In its basic plot outlines, Evangelion is classic mecha. Set in the near future after a catastrophe called the “Second Impact,” the narrative follows the adventures of a young boy named Shinji who is summoned to NERV headquarters, a secret government organization in the city of Tokyo III, by his mysterious and coldly distant scientist father. In Episode 1 Shinji learns why he has been summoned—to pilot an enormous robotic weapon known as an “Evangelion” (EVA for short), which has been constructed to fight the “Shito” (translated as “angel” but actually meaning “apostle”), huge grotesque-looking creatures presumably from outer space that are stalking the planet. While adult scientists made the EVAs, only young adolescents (described with the English word “children”) can actually “synchronize” with the EVAs well enough to pilot them. Although initially protesting his inability to pilot the EVA, Shinji finally complies, partly due to his glimpse of the only other EVA pilot available, a girl named Ayanami Rei. Rei has already been so exhausted by previous combat that she has to be wheeled into the control center on a stretcher. Despite his reluctance, Shinji synchro- nizes very well with the giant EVA (“49.9 percent synchronicity,” a scientist crows), and, after some early problems when it appears he will be defeated, ultimately triumphs over what the viewer later learns is only the first of a series of “angels.” Recounted in this way, Evangelion would seem to adhere to all the most important mecha conventions, a near-future high-tech set- ting, a fast narrative pace, and above all a youthful hero who pilots his robotic machine to victory over an apparently evil and apparently mechanical enemy. The television series even has an inspiring pop theme song exhorting an unnamed youth to “become a legend.” However, the series actually turns these conventions inside out to produce a text that is as fascinating or perhaps puzzling as it is almost unrelentingly grim. This subversive tone is established early in the first and second episodes. Perhaps the most obvious difference that helps set the tone is Shinji’s attitude toward his mecha. Unlike the Knight Sabers with their cheerful enthusiasm or even Sho, who grows more enthusiastic in his work once he realizes he can rescue his girlfriend (and in the television series actually shows some real zeal for transforming into his “biobooster armor”), Shinji looks on his augmented self with absolute loathing. His very first encounter with the EVA is instructive. Guided by his superior, Misato, he walks into the EVA holding pad to find it pitch black. When the lights are switched on he finds himself confronting an enormous robotic face, bigger than his entire body, a sight that makes him recoil in horror. Shinji’s continuing sense of unease is clearly telegraphed by his disturbed expression as he is loaded into his EVA and propelled out to the fight with the Angel. He seems agonizingly reluctant, a far cry from the willing body-metal fusion on the part of more conventional protagonists. The actual encounter with the Angel, while certainly exciting, is much more grimly presented than the usual slam-bang extravaganzas of typical mecha-on-mecha confrontations.16 The soundtrack music is foreboding and the encounter itself is limned in a shadowy chiar- oscuro, quite different from the brightly colored fight scenes of most mecha. Finally, the actual fight sequence ends up in a fascinatingly low-tech manner. Menaced by the seemingly victorious Angel, Shinji’s EVA, which has suffered enormous damage, manages to right itself at the last moment to produce, not a high tech weapon, but a huge knifelike piece of metal. The scene becomes even more shadowy and the viewer sees the dark silhouette of Shinji’s EVA savagely attacking the Angel with the metal piece. No doubt, part of this grim tone is due to the apocalyptic nature of the text. With the fate of the world riding on Shinji’s shoulders, it is hardly surprising that this is not a light-hearted fight scene. The apocalyptic aspects will be explored later but for the purpose of this chapter, it is enlightening to look at what these dark early episodes say about body and identity. It is possible to see this opening encounter in more mythic and/ or psychoanalytical terms as the beginning of Shinji’s reluctant rite of passage into manhood, with the EVAs and the Angels as aspects of the Self and Other that Shinji needs to confront in order to form his own identity. Many critics have noted that the construction of the EVA has a feminine aspect, in that it encloses Shinji in a liquid-filled womblike space. It can be suggested that the machine has a masculine aspect as well, in that it is essentially an offensive weapon thrust out of NERV headquarters to take Shinji on his quest for selfhood. The actual journey begins when Shinji enters the darkened room and, as the lights suddenly go on, sees the EVA for the first time. The scene of the small boy’s face next to the gigantic face of the EVA is a memorable one. It is as if Shinji were looking into a distorting mirror and is horrified by the self that he finds there. Shinji is unable to escape from this repellent aspect of himself, however. In the next scene we see him, looking very frail and vulnerable, being enclosed by the mam- moth machine while a clear liquid rises around him that, the techni- cians assure him, will make it easier for him to breathe. As the liquid covers him the EVA begins to move out to the launching pad, and, after a few more technical procedures, Shinji and the EVA are ejected out of NERV headquarters to fight with the Angel. With its image of a small human encapsulated within a large liquid cylinder, Shinji’s immersion (perhaps a more appropriate word than “fusion”) in the EVA strongly suggests a birth scene. To make the message even clearer, the technicians are shown unlocking the so- called umbilical bridge (the English words are used) as the EVA moves out into battle. Thus the EVA has both aspects of the maternal—Shinji is inside its protective capsule—and the self—Shinji is “synchroniz- ing” with it, fusing with it to make it act under his volition. In fact, the critic Kotani Mari points out the increasing feminization of Shinji in later episodes, hinting at the affect that the EVA has on Shinji’s personality. Kotani views the basic structure of the series—the combat between EVA and Angels—as one in which the patriarchal family, NERV, fights with the abjected feminine Other, the Angels.17 Although I believe that this is an important and illuminating point, since NERV is indeed depicted in an explicitly patriarchal way and the angels have clear links with the abject, I would also suggest that, at least early in the series, the Angels could also be seen as father figures, whom Shinji must annihilate. Huge, brutishly grotesque, and coming down from above, they exhibit an authoritative presence. They are also explicitly associated with Shinji’s real father, a man who seems to have rejected his own son in order to work on the mysteries of EVA and the Angels and who appears to be the only person to know the real meaning of the Angels. In this light, the savagery of Shinji’s final response to the first Angel is highly suggestive. This is not simply one machine attacking another, but, as the surprisingly primitive knifelike weapon attests, a deeply primal and murderous confrontation. The phallic nature of the knife is also interesting, suggesting that Shinji is attempting to arrogate his father’s masculine power.
It is important to realize, however, that just as the EVA is both mother and self, it is also possible to see the Angel as both father and self. After all, the closest equivalent to the gigantic, powerful, and grotesque Angel is the gigantic, powerful, and grotesque EVA with which Shinji is fused. In this light, Shinji’s final victory over the Angel is reminiscent of George Lucas’s science fiction epic The
Empire Strikes Back (1980), in particular the scene in which Luke Skywalker engages in a sword-wielding confrontation with Darth Vader, whom he is not aware is actually his father. In a scene of mythic and psychoanalytical resonance, Luke finally manages to cut off Vader’s “head” (his helmet), only to discover that the head is actually his own.
In the case of most of the more conventional mecha, the triumphant resolution of a fight is a prelude to further victories that will explicitly or implicitly celebrate the growing competence of the youthful protagonist and his maturation into an adult form of identity. In Evangelion’s darker vision, however, such a celebratory coming-of- age fantasy is largely undermined. The sexual transgressiveness and ambiguity that mark both EVA and Angel are embodied in a more psychosocial way in the general dysfunctionality of the human protag- onists. This is clear throughout the series as the focus turns at least as much to the bickerings, sexual angst, and family secrets of the three young mecha pilots and their mentors as to the mecha action. Also, as has been shown with Shinji, the characters’ attitude toward their high- tech body armor is often ambivalent at best. Rather than empowering them, their huge EVAs leave them wracked with pain and deeply vulnerable. Far from bringing victory, body armor in this series only leads to physical and emotional damage. Indeed, the EVAs can be seen as outward manifestations of the characters’ own defenses, not only against the world but against each other. Instead of enabling them to feel protected and potentially more capable of human interaction, the EVAs only add to the characters’ alienation from each other. Thus, while Shinji and his roommate and fellow EVA pilot, the striking Asuka Langley, might be expected to develop a romantic attraction for each other, their sexual tension, although clearly evident in some episodes of mutual fumbling, is usually subsumed under Asuka’s intense competitiveness as to who gets to lead in combat with the Angels. As in Ranma 1/2 this theme of competition can be seen as having links with the heavy pressures that Japanese society places on its citizens, but unlike Ranma 1/2, the competition here is apocalyptic rather than festive. Shielded in their EVA armor, Asuka, Shinji, and Rei are incapable of any meaningful interaction beyond competitiveness in combat and the occasional bleak foray into sexual experimentation. The alienation of the characters, especially that of Shinji, is spectacularly apparent in the puzzling and genuinely subversive final episode, a grand finale in which, bizarrely for a work in the mecha genre, not a single mecha is shown. Episode 26 comes after a dizzying series of revelations concerning both family and institutional secrets interwoven in a highly technological framework in which, among many other things, the true function of NERV and the real identity of the first EVA pilot, Ayanami Rei (she is actually a clone of Shinji’s dead mother), are revealed. In contrast to the technological revelations of the previous episodes, however, the final episode is fascinating and to many viewers disappointing in its virtual lack of any high-tech special effects or apocalyptic imagery. Instead, the final episode is an almost classically psychoana- lytic exploration of the personal identities of Shinji and his friends/ colleagues at NERV, who, the viewer has by now discovered, are all deeply psychologically damaged. The surreal framework in which the exploration takes place is a series of questions flashed across the screen that Shinji and the others then try to answer, as if they were prisoners being interrogated. The question that occurs most often is “What do you fear?,” and Shinji’s answers have nothing to do with high-tech weaponry or Earth-threatening Angels and everything to do with his deeply dysfunctional family life and profoundly intro- verted personality.
In answer to “What do you fear?” Shinji first responds, “I fear the hatred of my father” and adds “My father abandoned me. He hates me.” As the question continues to be pressed, however, Shinji expands his circle of fear to reveal that his deepest fear is “not being wanted [by anyone].” This leads him to confess, in answer to another question, that he pilots the EVA because his “life is pointless otherwise,” and, “Without the EVA, I had no value.” The others apparently have similar revelations concerning their own sense of worthlessness and their need for the EVA to give their lives meaning.
As the episode continues however, Shinji learns that all of this is taking place in his own mind and, as the outside voice repeatedly tells him, this is a vision of the world that he has come to through his own decisions. Continually being asked the question “What am I?” Shinji finally sees himself as utterly alone in a blank white world, a lonely cartoon figure floating in a perimeterless space.
Having come to the ultimate in identity deconstruction, Shinji then has a surreal vision of an alternate anime universe, a self-reflexive version of an animated high-school sex comedy that proves to him that there are many possible directions his anime life could go in. With this knowledge he appears ready to begin rebuilding his life and states “I see I can exist without being an EVA pilot.” The series ends with Shinji thanking his father and saying goodbye to his mother.
Looking at this final episode unironically, Shinji’s story is in a sense a coming-of-age drama as much as that of Luke Skywalker or the protagonists of more conventional mecha. Indeed, critic Endo Toru sees the final episode as an explicitly sexual coming of age in which Shinji, through the interrogation of the personas of his fellow female combatants in his mind (his anima, perhaps), ultimately is able to separate from his dead mother and move on to a more adult sexual- ity.18 At one point in the episode, for example, he is told in Lacanian fashion that “the first person you see is your mother” and at the end of the episode, he says goodbye to his mother. Even if Shinji’s “matura- tion” is perceived in a straightforward manner (and, given the dark tone of the series this would be rather problematic), it still seems to be highly ambiguous. Indeed, in the film The End of Evangelion, Shinji’s sexual coming of age is shown in the bleakest of terms as the opening sequence reveals him masturbating miserably over the wounded body of Asuka. In contrast to Luke’s learning to use the “Force” in the Star Wars series, it seems clear in both film and these final episodes that mastery of the EVAs leads only to alienation and despair. The very ubiquitousness and popularity of the mecha genre makes Evangelion in general and this final episode in particular peculiarly jarring. Through Shinji’s self-questioning, the viewer is insistently reminded of the fundamental worthlessness of the power derived from the mechanical armor, thus undermining the whole basis of the mecha genre. The final scenes in which the unarmored Shinji floats gently in a world without directions, boundaries, or human contact are in striking contrast to the scenes of armored bodies in combat that ended many of the previous episodes. In the solipsistic world of Evangelion, mecha are finally unimportant except as a means to know the self. Even the human body is less important than the mind that creates its own reality.
susan j. napier, anime