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Thursday, March 11, 2021

You Are (Not) Alone: The Horrors of ‘Evangelion’ [Anime Horrors]

Welcome back to Anime Horrors – a column dedicated to exploring new and classic works of anime and manga. 

Throughout my life, I have found anime to have an empowering quality. Whether it has been Sailor Moon, Yu Yu Hakusho or My Hero Academia, I have admired the spirit of their protagonists; that whatever life would throw at them, they would face each challenge head on and believe in themselves. As a kid striving to find hope through his own mental health chaos, this drive in anime characters was nothing short of inspirational growing up (and still is to this day).

Then there is Neon Genesis Evangelion – a show that is not really empowering, and yet, has become one of the most important works of anime in my life. The show made its debut in 1995 and was directed by Hideaki Anno. Evangelion follows Shinji, Rei, and Asuka, three children who pilot giant mechs to protect the world from alien beings known as Angels.

Evangelion holds an iconic status in the world of anime, responsible for inspiring numerous works and creators. Weaving together multiple religious ideologies with that of various philosophical concepts, Evangelion offers a plethora of themes. Along with all that, Evangelion has received much praise (and some flack) for its use of psychology. This psychological aspect is what drew me to the show in the first place and captivated me when I first watched it years ago. 

In this month’s Anime Horrors, I want to discuss what makes Evangelion such a worthy exploration of the mind – examining two of its main characters and how it uses a typical anime premise to elevate its themes of mental health.

Some notes before diving into things. This article will pertain to character representations as presented in the anime and End of Evangelion (the quasi-movie created to “correct” the final two episodes of the anime). Though I do heavily encourage checking out the Rebuild of Evangelion movies, I will not be covering those here. Secondly, I will be trying to avoid major spoilers in terms of plot, but there will be character spoilers (which inherently will include some level of plot spoilers).

The Appeal of Evangelion

Before we talk about the characters I want to highlight though – what makes Evangelion so special? Why is it such an iconic work of anime? Well, a lot of that has to do with its riveting story, its vast well of drama, philosophy, and psychology. Mostly though, a lot has to do with how it uses all of that to subvert expectations. Specifically, it challenges our acceptance of young people in roles of violence.

When we think of shows like Power Rangers, many of us don’t bat an eye at the scenario. “Oh, these young people are given power suits to fight monsters? Heck yeah, sounds awesome!” Granted, Power Rangers is meant to be lighthearted, but there’s the underlining human factor to such a story. What sort of trauma is taking place in having to fill this role of ranger? What must these young people be working through while juggling the life of a teenager and that of a warrior? Forms of this introspection have made their way into western comics (e.g. Spiderman) as well as some anime like Attack on Titan (where a good deal of the narrative observes the horrors of war and battle on young minds).

Evangelion is a story that cares deeply for this perspective. Through Shinji and Asuka – the protagonists I’ll be examining – the show depicts how battle begins to warp their respective minds. Even with some great action set pieces, there is a greater focus on the mental wellbeing of the protagonists. We get a lot of quiet moments with Shinji and Asuka – some playful and some somber. Both types of scenes allow a deeper look into the character’s respective psyche. For all its explosions, bad ass robots, and creepy existential aliens, one of Evangelion’s core themes is the impact that trauma has on one’s life. 

For Shinji and Asuka, piloting their Evangelion (Eva) acts as a means to cope with and avoid the troubles in their respective minds. For each character, I will break them down into separate cases, providing an intimate look at them, examining their struggles, and how the show explores their anguish within the plot.

Case 1: Shinji

When we first meet Shinji, he appears as a friendly enough kid, if not a bit shy. When he is picked up and brought to NERV HQ (the prominent organization facing against the Angels), he ends up meeting his father. His timid personality intensifies as his father pushes him to enter an Eva and battle an Angel rampaging nearby. Shinji initially rejects this, his father coming off disgusted and dismissing him. Though Shinji does eventually enter the robot, this does not immediately change the mood of his father.

A huge portion of Shinji’s character revolves around his relationship to his father. It is revealed that at a younger age, Shinji’s mother died and his father left him. This abandonment instilled a tremendous lack of self-worth. With his father no longer interested in him, Shinji developed this internal narrative that he was not worth anyone’s time. Through this, Shinji develops what is called The Hedgehog’s Dilemma.

Countless other essays have spoken to this already, so I will speak to it briefly. The idea is that hedgehogs want to be close to one another, but they can’t get too close because their quills will prick each other. This is one of Shinji’s biggest problems – for as much as he wants to be close to people, he is too afraid of being rejected and left. 

Shinji’s anxieties give way to depression as well. While his life does include some fun, a darkness constantly lingers. The show has these excellent contrasting moments of action and solemn stillness; we’ll get an epic battle and then a quiet scene of someone laying up at night staring off into space. Shinji will lay awake, listening to a recorder, mulling over how much he wants to be seen by his dad and how he is better off alone. This mental framework is the core reason he decides to pilot an Eva; though, in his case, there is a little more tug-o-war going on.

He displays a hesitation when it comes to being in the Eva; the task is a lot to him, and rightfully so. It isn’t uncommon for a hero to be resistant to a call for action, but Evangelion uses this trope to make a point. Shinji is a young kid fighting in a battle of existential consequence and struggling to keep his mental health together. He has no place on the battlefield. But, when he sees that people congratulate him on his success, when he sees that his father shows a semblance of acknowledgement, all of that creates an urge to return to the Eva. Shinji begins thinking that he must pilot because that’s what others want and what will make others happy. He views this as a drive to exist, rather than to live for his own goals. Of course, this is another layer to his toxic lack of self-worth, anxiety, and depression. 

Shinji’s neuroses stretch back to that pinnacle moment where his father left him. When someone so important to you just up and leaves, it can rattle your core. On top of that, Shinji was a young boy whose mother just passed away. It makes sense why he pushes back against others, why he lashes out when people try to get close. He would only think that people will leave him. Much of Shinji’s narrative involves the importance of self-love and opening one’s self to others. Towards the end of the show – avoiding spoilers – he enters a psychological state where he confronts his trauma. 

Evangelion technically has two endings, one in the anime and a different one in End of Evangelion. Give or take their respective approaches, Shinji comes to understand the importance of acting for himself, rather than live life as a passive person. He must find and create his own purpose. Through finding his own purpose, he will learn to love himself. He realizes life is also about joy and being with people who make you happy. 

Case 2: Asuka

When Asuka first appears several episodes into Evangelion, she comes off like a firecracker. Full of spice and energy, her personality clashes with that of Shinji and Rei. Unlike them, she has no problem arguing with adults, butting into conversations, and asserting herself wherever she pleases. Whereas Shinji is conflicted regarding his role piloting an Eva and Rei just does as she’s told, Asuka lives to pilot her Eva. To her, there is nothing more satisfying than heading into battle and being the star. Although, this drive hides a dark secret. 

Unlike Shinji, she does not give the immediate impression of something eating at her, instead, she comes off profoundly confident in herself. With some exceptions throughout its runtime, most of Evangelion’s psychological angle is focused on Shinji; it isn’t until later on in the show that we learn more about why Askuka is the way she is. One key component to Asuka’s struggle is her effort to express how adult she is. Whether it is her acting promiscuous with a much older man than her, or her gung-ho charge into battle, there is always an emphasis to express what she’s capable of and that she can take care of herself. This attitude is a mask to cover up the trauma brought on by her mother’s death.

It is revealed that Asuka’s mother suffered with mental illness, eventually taking her own life. In her mother’s suicide – having lost someone she thought she could count on – Asuka develops her unhealthy sense of self-reliance at a young age.

A major difference between Asuka and Shinji is how much she represses her feelings and these memories. Unlike Shinji who is a little more open, she refuses to acknowledge her pain. She has gone to great lengths to shield herself from the past. This becomes apparent in a pivotal moment in the anime where, when facing off against a powerful Angel, she is not able to help. Before everything is lost though, Shinji steps in and saves the day. This shakes her, for at this point in the show, she has seen him as beneath her. While he may be present to help, she is the lead. Which is why she is shook when she only hinders the situation against the Angel. Having been of little use in the battle, worrying that she may not be needed, brings back to mind the trauma of being left by her mother.

After this incident, Asuka’s ability to pilot her Eva weakens. She is not able to get it functioning, finding herself in a state of disbelief, self-doubt, and spiraling depression. As those memories pop up, she makes efforts to shut them down. At one point, she even says how the pain is too much and she doesn’t want to think about those things. During the time of her breakdown, she begins to feel as if she isn’t needed – her ultimate fear. 

The anime’s original take on Asuka’s internal revelation is a tad abstract; when it comes to End of Evangelion, her revelation is handled slightly better. Speaking to specifics would ruin some major story moments, but while in a comatose state, she takes on an introspective journey and realizes she is not alone in the world. Much like Shinji, Asuka struggles with self-worth. Whereas he makes for an intriguing case of how trauma and mental illness can cause one to drift away from others, Asuka shows the harm that repression can bring upon a person. However, both characters represent a major need within human beings – that of being close with others. 

A Post-Apocalyptic Backdrop to Mental Illness

Evangelion uses all its moments of violence to emphasize and allude to these critical elements within Shinji and Asuka. The show is using a typical component of anime, being the action, to tell a much deeper story than just showing some fists clash. Trauma and mental illness are the most significant themes to Evangelion. From depression to anxiety, self-hatred to loneliness, many of the characters in Evangelion suffer from some sort of hell. Which is why I have also found the show’s post-apocalyptic setting to be so fitting. 

Throughout so much media, audiences have been given various looks at what a post-apocalyptic world may entail; scarcity of resources, people pushed to the brink of desperation, grand cities now in ruin. Evangelion’s world isn’t so abrasive like this in its presentation; there are the ruined cities, but life isn’t so over-the-top dreadful (kids are still going to school as the Angels make their efforts against humanity). The intriguing take to this world is how desolate and somber it is. Besides scenes where the protagonists are in school and those of the adults working at NERV, one will notice that life outside all of that is quiet. Having been devastated by the Angels, life is dreary. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the silent horror that is mental illness and personal despair. 

Everyone’s journey is different, but when someone is in the throes of spiraling depression or crippling agony, they may find themselves in the quietest of moments. Perhaps watching a sunset, maybe while laying up at night looking out into a city. In such scenes, Evangelion uses its world to elevate the emotional turmoil of the characters – to illuminate their heartache and worries. It uses something as simple as a city – meant to be full of life – and shows it is devoid of presence. That life only returning through combat and violence.

Shinji and Asuka find themselves in a constant state of awareness, knowing a major conflict is somewhere on the horizons. Neither has the time nor the means to live life like a regular kid. Each of them carries demons – expressing or hiding them in their respective ways. Their existence in this world is to defeat the Angels, to be a part of secret agendas, and to endure. This is a post-apocalyptic world that isn’t trying to sell its audience on how cruel or horrifying existence is, but rather, how lonely and sad life can be when we feel so alone. 

“Sometimes you need a little wishful thinking just to keep on living.” 

I appreciate the effort Evangelion makes in exploring mental health. Is it perfect? No. At times it leans in way too heavily into Freudian psychology, dabbling in some problematic areas. Outside those moments however, I do feel the show offers some thoughtful contemplation to muse over. 

For all its over-the-top science-fiction plot points, this is a very human story. It reveals the horror of untreated trauma and the havoc it can unleash on one’s life. It ruminates on the pain of loneliness and what it means to struggle with depression and anxiety. Evangelion is a story about children who carry tremendous hurt in their hearts and are desperate to feel some semblance of warmth. 

But for two endings that are pretty bleak in their own right, Evangelion does end with one particular message – You are not alone.

At the time of this writing, Evangelion and End of Evangelion are streaming on Netflix. The Rebuild of Evangelion movies can be obtained through various methods of purchasing them. The fourth and final installment in the movie series – Evangelion: 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time – was just released this month in Japan.


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