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Megafauna and programmable automatons have been a part of mythology for as long as we’ve told stories. For every Cyclops there was a God born of clay, and for every Dragon a floating chariot. Monsters have always been our fears writ large; the same can be said of giant robots as dreams and desires. On one side, the worst parts of ourselves. On the other, all that we can be. But all that the West did first with modern incarnations of monsters and robots – Kaiju born of nuclear radiation (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, 1953) and the literary mechs of Wells and Verne after the Industrial Revolution – Japan truly cemented in the popular consciousness, between the likes of Gojira and its many sequels, and the 1979 Mecha anime Mobile Suit Gundam.
Whatever their historical or contemporary origins, giant monsters and piloted robots are considered distinctly Japanese (and derivative of anime) whenever they do battle. As for as the anime medium itself, Kaiju/Mecha stories reached something an apotheosis in the mid 1990s, with Hideaki Anno and Gainax Studios’ Neon Genesis Evangelion, an apocalyptic deconstruction of the genre with a tonne of emotional heft. At its center is Shinji Ikari, an anxious, depressed, hyper-sensitive teenage introvert, abandoned by his mother (through death) and his father (through neglect) until the world approaches its end and he’s forced to confront his insignificance.
It seems relatively uncomplicated at the outset: giant creatures from another world keep invading one by one, so Shinji’s father recruits him to pilot one of the enormous Evas he built, humanoid super-robots with equally super rail-guns. Awesome! Where things grow more complex however, is the nature of the Kaiju – appearing in a specific order and named for corresponding Biblical Angels – beautiful, dangerous, borderline abstract creatures that are almost indeterminable, heralding the end of all things. They are at once an immediate threat and a metaphorical unknown, insurmountable challenges that Shinji is unequipped to deal with, akin to his depression and self-loathing.
Where it gets downright crazy though, is the fact that the Eva is Shinji’s mother.
Okay. Let me back up a second. Sorry for dropping that on you unannounced, maybe some context might help. In the world of Evangelion, every living creature has what’s called an “A.T. Field” – it’s a living aura produced by fear that, in the case of humans, binds our ego and consciousness in place while separating it from everyone else’s. The Angels’ A.T. Field is so powerful that it manifests physically in the form of force fields, so only some equally massive living being could manifest its own in order to break through - ergo, the need to create mechas that are partially alive, both cloned from and containing the souls of human beings. Those are simply the logistics, though.
Pilots connecting spiritually with their mechas was always a mainstay of the genre, but Anno & co. pushed it to its disturbing logical extreme, imbuing Shinji’s Eva not only with a human soul (and unsettling organic components beneath its armour), but from a narrative standpoint, the only soul that can give him the kind of warmth and comfort he’s been denied all his life while forcing him to step very directly and very literally into adulthood to tackle adult problems.
The Eva isn’t the only clone of Shinji’s mother – his young teammate Rei, an equally depressed pilot in search of purpose, was created similarly – but Shinji repeatedly returning to his mother’s womb for comfort, floating inside an embryonic liquid as he pilots the Eva, is related directly to the function of mechas in the first place. They are, after all, enormous projections of self and desire at their very core.
Rather than power, what Shinji desires is love and acceptance, but the Eva isn’t an endpoint of his journey. It’s a mechanism through which he’s allowed to be challenged on the slow and painful road to loving himself. That’s Shinji’s internal insurmountable villain, one he eventually “overcomes” in a uniquely abstract sense. Long story short, the show ran out of time and money (one reason is said to be the 1995 Tokyo Sarin attacks baring similarities to an upcoming subplot that had to be dropped), so its last few episodes avoided new footage as much as possible. They instead resorted to deconstructing the nature of story itself, at least story as told through animation, breaking Shinji down to lines and colours as a means to reflect on all the elements that made him, well, him.
These scenes come in the form of conversations between Shinji and what appear to be a combination of himself and other characters, off in the darkness as he sits alone in a secluded room, illuminated by spotlight. It may well be interpreted as him speaking directly to the narrative, the author, or even to the audience, as he flashes back and forth in time to reflect on moments from his past. Not only is trapping Shinji with no one but himself a neat way to avoid spending money, it works thematically too, since being alone with himself forces him to confront all that he is – the worst fear of anyone who truly hates themselves.
Whatever the original intent, Evangelion’s final handful of episodes became less about the monster-of-the-week and more about self-acceptance through self-reliance. The re-forging of individual identity as something distinct from collective identity, i.e. forcing Shinji to reckon with the fact that defining himself only in relation to his friends, his school or the organization he works for is nothing but a crutch; the first step is accepting that you exist at all, and that existing gives you value. Sometimes that’s enough to move forward when it’s the only thing you’ve got.
The way his challenges to self-acceptance and individuality manifest are perhaps the scariest thing about Eva. One of the Angels takes human form, becoming the only person who loves Shinji unconditionally, but Shinji is forced to use his Eva to kill him for the greater good. The very purpose of the Angelic onslaught is to bring about a sort of human ascendency; the breakdown of the aforementioned “A.T. Fields” leading to human beings forming a single consciousness. In fact, a commonly accepted interpretation of the ending is that this form of the apocalypse actually happens, and all the abstract montages, lines & shapes deconstructions and Shinji sitting alone in a room are a function of this collective coming into being.
As soon as Shinji is able to accept himself after a grueling two-part episode full of self-confrontation (his teammate Asuka, immobilized by her own depression, finds herself on a similar journey), cracks start to form in this world around him, and all the people he has relationships with emanate outward from him and his newfound self-worth, as opposed to being the things he uses to create that worth in the first place. It… may very well be the end of human existence, thanks to the dissolving of the fear-induced A.T. fields, or perhaps it’s something else. An alternate path to human unity wherein breaking down the fears that bind and separate our ego, like the fear of connecting with other people, comes about through self-affirmation. Either way, Shinji has finally, even at the last possible second, learned to accept all that he is.
“I hate myself… but I could love myself. Maybe my life could have greater value. That’s right! I am no more or less than myself! I am me! I want to be myself! I want to continue existing in this world! I am worth living here!”
Many fans at the time hated this ending to the point of sending Anno death threats (it’s what lead to the alternate re-telling End of Evangelion, a massive middle-finger to anime fandom), but that’s a story for another day. It stands to reason that part of this mass rejection stemmed from Eva ceasing to be about monsters and robots during its final few episodes. In a way, the fans were correct! That is of course, if the show is viewed through a purely literal lens. While it ceased to be about the visuals of Evas punching new Angels every week, it still very much continued to be about what was underneath that very concept: using self-acceptance and self-affirmation to punch depression. Neither thing quite wins the war – in fact, the war could continue for all eternity: time seems to reset itself in the Eva movies – but every battle can still be won.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is, and always has been, a story about personal existence; how to re-interpret it, how to fine-tune it, and how to understand it so you can fight your monsters. The languages in which it delivers its life-affirming sermons just happen to be Mecha and Kaiju, but it commands those dialects with eloquence, in all their strength and imperfection.