tucker (@xtinatucker) is a production freelancer, screenwriter and critic based in New York City.

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