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“Neon Genesis Evangelion,” Episodes 21–22: Like a Prayer

The sixth in a series of essays covering Hideaki Anno’s landmark mecha-anime, which is finally globally available through streaming.
Willow Catelyn Maclay
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.
In the Old Testament of the Bible there’s a circular narrative built around stories of punishment and submission underneath the will of a divine force. If you had faith in God and his will then you could escape these punishments, like Noah or Lot in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. The morals of these stories are usually tied up in notions of there being a specific way that people are supposed to lead their lives. Neon Genesis Evangelion feels a bit like the Old Testament at times, with the beings known as Angels attacking what’s left of the human race. The Angel attacks feel like a divine punishment for trying to become like God through science. In the beginning of the show the Angels came from the sky or up from the core of the Earth, but lately their attacks on the adolescent pilots of the robotic Evangelion Units are becoming more abstract. In the earliest episodes of Evangelion these battles usually played out in action sequences which were at times thrilling to watch, and the mere presence of these monsters felt holy in some respects. When they were defeated by the pilots they’d often leave behind a lasting image of a cross in the sky, and lead pilot Shinji Ikari has caught onto the possible divine implications of their battle. He wonders aloud if it is even right to fight the Angels if they’ve been sent as messengers of God. In episode fifteen of Evangelion, Misato Katsuragi, the chief military options officer of NERV, the organization fighting the Angels, follows her former boyfriend Kaji into the basement of NERV headquarters and he shows her something horrible. There’s a monster, an Angel, crucified on a giant cross. In the middle of its chest is a lance, pinning its body further to the wood. Kaji tells her that this figure is important to everything that has happened after the cataclysmic, apocalyptic occurrence they call the Second Impact. The image of this crucified Angel lingers in the mind after episode fifteen, but little further detail is given to how it actually got there and why some at NERV are conducting secret experiments on it. That is, until episode twenty-one, where we see first-hand who killed the world.
Episode twenty-one begins strangely without the opening credits song, “Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” but with an image of a surveillance camera. It’s recording a weapons test at an underground base ran by the United Nations. The image is ashen, fuzzy, and weathered from years of decay in that way tapes are when they’re neglected. The image holds for a long time as two scientists who we cannot see discuss the test that is about to begin. When they inject a DNA sample into something these scientists are calling “Adam”, named after the biblical first man, things begin to go horribly wrong. They panic and ramble on about the absorption of a spear and a bright light begins to engulf everything. The roof of the base is ripped off. The surveillance footage is rocky, slipping off its axis and peering to the right. The image shows a world in chaos. The winds have picked up. The surrounding man-made structures are falling apart and the scientists can be heard screaming instructions at each other to minimize the situation, but it’s too late. The Second Impact has begun. The Angel that they have awakened bears a striking resemblance to what would become the Eva units and can be seen in frame only for a moment and then the feed cuts out, replaced with color bars. This video has been hidden for a long time, but now the truth is in the light. Humans caused the Second Impact.
Episode twenty-one of Evangelion works as a gigantic information dump and shows how the inner-workings of many of the show’s various organizations and plot-threads came to be. It’s necessary to reveal these things before the endgame truly begins, but more importantly it brings to light the struggle of surviving in the midst of world-wide desolation. In these times we live in now, where our future as a species feels fragile due to the looming threat of climate change, an episode like this one feels especially relevant. After the Second Impact was initiated in the opening scene of this episode, there are many cross-cutting sections spaced throughout that show fragmented clips of how characters cope with the changing environment of Earth. The one constant in these scenes is the sweltering heat. Many of these sequences are characterized by meetings and conversations held outside in a visibly hazy environment. The characters are always caked in this dense layer of sweat and moisture brought on by what is now an eternal summer. In one of the many flashback sequences, Eva scientific strategist Gendo Ikari’s second-in-command, Kozo Fuyutsuki, proclaims that what he misses most about life is the seasons. He misses autumn in particular, and watercolor images of these beautiful auburn and yellow trees are animated to move gently with a more tolerable sun. It’s editing as memory, but the thoughts of a more hospitable Earth do not bring Kozo or anyone else the satisfaction of their past lives. Now, the sun is commanding in its dominance, forever beating down like a constant reminder of what the human race caused. A lifetime of summer is hard on the body. For the characters on Evangelion this is normal, and for Shinji, Asuka, and Rei, the child pilots of the series, autumn may as well be myth: A season that for them is as unreal as peace on Earth.
Episode twenty-one is the first episode in the series to be presented in an extended director’s cut fashion. The remaining episodes in the series have elongated running times, which allowed creator Hideaki Anno and the production team at GAINAX to flex their muscles creatively. These episodes still ran in a condensed format on their initial television run, but now those versions have been put aside in favor of the creative team’s full vision in an out-of-print home video release and on Netflix. The longer running time in these episodes is mostly used to fill in the blanks on character and organizational backstory.
The overwhelming emotional response to the twenty-first episode is one of hopelessness. Previously throughout the show there were always sparks of joy or brief comedy to alleviate the bigger thematic elements at play that analyzed the psychological state of characters in the midst of continuous war. That’s mostly gone now, and the flashback sequences in this episode meant to give a fuller picture of everything in Neon Genesis Evangelion do not offer a brighter one.
Much of the twenty-first episode covers the formation of Gendo Ikari’s SEELE organization, which sought out to create an actualized God by way of an Evangelion unit. It’s a story as old as Frankenstein. One scientist pushes beyond his means to create life and is usually punished for trying to become like God. Gendo and SEELE would oversee this creation through the scientific means of the United Nations and the military intelligence of NERV. In order to do this they would need to cover up the root cause of the Second Impact, and they would do so by lying to the public, explaining it away by calling it a meteor strike instead of what actually happened. If SEELE could harness the power of what they summoned and brought upon the Second Impact hey could become all powerful. In Gendo’s eyes they could evolve, and become like gods, but he isn’t a military fatalist yet. The one glimmer of hope in this episode is in Yui Ikari, his wife and Shinji’s mom. When she was alive she was bright and optimistic about rebuilding humanity, and Gendo had a sparkle in his eyes whenever she was around. Maybe he believed too. Yui was a scientist who worked directly with Gendo. She bears a striking resemblance to Rei Ayanami, but Yui dies mysteriously in one of the many flashback sequences. Shinji was only a toddler when she passed away, but his one scene with her in this episode underlines the warmth in the relationship they had. An image of Shinji reaching out for his mother is the dominant one of Yui’s sequence. After she passes away Gendo becomes rougher with everyone under his command. . He begins to wear glasses to cover up part of his face, and he hardly emotes beyond commands. He never smiles. When Gendo finally comes up with the idea for the Human Instrumentality Project, which, in Gendo’s eyes, would push humanity into the next stage of evolution, he appears like a martyr, with obvious Christian imagery. He’s sitting at a desk, but the sun is coming in from an odd angle and creating an impossible shadow on the wall behind him in the shape of a cross. Crosses are everywhere in Evangelion. The Angels leave them behind when they’re vanquished. Crosses are usually seen in various establishing shots before battles or before important scenes. It creates the sense that some semblance of a god is looking over the show. In the lowest levels of NERV headquarters a cross is even used to pin the remains of the Angel that started this all. Gendo’s cross, however, feels more like foreshadowing.Gendo’s idealized martyrdom is for humanity. His is for the Human Instrumentality Project, but no one ever saved the world by trying to play God. They were only punished.
MISATO KATSURAGI: “I don’t handle the dark well. All the bad memories come flooding back”
At the beginning of the twelfth episode of the series we saw the Second Impact from the perspective of Misato Katsuragi. She was only a child at the time and her father sacrificed himself to save her life. The Second Impact is the traumatic event that informs all of the visual language and choices the show makes formally and it never focused on the event with significant detail until that episode. Throughout episode twenty-one there are more peaks into the psychological effects witnessing the death of her father and the near fatality of the planet caused on the poor girl. There’s a brief cut to the present day where Misato is sitting in a dark room for what feels like ages. Putting our perspective with hers through the usage of time. It’s hard not to feel like the walls are closing in or that underneath the quiet of a solitary moment something sinister lays underneath. When Misato is by herself and when she has absolutely nothing else to do her mind wanders back to that event. This is accurate of post-traumatic stress disorder. The quiet of an empty room can become something hostile very quickly, and the mind can loop itself back to the event where your mind was shattered from the get-go. Smells, images, and textures can act as triggers and for Misato the act of being alone forces her back into the childlike state of witnessing the potential end of the world all by herself. When she’s putting on her clothes in the morning she scurries back to that incident. When she doesn’t have to work to do, it reveals itself again and she can’t get rid of it. It’s like a scar of the mind. It’s there forever, and it informs how you live in your day to day life. It shouldn’t dictate so much of a life’s decision-making, but it tends to. Misato throws herself into the arms of men easily to escape that loneliness and the potential of falling back to that moment of crisis. There’s a flashback scene in this episode where Misato and Kaji are shown briefly in love. They ended up having a relationship for close to ten years, even though it’s later revealed he never even told her he loved her. She loved the idea of him. For Misato a knight in shining armor is easy to find when anyone would do. At the end of this episode, when she knows Kaji has been murdered for having leaked the UN tape that plays at the beginning, she weeps like she never has before. Kaji was the closest thing to a home for this girl who grew up without one. Now what does she do? Her concerns are a microcosm of how everyone in Evangelion feels. Every character has this reckless, anxious need for affection when it was already too late. No one ever needed someone so goddamn bad than the people of Earth, because the worst future they could have ever imagined is here, and there’s no turning back. The world feels a bit like that in 2019. We hear about global warming and worry for our planet. We see children locked up in cages. We see the slow crumble of democracy, and we wonder what we can possibly do to make things better again. It’s easy to weep. It sometimes feels like we have been since 2016.
In episode ten of Evangelion,Misato, Shinji, and Asuka go to a spa. There’s a beautiful sunset. It’s one of the only images of natural beauty in the entire series, but it’s undercut by Asuka asking Misato if her caretaker knew the full extent of her past. Asuka can’t figure out if she’s comforted or depressed when Misato tells her that she knows everything so she chooses ambivalence and stares at the setting sun. From that point forward there was always going to be an episode where Asuka’s history was revealed. That episode is the twenty-second.
If your parents or relatives have mental health problems it’s hard to pinpoint what’s wrong as a child. It’s nothing more than a curiosity when they exhibit erratic behavior because it is impossible to process these things as you’re developing. When you get older certain things start to click into place, and you start to wonder if you might be the same when you’re an adult. Asuka has this worry. Episode twenty-two begins with a flashback sequence that takes place right before she moved to Tokyo-3. She’s laying down and watching the stars pass by with Kaji, the same man Misato fell in love with all those years ago. She makes a pass at him, but he refuses, because she’s just a child. Asuka recoils at the very notion of being considered anything other than an adult, because if she is a child then she would still need the guidance of a parent, but her mom is dead. She committed suicide. Asuka insists over and over again that she’s an adult and finally rips her blouse open as if her chest might be the proof she needs to make her words true, but as she does this a quick flash of edits appear across the screen in an almost violent fashion. These images have inverted colors, some are sketches, some are monochromatic and others filtered in a greyscale texture pattern, before landing on a final image of Asuka as a child in formal wear at her mother’s funeral. A funeral where she never cried.
Asuka’s mom died in 2005, a year after Yui Ikari mysteriously passed away. Before Asuka’s mother passed away she was being hospitalized in a mental institution after having a mental breakdown. She was a scientist who poured her entire life into research at the cost of the neglect of her family. Asuka acts like she doesn’t care about her mother, but she desperately wishes she had any sort of relationship with her at all. After Asuka’s mother suffered a mental breakdown she began to carry a doll around with her that she named “Asuka” which further emphasized her own daughter’s sense of neglect. She can’t comprehend why her mother chose this doll over her or why her father is spending so much time with her mother’s doctor. A nurse walks by Asuka, someone we never see, and wonders aloud if we’re merely the dolls that god plays with. Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno is interested in the idea of godhood and man and what we rule over. He stretches this idea down to family and because this conception of God in Evangelion feels like the Old Testament deity, it is a relationship of punishment and sin. This unfurls for many of the characters and the human race in general in this series and only becomes more pronounced later. For Asuka, it seems as though God has forsaken her and all the children of Earth. No one on this show has a good relationship with their parents. The only thing their parents ever passed down to them were mental health problems and strife.
This episode cuts back and forth between Asuka’s crisis moment of the past which informed her trauma and mental health issues and her declining confidence and sense of self-worth in the present. Asuka’s mental sync rates, which help the child pilots control the movements of the Eva units, are in a downward spiral. Every time she tries to mentally sync up with her Eva  her mind wanders to the past and she can’t concentrate on doing the one thing she was previously very good at. All her sense of self-worth is tied up in being able to pilot her Eva unit better than anyone else and if she can’t do this then in her own eyes she is worthless. She hates herself for failing, but more than that she hates the fact that in previous battles with the Angels she  needed to be saved by others. It all ties back to the problems of parental neglect she experienced as a child. If she can stand on her own two feet, be an adult, and do everything for herself then she never has to experience the pain she felt as a child ever again. But if she can’t do these things then she’s still a child, she still needs her mother and she can’t move on with her life. She’s visibly depressed, but unlike Shinji who withdraws into himself and second guesses everything he does, Asuka is violent and angry with everyone and everything, including herself. There’s a very harrowing sequence in this episode where Asuka tries to relax at the end of the day by taking a bath, and she gets frustrated when she sees that the tub is already full. The Second Impact caused world-wide heat-waves and planetary drought, so wasting water is not an option. She has to use this dirty bathwater and she becomes furious at having lost control of what would have been a brief respite. She screams that she hates Shinji and Rei and Misato. The image turns into a close-up to pull us into Asuka’s anger. She screams that she hates everything and then she bends over and clutches her stomach and screams that she hates herself. She says again that she hates herself.
Asuka is falling apart, and directly after this scene NERV move onto the next day’s sync rate tests and Asuka’s are even worse than the day before. Major Misato thinks it might be because Asuka’s on her period, but chief science officer Dr. Ritsuko Akagi says it’s something else. The Eva wouldn’t work worse due to biological function. Whatever is going on with Asuka is mental. In Asuka’s own eyes it’s unfair that she has to menstruate because she doesn’t even want kids. It’s just another thing in a long list of shit on what is turning out to be another horrible day. Lately, Rei Ayanami has been the second best pilot, lapping Asuka in the process, and Asuka has only grown to hate her more. She’s jealous of her, but she’s mostly taking this out on herself. Shinji wishes he could be like Rei, because she doesn’t seem to feel the weight of battle, but Asuka covets Rei’s ability to feel nothing at all. Asuka calls her a doll and likely hates her for it, because Rei hits too close to home. All of this boils to a fever pitch in a still-image where Rei and Asuka wait in an elevator. The scene is a long, unbroken take, and nothing happens. It’s barely even animated except a few blinks of the eye from Rei and Asuka. It’s a bold decision to take a full minute of a half-hour TV episode on a still image that never wavers. As viewers we have to sit with the image and consider everything that Asuka might be feeling at this moment. She’s doing poorly at her job, she hates everyone, she’s fighting off PTSD symptoms and she’s on her period. It’s all too much for one person to take and the image sits for an agonizingly long time on these two characters.
Character interiority is important to the form of Evangelion. In each and every scene the animators go through pain-staking detail to emphasize the mental state of characters, and in episode twenty-two that reaches a violent apex when the next Angel attacks. Shinji sits this one out because he’s still recovering from the previous battle and Gendo insists that Shinji’s unit-01 is too important to lose in battle. Asuka and Rei are sent out, and Asuka ignores a direct command to run back-up. She goes on the offensive as a last ditch effort to prove to NERV and herself that she is not useless, but she’s too brash in her decision-making and fails when the Angel does something no one could have expected. It attacks her mind. A giant, blaring white light shoots down from the heavens and a chorus sings “Hallelujah” and Asuka clutches her head. She screams over and over again “No!” Her movements in the Eva used to be balletic and fluid, but now are rigid and hard as Asuka clutches at herself for support, nearly tearing herself apart in the process. It plays like a metaphorical rape scene with Asuka pleading with the Angel not to come any deeper inside her and that it hurts. It is not an easy scene to watch and one could argue that GAINAX went too far with this particular metaphor. The editing mirrors what it’s like to experience a triggered memory response. The image cuts back and forth between Asuka as a child with her mother and her current state. Things get stranger when title cards appear on the screen accompanied by sounds of gunfire. Each title card represents one of Asuka’s deepest fears. The final title card reads “Death.” The word “Death” triggers a repressed memory of Asuka’s mom trying to kill her. An image of a doll with its head severed, speckled with blood lingers on the screen amidst all these memory flashes as the child version of Asuka screams in the background.
Surrealism takes over next, with Asuka travelling a dark alley-way before getting swallowed up in a mass of people. Then four different versions of Asuka interrogate her and illuminate some of her worst qualities of over-confidence and vanity. The Angel’s mental attack on Asuka is only probing her mind. Asuka can’t bear to see the truth of herself and why she is the way she is. A weeping child version of Asuka transforms into a crayola sketch of a close-up of her face made monstrous. The crayon choice is wonderful and maximizes the truth of her worst childhood trauma. She can’t take anymore and right as she’s at the point of breaking Rei saves her. Rei went underground at the insistence of Gendo and obtained the Lance of Longinus that was pinning the Angel being referred to as “Adam” to the cross. This is a huge risk, because Misato had been told by Kaji that contact between an Eva and Adam would cause the Third Impact. It doesn’t, but Adam is cognizant of the lance being removed and moves. Adam is something to fear later. Rei hurls the spear into the sky killing the Angel in the process and saving Asuka. The Third Impact is evaded.
Asuka isn’t any better after being saved. She says she hates everyone and she cries as it rains for what must be the first time in ages. Childhood trauma doesn’t go away. It can heal, and feel smaller, but it never disappears entirely. It’s like an old wound, scabbed over, waiting to be picked. Evangelion is honest enough to note that some of us bleed out all the time. Neon Genesis Evangelion


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