I’m going to make a mess this time, aren’t I? I’m spoiling the whole thing so if you haven’t seen the show and finale film yet then I suggest you do that first.
So for several years I’ve had a friend bothering me to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion. He’d randomly reply to a review with “review EVA” or text me saying “have you gotten past episode 4 yet?” I fought for a while because Japanese anime just wasn’t something I was into. I saw giant robots fighting giant creatures and figured it was just another standard show, one where heroes would shout the names of their attacks before they executed them and wield weird powers that stem from some mystical force contained in their swords or something. None of that has ever really appealed to me, though I used to really enjoy the way these fights were animated. Neon Genesis Evangelion is some of that for a while, a gorgeous show that starts off feeling basic. Then, well, it turns into anything but that and has become a new gold standard for me.
I grew up highly religious and have come to regard it as a fascinating curio, with Christianity containing a mythos and cast of characters that are kind of wild in the way they make their points. I think the symbolism, legendary figures, and darker parts make for genuinely strange reading. Japan has a fascination with it as well, much like we do with spirits and samurai culture. Creating a mishmashed ideology using a deranged look at the human spirit alongside pseudo-Christian symology, creator Hideaki Anno uses this entire scattershot thinkpiece as a method to deal with what appear to be his own psychological shortcomings, a thing finally understood when he’s over his depression and the final two episodes of the main series turn into a surrealistic thinkpiece that ends with applause, congratulations, and a joyous penguin. It is, in no uncertain terms, batshit insane.
Anno feels that we’re disconnected, unable to truly experience human interaction in a positive way and that stings him. He spends the entirety of Neon Genesis Evangelion working on his main character, Shinji, and using him as a median between himself and his fiction so that some sort of catharsis can be worked out. The regret is that Anno did this via a fourteen year old boy worshipping the women around him as fetish objects. The creator doesn’t justify this, in fact he points out how awful it is, but it’s still a complicated view that discusses depression and need. Shinji will fall for (or at least feel an attraction to) anyone who is nice to him. Rei, who is a clone of his mother mixed with Angel DNA, is an early one for him as is his legal guardian Misato, a 29 year old woman that feels a strange reciprocal attraction with the boy. These two become fully-rounded characters but still feel as though they’re set up to be objectified by Shinji, which is part of why the kid’s a little shit. It’s Asuka that gives him his avenue for change and evolution.
Asuka comes from Germany, with her mommy issues and her feisty attitude, to absolutely rip Shinji a new asshole at every turn. She also feels a need for approval, but her approach is more straightforward – she’s going to be the best EVA pilot in the unit. I’ll give her this, she follows through there.
By the end of the series skill, talent, and even the robots don’t matter but rather what’s in them. Asuka and Shinji are piloting robots with the souls of their mothers in them. That’s …fucked up. Both of them are dealing with issues regarding the missing love from a parent, but this gets under the skin and supposes that connecting with these vicious, berserk versions of their families creates a stronger person. All this is some messed up shit, but it gets worse.
At its heart, the series is about creating true and meaningful connections with the world at large and with other human beings. Those connections are going to hurt every now and then, maybe frequently, but it’s about deciding that those connections are meaningful even with the suffering. Sometimes that shitstorm comes from things beyond our control, from bad parents or giant Lovecraftian nightmares coming down from the sky to devastate our world. Sometimes it comes from within, perhaps a shameful act or moment where we do something we regret or feel disgusted by. These moments still stand and make for ugly realities, but mixed in with the horror of humanity is something exclusively palatable – true and meaningful happiness. Look, life sucks ass, but the point of Neon Genesis Evangelion is that the bright spots make things worth it.
It took me quite a while to come to loving this series. It starts out as Pacific Rim and ends up in a psychological nightmare where a horny, depressed, isolated, self-hating child is allowed to decide whether humanity can exist as separate beings or whether or not they all turn into Sunny D together. The leaps it took to get there did not always make sense or wholly work, but the focus in the back half really brings it all into a starry-eyed look at humanity that wonders if we really can have happiness. Anno decided that we could, even if we were viciously miserable for most of our lives, and I think it’s vastly important how he handled the show. A man publicly dealing with all of his sadness, his narcissistic self-loathing, his objectification of kindness, and his optimistic gleam tht shines through at the end when he realizes he’s fine and throws his show out the window. It’s hilarious, weird, wonderful, and endearing.