Neon Genesis Evangelion Rewatch is a series of essays where Willow Maclay will be covering the streaming release of Hideaki Anno’s landmark anime show.
[TW: Discussions of Suicide]
There are countless films and television series about the apocalypse, but few actually reckon with the existential horror of what the end actually means. Even great examples like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) and Gojira (1954) soften themselves near the end and reassure viewers that we survived. It is difficult to make something that is nihilistic to the point of saying we don’t go on as a species, because the film industry is tied up in capitalism and at the end of the day no one wants to be told that someday they won’t exist. But this is true for all of us. On a personal level, the apocalypse always comes; and we hope that we face the end with loved ones by our side and the grace of a life well-lived. The death of Earth is an entirely separate manner. Regardless of whatever happens to us this planet will continue to rotate on its axis, carrying the memories of humanity upon its frame. We have the unique opportunity and privilege of living on this planet. With recent reports about the sheer volume of damage that’s happening to our home due to climate change, we can subconsciously feel that window closing. We pray that it won’t be nearly as bad as scientists say it’s going to be, and as is common with the genre of environmental disaster films, we hope that we’ll be there at the end to rebuild whatever we have lost. End of Evangelion doesn’t believe in the false hope of prosperity. It is a doomsday film—a monument to human waste—, but within its prophecy of the end there’s reassurance in knowing that it may just be acceptable to wither away. Giving up the ghost becomes not just a metaphorical image of softening one's own body to the idea of death, but being aware that it is a natural part of things. Knowing this, ironically, gives life meaning, and within End of Evangelion’s pummelling, constant images of loss there is an understanding that life cannot mean anything if it continues on into infinity. End of Evangelion accepts death and by doing so becomes the most life-affirming statement in the entirety of the series.
When Neon Genesis Evangelion concluded, the staff members at production studio GAINAX were satisfied with the ending. Series creator Hideaki Anno was proud of what he created and considered it a beautiful statement on the overall themes of trauma and depression that were constant within the show.1 In those final two episodes the series concludes with lead character Shinji Ikari, the child pilot of the robotic Eva, having a breakthrough on the topic of his own mental health problems. He comes to the realization that he can try to keep living and the effort of doing so would be good enough for him to potentially lead a more satisfying life. Throughout the series Shinji Ikari was forced into the impossible situation of saving the world from the giant monsters known as “Angels”. He was forced by his own father Gendo Ikari to pilot the Eva unit through a series of emotional manipulations. He would make Shinji feel guilt and shame if he didn’t agree to his father’s commands to pilot this monster he created as the head of the scientific branch of the military defence service known as NERV. Shinji was in a no-win situation, and through the course of the series he was scarred both mentally and physically by the toll of this war with these supernatural creatures, but even if this had never happened Shinji would have still had mental trauma. He was born that way, into parental circumstances completely out of his control that informed who he became as a person. The final two episodes of Evangelion are about navigating those problems, and for the most part, these episodes were polarizing at best. Some downright hated these episodes. The staff of GAINAX were accused of being negligent in those final episodes and worse, creator Hideaki Anno received hate-mail and death threats over this “unsatisfying” ending.2 They wanted closure on some of the bigger mysteries of the series, and a grander sense of finale instead of the abstract untangling of the psychological state of the lead character. These fans wanted blood and combat and death. They wanted the end of the world, and they would be given that with more apocalyptic fallout than they likely ever considered. This is The End of Evangelion.
End of Evangelion is structured as two forty-five minute “replacement” episodes for the previous versions of episodes twenty-five and twenty-six. Much of the original screenplay for episode twenty-five was used for this new version. Hideaki Anno pivoted to an entirely separate ending which became the oblique one initially attached to the television series, but what is seen in the first forty-five minutes of this movie is likely the skeleton of the first ending Anno had in mind for Evangelion. Much of this movie is reminiscent of Kihachi Okamoto’s Pacific War film The Battle of Okinawa (1971). Okinawa dramatized one of the most brutal and bloody battles of the Pacific War. The battle of Okinawa was nationally destabilizing for Japan and Okamoto’s film leans into the guilt, pride and shame at losing this battle with scenes of mass suicide and ambivalent, uncaring representations of war’s most graphic truths. It is a film of corpses and the The End of Evangelion likewise brands itself as such as well. While formally similar Evangelion traces something more internally realized and metaphorical than actual warfare. People lose their lives in moments of mass extinction in this movie, but it’s all a representative alignment with Shinji Ikari’s struggles with chronic depression and the trauma of war and parental neglect he carries with him on a day to day basis. In the original final episodes of Evangelion, Shinji wants to keep living because there’s a possibility for a brighter, better future, and he latches onto the chance of that different reality becoming tangible, but in End of Evangelion Shinji Ikari doesn’t want to live. He accepts the idea of death as a return to nothingness and an unshackling of himself to his own personal demons. Both of these endings represent two sides of the same coin in what it means to battle depression and both are honest.
At the close of episode twenty-four of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji Ikari was faced with his most difficult battle to date. The confrontation that he had with the final Angel was not a blood-bath, but something altogether more cerebral. The final Angel was a boy Shinji’s age named Kaworu Nagisa. Kaworu showed affection for Shinji that bordered on love. Kaworu wasn’t entirely human and had difficulty conveying this to Shinji at times, but Shinji understood what it meant for another boy to clasp his hand and say that he cared about him. This support was something that Shinji never received from his father or from his friends who were girls, like fellow Evangelion pilots Rei and Asuka, or his caretaker and NERV military officer Major Misato Katsuragi. Kaworu’s willingness to speak to Shinji openly about anything was something new for the boy and when he was revealed as the final angel Shinji had difficulty killing him. Was saving the world worth it if you had to destroy someone you loved? It’s a tragic question of love and loss and duty. Shinji does kill Kaworu and in the process sacrifices this possibility for kinship with this person who seemed to be a regular boy. It’s within Shinji’s broken heart that End of Evangelion begins.
With all the Angels defeated the crisis should be over. Humanity has won, but Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari, has other plans. All throughout this series there have been mentions of enacting a “Human Instrumentality Project” and he plans to do so now that the Angels are out of the way. In the series, this goal was meant to be an evolution of humans as a species into a single entity. If the plan works Gendo assumes that humans would become like Gods. Humans would be without pain, without loneliness and without hurt, but it is revealed in this movie that what the Human Instrumentality Project would actually summon would be a mass extinction of human individuality. It would essentially be the end of the human race as we know it and the beginning of the final cataclysmic extinction known as “Third Impact”. Gendo created the organization called SEELE to help propel this into existence, but after they discover what his plans have become they break their relationship with the mad scientist and order the Japanese Strategic Self Defense Forces (JSSDF) to attack Tokyo-3 and NERV headquarters. SEELE order the JSSDF to kill everyone and everything in sight in order to prevent Gendo from ushering in the Third Impact. SEELE want to initiate the Third Impact their own way that doesn’t align with Gendo’s plans. What follows is the systematic destruction and military assassination of nearly every character who played a part in the history of this show. Side characters without names are wiped out with an uncaring barrage of automatic machine gun weapon fire and the hallways of this underground facility are painted with blood. All these people are soon to be corpses who won’t even need to be buried, because they did their business underground. It’s harrowing to watch this play out with near complete disregard for human life, which is not something as common in the initial run of the series, and because this is a movie they have more jurisdiction to lean into graphic violence. The creators of Evangelion do so with the same attention to craft and artistry that was common in the initial run of the series. This is violence that gets under the skin, because it is cold. It is violence that understands the logical endpoint to severe bodily trauma is death. Most of us don’t understand the absence of life until someone close to us dies, and when you’re at the funeral and place your hand upon their lifeless body it’s something that is impossible to forget. These images in the first half of this film and these character deaths feel like aftershocks of that understanding of what death actually feels like. It is an absence of warmth, and these sequences of the JSSDF systematically annihilating these people we intrinsically understand, because the show was so interested in letting viewers peek into the headspace of essential characters, renders these scenes deeply upsetting.
When Misato Katsuragi dies she does so while saving Shinji. She begs him to wake up and get into the Eva unit one more time for the sake of the survival of the human race. It’s hard for Shinji to take this seriously, because he’s done this countless times already. It’s a “boy who cried wolf” situation where this real threat that’s bearing down on everyone doesn’t seem as malicious, because he’s been told it’s the end of the world his entire life. It’s downright normal, but as an audience it can become maddening watching these characters die left and right while Shinji, who can prevent this violence from happening, is stuck in a loop of catatonic depression. Even with a gun pointed to his head he hardly cares. GAINAX animate that image in particular with physicality. We can see the hard metal press into Shinji’s hair, a few inches. The images of death preceding this one informs the audience that this is a life and death image. Shinji is going to die and he doesn’t care. Misato does care and saves him in the nick of time, dispatching the armed men in a hail of gunfire. While escaping Misato explains to Shinji what he must do. He has to destroy all the Evas in order to keep them from being used in a Third Impact, but Shinji is not cognizant of what is happening. His face is barely visible in the first portion of this film, because his glance is constantly downward. He’s barely alive. Depression will do that to you. Meanwhile the JSSDF are dropping bombs all over Tokyo-3 to wipe the city off the face of the planet.
While Misato is trying to take Shinji to his own Eva unit she is shot by the JSSDF. In her final moments she begs Shinji to try, and insists that he won’t always be the person that he is now, that he can change. He’ll have regrets, maybe even a lifetime of them, but in this moment he has to decide for himself what he needs to do. She’s rough with him, and tries to pull Shinji out of his depressive, immobile state. She’s going to bleed out and die on this floor and martyr herself for Shinji Ikari maybe deciding to save the world one last time. Misato isn’t sure if it’ll be worth it. She doesn’t have a lot of faith in Shinji, but he’s their only hope. He’s the only one who can use his Eva to fight back against everything else. In her final moments she wonders if she should have changed the carpeting in her apartment. It’s a rare act of kindness in death in this movie. The banality of her final thoughts is compassionate. Misato wasn’t perfect. No one is, but she lived. She lived doing the best she could, and even if it wasn’t enough it was still a life.
When the JSSDF initiated their attack, NERV transferred the comatose body of Asuka Langley into her Eva unit. NERV considered it the safest place she could be during this attack and launched the robot into a deep lake. The image zooms slightly inch by inch until it dissolves from the Eva in the fetal position to Asuka. She wakes up and wonders if she’s actually alive and after coming to her senses she realizes something is wrong. She’s still in a traumatic loop and she’s hearing the voice of her mother repeat some of the final things she ever said to her daughter before she killed herself. Asuka frequently says one phrase over and over again during this sequence. “I don’t want to die”. She repeats it until it becomes erratic and overwhelming, and voice actor Yuko Miyamura is phenomenal as she completely plunges into the depths of Asuka’s traumatic state. After a series of rapid-fire edits of single images of her past flip across Asuka screams one final time that she doesn’t want to die. A choir starts to sing over the soundtrack harmonizing a melody that gestures toward the divine and Asuka thinks she sees her mother. They clasp hands as mother and daughter in this vision and Asuka suddenly feels invincible. She launches above ground and is ready to fight anyone and anything that she may come across. She’s confident again, almost invincible and Asuka is over-joyed by the possibilities of being the best once more. She has her identity back for a few flickering moments and the veil of mass death and inevitable doom that hangs over End of Evangelion lifts when she twists in the sky and exclaims that her mother was with her the entire time.
Asuka fights valiantly in an action sequence that is beautifully rendered. All the way back in episode nine of Evangelion, there is this timer/dance montage that set the bar for action sequences in this series and this action sequence involving Asuka and the JSSDF and eventually the other Eva series units that were commissioned by SEELE achieves something far greater. Due to the emotional context of Asuka feeling her mother beside her in battle and with the added weight of another time lapse sequence the animators at GAINAX strive for evoking struggle and weight of combat. When Asuka begins fighting the 9 auto-pilot Eva series robots, who have been told to attack her because she may get in the way of their goal to usher in the Third Impact, she dispatches them all too easily. For a moment she’s the best Eva pilot the world has ever seen. She tears their limbs off, and uses a large knife to cut into her foes. Meanwhile her external power source is getting weaker and weaker, and as the clock ticks down her movements become slower, and Asuka becomes tired. Elation turns to anger and what was once a graceful twirling moment of excellence for Asuka has become a war of attrition. She clangs off the Evas with her large metal shield and the camera seems submerged, moving in a slow staggered motion to give the physical difficulty she is experiencing in this fight a real subconscious emotional effect for viewers. As she begins to move slower, hopelessness creeps in. When her timer clicks zero and her Eva shuts down, she can hardly believe it. Her mother’s gone again. She’s all alone. A lance is hurled in her direction and it pierces her Eva unit to the ground. Yuko Miyamura’s scream that follows is blood-curdling, all too real, and unsettling in the way it feels like the last sound ever escaping a pair of soon-to-be dead lips. Asuka seemingly dies right there, pinned to the Earth, having failed one last time, and without her mother, like always.
With Asuka dead and Shinji unable to do much of anything because of his depressed traumatized state, the Third Impact is inevitable. Rei Ayanami absorbs her own body into the crucified form of the Angel Lilith and brings about the Human Instrumentality Project when she begins to absorb the soul of every person into her being. God and Man become one. The Evas commit Harakiri after floating into the sky and they are transformed into figures that bear a resemblance to Rei/Lilith. Shinji is terrified of what is happening, but he’s stunned into immovability: an extreme close-up of his face looks less human and more funhouse mirror. This is the end. He’s seeing it happen. He’s terrified of everything that will come in this moment as Rei/Lilith’s hand sweeps across the globe, taking everyone with her. He says he wants to die, but does he? The show is conflicted on these matters, because people who have depression are haunted by this question, too. It’s even in the form of the montage that follows.
The ritual suicide of the human race commences, but it doesn’t feel as desolate as it sounds. The montage of human bodies being reduced to waste are accompanied by brief visions of their deepest desires made true. Characters who are stuck back at NERV witnessing the apocalyptic end of everything see the people they love and are happy for the briefest moments before their bodies explode into liquid. “Komm, Süsser Tod”, a jovial pop song with lyrics about everything going to hell soundtracks the montage. There’s an elation in the animation, smiling faces become the final chapter of every life in this series instead of the lingering screaming trauma of their past troubles. Death becomes everything and nothing, a void for rest. We tell ourselves this to stave off the fear of not having the options for failure, success or dreams. End of Evangelion posits that death is as natural as life. They are connected and make each other significant in their own ways. We pin two dates to our identity when we are returned to the dirt of the Earth and it’s the day we are born and the day we die. The space in the middle is ambiguous, but it is everything in that undefined space without narrative that makes those two dates significant. If we were born and lived on into infinity then time becomes non-existent and life loses meaning. Life is full of binaries, life and death, pain and love, joy and sadness, and so on, all of them informing what the other means and giving it resonance. When someone has depression and is haunted by it the life that one could lead seems less important. We all know that with each day we pull one moment closer to the end, our own Third Impact. Every life is apocalyptic, because everyone dies. Accepting that this is going to happen robs the end of its base fear. I wrote in my first essay in the first sentence that we were all doomed and linked it to recent understanding of Climate Change, but we’ve always been doomed. That has never changed. Even if we die, and the human race is wiped out, the Earth, the Sun and the Moon will still be standing. Our planet will continue to exist with or without us. The Earth will rotate, same as always, without the noise of our screaming. There’s something beautiful in that, and even if we are not here, we will have made our mark upon the Earth, even if it was for the worse. This is a form of immortality even in death.
When everyone dies in End of Evangelion they leave behind crosses, and just like in our reality for some of us they signify that a person was here. It’s like a tattoo upon the Earth, but even that will fade. When the crosses disappear all around Shinji and he is left alone in a world without people he realizes that this was never what he wanted. It’s an apocalypse as metaphor for surviving a suicide attempt. He understands that he wanted to keep living and keep trying to understand people, even if his hatred for himself was beginning to manifest into misogyny and abuse. He wanted the chance to be better, and not become this person, and if everyone is dead, including himself, then no one has the option for happiness. There’s so much hatred in our world, so much evil, that it’s sometimes easy to forget why someone would want to live in the first place, and when End of Evangelion inserts a live-action sequence that shows real flesh and blood people sitting in a cinema, a mirror of art looking back at viewers, one begins to understand. Life is people, and for all we are, good and bad, it’s all we have. For as desolate as this movie is I find it strangely uplifting in its honesty pertaining to questions of life and death, depression and humanity at large. If the original ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion argued that life is worth living as long as you keep trying then End of Evangelion believes it is okay if that is not feasible. This is also a binary. It is the left and right arms of depression. Hang in there. It’s okay if you can’t. I want to die. I don’t want to die.