You’re a smart cookie and you’ve probably worked out that this is the second part of Kambole Campbell’s in-depth analysis of the themes vital to the contentious (and confusing) conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
If you missed Part 1, you can read that here. Don’t worry, Part 2’s not going anywhere.
Later, with renewed funding, Anno remade the series finale of Neon Genesis Evangelion as the movie Death & Rebirth (1997). The first half essentially recapped the show, the second half added a new ending, this time showing the events of the finale as they occurred in the physical world. This second half would eventually become The End of Evangelion, a complete alternative ending to the series in movie form, also released in 1997. Fans of the show were clamoring for a ‘real’ ending, and Anno sure gave it to them. The End of Evangelion is uncompromising in its brutality and misery, basically putting several exclamation points onto what he was trying to say with the finale. The End of Evangelion, for its first half at least, could be said to be more representative of the sci-fi action-adventure that Crandol spoke of, but it’s also more aggressive (and explicit) in its bleakness, violence and confrontation of loneliness than the show ever was.
Where the show’s final two episodes exist entirely on an abstract and metaphysical plane, The End of Evangelion is about the horrifying physical reality of Gendo’s plan and Shinji’s destructive wish for a world without pain, as all of humanity literally melts into an orange soup. After all that demand, Anno served up the answers that braying fans craved in the most grotesque manner possible. The End of Evangelion is practically anti-fan service, a trip through the worst-case scenario for every beloved character, while the ‘hero’ Shinji remains despondent in the wake of the traumatic act of having killed Kaworu, the person who he thought would be his salvation from loneliness.
It might also be the sharpest and harshest depiction of Shinji yet. Up until perhaps the final 10 minutes of the film, the only moments where he is capable of being anything more than passive, is when he’s acting destructively, to himself and everyone around him. Neon Genesis Evangelion as a series has caught flak (probably fairly) for its indulgence in the same puerile attitudes towards women that it critiques. Though Misato and Asuka, Ritsuko and Rei are all deeply flawed individuals with complex inner lives that receive as much focus as Shinji does – they’re still objectified. The End of Evangelion itself seems to reckon with this, having that manifest as part of Shinji’s character, as his moments of desperation and confusion turn him into a violent and even perverse misogynist. When Asuka refuses to help him, he hurts her.
Shinji’s own awfulness couldn’t be more apparent to him, the acts he commits are all part of some twisted self-flagellation, an attempt to drive everyone he cares about away from him as he feels he doesn’t deserve affection. It’s the clearest version of the show’s ongoing critique of ‘otaku’ culture and toxic masculinity in ways that are shocking to see from the hero of a story, giving in to predatory and destructive acts as he begs for someone to save him from despair. Anno also uses The End of Evangelion to interrogate art as a means of connection, in one stunning moment removing the barrier between film and audience as it briefly switches into live-action, even flashing letters from fans on screen. That thorny acknowledgement of both the reasoning behind and Shinji’s culpability in such actions is a depiction of depression that still feels rare, in animation or otherwise. (Perhaps Bojack Horseman could be considered a successor in animation popular in the West – but that doesn’t have giant robots).
Both the Evangelion finale and End of Evangelion are very simple at their core – they’re about the realization that depression isn’t cleanly fixed, but progress has to come with the willingness to make that progress. In contrast, the dysfunctional Shinji either retreats or seeks out approval from others. Evangelion is a story about understanding and facing trauma again and again, and the self-understanding that is needed to heal. The End of Evangelion is perhaps the most gruelling example of that, with moments like Asuka’s final stand against the grotesque, autonomous Eva series, even crushing what seem like rousing victories. The set-piece itself is a great example of how the film goes about working through its characters, tracking the same emotional arc for Asuka (the realization that her mother loved her, and the regaining of her self-confidence) through her very movements. It’s a stunning sequence that expertly merges action with character analysis, with Asuka’s state of mind embodied in her newfound ferociousness and grace in piloting her Eva. That she still fails is the final punishment in a long series of them, the film asking the viewer to shoulder the burden just as the characters have.
Both versions of its finale reach a similar conclusion via routes that are superficially different, but thematically the same. In both the film and the series finale Shinji finally finds himself in true isolation, told by an otherworldly voice (later revealed to be that of Rei, who has ascended to godhood as Lilith), that “this is the outcome you wished for.” “For destruction, a world where no one is saved… a return to nothingness. You wished for a closed-off world that would be comfortable for you and only you.” The same is said to him of the ending world in The End of Evangelion, that the only kind of Earth where Shinji would be able to escape from his problems rather than confront them, is one where people no longer existed. But this is running away, something Shinji has been doing since before the series began (“I mustn’t run away” is a persistent mantra when he’s under stress), and a path that has always brought him hurt.
The series finale uses its rough and almost alien animation to embody the confusion and mind space of each of its characters. The screen goes completely blank at one point to represent “a world of freedom”, where no rules, and therefore nothing, exists. The End of Evangelion uses similar abstraction, but with more complete and detailed images, and destabilizes its formal content even further by cutting to live-action, and then breaking the fourth wall – displaying an image of the audience watching the film at its first screenings.
As similar themes persist between the two films, so does imagery. The pain of separation between people is emphasized by white spaces in both the finale and in the film. Shinji’s desperate clinginess and infatuation with all of the women in his life – Misato, Asuka and Rei – becomes part of that imagery in both. In End of Evangelion, he is isolated in a train carriage, avoiding their eye out of shame, in the finale he covers his eyes and ears as their ghostly figures surround him. That repetition is key to Neon Genesis Evangelion. In his announcement that he would be returning to remake Evangelion (a project that is still ongoing), Anno said:
“‘Eva’ is a story that repeats. It is a story where the main character witnesses many horrors with his own eyes, but still tries to stand up again. It is a story of will; a story of moving forward, if only just a little. It is a story of fear, where someone who must face indefinite solitude fears reaching out to others, but still wants to try.”Hideaki Anno
The character motivations and insecurities laid bare by the onset of ‘Human Instrumentality’ are still the same. Misato’s uncertainty about her relationship with Kaji and confusion about how she wants to be seen persists across both. Asuka’s insecurities, interestingly, are resolved through action – which perhaps makes more sense for the story, as Asuka’s self-confidence and abandonment issues have always been inextricably tied to the Evangelions, more so than Shinji. Because of that abandonment by her mother, she needs to be the best – and for a few minutes, she is. Her realization that the soul of her mother resides in her Eva (yes, really) is what finally breaks the spiral that started midway through the Evangelion TV series. Because of that use of action in its character work, that final, abstract journey of ‘Instrumentality’ plays out with a more singular focus in End of Evangelion – it’s all about Shinji’s neuroses.
Endings and Beginnings
The fate of the entire world now hinges on the fragile mind of a boy who has never known any certainty or security except for the fact that he wants to escape, whether that’s into the comfort of other people or into isolation. That second impulse begins to lead, and becomes destructive and hateful. The world ends when Shinji lashes out at Asuka in anger, strangling her when she refuses to help him. It’s a shock because Shinji has remained a passive figure throughout the series and up to this point, you don’t expect him to be capable of it.
The original series never explored that anger. Shinji’s self-hatred turns into cruelty so as to ruin relationships with the only friends he has and extinguish the love he feels he doesn’t deserve. That self-immolation manifests itself in the very imagery of The End of Evangelion, especially in its second half. Bodies are destroyed and devoured, the planet itself is eventually consumed and ravaged in a moment triggered by Shinji’s emotional state, with imagery ripped straight from the Book of Revelations. Where the series finale left such imagery behind for something more subdued and abstract, The End of Evangelion returns to the series’ blood-soaked mix of Biblical imagery and eldritch horror, building off of various foreshadowing that the show’s finale swept aside.
It’s tempting to view The End of Evangelion as the more complete ending, especially with the knowledge of the issues surrounding the production of the original. But the film capitalizes on episode 24 and 25’s lengthy breakdown of its characters’ insecurities, allowing more shorthand in the film’s final chapter.
But then they go beyond his own reality, into live-action. The possibilities for Shinji’s life expand beyond such wastefulness and despair, for him to find a connection with someone. It’s reinforced by dialogue with Kaworu and Rei, with ghostly messages from his mother Yui (whose soul also resides within his Eva), and is finalized in the final action of the film – Asuka finally reaching out her hand to him. It’s not to say that Shinji’s ills will be defeated by the comfort of a girlfriend – after all, he had to literally form his own body again and reject the manufactured paradise of Instrumentality through sheer force of will – but that outstretched hand is everything, a final confirmation that there’s hope.
Perhaps the main difference is that The End of Evangelion embodies its themes in its action, where the series finale bends the form itself to question the very nature of being. These dual endings aren’t incompatible. In fact, they complement each other, as the final episodes turn the series’ subtext into text, breaking each character down and building them back up with renewed self-understanding. For all of the superficial differences, it all leads towards the same breakthrough for Shinji. That moment of hope may be best summarized in ghostly parting words from his (long-dead) mother Yui:
“Anywhere can be paradise as long as you have the will to live. After all, you are alive, so you will always have the chance to be happy. As long as the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth exist, everything will be alright.”Yui, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Ep26)
Shoutouts: A huge thanks to Vitas Povilaitis, Natsue Ishida, and Andrew Batley, three of our Kickstarter backers who made The Companion possible!
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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.