‘Every Angel is terror’: ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ reconsidered

A promotional poster for "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (1995-96) is pictured. via IMDB

Content Warning: This article discusses trauma, suicide.

There are many reasons for me to revisit “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (1995–96), or “Eva,” and its canonical film “The End of Evangelion” (1997). The opening credits — the quixotic drawings of the beginning of the universe and the Kabbalistic tree of life, the familiar characters appearing perfectly according to the drumbeat of the always divine theme song “A Cruel Angel’s Thesis,” the silhouettes of naked bodies, the gory images of Evangelions — end with Shinji Ikari’s innocent smile. What drove me back to watching Shinji Ikari driving a giant robot into the end of the world was, of course, not just the series’ spectacular visual and auditory features. Beyond the guises of a sci-fi apocalypse of giant robot fighting monsters or a voyage into Judeo-Christian mythologies, “Eva” at its core is about trauma and guilt, and our capacity to transcend them.

The main storyline follows Shinji Ikari, an introverted teenage boy who loses his mother, Yui, at a young age and is virtually abandoned by his father, Gendo Ikari, the commander of the organization Nerv. The two do not live in the same city until Shinji is summoned by his father to Tokyo-3 for a surprise mission: to pilot a massive robotic entity called Evangelion-01” along with the mysterious Rei Ayanami and the seemingly-pompous Asuka Langley Soryu, to defeat monsters named “Angels” who seem to be interested in the destruction of humanity. As Shinji discovers his natural synchrony with Evangelion-01, his experience with piloting gradually becomes intensely spiritual and indescribable. The trio joins Captain Misato Katsuragi to defeat more Angels, and — surprise, surprise — they gradually discover a larger conspiracy behind the appearance of Angels and the true nature of Evangelions they rely on. The appearance and the defeat of angels are incremental to the Human Instrumentality Project, which purports to end human suffering as we know it by forcefully merging humanity into a single entity. “The End of Evangelion,” a dramatic redo of the much-criticized last two episodes of the TV series, features the process and aftermath of Instrumentality.

As I brainstormed this piece, I encountered a profile by the tremendously talented Elif Batuman of a theater company that transplants its productions of Greek tragedies onto Zoom. I immediately registered for its next event, a production of “Oedipus the King” by Sophocles, which is also discussed by Batuman in her article. The early September rendition of the play, which casts “Billions” (2016–) star Damian Lewis as Oedipus, did not disappoint. “Eva,” of course, is a rich source for interpretation through the lens of the Oedipus complex. There’s much Freudian about Misato’s role as a guardian and occasional babysitter of Shinji’s, about Rei’s origins and how it relates to Shinji, about Misato and Asuka’s desperate needs for a father figure and about Lilith as the “Second Angel” and a “Seed of Life,” as well as the maternal “souls” of Evangelions. Maternity, but also nakedness, permeates Shinji’s relationship with females. Though he longs for care and love from Misato, Rei and Asuka, he also can’t stop picturing them naked. However, the nakedness also embodies a spectrum between sexual desire and divine motherhood, the latter of which Rei resembles the most in “The End of Evangelion.” A child’s need for love and a parent’s willingness to give love summarize most relationships in this complex series and serve as the foundation of much of its emotive power.

But as I reflected on the agony in Lewis’s roar when he first realizes the truths about his identity and reread Batuman’s piece, what struck me the most was this passage:

“The reason Greek tragedy works for so many of our social issues is that virtually all the tragedies, like the social issues, dramatize the conservative, contagious impulse to deny trauma: to negate that anyone is a victim or that anything bad is happening. Then someone defies the impulse and screams horrifying stuff that nobody wants to hear, and the spell is broken.”

Batuman observes victim denial as the predominant reaction to traumatic memories throughout human history. She traces this tendency in human development as early as childhood, when we have to learn to distinguish between what we want and what is good for us — in other words, what our parents want. We then project this double-consciousness onto other people, denying the validity of their lived experience at the expense of what we think is good for them. This tendency, Batuman notes, produces generations after generations of domestic abusers and strongmen worshippers. But there is hope: Citing psychiatrist Judith Herman, she notes the positive correlations between the acceptance of traumas as genuine human experience and progressive political movements. Progressive shifts in societal values enable the greater society to recognize the emotional strains done to the oppressed, such as women and ethnic and gender minorities. In this sense, the psychological is inevitably the political; instead of merely stemming from the individual, our perception of reality is necessarily encoded in the social environment we’re brought up in.

For all its religious and mythological references, “Eva” rejects a central tenet of most religions, especially those in the Judeo-Christian traditions: that of community. “Eva” is extremely uncompromising in its view of personal healing. Childhood trauma — usually in the form of being neglected or terrorized by parents as seen in the cases of Shinji, Asuka and Misato — is ultimately unsalvageable. The treatment of this dilemma, especially in episodes 25 and 26 in the TV series, is circular; whatever emotional problems that arise later in the characters’ lives have to originate in their childhood nightmares. Being ingrained in this line of thinking accentuates the self-doubt and self-hatred of the three characters. Misato walks away from her otherwise admirable relationship with Kaji because she believes he resembles her father too much, which isn’t true at all and perhaps stems from her fear of both being neglected and being left alone again. Asuka’s bloated ego and hasty desire to be seen as an adult stem from her fear of becoming the doll of her suicidal mother. When she imposes this self-image onto others and inevitably fails to be recognized, all she can think about is the nightmarish image of her mother on her hospital bed. Shinji’s traumas are the most fleshed out: from witnessing his mother being consumed by Eva-01 (a memory the show suggests he has repressed), to the emotional negligence and abuse from his father, to the emotional damage he does to others due to his insociability and awkwardness. The cycle of being hurt and hurting others in return convinces Shinji that he’s pathologically unable to love and be loved.

What ties the three main characters together is that their childhood is the focal point of all their perceptions of the world. Whenever there’s a crack in their relationships with others, negative memories are always invoked, and instead of blaming the social fabric that created the conditions for atomization, they internalize the problem and see their own failings as the source of all miseries. In other words, this is a universe in which past wrongs can never be healed, in which the weight of personal responsibility trumps all possibilities for communitarian solidarity. If friendship and lovers are not enough to heal the pain suffered in the past, Nerv and Seele see technological advancement as the only method with which human beings can achieve self-actualization. The Human Instrumentality Project necessitates mass production of Evangelions and, subsequently, humanity’s conquering of nature. Instrumentality, which is supposed to heal the human soul, has to be implemented forcibly and against the human will using the power of Evangelions. The rest of humanity, in a Rousseauian fashion, is quite literally forced to be merged into a general will and “forced to be free.” Gendo recognizes what he does as an act of sin, but he also seems to believe that this is a fundamentally humanistic project, a gesture of defiance against the gods, who cruelly created human lives and left them incomplete.

In this sense, “Eva” shares Oedipus’ fatalism about destiny, the idea that emotional toil is neither escapable nor redeemable; all the suffering souls in “Eva” are Oedipuses who can only passively accept their fate of loneliness and despair. Despite the grandness of Instrumentality, blame and guilt ultimately are infringed upon the individual who’s responsible for their own fault and has to rely on technocratic overlords to salvage them. The way the major characters think about guilt parallels that of Oedipus, who in his cries of anguish sees himself as the source of his downfall and misery. But Batuman emphasizes why Sophocles inserts a plague into the story and that the idea of contagion ultimately dwarfs individuality because “we don’t normally expect whoever gave us a respiratory virus to be punished. Questions of personal responsibility are ultimately viewed as secondary to questions of cure and containment.” Loneliness is also a plague. A micro-level analysis of loneliness that solely focuses on the individual might end up replying upon victim-blaming instead of a bolder examination of the societal undercurrents that create atomized individuals. There are ways to surmise the sociological underpinnings of the world of “Eva,” whether it’s the disintegration of traditional family values in postwar Japan, atomization encoded in liberal capitalism or the East Asian version of toxic masculinity — all are crude summaries but useful starting points nonetheless. One must suspect that it’s almost intentional for “Eva” to contain no discussion of politics at all, barring the power play between Nerv and Seele and the amusing invocations of the United Nations. It never occurred to any of the characters to look around them; instead, they sink into further depression by focusing on the self.

Batuman suggests that to end the cycle of psychological abuse, we must “politicize and de-privatize” trauma and erode the hierarchical structures of most human relationships. It means choosing collective responsibility over individual ones, free will over determinism. If “Eva” offers any hope, it’s the final decision of Shinji and Asuka to reclaim human agency, to reclaim our right to suffer, but also our capacity to heal by having each other. Perhaps that’s the Cruel Angel’s Thesis.