The relationships we have with our parents as children tend to dictate our future in significant ways. Children usually look to their parents for foundation and support as they figure out who they are and what they want to be, but sometimes children are not given a base to stand upon. In Hideaki Anno’s landmark anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion this is true of every significant character. The child pilots of the giant robotic Eva units struggle with this very thing. Shinji Ikari’s mother died mysteriously and he has never been given direct support or admiration from his father, Gendo, who is overseeing the Evas and military operations at Tokyo-3’s defense outpost. Asuka has a history with her parents that hasn’t been revealed yet, but they aren’t around. No one knows much of anything about Rei Ayanami, but she lives alone in an apartment that looks like the inside of a boiler room. Even the adults in Evangelion struggle continuously with these problems. Major Misato Katsuragi, who is the military operations leader of NERV and caretaker of Shinji Ikari, is chasing the ghost of her father who died in the cataclysmic Second Impact, which brought about the post-apocalyptic world these characters live in. She hates herself for dating men that remind her of her father. Her entire sense of self is defined by an act of revenge to destroy the Angels, the extraterrestrial giants who are attacking Tokyo-3, whom she blames for the death of her dad. Misato’s best friend Dr. Ritsuko Akagi works as a scientist for NERV, and helped build the Evangelions. She has secrets, but is very open about the fact that she hates her mother for donating her brain to a supercomputer defense system and giving up her life in the process. Ritsuko now follows in her mother’s footsteps, working the same job, in the same field, to feel closer to her and diminish the chasm formed between the two when her mother gave up her life in the name of science. Evangelion is overwhelmed with philosophical questions of parental neglect and nature versus nurture. In this batch of episodes the show metaphorically travels back inside the womb to find a foundation for the true self, by way of protagonist Shinji Ikari when the latest Angel attacks. These episodes also highlight a new pilot for the next Eva unit. His name is Toji. He’s only fourteen, but he’s a parent for his sister. He’s all she has, and as she is tended to for injuries she suffered as collateral damage in an Angel attack, Toji struggles with the ethical question of piloting something that hurt his sister.
In Evangelion this giant rift between children and parental figures is exacerbated by the post-apocalyptic world brought on by the Second Impact and the relentless, non-stop warring that has occurred since. Children who grew up only knowing this world, and adults who had to survive it are forced with decisions that only make worse the generational strife and trauma caused by recent events. When the world begins to crumble and social niceties break down, who is really there to take care of children and pick up the pieces where they need support? What happens is an entire generation grows up and is forced into the role of adulthood far before their time. The children of Evangelion don’t get to be children. They go to school and flirt, but seemingly every day they hear about the world falling apart in history lessons or have to go underground for protection from an Angel attack. Their normal isn’t a normal where growing up into a healthy person can feasibly happen, and Evangelion mirrors this very idea through formal complexity that emphasizes the restless, loneliness of a lost generation. Images hold on characters laying in beds in complete silence for long periods of time. There are moments when characters think about their past with warmth, but the editing always cuts through in subliminal flashes of the violence they’ve experienced. This is a generation of children who don’t know what it’s like to feel peace. They’re in a constant state of negotiating with their own trauma and merely trying to survive for no other reason than natural defense mechanisms.
Toji Suzuhara is introduced in the third episode of Evangelion. He is a classmate of Shinji’s and immediately has problems with the new star pilot. Toji is a tough guy, a bad boy archetype who doesn’t wear the school uniform and plays by his own rules. He confronts Shinji early on and shoves him to the ground and threatens to beat him up because his sister was injured in the latest Angel attack. He blames Shinji, because it’s impossible to blame a monster. At heart all he wants is to protect his sister. He’s her father figure and he’d do anything to make sure she isn’t hurt again. He and Shinji ultimately become friends a few episodes later when Toji witnesses firsthand the difficulties of piloting the Eva and the mental toll it takes on Shinji. He becomes empathetic and they bond over the shared experiences of adolescent boys. When it is revealed in episode seventeen that Toji has been chosen to be the newest Eva pilot it throws his life into crisis. How can he pilot a weapon that caused his sister to be hospitalized? He knows he should do it. It’s for the greater good of humanity, but to hell with humanity if it means hurting other people. He’s one of the most deeply empathetic characters on the entire show, because the question of military service haunts him. To see someone struggle with duty and what is expected of them is refreshing and ultimately different from the standard set-up of lesser mecha anime, which frequently cast children in the role of superheroes. All the Eva pilots are haunted by what they must do, except Rei who seems muted to the entire affair. Asuka over-compensates because her entire identity is in being the very best at what she does, but even she sometimes looks on with shocked terror at the violence between Eva and Angel. This complication renders the action as harrowing, rather than thrilling, and plunges the horrors of this war onto the screen in stark detail.
Misato doesn’t tell Shinji that Toji is going to be the next pilot, because she wants to protect him from the information. She’s worried that if Shinji hears a new boy has been brought in that it will hurt his self-confidence. She also has anxiety over whether or not the information may trouble him. She knows that Shinji is an empathetic person, and has a close relationship with Toji. Shinji considers himself a martyr for piloting the Eva so that no one else is forced to witness the horrors that he has seen, but now they’re asking someone who is arguably Shinji’s best friend to get into the robot all the same.
In the United States of America a new branch of NERV’s military operations has begun the process of building a new Eva unit in case the Angels attack oversees, but foist the job of creating the robot onto the Japanese branch. They’re the creators of this technology so this makes sense, but it doesn’t stop Major Misato Katsuragi from calling the Americans “self-serving bastards.” Misato’s trust in people has begun to vanish as she’s realized that her best friend Dr. Ritsuko Akagi is hiding things from her and performing secret operations with Gendo Ikari away from the eyes of NERV. She doesn’t know what these things are, but she’s seen where they keep a crucified Angel speared with a staff, held in the deepest basements of their facility for scientific purposes. Ritsuko has secrets that she’s not telling her best friend and now she has to try to trust the Americans with a future Evangelion unit. But Misato is withholding information from Shinji: She’s just like the rest of them, and can’t see it.
Toji finds a compromise and agrees to pilot the new Eva unit under the condition that his sister be moved to a medical facility at NERV. He knows that she’ll receive the best possible medical attention from the military doctors. It’s a selfless decision to go to war and become a military tool on behalf of his sister. He tells himself that, at least. Most people in the military do. It’s hardly ever for reasons of wanting to be a soldier, but rather to fight for someone or something else. What they don’t tell you about is the wounds you’ll carry around for the rest of your life, both physical and mental, things someone may never recover from. Growing up around the military lets you believe in the righteousness of the act, but eventually it becomes too difficult to mask the struggle of what soldiers have seen or done. Evangelion is a television show that directly grapples with the lingering image of the violence you can’t forget. For Toji it’s his sister, living what’s left of her life in a hospital bed, and for Shinji it’s what he’ll see next.
When they try to activate the Eva unit with Toji inside something goes horribly wrong. His sync rates were high and everything seemed normal, but right at the moment of total synchronization something takes over the Eva, and there’s an explosion, leaving in its wake a mushroom cloud. The facility that they were testing the robot in is laid to ruin, and the status of Misato and Ritsuko, who travelled with Toji to help him get adjusted to the machine, is unknown.. At this point it is unclear if they’ve lived or died. When the explosion settles, the Eva is seen moving in a wide-angle image. It is an ominous picture. Over in Tokyo-3 they’ve tracked the explosion and have recognized it as the latest Angel attack, but worse yet the Angel is the Eva unit. A few episodes back it was revealed that the Eva’s were built from the ruins of an Angel and contain the same DNA, perhaps the one that NERV have crucified. In this case, the Angel is an accidental creation of NERV’s own and Toji is stuck inside the beast. There is never once a cut to the inside to see what Toji experiences. That is due to the show frequently falling behind production schedule, but it’s a happy accident that forces you to consider what Toji might be feeling and leaving it to the vast dimensions of imagination while forcing us to stay with Shinji who must fight this Angel.
Shinji is tortured by his father’s insistence that he fight this Angel, because he knows someone is inside. He doesn’t want to kill, but all of this is made all the more complicated by the fact that piloting the Eva gives Shinji’s life some meaning. It’s the only thing his father will ever praise him for. Evangelion is flooded with imagery that recalls womb-like spaces for Shinji Ikari. A psychoanalytic reading would point to the death of his mother being a contributing factor to his need to please his father above all else. He can frequently be seen in bedrooms, folding himself up into a fetal position. If the Eva unit wasn’t already enough like a womb, this interpretation was made into a literal text in episode fifteen when Shinji was swallowed by a shadow Angel and only escaped after locking himself in a fetal position and seeing a vision of his long-dead mother. If he grew up without a mother and cannot gain the approval of his father then he is without a safety net, an orphan in a time of war, reaching and grasping for anyone to tell him that he’s loved. Shinji will do just about anything to hear his father say that he loves him, but Shinji won’t kill another person. He doesn’t know who is in the Eva, and it doesn’t matter. It’s a bridge too far. This further fractures Shinji’s relationship with his father, and Gendo is disappointed. All the while, the filmmaking in this sequence is excellent with quick cutting to emphasize only the most important visual cues. Images of Shinji frozen in his tracks, an Eva approaching, a close-up of Shinji’s hand on the trigger quivering, and Gendo’s stoic face watching what his son won’t do, all transpire in the span of about ten seconds. There’s a fluidity to the editing that maximizes image based storytelling. If you wanted, you could watch Evangelion without sound and understand what it was conveying.
Gendo asks the officers at NERV to override control of the Eva through their defense systems so that he can operate the robot from afar and do what his son can’t. The “dummy system” is largely untested but it works out in this situation, and Shinji’s Eva unit obeys the command. Shinji protests fiercely, screaming and crying in equal measure, but it doesn’t matter. He’s a spectator to his own failure and the violence he couldn’t bring himself to commit. He doesn’t know he’s attacking an Angel that has control of his best friend, and it is an astonishingly vicious sequence. The sound design is nauseating, as the Eva pulls apart the limbs and intestines of the Angel. Shinji’s screams of protest are drowned out by what sounds like a knife plunging into flesh and the struggle of pulling something apart that wants to stay held together. Blood splashes across the skyscrapers of the city with John Woo-like expressiveness, and there’s an edit to NERV officers in close-up watching one by one in horror at what they’ve done—but Gendo is smiling. For Gendo, this is a mission accomplished. Shinji has to watch all of this as it happens and he thinks he’s killed someone. There’s an incredible sequence at the end of the episode told in only a few images when he finds out he hasn’t. While Shinji is weeping there is a cut back to Misato and Ritsuko being wheeled off by medical officials. They’ve survived, but Misato is tortured over her failure to inform Shinji that Toji is the new pilot. They let her call Shinji who is still in the robot. He hears Misato and immediately starts saying he didn’t want to do it, that it was his father, but he gets cut off mid-sentence by NERV who announce the pilot’s life signs are visible. Shinji lights up, a giant weight is lifted off his shoulders, but only for a moment, because there’s an immediate cut to Toji being revealed as the pilot and Misato saying as much along with the image. The audio turns into the sound of a heartbeat and with each thud there’s a sequential edit getting nearer and nearer to the eyes of Shinji Ikari. The heartbeat stops and the episode ends with Shinji screaming. It would have been easier for Shinji if Toji had died.
After the Evangelion unit’s dummy system is turned off Shinji uses what little power is left to attack NERV headquarters in an attempt to kill his father. This is how episode nineteen begins. Before he can do any real damage the Eva loses power. Shinji is arrested afterwards and states that he’ll never pilot again. After Shinji is arrested there are many lingering images of the aftermath of the Angel attack. The most prominent of these are images of the city caked in blood. These drawings are still-renderings, with an unfinished texture, making them seem all the more realistic. The metaphor of a city in the midst of war becomes a literal textual object in the way the blood stains everything. Stray shots of city officials trying to clean their city are inserted, but they can’t seem to wash away the crimson of battle.
With Shinji thrown out of NERV and his outright refusal to ever pilot the Eva again military officials go about erasing him from record, and integrating the child pilot Rei into his position. Misato and Asuka give Shinji hell for running away from his problems and refusing to pilot the Eva again. Misato even attempts some tough love where she insists that he’ll regret all his life decisions if he keeps cutting ties to the people in his life. Asuka is so disgusted with Shinji she won’t even see him off. For her, what Shinji is doing doesn’t even compute. For someone so hell-bent on being the best at everything and hardening herself into the perfect warrior it doesn’t make sense to run away. This is all she’s got. Her inability to be as good as Shinji within battle as of late has started to chip away at her own mental health. Asuka is now dwelling in bedrooms and inside her own mind, but out in public she puts on a brave face and looks to the sky with that mask of confidence she always tries to wear.
Shinji plans on leaving the city for good, but the Angels are relentless and the next attack begins as he’s waiting on the train to depart from Tokyo-3. He wants to stand firm in his belief that he’s doing the right thing by not fighting, but there’s something very like Stockholm Syndrome about his call to duty. Either he’s been brainwashed by the military or there’s a deeper sense in his own beliefs that only he can stop the Angels. Asuka and Rei fall to this newest one with relative ease. It has arms that work like elongated blades. It carves up Asuka’s Eva unit, severing its arms and head. Shinji sees all of this happen from afar. Rei acts like a kamikaze and charges with a landmine in the hopes that the explosion will destroy the Angel, but it doesn’t. Shinji has to fight. Asuka and Rei failed and they might be dead. There’s no one else. He runs into Gendo’s dirty-work assistant Kaji on the way back to NERV. Kaji seems content with the possibility of the Angel ending the world, because it would at least be a respite. He lets slip that if an Angel attacks NERV and makes contact with the fragment of Adam, which Gendo acquired for his secret Human Instrumentality Project, it would trigger the Third Impact and end human life as they know it. Shinji isn’t as comfortable as Kaji is about the end of the world. He rushes back to NERV and begs his father to let him pilot the Eva. Gendo never gives Shinji permission, but Shinji does it anyway, getting into the robot and fighting off the Angel in closed-quarters combat. He hits the beast with haymakers and gets the upper hand. It looks like he’s going to win, but the external power source on the Eva gives out and it stops in place. Something strange happens though when Shinji begs the Eva to fight back, as if it were a real creature with a soul, and it listens to him. The Eva fends off the monster and protects Shinji despite not having a power source. The Eva regenerates its severed limb, this time flesh, and throttles the Angel until it explodes. Dr. Ritsuko states that the metal bindings on the Eva are only there to suppress its true power and Shinji has just awakened it. Shinji succeeded, but they can’t find him after the battle. His life signs are present, but his body is missing. He was absorbed by the Eva as a means of protecting him from battle.
Neon Genesis Evangelion uses loose science fiction logic to find areas to enter the subconscious thought processes of its characters. These sequences work like therapy, and deepen the character development through way of abstraction. In North American television this is a technique that is almost unheard of due to television being tied into sponsorship deals and corporate branding. Experimental cinema has always existed outside of the confines of capitalistic urges, because there usually is not a market for non-linear storytelling that deals in abstractions. There are exceptions to the rule, with Twin Peaks being perhaps the most famous North American example, but Neon Genesis Evangelion is exceptionally more popular in Japan than Twin Peaks ever was in North America. Evangelion’s popularity is beguiling, especially as the second half the series becomes obsessed with this storytelling device. Evangelion’s experimental tendencies are displayed prominently throughout the back half of the television show, with Rei Ayanami’s poetry of the self in episode fourteen and Shinji Ikari’s dealings with the spherical shadow angel in episode fifteen. They go back to that same well in episode twenty, which is mostly compromised of sequences that take place in Shinji Ikari’s subconscious mind after he was pulled into the Eva.
The episode is structured into a few sections and divided by title cards that state how many days it has been since Shinji was lost in the Eva. The first few days are given little time with only basic information relayed about NERV’s inability to find Shinji and bring him out of the Eva. They can’t figure out how to save him. Misato is torn up about losing him and blames herself. She’s spiralling. When she agreed to take care of him in the beginning of the show she was supposed to save him from circumstances like these. Asuka is crumbling too, hating herself for failing to succeed in battle and lashing out at everyone through external conflict; but more than anything she hates herself. Throughout these segments the Eva unit can be seen with bloodied bandages draped across its face, underlining the robot’s evolving humanity. Its face is surreal, and startling, and almost human. During “The Fourth Day” some of the form begins to morph stylistically into sketch drawings, which emphasizes Shinji’s regression back to the womb. This choice suggests something unfinished, still forming, like a fetus growing. The world becomes strange by this turn of events. Shinji’s voice can be heard throughout the entire section deliberating with himself and restating some of the plot mechanics that came beforehand. He’s tracing over past events in minute detail and the form follows thought process. When he freezes on the words “these people” the entire plot of the series is shown in quick succession through rapid-fire editing and character portraits at various moments from previous episodes. He thinks of the enemies and the Angel’s appear in similar succession, but inter-cut with these images of battle are pictures of his father. They’re intertwined. He is fighting both. The image then evolves into one of Shinji as a child crying. It is revealed that he was abandoned by his father after his mother died. Shinji thinks his father has been raising Rei the entire time, and he is unfairly projecting that hatred onto her. We know what Shinji thinks, delivered in an abstract way.
There’s a massive time jump to the “Thirtieth Day” where things are beginning to return to normal but Shinji’sstill lost. On the next day, the show dips back into abstraction and surrealism with sequences that cover Shinji’s sexual and gender anxieties around the women in his life and what it means to actually be a man. He never seems entirely comfortable with the idea. The show is brilliant at doing a lot with little. Many mecha anime shows will maximize action sequences and prioritize battle over character development or form, but Evangelion takes formal and storytelling risks with image and narrative. The womb metaphor that is present throughout all of this series becomes more prevalent in this episode when one considers that if a person were to go without food or water for thirty-one days they would be severely malnourished, but Shinji’s vital signs are fine. They can’t see him, but he’s thriving in this machine. The Eva is taking care of him. Like a mother would a fetus.
Shinji reappears that day. When NERV officials finally give up and eject the cockpit fluid meant to help synchronization with the Eva, Shinji comes out too. He’s nude and covered in fluid like a newborn, and Misato cradles him and weeps. She thought she lost him. The scene closes on a sketch drawing of Shinji at his mother’s breast as a newborn and in voice over she can be heard saying, “Anywhere can be paradise as long as you have the will to live.” Evangelion treats the womb as an uncomplicated place of support. It’s a biological impulse that the body will accommodate naturally if someone is willing to have a child. For the characters in Evangelion who have all dealt with either parental neglect or tragedy the womb seems like an almost enviable proposition. Shinji’s father can also be heard in voice over: “If it’s a boy we’ll name him Shinji, and if she’s a girl we’ll name her Rei.” Gendo sounded so excited about the notion of having a child. Somewhere along the way that hope was lost and Shinji was abandoned. Shinji grasps for anything that feels like reassurance that he was a child worthy of being loved. He’d give anything for his father’s approval or to know his mother’s grace. All he has now are fragments that flash across his memory and never form a full picture. Shinji searches for paradise in a world without that possibility.