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.
We’re all doomed. That’s the prediction at least, with explicit assurances of what will happen if we don’t do everything in our power to stop global warming. Some of us grapple with this threat more severely than others, but with each new climate report being released from expert scientists our ability to stay optimistic about the future of our planet becomes more difficult. The sequel-heavy and reboot centric output of the North American studio system that has become common as Disney’s monopolization has taken hold largely does not grapple with these concerns in any significant way. The end goal of current mainstream cinema is to make money through the reassurance that we can be saved through the superheroics of characters like Captain America, who gave people hope during World War II. But punching Nazis is easier than giving a head-lock to something as existential as a dying planet. We stare at cell-phones as the world dies slowly in the hopes that someone, somewhere will do something about the capitalistic grip that nations and businesses have on fossil fuels. As a species we take baby steps, like promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in half by a certain date or cutting out disposable plastics as a good-faith effort on our part to take climate change seriously. Baby steps are better than nothing, but we all know the root-cause of the situation at hand, so all of these promises, despite being good ones, feel like a temporary solution for a bigger problem we need to consider. The artistic responsibility in times like these is uncertain, because these are uncertain times. Artists create visions of the apocalypse, but usually in spectacular, thrilling fashion, rather than the reality of corpses lined up like dominos without stories. When it was announced that Hideaki Anno’s 1990s anime classic, Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995–1996) was coming to Netflix, fans familiar with the show were excited. A world-wide phenomenon and one of the most financially successful anime series ever created, it had strangely never been available to streaming services prior to Netflix acquiring the series from Viz Media. When watching the series ten years ago it was available on a DVD box set, one that has long been out of print. Netflix acquiring the streaming rights opens up the doors for new viewers to witness this audience disorienting series that constantly challenges conventional storytelling. Storytelling that is prescient in its worries about climate change and harrowingly honest in its depiction of trauma, depression and the effects of war.
The year is 2015 in Evangelion, and it has been fifteen years since the global cataclysm known as the “Second Impact,” which drastically altered life on Earth. The story that everyone in this series has been told up to this point is that a meteorite landed at light speed in the polar ice cap causing it to melt almost instantaneously. As sea levels rose and the vapour from the melted ice turned to rain, evacuation orders were put into immediate effect. Earthquakes came next and tsunamis followed, killing two billion people in their wake. The refugee crisis that settled in afterwards gave way to warring nations, food shortages, and nuclear tension becoming nuclear war, where another atomic bomb was dropped on Japan. Nations came together after some time and what was left of human civilization tried to rebuild itself in the blood, ash, and fire that came with the polar ice cap melting. It’s optimistic to see that even in these disastrous circumstances the human race could still push forward, live, and not run away from our problems, but before humanity could stand again half the population would be wiped out, as well as countless mass extinctions of wildlife. This is the only world that fourteen-year-old Shinji Ikari has ever known, and he is the Earth's only hope as an alien species of giant monsters dubbed as “Angels” have come to Earth in hopes of destroying the life that humans have rebuilt. For vengeance? For their own gain? Shinji Ikari doesn’t know, but he’s the boy who has to save the world. Usually in the genre of mecha-anime he’d be the “chosen one”, a planetary saviour who would rise above the problems the human race finds themselves in, but Ikari doesn’t want to fight. He wants to run away.
Evangelion is unintentionally about climate change, but it did not come to its images and this story by accident. Through a mixture of the actual global crisis stemming from the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and creator Hidaki Anno’s intention to make a show that honored his love of mecha-anime, but mirrored his dealings with chronic depression, a visual language was formed around Evangelion. It is important to take a look at both with extensive detail to understand the show’s imagery and meaning.
On August 6th, 1945 the United States dropped a nuclear weapon on Hiroshima, Japan after the country refused to sign the Potsdam Declaration, which would have ended the war. A few days later, on August 9th another bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, annihilating another city in Japan. In fear of the complete destruction of Japan and its people the government surrendered, but not without great conflict and an attempted military coup d’etat to unseat Emperor Hirohito. All of this is captured with great detail in Kihachi Okamoto’s stunning retelling of the final days of the Pacific War, Japan’s Longest Day (1967). Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno cites Okamoto as a key inspiration in his work. The cinematic language that came out of Japan was censored and compromised in the years that followed by the occupation of the country by American forces. They intervened when showing images or telling stories about the war that painted the decision to drop nuclear weapons on the country in a complicated or negative light. These restrictions were lifted in 1952, and less than two years later Ishiro Honda would make Gojira (1954). In that movie an unthinkable monster born out of the after-effects of nuclear radiation would rise out of the Pacific Ocean and lay waste to Japan. In North America this movie was redubbed, its context changed and the lingering images of families destroyed by the molten-breath of the nuclear beast were scrubbed out. The context replaced and restructured for the “thrill” of destruction. In Japan these images meant something different. They were commenting on what the populace lived through and reflecting back the horrors of war and the inhuman decision that the Allied nations came to in an effort to force Japan to surrender. In Japan’s Longest Day, Okamoto acknowledges that the pride of Japan and the cultural attribution of samurai logic, which argues that it is honorable to fight until the last, was foolish. Not as much as the North Americans for building something so destructive, so evil, and using it on their country, but foolish nonetheless. In Gojira all of these images of destruction are cloaked in the metaphor of a special-effects monster movie, but the underlying truth of the flames, which contrast so brightly in black and white, is one of complete submission under something bigger than God. Something no one could possibly fight against. In Neon Genesis Evangelion these images hang like a shadow over the series, influencing and pointing the story in certain directions it could not have gone without the cultural context of what happened to Japan and the rest of the world during World War II: the closest we ever came to human extinction. The mecha-anime genre, of which the series is a part, was born out of this history.
Along with Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) (a series Hideaki Anno adores), Neon Genesis Evangelion is largely considered the most important mecha-anime creation. The origin of the genre began much earlier, a decade after World War II with the manga Tetsujin 28-go (1956). The manga received an anime adaptation in 1963, making it one of the very first shows to feature a giant robot. In that series, the Imperial Japanese Army is building a giant robot as a last ditch effort against the Allied forces in World War II, but before the robot could be completed Japan surrendered. The creator of the robot passed the machine onto his son Shotaro. This proved to lay the foundation of the genre, and while the series occupied a place of immense popularity, among young boys in particular, it proved to be vital to Japan’s artistic culture going forward as the genre boomed. Creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama said that his experiences growing up during the war influenced the look and feel of the manga. He stated, “When I was a fifth-grader, the war ended and I returned home from Tottori Prefecture, where I had been evacuated. The city of Kobe had been totally flattened, reduced to ashes. People said it was because of the B-29 bombers...as a child, I was astonished by their terrifying, destructive power.” He was additionally influenced by the 1931 James Wale picture, Frankenstein, and its depiction of the monster as “neither good or evil.” These ideas would dictate the mecha-anime genre going forward, and the dexterity of robotics as tools of ambivalence. The morality of these creations would depend upon the human hands, which gave the genre its greatest possibilities for finding humanity in tools that are often restricted to war. Ishiro Honda considers the humanity in his monsters as well, cursed with gargantuan size and immovability they inspire empathy because they are not made for this world. They are immediately misunderstood. In the mecha-anime genre robots are usually used for expressive battle scenarios and space-operas to trudge between wars that a “chosen one” figure must overcome and save the day. Hideaki Anno subverts all of this by making the battles horrific, taking them back to a place of immediate and lingering trauma. They take a toll on Shinji Ikari from the outset of his arrival into the rebuilt city of Tokyo-3. A city he’ll have to call home as he reunites with his estranged father, who needs Shinji to fight in the EVA-unit: a robot that can only be piloted by adolescents. For him, the war is the reality and he suffers both internally and externally at what he must do to save the world.
The first episode, “Angel Attack,” begins as a smoke-screen for the mecha-anime genre. The show seems relatively normal at first. There’s a monster leveling a city, a military institution (NERV) has built a robot to fend off the creature, and a boy is sent to pilot the weapon. With Anno, however, the show zigs when you expect it to zag, and things become strange early and often. Most shows of this type would jump right into battle and by the end of the episode Shinji Ikari would have become a hero, but Anno lingers on the destruction. The monsters, known in this series as “Angels,” rip apart the sky and leave scar-tissue in the horizon in the shapes of biblical crosses and clouds made of fire, recalling imagery familiar from World War II mixed with a faint supernatural Judeo-Christian surrealism that becomes even more pronounced later in the series. Before Shinji gets into battle he has to meet up with a woman who works at NERV named Misato who will take him to the military base. She eventually becomes essential to the series’s psychoanalytic preoccupations with pubescent ideas of sexuality and motherhood. While Shinji is waiting he sees a girl, framed like a ghostly specter, standing still in the middle of an abandoned highway. The image holds on her as Shinji stares. This is the series introduction of the other mech pilot, Rei Ayanami. When the camera cuts back to Shinji, she disappears. Rei is one surreal image among many in a first episode that completely re-conditions the mecha-anime genre to dive inward.
Much of the first four Evangelion episodes feature Shinji Ikari in isolation, lost in his own thoughts. The series frequently uses voice-over and static framing to force viewers into Shinji Ikari’s headspace so that we understand his emotional thought-process scene to scene. These techniques, used throughout to position Shinji in isolation, even when he’s surrounded by a crowd of people, have a quality that evokes the stillness of a Chantal Akerman movie. Evangelion uses fragmented sequences of dead-silence to bring us closer to Shinji. In the second episode, which is entitled, “The Beast,” Shinji rests in his bed for an inordinate amount of time listening to music in his dimly lit bedroom after fighting an angel. The fourth episode, “Hedgehog’s Dilemma,” is devoted entirely to Shinji’s quest for isolation after he runs away from Misato and everyone at NERV for days. He roams the country-side, travels in a lonely subway car, and tries to run away from it all, but he can’t get out of his own head. All of this is strange for a mecha-anime show. Something like the iconic Mobile Suit Gundam adaptations dabble in P.T.S.D. and the after-effects of war on people, but not with the same personal touch seen in either extensive or minor detail for every single important character in Evangelion. Everyone is given space to react to the persistent attacks from the angels in the aftermath of the battle. Misato drinks. Rei is closed off to everyone and everything. Shinji is so far lost in his own head he can’t sleep at night. Mecha shows address such issues occasionally, but not with the total dedication that comes from Evangelion, where every character has either only known the apocalypse in the wake of the Second Impact or grown up with city evacuations and battles among deities as the norm. This isn’t a space opera. It’s an intimate portrait of loss, and wanting to admit defeat when loss is all you’ve ever known.
The strangeness of Evangelion is visible even in the more conventional battle sequences among the EVA-Units (the mechs) and the Angels. Many of whom resemble Eldritch or Jungian horrors. In the opening moments of the second episode the show cuts away from the action right as it’s about to begin. We watch these two giants charge at one another, only to pull away before we can see the thrilling conclusion to this battle. Instead, we see the aftermath first. Anno cuts to Shinji in a hospital bed and the EVA-unit damaged in what seems like a state of total disrepair. By forcing us to see the aftermath of the battle first, we cannot watch the eventual collision between monster and bio-mechanical robot without the context of what was lost. There’s an abstract, subliminal edit which flashes ten or so violent images from the battle across the frame in the matter of seconds as Shinji wanders around the hospital quarters. It is a brilliant editing choice meant to mirror Shinji’s own post-traumatic stress from the previous battle that viewers haven’t even seen yet. Anno is going in reverse order. The aftermath, the lingering effects, then the battle. In the mecha-anime genre viewers usually show up for robots fighting monsters, but Anno subverts these expectations by giving the battle a personal weight for the main character through editing choices. When Eva-Unit and Angel do battle at the end of the second episode it’s now impossible to watch the scene without thinking of these sequences where Shinji is mentally fraught, haunted by memories of this encounter. When the show cuts to the battle later it’s a vicious fight, made all the more unsettling by the fact that there’s something very much alive about the robot. The Eva-Unit bleeds and screams and has flesh underneath the metal skin. It’s more than robot, and when the Angel attacks, Shinji seems to be in a state of psychological turmoil. NERV military commanders refer to the cockpit as a “womb,” which has oedipal ramifications for this motherless teenage boy, and when Shinji struggles the Eva-Unit goes berserk. He has little memory of what happened after this occurs, but it comes to him in fragments and repressed memories. The abstract pieces of images and cutting do not make for clear images, but textures in shades and flashes of crimson, like Brakhage’s Stellar (1993) if it were comprised of blood.
The first two episodes of Evangelion play out like an OVA (Original Video Animation, a term for a straight to video release for an anime mini-series) with an elliptical ending of Misato telling Shinji to “hang in there.” The Angel is done away with, but not without Shinji suffering during the battle and afterward. No one knows where the Angels come from yet, but we’re led to believe that there are close to twenty of them. Evangelion throws the viewer into the show in-medias-res. We follow Shinji who is introduced along with the third Angel attack (the young girl Rei had been fighting them previously). The Eva-Units were created in order to fight these creatures and only children have a mental-synch with these creations (the “synch” being something Guillermo Del Toro lifted for 2012’s Pacific Rim). A rotating table of government officials control the fate of the world, and they meet in dark rooms, and talk vaguely about operations like the Human Instrumentality Project, something only they know about, an end goal for human evolution to come. They feel relatively safe in their positions as world leaders, but there’s something sinister about them. Shinji’s father, Gendo Ikari, works for them directly. Up through the first four episodes not much detail is given about these world leaders, but they talk about the second impact as if it was part of a larger plan to do something different with the world.
In the third episode of the series things begin to resemble a normal mecha-anime briefly when Shinji begins to attend school. The only classmate he knows is Rei, but she doesn’t talk to anyone, including him. His feelings of utter isolation and desolation are proven to be even stronger when fellow classmate Toji Suzuhara resents Shinji for the recent attack, because his sister was hurt during the battle. Shinji cannot win. During the class lecture some context is given for the state of the world, as the teacher describes in detail what happened during the second impact. Cities drowning in water. Mass economic and social collapse. These kids already know this story because they were born after this event happened. Shinji even watches a documentary on the event in a mostly abandoned cinema during his contemplative journey throughout the fourth episode, and teenagers are making out during this utter devastation. For them, the state of the world is normal. It mirrors how I’ve felt growing up since 9/11. You can only hear about war and death and gun violence and the end of the world so much before it becomes as average as the sun coming up each day. It’s frightening to live that way, but if you don’t compartmentalize the horrors of day to day life it becomes impossible to breathe. You have to learn to cope with the worst the world has to offer.
This third episode is structured around Shinji’s relationship to other classmates. There were certain expectations that Hideaki Anno and the rest of the staff at GAINAX (the production company behind the show) had to balance in order to make otaku (anime fans) happy. They ultimately dictate the market. Anno even ends each episode with a potentially ironic promise of “fanservice next time!” Evangelion had to appeal to larger archetypes present within the genre. A few stray scenes here and there of Shinji’s life as a student speak to this balancing act. When Shinji says he’s the pilot some students react as if he just won homecoming king. This is more typical of anime. Shinji treats his popularity like a death-sentence. This is less typical. The entire show cannot be suffering, and Anno understands this by balancing some of these scenarios with levity and comedy, like Misato offering Shinji a beer and the fact that he is initially startled by the appearance of a pet penguin when he moves in with Misato early in the show. But Anno is completely clear in his intentions whenever action begins to take place, and otaku couldn’t have been more thrilled. Evangelion isn’t a typical series and its popularity to this day remains surprising. Think of it as an anime version of Twin Peaks where a true creative struck total popularity with something formally challenging and unique but magnify this by ten. In Japan you can find Evangelion plastered on a bullet train. It’s unheard of for a series as experimental as this one.
The fourth angel appears in the third episode. It’s the second angel we see in the series. Evangelion intentionally disorients the viewer, forcing audiences to pay close attention to minor details. For as quiet as this series can be, it can also move at a galloping pace when it needs to. Military decisions are made on the fly and because our point of view is with Shinji it can feel like we’re being drug along, same as him, through the mechanics of this apocalyptic war scenario. The newest angel arrives without warning and it resembles a giant uterus. Earlier in the show Shinji has anxiety after moving in with Misato. She has underwear hanging in places it wouldn’t be if she knew a boy was coming over, and he can’t help but stare at her breasts. He sexualizes her, and this bothers him. There’s a sequence where Misato and Shinji are eating dinner where the image is cut up into pieces of Misato’s body, a full frame of her butt, Shinji staring at her breasts, her legs—all of this unsettles Shinji. It’s one more thing going on with his body that causes an intense and utter reckoning of chaos and he doesn’t welcome it. The angel in this case represents all that anxiety. Sometimes fans will trot out the idea that Shinji Ikari is a metaphorical transgender character due to much of his insecurities being tied up in gendered neurosis. Some validity can be given to the idea, considering how much of the imagery in this show is linked to the anxiety of having a pubescent body.
During the confrontation with the angel in the third episode some of Shinji’s classmates, the same few who blamed him for the ruin of the city, get caught in the cross-fire and Shinji has to save them. Shinji’s only option is to let them into the cockpit where they see first-hand how horrifying it is to be a fulcrum of war. Shinji saves the day again, but not before being put in the position of near death and mental torture during and afterwards. The EVA-Unit goes berserk again, this time with Shinji’s help, and the image becomes completely red. Shinji screams his guts out as he destroys the Angel, but it isn’t cathartic. It isn’t heroic. It isn’t satisfying. He’s scared, and he weeps after surviving. The camera holds on his body and his classmates have empathy for the poor guy. We’re supposed to feel the same way.
In order to understand the series imagery one has to grapple with internal ruin. Series creator Hideaki Anno has chronic depression. At the conclusion of his previous project, Nadia: The Secret of the Blue Water (1990–1991), Anno fell into the deepest depression of his entire life. He needed to make something, anything. He came up with this series based on the idea of “not running away.” In Neon Genesis Evangelion Shinji Ikari is a hero, but he doesn’t want to be, and the constant possibility of death or destruction overwhelming the image, even pleasant ones, recalls a cinematic form emblematic of chronic depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Neon Genesis Evangelion didn’t become a world-wide phenomenon and one of the most important television shows ever made because it was about only these things, but it’s why fans of the show will frequently point toward it and say, “this show saved my life.” I was eighteen years old and dealing with suicidal ideation when I rented Evangelion on DVD, one that is now long out of print, and the show reflected my emotional state in a way that no television show or film ever had up to that point. Seeing Shinji Ikari and every other character in NGE struggle in one way or another made me feel less alone, and with it becoming more globally available through streaming, I hope it has the same effect for an entirely new generation. It is all the more important because we are living in times where the apocalypse feels like it could be right around the corner. Hang in there.