[Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation]
“The world can change at any moment, based on what you’re feeling”
—Rei Ayanami, Episode 26
All throughout Neon Genesis Evangelion there have been vague mentions of “the Human Instrumentality Project”. It is Gendo Ikari’s final plan for the evolution of the human race. Giant monsters known as “Angels” have been attacking the post-apocalyptic city of Tokyo-3. They began their assault fifteen years after mankind tried to use the remains of an Angel to create and control an “actualized God”, and in the process brought about the cataclysmic Second Impact. That event nearly saw the extinction of the human race occur after the Polar ice caps melted instantaneously. Since that event happened, the common consensus is that a Third Impact would be inevitable and the human race would need to do whatever it could to survive. This birthed the Human Instrumentality Project and the Evangelion’s. The Eva’s are giant robots which scientific military intelligence organization NERV has been using to stave off the invasion of the Angels. Only adolescent children can pilot these beasts and Shinji Ikari, Gendo’s son, apparently plays an important part in his father’s master plan.
In the twenty-fourth episode of Evangelion, Shinji Ikari defeated the sixteenth and final Angel, a divine being in the shape of a boy his age named Kaworu Nagisa. Kaworu showed Shinji care and affection, which is something his father never gave him, and Shinji was conflicted on whether or not he could possibly kill someone he had grown to love in order to save the human race. When Shinji does eventually kill Kaworu, after a long operatic sequence of cursed love and the tragedy that is inherent in romance, he doesn’t feel victorious. Shinji is haunted by his own actions. He’s been struggling with his decision-making throughout the entirety of this series. Shinji hates fighting, and he doesn’t understand why the world is so violent. He questions whether or not he can possibly justify using a machine capable of such destruction, and he wonders whether humanity is wrong and the Angels are justified in their actions. Shinji is tortured by these internal questions of right and wrong, where he stands as a person and as himself. He’s tightly-wound, torn apart by internal chaos and isn’t sure if he has answers to any of the questions he asks himself on a daily basis. Much of the form of Evangelion is there to evoke Shinji’s trauma and his philosophical badgering of who he is and what he must do. Asuka and Rei, the other child pilots, are also struggling with many of the same questions. At the heart of Evangelion there is this overwhelming sense of interiority. The voice-over dialogue and long stretches of abstract surrealism meant to evoke the trauma and struggles of these characters offers a window into their own experiences. At the center of it all is a deep, damaged loneliness that begs for the comfort and affection of other people.
The Human Instrumentality Project is revealed to be an answer to man’s greatest fear: our own isolation. What the Human Instrumentality Project actually does is an abstract question without an answer, but what it gestures toward is a unity of mankind. We are fundamentally alone, because we are limited to our own flesh and blood. To be more than one would require something beyond the human comprehension of bodies. Gendo Ikari sees the next stage of human evolution as a melding of all our spirits into one being, one body. This is what the Human Instrumentality Project is at its most basic. It is the extinction of identity and acceptance of the entire species as a single entity.
Throughout episode twenty-five, there are long sequences of characters interrogating themselves with a call and response structure where they ask themselves questions and try to answer as best they can. It’s almost like therapy. Think of it as someone trying to untangle something that has been knotted for years in a musty attic, but in this case the knot is a person’s trauma or struggle. Title-cards appear frequently and ask questions like “Why do you pilot the Eva?” and Shinji responds “It’s what I’m supposed to do”, but there’s an unsureness to his responses, and there’s a lot of blank spaces and intentional destabilization in these two episodes that makes one wonder if these events are happening in anything resembling a chronological order. When series creator Hideaki Anno sought to create this series, he had a thesis question in mind of whether or not it’s okay to run away. He was working through many of his own problems of life-long chronic depression through the internal conflicts of his characters. It was art as therapy and proved to be a massively successful gambit for studio GAINAX when Evangelion proved to be one of the most popular anime series of all time. It’s strange that something as formally abstract as Evangelion would find such a large audience, but the truth of the series has always been to coax its formal abstractions in blunt emotional honesty. There’s nothing abstract about Asuka stating that she wants to die, but the animators of the studio would take that phrase and get to the conclusion of it through surreal sequences that worked under the guise of nightmare logic.
When the body is damaged and the mind is depressed everything becomes distorted, and Evangelion understood this with formal ingenuity to maximize that emotional state. There is one sequence in the twenty-fifth episode where Shinji Ikari is resting in the fetal position with a black backdrop behind himself. He’s the only visible image, but his entire body becomes blurry after some time. In voice-over he states that he can feel his body slipping away, and becoming something different. Depression will often make the body feel heavy, like you're carrying a weight you can’t describe. It makes you tired, irritable and prone to a disorientation of time and space. This is an image of depression, but it’s also an image of body dysphoria. Shinji states the obvious about his body slipping away, and the image follows suit. It is an abstract rendering of a blunt idea. Because studio GAINAX were frequently behind production schedule they had to cut corners from time to time and episodes twenty-five and twenty-six are especially sparse. There are no battle sequences or complicated moments of craft. These episodes are limited in what they do visually, but those same limitations birthed something strange: a truly esoteric series finale. In previous episodes of Evangelion, when the Angels were beginning to look at the thought processes of humans in order to learn better ways to achieve their end goal of dominance, the show inverted itself to show a universe of almost exclusively interior thinking and deliberation. In the final two episodes sequences of that type are not bordered by action or drama. They exist on their own as a would-be final statement of what this series needed to say about human interaction, and how we could perhaps overcome or learn to deal with our own problems. The Human Instrumentality Project, at this point, was only a prop for a thesis on loneliness, and how we could heal our hearts of something we all understood to be part of the human condition.
Episode twenty-five is structured around each character’s central problems and how the Human Instrumentality Project might fix their reality. The first section covers Shinji Ikari and his difficulties with parental neglect and his longing for affection since the death of his mother. He has found something resembling maternal love while being inside the Eva, which is frequently positioned as a womb-like space for the child pilots. Even with this connection, he still wishes his father would say he’s proud of his son or offer a shoulder to cry on when the world became too hard, but that isn’t Gendo Ikari. Gendo wants to enact the Human Instrumentality Project so he can be with his wife Yui again, who dies mysteriously around the time the Evangelion’s were created. His plan is one of misplaced grief that he’s never reckoned with on any mature level. He’s neglected Shinji completely in the name of this mission and Shinji can’t help but feel rebellious to the idea of following through on his father’s plans. Everyone on the show calls him a coward for wanting to run away, but Shinji only became the way he is because of the circumstances of his upbringing.
Asuka is one of those people who calls Shinji a coward. She’s also an Eva pilot, and struggles with parental neglect as well. She’s a feminine mirror of Shinji Ikari’s problems. They’re entirely alike, but express their need for longing in different ways. Asuka is extroverted and prone to violent bursts of anger, while Shinji is completely introverted and buries everything deep inside. Neither way is healthy. When Asuka was a child, her mother killed herself and Asuka has been insistent that she’s an adult ever since. If she’s all grown up then she doesn’t have to feel the pain of never having had a mom or anyone to show her how to be a woman. She throws herself into situations she shouldn’t under the guise that she’s mature enough to handle anything. As a fourteen year-old she rightfully shouldn’t be flirting with men twice her age, trying to bed one as a way of filling a gap within her lonely heart, but we know why she acts this way. She’s complicated and knotty, but it’s easy to feel empathy for Asuka. She crumbles when she’s by herself. When she’s all alone the truths that only she knows and tries to ignore bubble to the surface. She misses her mom, but she can’t get her back and Asuka is worried she might end up losing her mind to depression one day too.
Rei Ayanami’s problems are different. Her's are of questions of personhood. In episode twenty-three of Evangelion, she was revealed to be a lab creation. She isn’t human. In fact, this is the third time she’s been alive. There have been other Rei Ayanami’s and she struggles to put together the memory fragments she has of past versions of herself. She can remember dying. She can remember caring about Shinji, but she can’t remember the why to these memories. In one of the first abstract sequences of the series in episode fourteen Rei asks herself “What Am I?” over and over again. The “what” of this question is important because it suggests Rei isn’t a person, but rather an object or a tool. Rei often appears blank, hollow and doll-like to those around her, but in her own mind she’s untangling herself, and trying to find an objective truth of who she is. The best she can do is argue that she is a person because she has memories, because she lived. She isn’t a forgery if other people perceive her as a human being.
I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of perception=personhood, because it’s a loaded idea we grapple with to this day in politics and in the social sphere. Take, for example, the dehumanization of the Japanese people in the political war cartoons of Popeye in the 1940s. In those cartoons, racist caricatures were made to turn the features of Japanese people into something other than human, which subconsciously made it easier for Americans to think of Japanese people as people who do not deserve to live. If someone is turned into an “other” then it’s the first step in making them expendable. And if you are a person whose identity has been hijacked and twisted by society into something other than human, then it’s easier to empathize with Rei’s quest for humanity. We are still dealing with the ramifications of these other-ing tactics to the negative effect of minority persons to this day. Rei Ayanami’s quest to understand herself in a world that constantly reaffirms her alienation becomes paramount to her own crisis. She’s so internalized and cryptic that it is hard to gauge Rei at times, but her statement that she isn’t a forgery because “I’m me” is deeply powerful, and certainly a breakthrough for the character.
Major Misato Katsuragi is the lead military officer at NERV and Shinji Ikari’s caretaker, and she is the final character who is psychoanalyzed in episode twenty-four. Throughout this episode title cards appear like interjecting thoughts demanding characters answer questions. The call and response illuminates who these characters are and let us, as viewers, feel closer to their personal demons. Misato’s family died during the Second Impact leaving her an orphan. In her father’s final moments he saved Misato’s life by placing her in an insulated research tube and letting her drift off to sea as the world fell apart. A noble gesture, but Misato always hated her father. He never treated her mother right, frequently leaving her to take care of the family by herself. He was doing it all in the name of science, but there’s no excuse good enough to heal the wounded heart of a child, and Misato carried that resentment into adulthood. She sleeps around regularly with men and the interjecting title cards badger her with sexist questions that shame her for her promiscuous activities, especially with former boyfriend Kaji Ryoji. She comes to the conclusion that it’s all traced back to her misgivings with her father. She finds men who can fill that longing she’s had since her father died. With Kaji, she could find a home beside his body and resting alongside his face. She truly loved him, but she wonders if she screwed it all up by running away from her own feelings. She’s a cold, hard woman, who constantly has to put on a perfect face for all those around her, but all she wants to do is annihilate herself with sex and alcohol. At the end of the world it’s hard to find any of this morally objectionable. Her coping mechanisms aren’t healthy, but they’re entirely hers, even if she hates herself too much for it.
At the close of this episode these characters restate their deepest fears again while on a stage, as if performing for an unnamed audience of anime fandom. Did you revel in their misery or find comfort in their problems? It’s an important question to ask when giving yourself away to art that is this emblematic of some of humankind's most complicated problems. After these issues are stated a title card appears onscreen stating that “The Human Instrumentality Project” has begun.
The final episode of the series follows Shinji Ikari as he figures out whether or not he wants to live. In these two episodes the Human Instrumentality Project is just a metaphor for deeper problems. It functions like therapy. Shinji doesn’t come to any groundbreaking conclusions and he doesn’t heal himself, because trauma and depression are too complicated to eradicate completely, but he wants to try. He can find his paradise in a willingness to keep breathing. Trying is enough sometimes and there are two phenomenal sequences in this episode that predate his decision to keep living.
One of these scenes twists the anime into something almost normal. Shinji wakes up in a world that isn’t distraught with apocalyptic scar-tissue, and he has to go to school. He’s a normal teenage boy without the anxieties he has over his sexuality or his lingering trauma from war. Both his parents are alive and Asuka greets him each morning before school. She’s still bratty, but there’s a softness there too. She’s now a girl with options. Rei’s an average teenager. She’s late for school and after she runs into Shinji in the street, her skirt blows up for a brief second and she slaps him for daring to look. This is more conventional for anime, and it’s one reality that could exist. Another sees Shinji devolve into a sketch, and then into a lone animation cell floating above the ground. He has the immense freedom of a world built upon nothingness. Nothing is defined so anything can exist. He can be anyone here, and after he thinks that to himself the linework of his body shifts into an egg that cracks, and reveals a fish, and transforms itself again and again until he’s floating once more. He asks for definition so a line is drawn on the ground, but in voice over you can hear him saying he’s lost some of his freedom by limiting space to air and land. With more rigid definitions he worries he’ll be just as lonely again. This is another possibility.
In the end, Evangelion finds a middle ground. We can’t change the world, but we can wish it to be different and that desire is what makes life worth living. You can go through your own day to day life and take the time to feel something new or talk to someone different and the walls of isolation come down. The Human Instrumentality Project becomes real when we’re willing to open ourselves to new experiences and welcome a change within ourselves. We might become happier when there are new journeys to take and new relationships waiting to be formed. When you’re in the middle of a book you’re never quite sure how the story is going to end and it’s easy to float with the characters in that infinite space. You can choose not to turn any more pages and then these characters become eternal. They then have options of how their lives are going to turn out in a way that isn’t dictated by the fate of your decision to keep reading. This is the last episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, but it isn’t the end of this story. Like all of the best television shows Neon Genesis Evangelion doesn’t end. The narrative circles back around to the start or fissures off into a potential, different reality than the one present in this episode. It continues on into infinity. This is only one ending of many possible ones, and in this one Shinji Ikari wants to keep trying. You don’t have to want to live. The act of living is enough.