There’s always been a fair amount of contention around Neon Genesis Evangelion. Like anything else that becomes as popular as it did (especially with anime, which attracts its fair share of possessive fans), people can get very particular about what they expect. The most recent iteration of this came in the frustration at Netflix when they acquired the streaming rights to the show in 2019. As well as changes to the dubbing actors and a new translation, there was plenty of fury over the absence of the numerous end-credit covers of ‘Fly Me To The Moon’. It feels strange for a show that began in Japan 25 years ago to still stoke this much feverish reaction.
This was all minor compared to the show’s historic finale. Received with confusion and then vitriol upon its release, creator Hideaki Anno infamously received death threats, images of which supposedly made their way into his eventual feature-length reworking of the ending, Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (1997). The two-part television finale (episodes 25 and 26) and the film are often presented as an either-or choice. Those who prefer the original praise its seemingly more empathetic presentation. The film often wins favor because of its comparatively higher budget thrills and bewildering aggression. Rather than being a binary choice between two drastically different conclusions, both endings are far more alike than their differences let on.
First, some context. Neon Genesis Evangelion was created by Hideaki Anno, an animator who studied under Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli (his work includes the utterly immense God Warrior sequence in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984). Post-Ghibli, Anno’s career saw him serve as an animator on Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987), as director on the series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990-1991) and his wild, underrated, and highly emotional mecha OVA (original video animation) Gunbuster: Aim For The Top (1988-1989). Evangelion might be Anno’s most recognisable work – and also his most personal.
Broadcast on Japanese television from 1995 to 1996 and then followed up with a few movies, Neon Genesis Evangelion centers around troubled teenage boy Shinji Ikari. He is recruited by his absentee father in order to pilot a giant robot (that’s not really a robot) called an Eva, to fight the monstrous enemies called Angels that are attacking the futuristic city of Tokyo-3. Shinji loathes his father and fears fighting, resulting in a series-length identity crisis for the ages.
The show eases into this intensive emotional arc – beginning Misato and Shinji’s relationship as that of a goofy, bickering odd couple. Misato’s volatility comes off as comical at first, but as with the other characters, her actions are shown to be rooted in a trauma similar to Shinji’s and her carefree wildness proves to be a facade for a deep insecurity. Their time together is littered with bizarre humor that sometimes feels like it’s reaching for the bottom of the barrel but is charming nonetheless – and also serves to draw a connection with the pop culture that it is deconstructing.
The Genesis of Neon Genesis
Throughout the series, Shinji fraternizes and clashes with a few other pilots – the taciturn and mysterious Rei Ayanami, and the brash and confident Asuka Langley Soryu, both of whom have plenty of neuroses of their own. Despite settling into a sort of monster-of-the-week rhythm for its first half, even the early episodes hint at Shinji’s immense inner struggle. Each episode seemingly brings Shinji closer to understanding, then sets him back again. For its final third, the series becomes increasingly abrasive and upsetting, diving deep into neuroses of Shinji as well as Asuka and Rei during (often involuntary) metaphysical journeys of introspection.
None of this is to say that giant robot shows weren’t thoughtful before Evangelion came along. The pioneer of what is now referred to as the ‘real robot’ genre of anime, Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-1980), was laden with complex anti-war thematics and similarly starred a pilot, Amuro Ray, who wanted nothing to do with big robots. Neon Genesis Evangelion is often held up as a grand deconstruction but – especially in its visuals – it delights in the tropes of the genre, with spectacular fights between the titan Evas and various eldritch horrors of the Angels. It’s hardly the first to put the inner lives and emotions of the pilots at the forefront – after all, this is how Gundam made its name.
Where Evangelion stands apart is its turn toward abstraction and impressionistic experience over realist detail. A lot remains vague to the very end of the show. It’s also far more grotesque – starting with the Evangelion themselves, which are more symbiotic than robotic. Rather disturbingly, they bleed. Worse still, they’re psychically linked to their pilots and the giant machine’s pain and physical injury are shared with the pilot. All is done so to increase the immediate trauma of piloting one of these things and any thrill is often short-lived.
The world of Evangelion is just as fragile as the psyches of its characters, constantly under threat of total collapse. The main city it takes place in, Tokyo 3 (the last two were destroyed), is one of the last fortresses for humanity following a cataclysm known as Second Impact. Again, this may all sound like familiar ground for anyone who has watched a mecha anime (or even just Gundam), but its formal construction immediately differentiates it. Anno and co. pack the show to the brim with Judeo-Christian and downright Freudian imagery, packed alongside references to Jungian archetypes (particularly that of the anima and the animus) and Kierkegaard. As well as the interior lives of its characters, Evangelion also engages with the nuts and bolts of bureaucracy, espionage and the secret organizations shaping the future of humanity, in the incredibly complex mythology that can only be managed by multiple Wiki pages.
Big Robots, Big Trauma
Upon the first release of the show’s US DVD boxset (it’s yet to have a physical UK release- the first one is coming from Anime Limited in 2021) writer Mike Crandol said of Evangelion’s appeal for Anime News Network: “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.” Those more conventional elements of Evangelion begin to break apart as the show goes on and Anno becomes more intensely interested in psychoanalysis, focusing more and more on Shinji’s depression.
As the end of the show approached, it was behind schedule and out of money, and so the now infamous finale threw out action entirely in favour of a metaphysical group therapy session. The 25th episode, ‘The World Ending’, is the first of a two-part finale in which Anno rebuilds the show into painful, fragmented psychoanalysis, threaded together by reused and altered cel animation from earlier in the series as well as new abstract, trippy animation that embodies Shinji’s confused psyche.
The young Eva pilot’s self-hatred has become so great that he has essentially wished himself into oblivion, aided by the culmination of his father’s ultimate plan for ‘Human Instrumentality’. The idea behind the project is to solve what he perceives as the inherent, inescapable flaw of mankind – that we’re alone from the day we’re born. ‘Instrumentality’ is an escape from loneliness through a return to a primordial state, all people and forms and minds melded together in one big orange soup. To match this deconstruction of the show’s very nature, the animation cels are broken apart and taped back together (during one scene with Misato at least).
The reason that the finale is this way is partly that Anno was still figuring out what the show meant – it was an extension of himself, and his own struggle with depression. As he became increasingly interested in psychoanalysis, the show began to reflect that interest and the characters all begin to recognise the flaws that drove their actions. Simultaneously they become mouthpieces for Anno exploring his own self-worth.
They still feel like individuals though. Shinji is the only one who (purposefully) feels like a cypher, as a person who is only able to find solace when doing as others tell him, and when he is praised for it. The finale is about him claiming an identity for himself. That journey isn’t easy – Shinji’s psyche is revealed like an open wound as Anno cuts right to the core of his fear in two episodes that still feel raw, painful and candid in a way that few TV series as popular as this had before or since. The episodes explore these ideas purely through sensation and the inner space of the characters’ minds rather than their physical reality, their interactions with people (or giant eldritch monsters). ‘Human Instrumentality’ occurs in a strange, ethereal plane, we are only privy to glimpses of its physical effects on the world (those frames would later be contextualized in The End of Evangelion).
The pure strangeness and unexpected tangent of those final two episodes weren’t entirely well-received. When the final two episodes aired, Anno infamously got death threats because viewers were so put off by the shift towards the patchwork of voiceover psychoanalysis and reused images from the show, as well as more expressive, rough and abstract pencil animation. In an interview with the Japanese anime magazine Newtype, Anno said of the finale: “Episodes 25 and 26 as broadcast on TV accurately reflect my mood at the time. I am very satisfied. I regret nothing.” The episode is surprisingly joyous in its emotional breakthrough, and despite some vitriol from a group of loudmouthed fans, those episodes are beloved for their powerful emotional catharsis. What saves the world of Evangelion isn’t a giant final battle, it’s simply the young boy deciding that “maybe I can learn to like myself… it’s okay for me to be here.”
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Part 2 of Kambole’s in-depth analysis of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s twin endings can be found here. The Companion is a safe space for its members. If the article has affected you personally, whether through your own experiences with mental health or the experiences of someone close to you, we’d encourage you to make use of the resources provided by Mind.
Kambole Campbell is a freelance critic, writing and speaking on animation and other film and TV for the likes of Empire, Thrillist, Polygon, All The Anime, Little White Lies, and BBC.You can follow him @kambolecampbell on twitter.