2019 was the perfect year for the emotional devastation of Evangelion

Characters stand in front of a mechanized fighter

A character reads information while in line

The character Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Asuka, a character from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion, looking determined

Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion is in anguish as other characters look on, with the art in a more sketchy style than the usual finalized look of the series.

a mechanized weapon from Neon Genesis Evangelion

There is a reason I had been hearing about Neon Genesis Evangelion for nearly 20 years.

Originally broadcast from 1995 to 1996, it is considered one of the seminal works of Japanese animation. This reputation was earned not just for its perceived quality, but through many intangible factors as well. Some of those had to do with the show’s erratic production, often spurred by the brilliant but vulnerable and inscrutable nature of creator Hideaki Anno (whose personal struggles with depression are written into the fabric of the narrative).

But some of it also has to do with the fact that it spent many years being difficult to see in America, from VHS to bootleg Blu-rays. This rarity was part of its legendary status. But now that it has arrived on Netflix, it has provided an opportunity for more casual outsiders to come see what the fuss is all about. The more I sunk into what the series was trying to do, the more I felt that 2019 was a good time for it to become so accessible. And I dove in.

Turns out the fuss is well-earned. Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most complex, harrowing, and altogether dense works of narrative art that I have ever seen. There was no reaction I could have except immediately jumping to heavy analysis. Thus, the following essay is a long-form deep dive into the complex themes and meanings behind the show. So if you have not seen it, please do so immediately.

And if you have, let’s take a first step into the depths. Just a quick heads up for this piece, though: There will be discussions of depression and suicide.

1. De-powered fantasies

The act of watching Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deeply visceral experience. Much like the 14-year-olds at the center of the story, you end up feeling so many different emotions as the narrative whiplashes in tone and intent. One moment you’ll feel paralyzed, then embarrassed, then angry, then lonely, and all to the point that you’re feeling like you’re being turned inside out by the strength of these very emotions (or sometimes the lack thereof). It places you deeply into the brainspace of its characters, and that’s rarely a comfortable place to be.

Which means as a viewer, you both bear witness to atrocities and commit them. You perpetrate humiliation while being a victim of it. And, all the while, you creep along a path of dread, instinctively understanding that you are heading toward certain doom.

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The opening two episodes lay that apocalyptic path down quite clearly. We start with Shinji, a rejected child in the midst of a depression he cannot name. He is thrust into a situation of great import because he must pilot one of the “EVAs,” which are massive robots built for the purpose of destroying “Angels,” which are giant monsters that have already wreaked havoc on a world trying to stave off the apocalypse.

Yes, Evangelion rests firmly in the grand tradition of kaiju versus giant mechs that stretches through Japanese cinematic history. I made the mistake of joke-tweeting, “Oh so wait this is basically Pacific Rim!?!?!” while watching, and I learned my lesson: Never be sarcastic or count on people to read the other tweets in a thread. But these stories have endured for so long because they tap into a clear power fantasy.

That’s because they are designed to make the viewer feel larger than life. To make young people feel not just grown up, but also grand and invincible.

But this is not actually the case for Shinji, nor for anything else in Evangelion. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of a show more interested in actually limiting the power of its fantastical machines than this one. To wit, we often see the EVAs running around the city while connected to giant, cumbersome power cables, which inhibit their range. On top of that, the EVAs can only operate for a very short time once those same power lines are disengaged.

This is important to the show for two reasons. The first is that these limitations make the battles much more dramatic. There is always a sort of metaphorical ticking clock in the background that counts down to a lack of power (this also gives a large advantage to the enemy, whose powers can often seem both unstoppable and unlimited).

But even the nonsense tech-speak you hear from the control room works because the writers are so much more concerned with building tension and stacking obstacles in front of our heroes than in making the battles seem superficially “cool.” The second reason for the short battery life of the massive robots is that it so perfectly fits the larger metaphor. Evangelion isn’t a power fantasy …

It’s a power nightmare. And there are three specific kinds of nightmares in this story that center on the adolescent transitioning into adulthood.

The first is what I will call “the nightmare of actualization.” That means the ability to step into an adult body (read: EVA) and suddenly realize your own capacity for power. Note the way the pilots actually control the EVAs with their brains, much less with actual controls. But it’s less about concentration and more about the purity of feeling, which is the reason the technicians keep referring to it as being in “sync.” This purity of feeling is precisely what makes children such ideal EVA pilots, for who else feels their emotions as deeply and purely as the young middle schooler?

Note the way that all the adults around the kids have gotten so much better at putting up walls, lying, guarding their hearts, and staying stone-faced in the pursuit of what they believe they must do. But the children are far more primal. Especially when the machine-like EVAs start acting like beasts when the young pilots give in to their baser instincts.

You can even see it in their posture; these sleek, graceful robots suddenly start to hunch over and howl as they rip, tear, and literally eat each other, all due to a connection that goes far beyond mere man and machine. As the second episode closes, everyone praises Shinji for his transcendental violence against the Angel because it kept everyone “safe,” but he doesn’t feel good about his actions at all. He feels like he has unleashed hell, and a monstrous demon eye follows him in his mind.

This leads to the second adult issue, “the nightmare of responsibility.” For now that he has become empowered, Shinji comes face-to-face with the ethical quandaries that plague so many adults. Yes, he learns that his violent actions can save people, but they also create collateral damage and more suffering for some in the way. Seeing the traumatizing cost of his actions, Shinji tries to quit the program and walk away from it all so many times.

But in doing so, he constantly learns the even more traumatizing cost of inaction, as it creates more violence and loss than ever before. Faced with this Catch-22, Shinji realizes he must go on piloting an EVA, but he comes to an even more terrifying realization about what that actually means. When you are the one entrusted to act during great moments of violence, the only way through the nightmare is to become a nightmare.

Characters stand in front of a mechanized fighter

Neon Genesis Evangelion is about the limits, not just the power, of technology and warfare.

Image: Gainax

It’s a trope we’ve seen time and time again, but I can’t think of another series this good at dramatizing the pure anguish of it (let alone a “young adventurer” series). It doesn’t just sit back and comment on the “reflexivity” of the situation from afar.

No, you’re placed right in the middle of it. You feel the weight of the decisions, as if the story brings us the terrifying impact of our own behavior. And the “become the nightmare” metaphor is even made literal when we learn that EVAs are actually made from Angels, the very “beasts” they are supposed to be fighting. The EVAs were built to be a means of salvation, but at their core, they are designed to kill and demolish just as they see the enemy do against them.

It makes sense, then, when a character later calls piloting the EVAs a “cursed existence,” and so Shinji must barrel forth in his cursed masculine design to do what has to be done. Note that I do not reference masculinity by accident, because the journey toward adulthood means confronting the other, possibly more terrifying prospect that comes with puberty. That would be the third adult issue, “the nightmare of sexuality.”

2. The two questions

OK. It is utterly impossible to talk about Evangelion without first talking about how it outright sexualizes 14-year-olds. And it does not play coy with this subject. It sexualizes these characters with a brazen attitude that may seem completely alien to a Western audience.

Now, the most immediate way to react to this is with one big “YIKES!” because, as I said, the characters are 14 years old. But that “YIKES!” is also necessary because some viewers keep trying to find a way to reason around the problems of it. I see so many echoes of, “Oh, that’s just anime,” as if genre conventions can be brushed aside when talking about the text of a story and its social impact. I also see people try to justify the sexual nature of the story with the fact that teenagers sexualize and have relationships with each other. While that’s obviously a factual statement, it doesn’t change the reality of how adults should view these situations when looking in on them.

A character reads information while in line

These are very young characters dealing with very adult issues.

Image: Gainax

And perhaps the most problematic justification for the sexuality in the story is how some adults trot out the excuse that the federal age of consent in Japan is technically 13. Yes, you read that right. And even though local laws are more complex (and can stretch up to 18), there is no doubting the undercurrents of hebephilia and ephebophilia that are normalized within the culture and should be examined at length.

Look, there’s so much to unpack there, and Lord knows I’m not equipped to take on a country’s sexual legislation, nor the culture of an entire society that I won’t pretend to understand. What I am going to say is that if you wave that age of consent law around as a justification for any of this, then “YIKES!” OK? OK.

The truth is I have no real desire to debate this issue because the endless problems that come with sexualizing young people are already so well-documented. And this comes with the acknowledgment that these same problems persist within the United States and play into the same troubling results of mixed messages being sent to young women, which gets them caught in the endless maze of male-controlled power structures that deal damage time and time again.

But these are real problems worth exploring in storytelling. It just comes down to the specifics of how we portray these problems through art. Because intrinsic to our understanding is the understanding of our responsibilities in how we deal with them or improve them.

Which leaves Neon Genesis Evangelion in the weirdest possible space when it comes to looking at it from a critical perspective. Because it is at once so troublingly forthright in its depiction of sexualizing young people (because it believes it is operating in a “normal” range that is not our normal), and yet it also brings the problems of such sexualization to the forefront of the text in a way that’s more honest and more analytical than so many other existing depictions. Which means unpacking the whole mess is going to take a lot of discussion.

Now, this is going to seem like a weird place to start, but if we want to understand baseline depictions of what I’ll call “young male horniness,” specifically in the way they regard female personhood, we actually want to compare this work to earlier forms of it. Specifically, ’80s sex comedies.

You probably know the movies I’m talking about (Porky’s, Meatballs, etc.). They all seem to be about a group of boys in for some wild night as they go on a quest to see a naked woman or lose their virginity or something. I don’t like using the word “innocent” to describe these movies — they’re not, and they are often filled with varying levels of sexual assault — but they almost seem quaint when we look back at them in certain specific aspects.

That’s because they all cater to the pre-internet idea of grown young men being so enamored with the prospect of seeing a boob that they’d run around all night just for the chance of doing so. The goal of these films was basic juvenile titillation, designed to provide a view of nudity in a world where being able to see nudity was still somewhat rare. They also made it “permissible” and “public.” But the quaintness of these films only exists as a contrast with the modern alternative.

Because if you watch more recent comedies like 2012’s Project X, you see something far uglier in the depiction. The fact that nudity is widely available on the internet has produced a generation of boys that have no barrier in “obtaining” said nudity. Sex and real-life connection, on the other hand, can often seem far more difficult in comparison. It results in an odd dichotomy where the women are resented if they don’t immediately give in to the sexual fantasies of the young men in the way they are used to. Which results in a male aggression that is far angrier, more entitled, and less patient about getting what they want. Thus, in Project X, there is very little consideration of womanhood. They make fun of women, then sex is achieved, and it’s “funny” when the women are quickly discarded.

I point out the difference between these sex comedies because it reveals what we call the “intent of the male gaze.” In the earlier versions, the juvenile boys titter and laugh at the very idea of seeing boobs, meaning the very notion is something they put on a pedestal. And in the modern version, there is no pedestal, just the resentment and wish for obedience.

Now, it would be easy to pit one kind of gaze over the other, but the point is there is still a power dynamic that is true for both. Whether a woman’s sexuality is prize or obstacle, these stories are all about whether or not the women are “obtained,” without any real analysis as to what’s really going on with their own personhood or the boys’ drives.

All of this has a point. Not just because Evangelion depicts both forms of “male horniness,” but because it also passes the real test of any examination of young sexuality, and that is whether or not the narratives even begin to engage with:

  1. The question of how female characters feel about all this, and
  2. How male characters grapple with the responsibilities that come with the nature of their attraction to others.

With both questions, Evangelion luckily presents endless text to feed off. But the best way to examine that text is to go character by character.

3. Children of a spectrum

Let’s start with Asuka. She is the plucky, red-haired “second child” from Germany who is brought in to help pilot the EVAs. She is also an immediate foil for Shinji because her character is at brazen, full of self-flattery and pride in her attractiveness. But she also has her walls up and guards her vulnerabilities intensely. Take her introductory scene where another character accidentally gets a quick look up her skirt. Her response is to immediately slap him, even commenting about how he deserves it for getting a good show (his response is a whole other problematic ball of wax).

But the point is that Asuka is making her boundaries clearly defined. And it’s not that she’s completely closed off from her sexuality, because at the same time, she is very quick to position herself as an “adult” and pines after the much older character of Kaji. The narrative even makes this yearning literal as she physically tries to show off her body to him to prove she’s now an adult. When you add all this together with her carefully orchestrated games of kissing with Shinji, you get a full sense of Asuka’s psychology. Because what she is really after is a complete sense of control and autonomy. And that’s because her personal nightmare is the complete lack of it (largely stemming from the deep trauma we will discuss later).

The character Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Both Rei (above) and Asuka are playing a rigged game in Evangelion.

Image: Gainax

Rei is on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to such issues of control because she has precisely zero control over her life. There’s also much larger symbolism with her character that I’ll get into later, but in just discussing her sexuality at the moment, it is important to understand we are talking about a character who was artificially designed by the men around her as a literal puppet. Thus, she obeys any command. That’s because she wants to be “good” and to meet the expectations of the men around her. And so she falls in line with the patriarchy around her at every step. This also means she drearily walks into every horror and injustice and simply “takes” and accepts it. Which is precisely why so much of her character’s journey ultimately becomes the quest for her own autonomy.

Now, it would be typical of us to pit the two responses from Asuka and Rei against each other. To say that Asuka is “right” and Rei is “wrong” ignores the deeply complicated nature of how each of those answers fails to work out, especially when pitted against the male responses that come to them. To wit, Asuka is criticized for being too prudish and outspoken, Rei for being too willing and not outspoken enough. The simpler truth is they’re both playing a rigged game. They will both be criticized for whatever they do, however they react, because in the end, the men of the show just want control over them.

Which means the “rightness” of their behavior is technically irrelevant. They can want whatever and it won’t matter because ultimately, the patriarchal males want an impossibility: for every woman in the world to have sex with them and no one else. And it would be easy to paint this patriarchal system of sexuality as something masterminded in some enclave — and politically speaking, that is sometimes true both in the show and real life — but it’s also largely the vomited-up nature of collective psychological possessive instincts that are inherited by men and used against women again and again through history. All of this is hugely important, because young Shinji is at the heart of discovery when it comes to this abusive cycle between men and women.

For instance, there are so many fans who would say Shinji’s story is the story of “otaku” (defined as “(in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills”), but I’m more interested in the ways Otaku lines up with the broader systems of male sexuality. Because whether it is nerd culture, frat culture, or religious culture, there are systems of fear that perpetuate the same abuses again and again. That’s because often in these systems, men aren’t allowed to be weak and vulnerable. And so they teach empowerment through fantasy, or debauchery, or purity. But all of this leads to a core psychological issue at the root of all of them.

That would be the issue of repression. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a word more apt for Shinji’s sexuality. His puberty began with his mother dying and his father shuttering him away, left to be alone and wanting. Mired in the depths of depression, Shinji seeks to break out and connect, but he simply has no idea how. And so his way of being “safe” is to constantly detach. To repress. To not want. But the problem with our brains is that we cannot truly do that. It is a hellish experience, and our wants will still be there just as much as ever. And the problem with our brains is that nothing can be truly suppressed because it will end up bubbling out in problematic pathological behavior.

This is precisely why Shinji’s sexuality terrifies him to his core. Much like his “nightmare of actualization” in the EVA, his sexuality makes him act outside of his normal shut-off self. With nowhere to go, the repression causes his feelings to bubble over without control. When he puts his sexuality out there in a way that tries to connect him, he’ll cross boundaries and stare too long or try to kiss Asuka when she’s sleeping, which means he often ends up just hurting himself and others. Which just perpetuates the ongoing shame.

To be clear, the narrative is saying there is no shame in deeper human yearning and sexuality. Wanting touch? Tenderness? Experiencing attraction? Wanting to feel safe and loved? These are the most natural and permissible feelings there are. But in a repressed existence (whether masculine, religious, etc.), we are taught those vulnerabilities are “wrong,” and thus it is so difficult to feel that safety because we are so filled with shame. Which often makes first forays into sexuality all the more important and psychologically dangerous.

Most of Shinji’s first attempts at physical connection are filled with both embarrassment and confrontation. First he is seen naked by Miss Misato, his attractive caretaker/boss (the double beer can gag is inspired). And then later, he feels suffocated in being around her, Rei, and Asuka, because suddenly his feelings of attraction are everywhere. And while he does make some small gains in confidence and comfort, ultimately he makes horrible mistakes. And so his shame cycle worsens. His sexuality mixes with depression, just as it mixes with the horror of being a child soldier.

As it goes down the rabbit hole, it culminates in … well … OK. Let’s get into it.

4. The nexus of brutality

The entire series culminates in the film The End of Evangelion, which makes a very deliberate choice of how to start its story. For it opens with Shinji pleading for Asuka to wake up from her injuries she suffered at the end of the TV show. But she does not. He begins to shake her back and forth, desperate for her to come back to life. She does not.

But, as he shakes her, her gown unbuttons. Shinji suddenly sees her lying there naked, incapacitated. Our view begins randomly cutting around to shots of medical equipment in the hospital room. We then hear noises and shuddering. “What the heck is going on?” we wonder. And then we see Shinji looking down at his wet hand to see that he has masturbated. … Yes, he has masturbated to his friend in a coma. His self-judgment comes swiftly: “I’m the lowest of the low,” Shinji tells himself.

This act of violation is the kind of thing one expects to see in a Lars von Trier film instead of an anime with a pet penguin named Pen Pen, but this is part of the brutal tonal whiplash that comes with Evangelion. And we’ll come back to this moment later for several reasons, but for now, we must simply acknowledge that it is impossible to talk about the sexuality of this series without acknowledging that this brutal moment exists. And more importantly, that the show is actually going to use this egregious act to help unpack the entire thematic point of the show itself.

When you look back at it, the arc of Evangelion almost feels cruel in retrospect, but from episode 6 to episode 14 or so, it almost seems like things are starting to get better. Shinji learns how to better socialize with others. He learns how to work with Asuka (their dancing episode is a joy). He even manages to build something that more or less feels like a family, a life rhythm, and an occupation. But the problem with gaining things in life is that we then suddenly have things to lose. And that’s when the real nightmares rear their heads and strike with renewed menace.

I often think about the depictions of brutality in other media and what it says about each show and its creators. In something like The Walking Dead, the brutality feels relentless but monotone, as if the violence is a constant, nihilistic drone. But in a show like Game of Thrones, the brutality feels cherry-picked, often like a cheap god snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

This act of violation is the kind of thing one expects to see in a Lars von Trier film instead of an anime with a pet penguin named Pen Pen

But Neon Genesis Evangelion picks its moments of brutality with laser-like acumen. It builds to confrontations with careful, deliberate plotting, setting every choice in motion, giving time and rumination before they strike, even lulling you into split seconds of hope before the proverbial Sword of Damocles comes crashing down.

I’ll say it plainly: The scene where Shinji’s father takes over his EVA and crushes Toji is one of the more haunting things I’ve ever seen. It’s so sudden and out of control and outright terrifying. Most of the violence in the show comes just as swiftly. But you never feel like there’s any kind of secret catharsis or relishing in the violence of this show. It never lingers or indulges.

It’s as plain-faced as it is phantasmic, often reminding us that our bodies are just sacks of meat and we are full of teeth and eyeballs and a capacity to be victims of gore. But what makes these depictions of brutality so interesting is the way the show is so quick to equate them with the fact that these same bodies are full of sexual urges and fluid and transgressions (without actually sexualizing or confusing them). Like the EVAs, our bodies can be serene or beast-like, and our violence can be fluid or animalistic. And Evangelion is always telling you something on a thematic level when it chooses which is what and why.

So I can’t help but compare this treatment of violence to the treatment of sexuality. Is the sexualization thoughtful? Does the thoughtfulness of these depictions excuse it? The whole thing is that I don’t think Evangelion is interested in excusing itself at all. Hell, the level of ownership on display is almost terrifying in its honesty. It wants to bring us to the ugly place because it knows we will find a deeper truth there. And it wants us to reflect on our own complicity as an audience. That’s because we inherit these problems through the very act of watching. And if there’s anything this show wants us to know …

It’s that the things we inherit are often the most damning.

5. The sins of the father

If you were to ask me to pick a stock two-word theme to sum up the entirety of Neon Genesis Evangelion (an impossible task), my best answer would be that it’s an exploration of “original sin.” You’ve probably heard that term before and know what it’s all about: Adam and Eve are in the garden. God says, “Don’t eat that fucking apple!” But Eve listens to some snake instead and eats it anyway. Bye-bye, paradise. Hello, a lifetime of toiling and suffering and men blaming women for everything!

OK, I’m being flippant with that version of the story, but purposefully so. Because the argument of what “original sin” really even constitutes has raged on and on for thousands of years. That’s because there’s often so much misogyny laced into the interpretations. Heck, even the most genial readings still have the words “because you listened to your wife” written into the blame.

But the varying degrees of disagreement also tie in to arguments of translation. Was Adam actually there when it happened? Did he encourage it? Was he happy to partake? More arguments over translation abound (and honestly, it’s quite similar to the way I’ve seen people arguing over dubs/subtitle choices in this particular series). But the discussion of original sin with regards to Evangelion hits an even deeper obstacle here, and it has to do with how we interpret authorship altogether.

For instance, when I casually mentioned on Twitter that I had broken out the Bible to reread the Book of Genesis for this essay, I was confusingly met with a chorus of shouts as to why that was a mistake. People were like, “red herring! red herring!” and I had to look around to be sure I wasn’t out of my damn mind. Then one person clarified, “Honestly, don’t bother. The Bible symbolism in Evangelion is meaningless. Anno admitted that he didn’t actually know what most of the imagery meant and only used it because he thought it looked cool.”

I squinted at this sentence because it didn’t feel right at all. But before I could even respond, an argument ensued when someone chimed in that it wasn’t the creator who said that, but a different director, and that they were actually talking about the word “Evangelion” and not Christian imagery on the whole. Naturally, more fighting ensued, and the whole thing bubbled over to the point that I realized I’d have to take a hot minute to talk about semiotics and what is “OK” for us to interpret.

First of all, y’all reeeeaally need to grasp when an artist is ducking a question. Because when discussing what an artistic work “means,” especially when dealing with the highly charged atmosphere of religious themes, a good author will almost always step aside and try to avoid trouble. But more than that, there’s a reason why David Lynch and our most enigmatic artists tend to refrain from clarifying the symbolism in their work. It’s because answering doesn’t actually help the art.

In fact, it renders the art didactic. It also cuts off the viewer from lending their voice. To that, Christopher Nolan actually said one of my favorite things: “If you get to that place where people are passionate about it and arguing about what the end of your film means, that’s great. Who am I to put my opinion in the mix?” In other words, his interpretation is just as good as theirs.

Now, there’s a nuanced fancy-pants argument around the finer points of this topic, which is often called “The Death of the Author,” and if you want a brilliant deep dive on that, go to this great Lindsay Ellis video.

But the quickest way to sum up our responsibilities as viewers participating in a semiotic discussion is deceptively simple: The author’s outside-text words are not gospel; it is always OK to interpret things in the text; and the more those interpretations are reflected in the text itself, the better. Which just means there’s another, probably far more important reason not to listen to that offhand comment.

And that’s because holy mother of god is this one of the most concrete and complete deconstructions of the Adam/Eve myth I’ve ever seen. It’s literally impossible to look at this and say that biblical and religious allusions are misleading. I mean, there’s a reason “Genesis” is in the damn show title. There’s a reason they’re called Angels. There’s a reason the first proto-Angel is called Adam. There’s a reason the NERV logo is a fig leaf. There’s a reason they are “EVAs,” like Eve. These details aren’t just cool iconography someone picked up without thinking. These details are the symbolic language of the show, which in turn allow us to make semiotic deductions about deeper meanings when looking at how their interaction is dramatized. Denying this would be denying the very text of the show.

But to be clear, I don’t think the creators are interested in doing a deep-dive deconstruction of the Bible itself. This isn’t a work of religious scholasticism, nor is it meant to be. They are taking the established baseline symbols — that is, the most common and well-known tropes — and reframing them. If only there were a word in the show’s title that was based on the Latin “neo,” meaning new, and a word that referred to the origin story of the Bible, and a word that meant gospel … huh … if only you could put three words together that did that!

OK, I’m being flippant again, but that’s literally what Neon Genesis Evangelion means. And even if you take away the direct religious attachment to those words, it still becomes clear: The show wants to both embody and recreate the lies of creation.

And yes, lies are absolutely at the center of all of it.

Within the plot of Evangelion itself, we get lies on top of lies on top of lies, whether it’s the false origin story of the Angels, the real cause of the Second Impact, or the true purpose of the NERV facility. They’re nothing but a series of lies told to keep people “safe.”

And what’s motivating these lies? The same things as always: individuals with their own motives, people full of secret pasts, and the walls and cavernous gulfs between them. It’s a show full of adults all hiding what they really want, hiding the urges behind the “logical” and “grown up” decisions they are making. And they leave the children to suffer in their wake.

But this is true of so many existing myths. Looking broadly, each story of religious origin makes its claim for objective truth, but from the secular outside, what can we really argue in terms of veracity between the Bible, the Torah, or the Quran?

Instead, we see layers of similarities and dozens of changed details, each with their own consequences. We see iconographies telling the stories of men and women and behaviors, in turn revealing what we think matters and how we think people should really behave. This is grand myth-making, which is probably why so much of the biblical iconography of this show is actually steeped in the mysticism of Kabbalah.

Take the central crux of the Third Impact, an event that the mysterious cabal known as SEELE says will bring about the end of the world. This will not be done by rejoining Adam and Eve (who, like the EVAs, was made from man’s rib), but by rejoining Adam with Lilith, a female mythological figure of endless variety.

In some versions, she is the wife of Adam Qadmon, the avatar and god of the multiverse. Or she is the “woman of whoredom.” Or she is Satan’s female counterpart. Or she is the seducer of fallen angels. Or she is the “real” Eve figure during the dawn of man. And this is just within the variation of Kabbalistic interpretation. There are countless other Liliths in general myth and history.

But she’s always marked by the same confusing layers of obfuscation. She’s called demon, or whore, or bitch, or lover, or child, or mother, or sinner, or saint (thanks Meredith Brooks). But these blurred lines of who “women” are get at the entire point the show is making.

It’s identifying how these blurred lines have always been there. Is Eve the child, born from Adam’s rib? Or the wife? Likewise, we see how much pop art deals with the question of whether Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife or simply a “whore” he helped along his way. The confusion over these terms has nothing to do with the behavior of women (who, like men, simply show a range of behavior) but men’s inability to reconcile their range of behavior.

The Madonna and the Whore aren’t just two archetypes; they reflect the inability of men to unite the two and recognize the autonomy of women to be both. And it results in a system designed to make women feel wrong, no matter what they do (which brings us back to the aforementioned rigged game from chapter 3). And when men have the power? When they have the ability to tell a person they are wrong in a given situation? Then they have the ability to control them.

This confusion, overlapping roles, and desire for control of women is draped over the whole damn entirety of Evangelion. Take Shinji’s father. He literally recreates his wife in his new child, Rei, and then both sexualizes and purifies his daughter to lurid, conflicting degrees. And his final secret goal? He wants to sacrifice to Lilith so that he may ultimately “be with her again.”

But note that Shinji gets confused by the same overlaps of female archetypes in turn. Rei is literally his mother, sister, and object of sexual desire. So we see this metaphor made clear again and again as this show constantly portrays the blurriest lines that ever blurred, to the point that even Sophocles would echo a “YIKES!” But those blurred lines keep bringing us to the thematic crux.

Behind all the portents of the EVA project being done for the good of “humanity,” it comes back to the selfish heart of Shinji’s father. He pretends he’s doing all this for our collective survival, but really he’s just trying to fulfill his own personal needs. He is running from his demons and the loss of his wife (an action cloaked in his own responsibility for it). And in the end, he just wants to be with her forever and ever.

But his selfish actions create more demons that will swallow the world whole, not save it. In truth, he has the same fears and repression as Shinji, but as an adult he is twice as cut off from his emotions. Twice as cold. Twice as unfeeling. Thus, he makes horrific decisions that harm others, but unlike Shinji, he swears he does so “rationally.”

So I ask, who is actually responsible for the end of the world? Is it really Lilith and womankind, like the patriarchy of the show claims? Or is it the violent and controlling actions of men?

Those actions are best embodied by the cabal of males who embody the stone monoliths of SEELE — the same ones who let Shinji’s father stand clothed, but make professional women stand naked before them for no other reason than the fact that they can demand it.

But the corrective truth gets written in The End of Evangelion when Shinji’s father’s selfish aims are cast aside by Lilith herself. Once freed from her pinned cross, she slides out from her stigmata and lets her mask fall to the ground. Her monstrous form changes into the beautiful female specter hybrid of Rei and Shinji’s mother. She begins darting out toward the sky, passing through humans and scaring them to the very heart of their souls.

Once up in the sky, Lilith makes a decision. No, the fate of the world will not be decided in her joining with Shinji’s father. It will instead be decided in her joining with Shinji, a.k.a. the one who has inherited this broken system of masculinity. Together, they will join for the Third Impact and decide the fate of existence.

Thus, the end of the world comes together in a miasma of stark, vibrant, and haunting imagery. A vagina becomes a woman’s third eye, only to be penetrated by a crucifix. The AT fields of all personal boundaries break down. People explode into puddles of orgasmic goo.

The now familiar cross-shaped explosions come en masse, revealing they were actually images of graves the entire time. The empty, broken EVAs now stand on the horizon, left behind, arms outstretched like crucifixes. They are now just ruined testaments to male instinct to “prove that humanity lived!” as Shinji’s father says.

Which is part of the same quest for immortality we see from SEELE, as well. Note the way they only meet each other through their avatars that look like slabs of Stonehenge, as they all try to create eternity for their own consciousness. They exclaim that breaking down these walls of human bodies (read: killing everyone) is salvation. They say that “only then will peace return to our souls” (“Seele” itself is the German word for soul). But they’re dead wrong about that. Like the actions of Shinji’s father, it’s just another horrific action that takes away the other’s autonomy for their own needs. Ultimately, it is not salvation. It is an action that is as “courageous” as a murder-suicide.

Which tells us plainly: The real original sin is man’s inability to coexist with others and blame women for all of it. It’s the way we put walls up at all the wrong times and in all the wrong ways, often failing to recognize why those walls are there at all. Especially in the way we spend so much of our time on Earth trying to tear down the walls of others. It is the continual act of strife. The process of guarding and taking throughout all of time. Shinji inherits this entire disastrous cycle. And in order to break that cycle, he is going to have to find a way to stop causing this kind of damage. But that means he has to stop lying about his intentions. He is going to have to stop separating himself, not by tearing down the walls of others, but by learning to open up his own and let people in.

For salvation only comes from within.

6. Inside-out

At a deeply cynical point in his final journey, Shinji muses, “I’m sure I’ll keep realizing the obvious, over and over, just so I can keep being who I am.” With these self-aware words, he evokes the devastating nature of cycles within our own minds. But it also hints that the real language of his salvation is not going to rest in some plot point or some archetypal symbol (for what else is an archetype but a problematic inherited belief?). It is going to be psychological.

And thus, Shinji can only transcend and grow through therapeutic means. In other words, things must come from the inside out. So like before, let us go character by character with our three young heroes and examine their personal journeys to the maturity they arrive at in the final film.

First, there is Asuka, the girl who ran from her demons.

The big reveal for Asuka is that she witnessed some horrific tragedies at her foundational moment. After her father’s death, her mother suffered a complete break from reality, to the point that she saw a doll as her daughter instead of the real Asuka (good god, that metaphor cuts deep).

Making matters worse, her mother then killed herself, and Asuka is the one who discovered her hanging. But Asuka didn’t let herself break. She had to survive this devastating loss the only way she knew how: with a certain kind of tough resilience and a certain kind of denial. This is quite common, psychologically speaking, because we all learn coping mechanisms to keep us safe.

Asuka, a character from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Image: Gainax

For Asuka, so much of her safety came in the form of anger and independence. She pushed and stamped and flexed and demanded to get what she wanted and needed in life. She was so afraid to be vulnerable, so afraid to go back to the scary sense of helplessness, that she demanded others see her and treat her as an adult.

And for so long, it worked. At least in a certain way. Because that’s what happens with coping mechanisms from youth: We learn to get by with them. And when certain behaviors are successful in our lives, we mostly just learn to get better and better at them, which gets us more and more of what we want. But all the while, we are ignoring that which we have not faced. And so those other coping skills never develop. Thus, our systems will inevitably reach a point of collapse.

That’s because every human being ultimately has to face that which they are not good at. They will have to face true failure and loss when there is no immediate or obvious way to deal with it. They will have to face a moment when all their coping mechanisms are worthless. They will have to face the stark reality of the demons they have been running from. But we can’t run from demons, because they are always locked inside us. There’s nowhere to run. And so when Asuka begins truly failing in battle for the first time, she hates it. She lashes out and hates everyone around her, even acknowledging that the thing she hates most is herself.

So she finally breaks, much like her mother before her. She goes catatonic in a state of pure vulnerability. There, she yearns for the thing she always wanted: not to be independent, but to be loved, to be parented, to be taken care of and held. But she cannot find solace in the world she has created. And all outward sources of comfort in her life (praise, duty, etc.) now feel meaningless. Ultimately, her entire internal system has to be rewired and re-understood in order to be brought back online (which is made literal in the case of being able to pilot her EVA).

Asuka has always coped with anger, but let me ask a rhetorical question: What’s the real point of anger? So often it is unproductive. It maims. It hurts. It causes more strife. So what possible good could there be for it? In truth, the real point of anger is to fight for selfhood. It is the engine of our bodies. It is the thing that allows us to power our autonomy.

So Asuka’s journey is not understanding that “anger is wrong”; it is coming to simply understand that like all powerful things, anger must be aimed humanely, especially when aiming at ourselves. We cannot self-hate. No, our anger must be a passion that ignites and fights for justice. And there is a very powerful way this realization ties into Asuka’s understanding of her original demons.

Asuka knows logically that her mother wasn’t keeping her safe at all. But in Asuka’s moment of realization, she finds a sudden empathy for the idea that her mother was actually trying to take care of her via the doll, just in her own broken way. She’s not validating her mother’s neglect, but she finally understands why it happened like this.

This moment helps heal the wound of abandonment and prevent her from sending the ugly blame further inward. Here Asuka finds the incredible power of what we call “normalization,” where the charged nature of the traumas that truly torment us suddenly come back into a more normal emotional range. For when we understand our demons, we can finally stop running from them. They become surmountable. And Asuka charges back into action, thus breaking the cycle.

Second, there is Rei, the imposter of herself.

Rei’s character is an extreme sci-fi conceit, to say the least. She’s a clone of her mother (kinda) but also imbued with the spirit of the Angel Lilith and cursed to an endless cycle of rebirth every time she dies. You know, like we all are! But good thing it’s just a metaphor, and an apt one at that.

Because Rei is the ultimate example of the young woman saddled with a sense of feminine “duty.” She must be silent, do as she’s told, and obey her father/husband (again, the same guy). In essence, she’s the opposite of Asuka in that she strolls through life without her own agency. She lets people do whatever they want to her. She is a literal doll (note how this directly foils Asuka’s animosity toward dolls from childhood). She puts up no fight because this is the path of least resistance. And it is absolute hell.

Like Shinji, she craves her own death and escape. But she is forever cursed with this external cycle. Born again and again into the hopeless situation before her, she feels she must get through life as painlessly as possible, which often means not connecting to the pain she is feeling (note the way she barely reacts to her many injuries). But of course, Rei reaches her own point of collapse.

She stops seeing her husband/father as the one thing that provides positivity in her life and destroys his glasses in a fit of anger. Rei starts to find the seeds of self-worth and autonomy. She recognizes that she is not just a copy, but a unique being because her personal experiences with Asuka and Shinji have changed her in a way that makes her different from those Reis who came before.

So when everything finally hits the cosmic breaking point in The End of Evangelion, when her backup clones are destroyed and her husband/father commands her to take him to the next act of creation, she refuses. Rei realizes “I am not your doll,” and she joins with Lilith on her own volition.

Together, they become the full embodiment of her endless female roles. Finally, Rei finds her agency in her totality. Note that she is not actually there in the “after-world” that is rebuilt from Shinji’s mind, but she does not want to be. She has lived enough lives and simply seeks a sweet, powerful release where she can transcend into her own personal nirvana, thus breaking the cycle.

Lastly, there is Shinji, the boy who wasn’t there.

I’ve already cataloged so much of what plagues Shinji, from his abandonment, to his depression, to his inability to socialize, to his crippling depression. But his therapeutic path toward healing is equally clear. He has to recognize that his feelings and urges are completely human and thus stop shaming himself for feeling them. He has to stop pushing his fears deeper and respect the boundaries of others.

He has to recognize his father is a giant awful asshole, undeserving of his love, respect, or obedience. And while it is literal in his case, it is also true for the general notion of “father,” which is the system of toxic masculinity around him.

Because it is the same system that turns him into an unthinking soldier meant to play this dichotomous game of Angels versus Devils (read: black and white). Just as it is the same one that turns women into madonnas and whores. He has to recognize that Asuka and Rei are their own autonomous totalities and that their personalities are just human reactions to a rigged game. He knows all this (he is basically told as much by the characters around him), but ultimately, he actually has to do something about it.

Which brings us to Shinji’s sin of paralysis, or “Hamlet disease,” which is the thing that plagues him again and again. This absolutely ties into his ongoing psychological issues with depression. But this discussion is going to require a little conversation about how we view the subject with a modern lens.

First off, to those who have never suffered from depression, congrats. I spent many years living that way, and now that I know the alternative, I can assure you that I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I can also assure you that depression is not “being sad all the time,” but something far more complex and punishing.

If you’re curious, here is a pretty good primer for describing it. But let’s just cherry-pick the sentence, “It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it.” And because of this, it comes with a level of paralysis you cannot imagine. Especially when you are experiencing a suicidal level of depression, everything you have to do in life feels impossible.

Luckily, this better understanding of depression has slowly creeped into popular culture in the last 25 years, but it makes for a somewhat odd experience when looking back at Evangelion. To see how cruel and callous people are to Shinji, claiming he’s stuck in a selfish pattern, when really he’s just experiencing the throes of suicidal depression. But it’s worth noting that it’s mostly their tact that’s problematic. Because the things they are pointing to when it comes to his more deeply rooted psychological issues (and his need to break from them) are far more prescient. Because, yes, he does need to learn to embrace a larger notion of life.

Going back to the part when Shinji says, “I’m sure I’ll keep realizing the obvious, over and over, just so I can keep being who I am,” we have to realize he is saying this precisely because this particular depressed, hellish state of existence is the safest thing he knows. And it can’t truly change until he learns a better version of what “safe” really can mean. And ultimately, this new sense of safety comes from a seemingly odd place.

Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion, looking determined

Shinji’s sin of paralysis ties into his ongoing struggles with depression.

Image: Gainax

That would be Kaworu Nagisa, the Fifth Child. It may seem odd because the character turns out to be an embodiment of an enemy Angel, but that’s also why it makes perfect thematic sense. It allows Shinji to finally see the truth that “the enemy” is so human and empathetic. In fact, we even learn the Angels are just variations of what humans could have been and seek contact and understanding. So all Kaworu wants to do is understand Shinji and show him tenderness.

As a result, Kaworu ends up embodying the positive male flip-side of Lilith, because he is the kind, non-toxic counterpart (this definitely makes him a contrary example to the father, too). Shinji even remarks with amazement that Kaworu is the first person who ever told him that they loved him.

Online fandom has also been arguing for years about whether or not Shinji and Kaworu’s relationship has a sexual subtext. For whatever it’s worth, Shinji also has a clear and obvious attraction to women, so I think it’s fair to say that Shinji might be discovering and wrestling with bisexuality (believe me, been there).

And while I understand that many rigidly insist it’s all platonic, I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say their relationship is codified as gay or bisexual. But it’s also not limited to sexuality alone. There is so much power to that larger emotional broadness at play here because there’s so much power to breaking Shinji out of the rigid binary of “Adam and Eve” thinking which plagues mankind.

In this new space, Shinji suddenly finds vulnerability and openness and safety. He finally lets go of his repression, and in the film, he “consummates” with Lilith in giant angelic forms. But note the way Lilith’s spirit alternates back and forth with Kaworu’s. It is the clear erasure of gender norms, which are irrevocably tied to all the toxic masculinity that has plagued Shinji his entire life. And this is how he is finally able to release himself from his prison and feel truly vulnerable. But that release brings him to the crux of his ultimate problem.

Here in the moment of release and rebirth, Shinji is the one who will decide the future of masculine humanity. He will decide how this cycle propagates. Will he make the choice of SEELE and end it all in the murder-suicide of the world? A world freed from the prospect of pain simply by erasing it? Or will he make it all reborn in a better image of his choosing? Shinji comes to two simultaneous realizations, which are reflected by the two different endings of the show.

It’s worth mentioning that they actually aren’t different at all. The two depictions are absolutely part of the same finale. In the original episode 26, we see it all from inside Shinji’s mind. He learns the Instrumentality Project is about the breaking down of all AT fields and the unification of man (again: murder-suicide) or the choice to rebuild. We watch as he goes on a journey into his own mind, imagining worlds and new scenarios, still paralyzed by the choice that he feels he has no right to make.

But in going inside himself, he realizes he has the right to exist. That he is worthy of existing. And thus he becomes “The Beast That Shouted ‘I’ at the Heart of the World.” But it turns out this is just the first internal step.

Because with The End of Evangelion, we see the external, literal version of all of this happening in the world around him. They even clearly take place at the same time (Shinji catatonically repeating phrases from the show’s first finale as he clutches himself). But once he takes that step to understanding, recognizing that the Instrumentality Project is just another aggression, he realizes he must make the choice to end the cycle of Adam and Eve and begin anew. He must let people into the whole of himself, thus breaking the cycle. But for Shinji, letting people in is not an easy choice …

Because it requires shining light in the darkest of places.

7. Raging rebirth amongst a game of gods

Tell me, what do you think of when I say the word “godliness”?

We can get literal with the definition: “the quality of being devoutly religious; piety.” Which all just evokes the traditional notion of man feeling humbled before the Creator, fearing him, wanting to obey, all in order to be loved and let into heaven. Or perhaps you think of the word as being descriptive, as in “god-like,” where we apply such notions of power to our creators, our fathers, our authority figures, and those whose power directly shapes our lives.

For me, and for many others, godliness evokes the notion of existentialism. The would-be death. The confronting of whatever is on the other side of consciousness, or staring into the abyss. To some, that notion inspires a level of panic that forces a million forms of subconscious defiance, procreation, and building monuments to testify that they existed and somehow will forever.

But to someone who has known the depths of suicidal depression, who has genuinely not cared if they lived or died, it elicits a shrug. And the ability to stare at that same abyss and say, “OK, sure” just tends to scare the panickers even more. But the truth is none of these views of godliness are all that singular. We may lean in one direction or the other, but as human beings, we contain all these capacities for godliness. And they all tend to smash together in our brains and behaviors.

Shinji from Neon Genesis Evangelion is in anguish as other characters look on, with the art in a more sketchy style than the usual finalized look of the series.

Shinji’s struggle with his own mental health lies at the heart of the show.

Image: Gainax

But now, what do you think of when I say the word “birth”?

Some might picture a little blanket they were given on the day they were born. Or think about their birthday or earliest memory. Some might picture their own child and smile. Some might picture saintly notions of motherhood, human cycles, and the prospect of life moving through eternity. Some see birth as a sacred duty. Some see it as just another patriarchal duty passed on as part of the rigged game.

As you get older, however, the notion of birth becomes a bit more literal as you face the harsher realities that shape it. Wombs. Doctors. Complications. Miscarriages. You also realize that people’s birth stories vary widely. That birth itself is messy, dangerous, and often a fucking miracle, but not in the sanitized way that people think. It’s all uniquely human. Like death, birth takes the sacred and constantly crashes upon the rocks of the profane. And so it also smashes together in our brains and behaviors.

I ask about those two words because they are at the heart of Evangelion, both as a show and concept. After all, the word literally translates as “good news” or “the gospel” or “the accounts of life, death, and resurrection.” And virtually every idea I present in the two paragraphs above comes crashing into the thematic text of the show with reckless abandon.

From moment one, this show could only have become a cosmic opera, best typified in Shinji’s battle with Kaworu. But soon, so much of the movie becomes about cosmic horror, the ugliest demons are unleashed, and we get our own haunting Koyaanisqatsi as the men of SEELE praise “The origin of life! The egg of Lilith! The black moon!” But from here, the haunting final sequence of The End of Evangelion shifts into the transcendence of cosmic pop.

The infectious song creeps in, and suddenly the horror feels less horrible. Suddenly, Shinji is making the choice he learned from the Instrumentality Project. Yes, these events are all terrifying. But we actually exist in them always. The cosmic whatever will always go on, but as human beings, corporeal and limited, we are mostly preoccupied with the needs two inches in front of our faces.

Whenever something miraculous happens, I always think of the phrase, “I still gotta buy milk in the morning.” Maybe it’s oat milk now, but the point stands. We can always be paralyzed by the cosmos, but ultimately, what we really have to face is the mundane. Especially because that’s where the greatest horrors can sometimes live.

These are the aforementioned darkest of places.

Which brings us back to the bookend sequence of The End of Evangelion, with Shinji and Asuka at the hospital. Yes, it becomes very easy for Shinji to question the gods and want everything to stop, when really he is running from his deep sense of shame at what he has done. Because there is no denying what he has done. Shinji masturbated over the body of his comatose friend.

He committed an act of violation. And in his final internal headspace during Instrumentality, when she tells him she is rejecting him, he responds with another violation and begins choking her. It is a moment that symbolizes all the toxicity that he has felt and inherited. It is the complete resentment of women for maintaining their own boundaries. It is the inherent sexism and rage of the male mind made literal. And it is the thing Shinji was so afraid to acknowledge. Saying yes to a new world means letting the light in on this reality. But if we are going to go on being better humans, if we are going to break the cycle of Adam and Eve, if we are going to continue, it is precisely what must be done.

And so Shinji’s universe is born anew. They are at the edge of a bloodstained lake. Asuka’s arm is now repaired. But his hand is still clasped around her neck. He’s gone through the metaphorical undoing; now he must go through the literal undoing and face the consequences of his actions. Slowly Asuka comes to. She puts her hand up to his face, and Shinji finally lifts his hands off her neck. He falls back, crying in a heap to himself. And there, in silence, Asuka looks at all of it, all he has done, all that he is, all the cycles of destruction that men have wrought, and lets out her final words to sum it all up: “How disgusting.” Cut to black.

It’s a hell of a way to end an epic. But this is what Shinji knew he must face. Angelic demons are one thing. We all have different versions of those. But acceptance of the horror of our actions is another. And so, to press on in the world and break the cycle, he must be willing to live with the truth of her final words. Before Adam and Eve partook of the Tree of Knowledge, it is said they “were naked and felt no shame.” But after, the shame was everywhere. But not because being naked is a crime. No, it’s all the other power and control that comes along with it.

Transcendence is accepting this dichotomy. It is not bullying or repressing. It is letting the light in on our feelings. It is being able to feel. It is knowing that it is better to cry and be vulnerable than it is to strangle in great rage. This should be obvious to humanity; after all, these are the lessons we are supposed to learn in kindergarten. But take one look at adulthood and you see how many real-life men do not know that this is true whatsoever. We all live to the ballad of the broken boys. And they must learn that vulnerability starts with self.

Just as the creator starts with himself.

Epilogue: Just one step

When I first started watching this show, people couldn’t stop telling me about the series’ creator, Hideaki Anno. They threw quotes at me about his depression, or suspicions of his autism. They threw the story behind the final line reading at me, or what line was a reference to what, or how it was a response to fans, etc. As I said at the beginning, I really do get the instinct.

The Anno I really wanted to know, though, was the Anno in the work itself. And within the show, he makes his relationship clear. One character says piloting the EVA is a “convenient symbiotic relationship,” which is clearly a metaphor for Anno’s own relationship to making the show. It comes with adoration, hope, success, but also pressure and failure. And it is not hard to watch the final movie and see a deep consideration of his own complicity in the problems it perpetuates.

Take the bookend with Asuka. It can easily be read as calling out the fan base for their sexualization of the character, the way they ogle a lifeless body from a layer of separation at home. And it is that. But it is also more than that. Because Evangelion never shies away from the notion of Shinji’s culpability. And by Anno connecting his authorship so close to Shinji, it is not a declaration of “you’re disgusting,” but that “we’re disgusting.” Unfortunately, so many men reject this notion of collective responsibility (witness: hashtag not all men). But forget about what you did or didn’t do.

Making it purely about your own individual actions is ultimately just a form of denial. Because misogyny is in the air. It’s a part of existing structures we participate in every second. Saying you don’t take part in it is like saying you don’t breathe. We are inherently complicit. Even just in the act of watching. And so our worth is not found in the performative action of cataloging the ways we, as individuals, transcend those sexist bounds and deserve praise, but in endlessly examining the ways we are still part of it.

This is letting the light in. One’s individual actions might not be so ghastly as Shinji’s, but every human (which, yes, means every man) has bad things that they’ve done. And the first step will always be acceptance. That’s what that final sequence of The End of Evangelion ultimately feels like: the grandest acceptance. Why else would Anno insert footage of his real life? Of his fans waiting patiently in the theater? Anno tells us that the EVA is the dream, but he also asks a larger question: Is it “a convenient fantasy to take revenge against reality,” or a way of “avoiding the truth”? It is the limits and realities of one’s own private dream becoming a substitute for reality. Ultimately, it has to come back to reality.

For it is so easy to get lost in the hypothetical answers to these dreamlike questions. Especially when we know that being an animator is akin to being the god of your own little universe. But when the animator’s words and feelings become the de facto answer, then they are largely thin and uninteresting.

That’s because “the person” always becomes an answer, not the idea. It doesn’t become about Evangelion; it becomes about “Anno” or “what the fans said after the finale” or this or that. So opening up the answers to larger realities does not limit the work. It actually makes for something more expansive. Because it is all about how the work reflects and moves you in turn. There is something more empathetic that can happen when, as is said in the show itself, “reality comes after the dream.”

That reality is your reality. Because the only real, lasting truth of the work is not actually in the text, but in its resonance. In Anno exploring the topic of depression, it becomes about my experiences of depression. Evangelion becomes an opportunity to sit and reflect and truly see and observe. Here, the personal becomes universal. And for me, it all keeps coming back to the show’s central question. The one asked of Shinji again and again and again, especially near the end of the show’s run:

“Why do you pilot the EVA?”

It’s the great question of criticism, too. Not what, not how you do it, but why? For Anno, that question might mean, “Why do you make the show?” Or perhaps it is broader and really asking, “Why do you exist?” Notice I am not saying “we.” I am saying “you.” Like the intention of all art, I am asking you, the one reading this now: Why do you get up in the morning? Why do you express love? Why do you express self-hate? Do you sincerely know that it’s OK to be here? Do you know that, regardless of what has been done to you or what you have done, you have the right to exist in the cosmic scheme?

a mechanized weapon from Neon Genesis Evangelion

Is it possible to do great things, to create great things, without some form of self-harm?

Image: Gainax

What the original finale depicted inside Shinji’s head, the final sequence of The End of Evangelion depicts as impressionist drama. It would be so easy to get lost in the endless imagery. Every single idea in this essay, every damn one, flies fast and furious across the screen with dazzling chutzpah. The iconography of Adams and Eves, the hybrids born for both ill and love.

There are bloody Angels birthing to beautiful music. They are a haunting reminder that life will always be painful. That there will always be dreams to escape into. That the yearning for love will always feel like a prayer. That oceans will always be stained with blood. That the relics of man will stand like crosses in the night sky. That the cosmic dances will go on, whether operatic, horrific, or the feverish pop insanity of our own delirium. And that the lowest of the low will always exist within ourselves …

But that’s just living.

All those things, happening all the time, always. And nestled amongst the cosmic art of the final sequence is a simple image that keeps coming back over and over: Shinji’s foot stepping over the small crack of the barrier and into his apartment. It is an image of crossing a threshold.

An image that echoes the powerful mantra of the “just one step” episode from earlier in the series. You probably already know what it means. And so, if the legions of fans who look upon this great work want to take one tiny message away from it — a spark, a flash of self-loving anger, an “I” to shout at the heart of the world — then I would argue it is this: Like all great work about depression, Neon Genesis Evangelion understands that in a world gone mad, sometimes the most herculean thing a person can do is find the courage to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes, there is nothing more brave.

Take your step.


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