“To render it in my own terms, the ‘idealistic age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned alone while the ‘fictional age’ is the period when grand narrative functioned only as a fake.” – Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
“…it also appears that the culture of imagination, a longtime province of Japan’s male youth, is reaching a certain end point. It is as though imagination is no longer expanding toward an aspirational time and place but is instead fixed in the here and now, capable of only expanding internally and heralding a kind of era of obsessiveness.” – Izumi Tsuji, “Why Study Train Otaku? A Social History Of Imagination”
“It is said that the camera cannot lie, but rarely do we allow it to do anything else, since the camera sees what you point it at: the camera sees what you want it to see.” – James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work
One Theory Of Anime
In the spirit of this essay’s central posit — or one of them, anyway — I’ve started out with 3 divergent, even duplicitous epigraphs. Prior to going any further, I suggest you re-read them, carefully, as 2 of 3 are, word by word, in whole or in part, total bullshit: red herrings that always seem to slink their way into conversations on the arts that they really have no place in, thus crowding out what’s relevant, and what needs discussion. The other quote, by contrast, brilliantly suggests why a work of art can be so polarizing, even as that work is an objective ‘thing’ with properties immanent to it, and does not simply change with the percipient’s whims. I won’t tell you which one’s which — not yet, at least — for the best answer is somewhere in the art, itself, which you and I will try to see anew.
Yes, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a polarizing work. Although essentially a ‘teen’ or young adult anime, it’s been derided by critics for its ending (“cheating,” “meaningless,” “stupid,” mere “veneer”), its faux Christian symbolism, the way it seems to obviate its own narrative spine midway through the series, as well as director Hideaki Anno’s decision to leave a number of rote questions more or less unanswered. I did not, therefore, approach this work with any real expectations. It was, after all, too popular with the ‘pop’ crowd, too loved by the notoriously dense philosopher-types as a work of art (red flag!), and too badly hammered by those who seemed to know what they were talking about. As for me? I was a cinephile who, years ago, was about to enter into my very first anime, and, given all that I’d known of otaku culture, expected dull writing straining to be ‘deep,’ immature characters, plot-driven (as opposed to narrative-driven) stories, and video game-level fluff admixed — I do not know why — into something that was, for lack of a better word, interesting.
I will detail the reasons for my curiosity later, but suffice to say that I got all of the above, and more. The routine went something like this. I’d watch an episode or two, and be forced to snicker at the thematic repetitiousness, Evangelion’s dull, idiotic humor, the great number of cliches straining for ‘relevance,’ the ridiculous ways in which it’d sexualize middle schools kids just for the sake of following genre conventions. Of course, these were conventions that were quickly growing dated, and that the series, despite its faults, and despite its over-reliance on them, would nonetheless help overturn. Yet for all that, I was also struck by Evangelion’s often deft use of (as opposed to ‘wallowing in’) pretense, in a way that would veer quite close to schlock, yet pull away at the last minute by zeroing in on its own tricks and manipulations. In a way, it would turn this pretense upon the viewer, even as the show’s purported inner reason was its characters: or rather, the live-long patterns these characters forge for themselves, and their excoriation.
No, none of this is obvious in the rather thin script, but the series (like much of anime, in general) overlays some damn good imagery against a narration that — given its cliches, faux poetics, and psychological fluff — jars with what’s actually on screen, and turns these elements outward, thus co-opting them for a deeper purpose. Yet despite the near-universal acclaim (at least among otaku) for Neon Genesis Evangelion’s characters, scripting, and ‘complex plot,’ these elements are by far the show’s weakest. Evangelion is not really literary, at all, as has been claimed, but closer in its conceits to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It takes a seemingly ‘deep’ script, lards it with ridiculous and dated psychobabble, and deceives the viewer (intentionally or not) into accepting that as the show’s real import. And, just like with Persona, a legion of fans have come out defending these elements, with an equally rabid set of detractors attacking the show for precisely the same reasons. No one, however, seems to see that anime is a visual medium, as well, with an interior tale within the images, themselves, storyboard promises that are little more than subterfuge, and an experimental edge that, while almost always sure to fail in literature, for reasons of how the written word operates, can work quite well in film (and animation, specifically), given how easily the mind latches on to images, and imbues them with a depth at the barest suggestion. Literature, after all, has only been around for a few thousand years, while our brains have been analyzing visual cues for millions. Yet what was imperative, was instinct, once, for reasons for survival, is now a tool almost wholly for abstraction when directed towards art. And this, of course, is how true cinema works, a fact that Neon Genesis Evangelion tried to capitalize upon, failed with, and was therefore ignored by ‘serious critics’ as a mere kid’s show.
In a way, Evangelion’s pretentiousness is a boon to the art-form, for if there’s been one thing missing from animation, it is not so much its unwillingness to experiment, but to experiment self-consciously. Now, this is not film-speak, nor some bullshit akin to the 2 of 3 epigraphs, above, but a recognition of the fact that the root of the word artifice is art. Art is not ‘truth,’ but a dupe’s game wherein the best sleight-of-hand wins, and utterly un-real concoctions — wonderfully sketched characters, poetic dialogue — trick the consumer into accepting them as real, thus lowering one’s autonomic defenses against feeling manipulated or ‘cheated,’ defenses that were engineered into us for reasons of survival, but still come out, now, at the slightest suggestion of deceit. This is why the worst art feels so cheap, so exploitative of people’s emotional weaknesses, and why self-conscious (i.e., pretentious) art, if done well, is so bravissimo, for it STILL manages to get to the core of reality despite its artifice, thus signaling to the viewer a level of technical mastery few art-works can achieve. Anime, whose pretense is especially visible, is in a great position to capitalize on this, provided that its writers and directors know what they’re doing, and do not feel ‘above’ selectively borrowing from the more copious world of cinema. And there’s many examples of such in Evangelion, alone, from the emotionally arresting use of blood for ‘dying’ robots (since the viewer knows it cannot be real, yet can’t help but empathize with the anthropomorphism), to the build-up of a convoluted plot-line that, despite rising to epic proportions as an eschatological tale, ultimately gets condensed (not ‘reduced,’ as it’s been derided) back down to where the story first begins: with the self-hatred of a single, transparent, and none-too-interesting boy whose cowardice is never resolved, and who selfishly turns the world into a receptacle for his problems.
Yet anime is NOT cinema, and shouldn’t try to be: and vice-versa. In short, animation’s real boon is that its base irreality — i.e., pictures — requires no real suspension of disbelief, since we know, right off the bat, that people don’t perceive the world in this way. This immediately puts the viewer into a curious and receptive state of mind. Lots can happen, now, such as great leaps of logic (as per Keats’s Negative Capability) with nary an issue, all the while animation’s traditional audience lets the director get away with archetypes (as opposed to fully fleshed-out characters) that would really drag on a standard film, thus opening up some fresh artistic routes. These include imagistic (as opposed to literary) narrative, pretense, meta-fiction, the ‘freeing’ up of characters to be less-than-deep, and other experimental fluff that, when turned outward, as opposed to being forced to subsist on these elements alone, can actually be done well, and point to the future not only of animation, but in the cross-currents of cinema, as well.
That said, although Neon Genesis Evangelion succeeds only partly on these terms, it matters not, if one simply takes the long view of things. Yet in the 1990s, I was still an adolescent, and could not — almost by definition — take the long view of anything, really. I was enamored with detritus: abandoned rail-yards, video games, and things that were more or less an extension of my need to explore beyond the confines of 5 or 6 city blocks, at a time when kids were making a now-permanent transition from the streets to a more ‘interior’ kind of world. To be sure, I have not dealt with this part of my life to any real satisfaction, because although the 90s kids — coming of age, in fact, during the sort of possibilities Evangelion seemed to offer — felt, thought, and aspired to so much, there was no one to really articulate our detritus as something that could actually matter to anyone but us.
Evangelion, to me, is precisely ‘that’ sort of promise: a promise made, a promise reneged, and a key to the peculiarities of that time period, as well as to our quickly-cementing future. It is not enough, however, to merely talk about the series, or enter into some fandom. That, in short, is little more than personal oblivion, and a means of occluding some deeper questions. At bottom, Evangelion needs to be talked of as art — often to its own detriment — because art will be what’s left when our memories start to go, when we come to find that ‘things’ (books, shows, music, painting) document and remember more of us than we do. For, at end, we become the Zeitgeist, and the Zeitgeist is little more than what we were during its ascent. To grow up means, in part, to understand this.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Series
In brief, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s narrative thrust is the following. It is 2015 AD, and the world is awaiting a possible Third Impact: a cataclysmic event that can be triggered in a number of ways, such as by an Angel’s (or so we’re told) re-combination with Adam, who is both the first Angel (Japanese shito: ‘apostle’) , and progenitor of most of the other 17. These are manifested, usually, as robotic beings who seem less evil than amoral, driven by a purpose that human beings can’t really understand. They all start coming in waves after the Second Impact in 2000, a powerful explosion over Antarctica fueled by Adam’s awakening, due to human meddling, thus killing billions, melting the polar ice-caps, and turning the world into a kind of steamy jungle.
In turn, an organization called ‘Nerv’ is founded to deal with these new threats, while the Evas they’ve been building — large, robotic walkers that are eventually used as weapons — can only be manned by a select few 14 year-olds, all of whom are, predictably, quite immature, and therefore use this opportunity for their own ends. In most cases, this involves issues of identity: Rei Ayanami, a clone whose purpose is to harbor Lilith’s (the ‘real’ mother of all human beings, and second Angel) soul, Shinji Ikari, the cowardly, self-loathing son of Nerv’s commander, Gendo, and Asuka Langley Soryu, an American who speaks German and is the show’s de facto ‘bitch’ — angry, aggressive, and confused like the others, for all 3 characters are mere archetypes and permutations of each other.
In a way, Misato Katsuragi, the sexy, 29 year-old Nerv Captain, becomes the kids’ mother-figure, even as she’s emotionally incapable of such. As the show progresses, she lives with Shinji, re-kindles an affair with the ‘cool’ Kaji, and engages in a power-struggle with other Nerv staff in order to better eliminate the Angels: the purported goal of the whole organization, really, until its ‘darker’ secrets come to the fore. In time, Gendo is shown as evil, and even more selfish than Shinji, as he both manipulates (and is manipulated by) Seele, a shadowy, apolitical cabal that hopes to bring about the forced evolution of mankind by engineering the Third Impact, all the while Shinji zips in and out of the show’s action sequences, dealing, as he is, with his own unwillingness to pilot Eva, and other microcosmic issues.
Yet as the Angels are defeated, it becomes clear that things aren’t as they seem to be. Rei Ayanami is revealed as a clone, Asuka becomes suicidal, and Shinji doesn’t really grow but regresses into his own flaws, to the point of near-destruction when he refuses to kill an Angel that takes over his friend’s (Toji Suzuhara) Eva. Such personal battles, however — the angst, the multiple love triangles, and so on — take a back-seat to what’s happening in the macro sense: Gendo’s betrayal of Nerv, the progress of the Human Instrumentality Project (Seele’s goal) and the appearance of Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel in human form who sacrifices himself for the greater good.
Near the end, however, a complicated series of events brings on the Project’s completion, or perhaps an intense dream-state wherein Shinji purportedly learns how to finally be comfortable. This is not much of an end for Shinji, however, given that the epiphany is either forced upon him due to a coerced evolutionary event, or is a mere signal from the subconscious, with NO guarantee that he will act upon this signal when awaking. This is Evangelion’s most controversial part, even as the imagery and narrative technique has a number of well-known antecedents (Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Persona, or even Tarkovsky’s Solaris) that make the show feel quite tame, by comparison.
There is more — a lot more — that I’ve left unsaid, for while Evangelion’s plot-points are quite labyrinthine (to put things mildly), they are also irrelevant in the deeper sense. Yes, fans have pored over the show’s many questions, the hints and details without rejoinder, but this is simply a kind of artistic hoarding: an accretion of trivial and personal, moe-like attachments to things of little import to the deeper narrative, here, much less to art as a whole. Plot, after all, is little more than a means to keep a viewer’s or reader’s attention, at best, and a red herring at worst. It is really what’s underneath that matters in art, and plot, in any good work, is simply the excuse to more easily plumb these depths.
That said, to better understand Neon Genesis Evangelion, both for its good as well as its manifest flaws, its place in animation, as well as its potential lessons for cinema, it is best to start with a few emblematic scenes. The first is the show’s opening, wherein Tokyo-3 — an industrial, almost Godzilla’s Revenge-like town meant to serve as a bulwark against the invading Angels — is forced into a state of emergency. As the voice continues to broadcast, the streets look blurred from all the heat (we learn, in time, that the world no longer has seasons), one hears the sound of summering bugs, and all is calm. Interestingly, although we see tanks, guns, and other defense systems, nothing appears manned, almost as if a disaster has already struck, and the warnings — delivered quite casually — had come too late. The viewer is thus forced to imbue several narrative possibilities, for we’re given just enough hints to construct a meaningful story, not larded (at least not yet!) with over-description and over-analysis of things that should be obvious to any intelligent viewer.
The images get even better as characters are introduced. There’s the fourth Angel, Shamshel, an alluringly humanoid ‘robot’ who — after being destroyed by 14 year-old Shinji, piloting Eva 01 — is last seen intertwined with 01 as night comes, a potent symbol that nicely recapitulates some of Evangelion’s basic themes, and highlights the futility of the combat that will go on to fill most of its action sequences. Another sequence shows a bomb getting dropped on the Angel Sachiel, wherein the eye must climb ‘down’ the screen, as the image itself flows up, to get the scene’s full import. It is a technique that few films ever do well, belonging, as it does, mostly to the world of animation. And while it’s a mere stylistic flourish, these touches add up over time, and even belie some of Evangelion’s worst parts. A silly conversation on one’s childhood, for instance, could be twisted by a casual (and easy to miss) shot of a tipped-over sandpail, in a way that refracts the speakers’ words, rather than merely honing in on them. To this end, there’s Shinji, a self-loathing teenager whose uncertainty is highlighted by shots of doors closing in on him — done naturally, by the way, without the need to scream ‘symbol!’ — as if he’s about to enter into his own interiors. Then, there’s Nerv, headed by Shinji’s father, Gendo, the secretive agency to whom Shinji is contracted, whose cut-off logo is shown early on: “GOD’S IN HIS HEAVEN…” Yes, it’s little more than a famous line from Robert Browning, but given how amoral so many of the characters are, despite the spiritual overtones that flood their screen presence, these sorts of flourishes (and there are many) goad the viewer into a sense of curiosity about Nerv, specifically, and Evangelion’s world, in general, that its half-baked, simplistic characters can never do. And therein lies the show’s aesthetic strategy: get viewers hooked on the allure of the images, then allow the show’s script — both good and bad — to play off of these images in sometimes-novel ways. It’s a perspective that’s rarely been taken, even as so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion is a kind of Persona-lite.
Yet despite the show’s often-stellar imagery, its real narrative thrust — at least in terms of what makes the imagery meaningful — is what it does with its characters, a fact upon which Evangelion rises and falls throughout its 10+ hour span. It is clear, for instance, that Shinji, both a coward, as well as ‘sick’ in a deeper, inward sense, doesn’t want to pilot the Eva. There are, I suppose, many reasons for this, but the most obvious one is that piloting an Eva is quite taxing. It leaves Shinji drained, psychologically, as well as physically broken, with the most affecting example of such being Rei Ayanami, who, despite her visible injuries, is willing to take Shinji’s place until his guilt takes over. And, despite Shinji’s nervous breakdowns (there are many), he always ends up in an Eva, anyway, leaving him in an emotional fog wherein he keeps re-visiting the site of his own destruction, a kind of fatalism that neither he nor the viewer can ever really understand.
In fact, Shinji does this to the very end of the show, where it’s clear that — far from becoming a self-actualized ‘hero,’ as most tales of this ilk demand — he is a hero only in the technical sense of the word. That is, he’s done something most could never do, at great risk to himself. Shinji’s confidence, however, never really grows, and as the narrative makes clear, it is Shinji who will have to live with himself, despite proving over and over again that he’s simply incapable of living an enviable life. No, this is not definite, as he is only 14, but Evangelion is clearly about human patterns, in the micro sense, as opposed to the superficially ‘complex’ and dull eschatological tale that makes up the bulk of the show’s action. To confuse this is to confuse the show’s real purpose, then damn Evangelion for not delivering the things you, on a personal level, want it to, rather than accepting what’s actually on the table.
Yet this is also where Evangelion falls into its major problems, as issues of script (the backbone of all film and animation, really — even when there’s no dialogue) and character (the ‘gel’ that holds most films together) come to the fore. Too often, we’re given a glimpse into a character’s psyche, only to have the show’s writer torpedo any and all subtlety, within, as if they’re scared that the viewer won’t ‘get it’. The examples of this are endless, such as Shinji failing at some task, then needlessly going off about his ‘worthlessness,’ over and over again, or Asuka telling us how she’s the best at this or that job, only to have her predictable bluster crumble, and the other characters commenting on how she ‘really was’ self-loathing behind that front — as if we’d not figured it out, during her endless monologues on this very point. Worse, still, are the needless recaps of what the viewer already knows, as characters explain each others’ psyches after some ‘important’ event, proffered, it seems, in the hope that the least among us will finally get what was already quite obvious. This is downright BAD writing, and torpedoes not only the characters, themselves, but any real sense of empathy for them, because while art is manipulation — especially of ‘the truth’ — the moment a viewer can readily feel this, and see evidence of it on screen, it puts up a wall between the art-work and those that wish to engage with it on a deeper, and less ‘ideas-on-a-silver-platter’ sort of way.
As Mike Crandol writes:
“But of these supporting players it is most interesting to compare Shinji with the hot-tempered pilot of Eva Unit-02, Asuka Langley Soryu. At first glance the two are complete opposites: Shinji is passive, quiet, and unassuming, while Asuka is aggressive, outgoing, and seemingly full of confidence. But through the lens of Evangelion’s extraordinary character development we learn that deep down Asuka is exactly like Shinji. Fundamental feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness drive Asuka to proclaim herself “the best” at whatever she sets out to do, and her fear of abandonment is allayed by convincing herself that “she doesn’t need anybody”. When it becomes apparent that she is in fact not “the best” Eva pilot, she begins a mental collapse that parallels Shinji’s.”
Now, it may come as a surprise to Crandol, but he unwittingly highlights precisely what’s wrong with so much of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just note how Crandol thoughtlessly praises cliches of phrasing (Asuka “doesn’t need anybody”) as well as of character (“fundamental feelings of inadequacy…drive Asuka to proclaim herself ‘the best’ at whatever she sets out to do”), yet passes them off as some deep revelation. It is not, and it’s predictable, to boot, for hyper-aggression implies a personal shortcoming in the same way as Shinji’s passivity, two modes of being that no healthy person will ever engage in. To invoke such transparent extremes, however, as if they’re somehow revelatory is a mere excuse, as REAL characters are usually forged from subtleties, not extremes, even if that requires the subtle shading of an extreme: the depiction of a sick person, gangster, vampire, etc. These demand more than the show’s pop psychology can provide, and well-sketched human beings (not mere archetypes) to play off of, so that the total sum is not merely ideas bouncing off one another, as is the case with Evangelion, but human beings interacting in complex ways, and across diverse situations.
Nor does it help that much of the show’s philosophy (at least when un-aided by the images that undermine its weaker moments) is really high school-level fluff, wherein fairly obvious and rote observations on identity, politics, human bluster and personal relationships are tied into a wan, eschatological symbolism whose import really comes from its novel uses of pretense rather than any ‘deeper’ meaning of its own. Need evidence? Ok, here it goes! On a supposedly ‘rich’ use of Schopenhauer and Freud, said of Shinji: “The hedgehog’s dilemma. The closer they get, the more they hurt each other. He can’t show his feelings.” An epiphany Shinji has: that he is “lucky” to live with a beer-guzzling slob like Misato, since her very willingness to show this side to Shinji implies that he’s “family” — a cue to zoom-in on Shinji’s surprised face! And this is how an episode ends! On Rei’s persistence, replete with foreshadowing as subtle as alarums: “She scares me. She stops at nothing to gain her objectives!” On human transcendence, via phrasings that were already quite passe 50 years before the show’s release: “The human spirit and mind can’t be digitized!” On the reasons for Asuka’s attempted suicide, as per Asuka’s own words: “I am useless. I’ve no reason to exist…” And, worst of all, a recapitulation of things we see on-screen, in the most cliched way possible: “Rain — like my mood, gloomy. I don’t like that. The sinking sun, fading life, my hope…”
Are you impressed? Sure, Evangelion has a number of wonderful lines (my personal favorite: ‘The year had nothing else to say’), but even more rote ones, and just as many cliches. In many cases, they are not saved by the show’s imagery, either, and have little to play off of except for what’s on the screen — a serious drag on the whole, really, when things could get so intellectually and emotionally repetitive. I’ve already noted the issues with the former (bad scripting; thin pop psychology masquerading as something ‘more’), but much of Evangelion’s emotional strategy ends up backfiring for a very different reason. This is because scenes that are meant to the lure the viewer into a sense of complacency, of getting to know the characters beyond their role as Eva pilots and saviors of humanity, are neither funny (despite attempts at comic writing) nor affecting, in most cases. Moreover, some of the show’s very best parts are near the end, wherein so many of these ‘domestic’ scenes (such as Misato’s lone date with Kaji) are combed over once more, given new dialogue and an entirely different context. This repetition occurs quite a bit (in fact, it is one of the show’s controlling metaphors), and gives a depth to previous characterizations and plot-points that they might not otherwise have for Evangelion’s bulk.
That said, the show’s symbolism, while quite overt, at times, can’t really be called ham-fisted in the usual sense, and has a few interesting qualities that bring us back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. This is because for all of Evangelion’s over-the-top elements — Lilith nailed to a cross, allusions to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish and Christian folklore, the 3 ‘Magi’ computer systems — they are not, nor are they intended to be, a religious comment, but an odd combination of myth, science, and pure happenstance that is more reminiscent of works like Salvador Dali’s “Corpus Hypercubus,” i.e., a curious side-step, rather than a truly new way of looking at things. In Persona, as Dan Schneider argues, much of the film is ‘looking out’ at the viewer, but while Evangelion does not have the technical brilliance of the former, it still casts a damn wide net at the critics who’d inevitably line up to argue over those symbols, not realizing how much of it is hollow and silly, especially in the face of its deeper and less talked about strengths. In a way, then, while Persona helped nail a generation of critics, Evangelion highlights so many of the illusions of its own fan-base, in the detritus of 1995 and even two decades later. It helps, too, that so much of this symbolism has an allure that escapes mere phrasing, such as Ramiel (an Angel in the form of an octahedron), whose shape reminded me of The Prisoner’s white ball, an object that frightens precisely because it so well fits into the ways our brains might image the idea of ‘unknowns’. No, the show’s choices don’t really plumb the depths of 2000+ years of human image-making, in any real sense, but they do take a particular world-view, from a particular group of people in search of this depth, and position their and the show’s illusions at the fore. This is not a condemnation, merely an admission of the fact that anime, as a whole, and Evangelion, in particular, probably work on levels that only another couple of decades’ time will make obvious, after which their techniques can be more wisely applied to other art-forms.
Still, there ARE many parts of Neon Genesis Evangelion that work purely of their own accord, with no need to invoke anything but what’s on the screen at that very moment. There is, for instance, Shinji’s initial loss of consciousness after piloting Eva 01, only to awake staring up at the ceiling: “Unknown Ceilings” is the episode’s title (in fact, one of several well-chosen and poetic titles), and this particular image of loss and ‘intrusion’ repeats itself over and over again until the show’s end. Then, there are shots of speakers from a great distance, as if they are co-conspirators; the almost Kubrickian use of classical music in the midst of Evangelion’s action sequences, where — on a superficial level — the combination seems inappropriate, but really gets at the show’s (and art’s) deep artifice; the novel ways in which the animation ‘pauses,’ such as right before Shinji crushes Kaworu and the lesser-known parts of Beethoven’s “Ode To Joy” are played in a way that’s almost operatic; the (first) kiss between Shinji and Asuka, wherein Asuka — asleep — wanders into his room as he listens to a tape, whose sound is nicely recapitulated in the next scene with a cable-elevator; Shinji’s Eva getting swallowed up, with the near-death Shinji finally able to come to, and declaring: ‘I just wanted to see…’, a realistic take on what such an experience might do to one’s coherence, and the sort of comments that tend to come from duress; the inversions of cliches from many episodes before; and the many, many good to great shots that fill so much of Evangelion, for while the animation, itself, is self-consciously bland, in the way some of Bosch’s medievalist paintings were, the framings and the deeper underpinnings are not.
For all that, however, the show’s ending is its most controversial element, not only among fans who are split between its artistic merit and/or meaning, but anime’s detractors, as well, who’ve often pointed to it as ‘evidence’ of the medium’s worthlessness, even as these same critics would go on to champion utter schlock in the cinema world. I’ve already implied how silly the controversy really is, especially to those acquainted with Evangelion’s antecedents, but here is a fair summary of these problems by Lawrence Eng:
“Ironically, the most popular anime of the 90’s would stir up the most controversy as well. The final two episodes, especially, proved to be unpalatable to many fans. Not only was it visually bizarre and jarring, it offered no clear answers to the show’s innumerable mysteries, no clear conclusion to the storyline that had been set up, and no sense of closure for most of the characters. If there was any closure at all, it belonged to Shinji, and therefore [director Hideaki] Anno — since Anno himself was such a big part of Shinji. For many loyal fans of Evangelion, this was a betrayal on Anno’s part. As the series progressed, the depression that Anno had been dealing with since completing Nadia became more and more an integral part of the story. Some claim he was even suicidal by the time the series had ended. What began as fan service turned into a deeply personal look at the director’s wounded psyche, and perhaps a bitter message to anime fans and the anime industry that they needed to shake things up and find their way out of the shallow and artificial worlds they were so invested in. Whether or not viewers agreed with the content of Anno’s message, many fans were angry about its placement. When Anno’s emotional introspections finally overshadowed the rest of Evangelion’s narrative, they could no longer be so easily tolerated by the fans.”
Prior even to my explaining Evangelion’s ending, note how ridiculous the fans’ charges are. Yes, it is true that Anno was depressed, and even based Shinji (and, therefore, the show’s excoriation of Shinji) on his own experiences, but few have the wisdom to see how irrelevant this all is. Shinji could have been based on Anno, or on Anno’s pet shih tzu; hell, some might go on to claim that the reason he put all these middle-schoolers into sexual situations is because he’s some ‘pervert’. Yet in all these red herrings, the REAL question is inevitably obscured: what is happening on the screen, exactly, and does it have merit in and of itself? That so much could be said of Anno (to the point of his receiving death threats over, basically, 45 minutes of artistic choices) yet so little of the show’s actual ending speaks to the immaturity that most consumers approach an art-work, whether it is otaku collecting model trains, or book-lovers who absolutely NEED every detail spelled for them, or else! So, what is Evangelion’s ending, exactly, and what does it say of the reactions it has garnered?
Episode 25 begins with Shinji bemoaning the killing of Kaworu from the previous episode, the ‘depressive’ counterpart to his outburst, many episodes prior, over having almost killed a good friend for the sake of saving humanity. In other words, it is clear that Shinji has not learned from his mistakes, and is only marginally (if at all) healthier than the show’s start, for the world is still about Shinji’s perception of it, rather than the other way around. Interestingly, it is this depressive state that more or less begins the Human Complement sequence, which means it can partly be interpreted as stemming from Shinji’s mind. No, he’s not wise enough to be able to ‘read’ the show’s other characters, as these next two episodes do, but the fact that such self-reflection occurs in the midst of a guilt-trip is telling, and proves that something, within, really is Shinji’s responsibility. Yet viewers, unfortunately, tend to ignore this, and STILL get bogged down in literally an infinity of interpretations, when a gentle use of Occam’s Razor can narrow things down to a handful.
Pretty soon, images of Shinji and of Shinji’s past zip in and out of the screen, as characters are seated for a kind of cross-examination, dealing, as they are, with their own emotional issues. Numerous Rei Ayanamis come to the surface, as well as Misatos, Asukas, and the support cast, for they are all part of a vague ‘whole’ — implying that we’re either dealing with the Instrumentality Project coming to an end, or that, just as likely, this is a simple warning emerging against keeping one’s identity too singular, too much in one place, without necessarily having to refer back to Evangelion’s more superficial plot-line, which gets little to no closure. Sure, it’s all a bit too obvious from the get-go, but the ending’s REAL issue is not the abstraction, but how long it takes to hammer the same point home. This doesn’t really make this sequence bad, but opened up Anno to the same criticisms that he, ironically, hoped to avoid by being so ham-fisted in the first place. In short, by taking the focus away from the plot and to the characters, themselves, Anno was able to re-direct the viewer back to the show’s narrative thrust. Yet he did not trust himself enough, and certainly didn’t see (as most intelligent viewers might) that he’d already spent close to 9 hours polishing the same idea. No one really needed another 45 minutes of the same, even as his fan-base, predictably, had already fallen so deeply into the illusive, labyrinthine plot-line that they wanted nothing more than to get out of it, even though, in a deeper sense, falling in was their own choice and fault, a fact Hideaki Anno was — to his credit — always quite adamant about.
Yet I’d argue that the ending’s best and most emblematic scene comes somewhere in the middle of the last episode, as Shinji is penciled across white space, and is told that he has “total freedom.” Of course, this doesn’t help him much, since ‘freedom’ in the totalizing sense is meaningless without some boundaries, implying, as it does, little more than free-fall. So, he gets a single black line drawn underneath him: he is grounded. ‘Now you have to stand on the bottom…” This is not a loss, but a means to instill purpose, as new lines, walls, and characters start to fill that world, and remains Anno’s most dramatic (and famous) way of bringing the show’s attention back to where it started: Shinji’s angst. For, if the viewer recalls, Evangelion begins with Shinji’s rejection, goes on to occlude the boy’s early ‘triumphs’ by parallaxing them against his various ills, and introduces characters, one by one, that more or less serve to shed light on the psychology involved. This is the show’s premise — thin as it is — and to demand that it focus on something ‘different’ in one of its most critical moments is not really putting the art’s needs, first, but the viewer’s own wan, irrelevant desires.
In one review, Kenneth Lee typifies this sort of thinking:
“Although the entire series up until now (#1-20) showed extreme promise, the final episodes (#21-26) manages to make one thing clear: This is a piece of animation that has failed horribly in the precepts of what ‘Good Animation’ should be. By ‘Good Animation’ I mean Anime-tion that presents some clear focus or goal with a favorable cast of characters, and a development of that goal by those characters in a cohesive, enjoyable, and stimulating manner; for if it is not cohesive, then what is the point of the animation, and what is the point of watching it? Episodes #21-26 are the anti-thesis of everything that Good Animation should be: From the narrative style, and music, to the character development and film direction, these six episodes have managed to destroy the beautiful, solid foundation work of a potentially great show, and what the viewer is left with is nothing but sadness and utter disappointment.”
Ok, did you get all that? The first “beautiful” three-quarters of the series “showed extreme promise” — as if a bad (in Kenneth Lee’s perspective) final quarter can obviate all of what had come before. I mean, just look at his definition of ‘Good Animation’: that it ‘needs’ to have “a favorable cast of characters”? What does that even mean? A Clockwork Orange has an utter monster for a hero, yet still makes the viewer identify more with his will to retain his identity — even though it’s predicated upon evil — than the world’s faux sense of liberalism. This is a technical boon, not a ‘minus,’ for it subverts expectations instead of merely feeding into them, as this show does. Stimulating: OK, I agree, but Evangelion is not exactly an intellectual challenge, to begin with, so if the complaint is lobbed, it ought to be at the show in toto, and NOT just at the last hour. Lee goes on to deride the ‘character development,’ near the end, but why? No evidence is given, for any careful viewer will conclude that the characters are merely following the same trajectory as laid out in Episode 1, but instead of growing, are intensifying the same arcs they can’t quite break free of. He goes on:
“Only upon closer (or rather, distanced) inspection does the truth become clear: This is a wonderful master facade of film direction by Anno, as he cleverly manages to sidestep every single one of the crucial plot elements and questions, and instead feeds the viewers an MTV-style, hip, post-modern bombardment of images and quick cut scenes that are about the important issues and questions, but never really answers them. How did Yui die? Who is Rei? Where did she come from? What’s her purpose? How did Misato recover from her 2 years of mental incapacity? Why did Kaji die? These are just some of the real and valid questions that are never answered by Anno, Gainax, or Evangelion.”
Indeed, the show is very much a facade, but to take the word in a negative sense merely reveals one’s biases, which, in Lee’s case, is a bias for answering “crucial plot elements and questions,” and against deeper artistic concerns, which run counter to Lowest Common Denominator plot-points. Lee, like so many other viewers, seeks “answers,” but to what, exactly? The show’s philosophical posits are worn on Evangelion’s sleeve; the characters’ ‘depths’ are actually half-shallow, and plumbed from the get-go. As for Lee’s other demands? Is it really that important to know how a character dies (although, in fact, the show does answer most of Lee’s queries), or to learn of Misato’s recuperation when it’s not relevant to this tale, as it’s presented now? Rei Ayanami, for instance, is pretty much another side to Shinji — as most characters are, really — and given an external purpose, by virtue of being a clone, as opposed to something she might choose herself. Again, these are the show’s central themes, and what is in fact germane to the tale, for while Lee’s version of “who?” is little more than a question of physical roots, the show answers it in the deeper, existential sense. Yet, as before, it’s not really about the show, is it? It goes back to the viewers’ desires, and how Evangelion can serve their subjective likes and dislikes:
“The fast, blinding narrative style doesn’t stop here either, as throughout all four episodes, not only is the viewer trounced with the sheer amount of information being spouted, but in addition they are rewarded with even more confusion as the narrator of these events changes as well, nearly matching the rapidity of the facts being fed to us.”
Yep: there’s a change of narrator, despite the fact that every narrator, in this sequence, more or less bemoans the same ol’ issues that Evangelion spends 26 episodes commenting on. This is confusing?
“From Fuyutsuki remembering his early days, to a seemingly impossible narration by Ritsuko’s mother (after all, she died, and how would Fuyutsuki ‘remember’ anything from Ritsuko’s mother’s perspective?)…”
Could it be because they’re dead? Dreaming? The end-complements to Seele’s project? Part of some other fallout due to the (possible) Third Impact? These are all legitimate answers, for they are all justified by the show’s own plot-line. In fact, it’s interesting that all these critics are consuming what is, essentially, a children’s animation predicated upon faux Christian mythos, semi-divine beings from outer space, and middle school kids — one of whom is a clone — saving the world in gigantic, mechanized walkers, yet cannot ‘deal’ with a few mild leaps of logic, or a fractured point of view? I mean, if Kenneth Lee can’t tackle a none too complex interplay of voices (prepped, by the way, by episode after episode of similar verbiage and probing, of which this is merely a condensation), what would he do with genuinely great cinema, at the highest level of human accomplishment, a la the last 20 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey?
“In addition, many hail these last episodes as a ‘masterpiece’ of ‘Art-house’ film direction. Nothing could be further from the truth – it’s not ‘Art-house,’ it’s ‘out-house.’ Like watching an NBA basketball game for 3 quarters, only to have it suddenly change into a Golf game for the last 2 minutes…”
Well, he’s right: Evangelion is no masterpiece, and even the last couple of episodes (good as they are, in parts) are simply a lite version of some better, deeper predecessors. The show’s real worth is in how it might be a stepping-stone for even better work in the future. As for Evangelion becoming a golf game in the last 2 minutes? This is true, I guess, if one mistakes the show’s eschatological fluff for its inner reason, but simply untrue if its narrative thrust is respected and understood.
“In conclusion, through the narrative style, to character development, to film direction, Shin Seiki Evangelion and Hideaki Anno have achieved what few shows could ever hope of achieving: They have managed to dupe the vast majority of viewers into believing in their awesome Parthenon known as Evangelion, yet in the end, it is nothing more than a House of Cards that has fallen and crumbled…”
Again, Kenneth Lee is quite right, but for reasons he’d not ever recognize. Evangelion is a house of cards, a ‘dupe,’ just as many art-works are, and as so much of anime is, in particular. Yet it’s how the viewer gets duped into accepting these illusions that holds most of the show’s artistic value. Images come and go, undermining much of what is told to us, directly, and even manages to hook so many viewers (such as Lee) on its superficial elements, as if that’s all there is to ‘wonder’ of. To mistake the propping up of illusions, however, for the illusions, themselves, is the sort of critical faux pas that might prevent similar experiments in the future. Yet anime, itself, is a massive experiment whose major queries will not be resolved before the genre is ready to mature. Until then, here are the seeds of something better, if only they are used. There are, at any rate, worse places to start than Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The Evangelion Films
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth and The End Of Evangelion
After the manufactured ‘controversy’ surrounding the show’s ending, Hideaki Anno decided to release The End Of Evangelion (1997) as an alternative to the show’s final hour, with Death & Rebirth as a kind of teaser: a 70-minute condensation of the show’s first 24 episodes, as well as some new material that would go on to form much of the basis of the ‘real’ film. In fact, to call Death & Rebirth anything more than a glorified trailer for the original show and subsequent film would be dishonest, as it’s very much a marketing ploy for End. There’s nothing really wrong with this, in and of itself, but it means that Death & Rebirth had only a several-month shelf life in 1997, and is now (excepting a few DVD extras) completely obsolete.
The main reason for these flaws is in how Anno decided to treat the original show’s condensation: that is, literally, by simply taking a few favorite scenes, putting them together, and emerging with no real story nor narrative coherence. Sure, this is spliced with some good images of Shinji attending a school music rehearsal (with Bach as the backdrop), but they’re utterly wasted because, for all of their poetry and evocation, there is nothing to really play off of — it’s not a real tale, after all — and therefore very little to evoke. One does not construct great art from images, alone, and without a real narrative spine, Death & Rebirth is targeted strictly at those who’ve already seen the series, and could now make sense of all the names and disparate going-ons. A more worthwhile approach could have, for example, condensed the best of the original images into a story all their own, a la Koyaaniqatsi, not only showing off the original show’s strengths and making new fans, but challenging Anno to forge some new directions in his later work. In a way, then, both this and the later film became a kind of signpost for Anno’s talents, and what he could (and could not) do post-Eva.
But while The End Of Evangelion is a superior work, it’s not really a film proper, in the sense that a film is a work of art that can stand on its own, independent of its allusions. By contrast, End requires good familiarity with the series, for it doesn’t really bring you into its world, or even explain what’s happening and why. It merely strands you at the end of episode 24, and re-imagines things from there. Yet End is not even an expansion of the series — the philosophical posits are identical, and the psychology of the characters is explored in the same way — but simply a means to give some body to Evangelion’s hated ending, in that the viewer now sees the physical effects of things the show merely implied: a change, really, that’s not necessarily preferable or better than the original (as Anno has insisted), and little more than a means to sate one portion of his fan-base. For this reason, End is less ballsy than the original, and pretty much devolves to a solid action flick, even as the animation, itself, is better than the original’s, and a number of its images quite superb.
The film opens with Evangelion’s familiar summer-noises, alongside some good scenic shots that recall the show’s opening. The set-up is one which implies a potential movie in its own right, but quickly goes to a shot of Asuka unconscious in the hospital, as Shinji cries. Accidentally ripping off her gown and seeing her naked body, he masturbates (replete with a shot of his glazed hand) and calls himself disgusting. Ok, this is a terrible start, and a moment that’s only there to highlight Shinji’s immaturity and frustrations, in the least subtle way possible for the sake of getting a reaction. Meanwhile, Nerv is awaiting Instrumentality, as Seele fails to hack into the Magi system to overtake them from within. Asuka is quickly transported to her Eva, and Seele’s ground invasion of Nerv begins, with the objective to eliminate all Eva pilots and staff.
As shells explode over Asuka’s drowned Eva, she curls up and repeats that she doesn’t want to die — a choice that seems too melodramatic for cinema (at least on paper) but has an odd resonance, here, as animation, especially in the absence of all other sounds and superficial realism. Yet instead of allowing the moment’s pathos to play out, The End Of Evangelion comes into its second bad moment: Asuka’s communing with her mother, who seems to tell her that she’ll protect the girl, after which Eva 02 jumps out of the water, and begins to repulse the Japanese army. The triumphant music, Asuka’s hammy declarations of her ‘epiphany,’ and so on, follow the biggest superhero cliches imaginable, for even if one argues that Asuka’s eventual injury (and possible death) is a subversion of this cliche, that is simply not the case, now, from the framing of the images to the number of scenes in between this one and her eventual defeat, which is simply too far-away to work in any real subversive context.
Seeing this, Seele decides to release the Mass Production Evangelions to deal with Asuka, which are some of the best designed villains in the entire series. They behave and look reptilian on land, yet clearly resemble vultures in flight, making their eventual ‘plucking’ at 02’s anthropomorphic features all the more unsettling. This includes the disemboweling of 02, to their blurred appearance in Asuka’s line of vision as she pathetically reaches out her hand at them, only to see them circle above and unexpectedly launch their spears into her body — a final insult, in a sense, for they never visit her again, and the viewer’s forced to deal with the suddenness and lack of closure. In fact, I’d argue that this sort of manipulativeness is what anime is often best at, and while viewers might wince at the word, this is really art’s chief advantage over life. Art, after all, can pick and choose its own facts, its own narrative order, without much concern for anything but effect. It is an idea that is too often glossed over, even as every book, film, or story of value that we consume is calculated for doing — then masking! — precisely that.
Meanwhile, Seele’s invasion has destroyed much of Nerv, and killed off quite a few staff members. Shinji is ‘misbehaving’ again, and refuses to get up when called by Misato, forcing her to drag him off the floor, as he pines for Asuka’s attention, as well as her safety. Misato gets shot, and tells Shinji she will never forgive him if he refuses to pilot his Eva at this critical time. He agrees, and this kicks off End’s Instrumentality sequence, wherein — unlike in the show — we can be more certain that these are the famed ‘complements’ returning to one another, ending with Shinji sobbing over the (possibly dead) body of Asuka.
It’s a long process, and visually superior (at least in a technical sense) to the series: there is, for instance, the great shot of Lilith coming off of her cross, down to how the skin physically rebounds after escaping the nails; a shot of Mistako speaking to a lover, all the while the image is of a spinning fan; a ‘turn’ towards Shinji’s childhood, with blurred-out, grainy images that suggest how he colors and discolors such memories; live-action sequences that are shot documentary-style as the characters seem to enter into a higher plane of existence; and, of course, the last few suggestive shots, of two petrified figures across the destroyed world, above two living (?) ones.
At bottom, End’s primary reason for existence is to provide an alternative to the show’s mythos: or rather, a glimpse into how this mythos plays out physically, thus turning The End Of Evangelion into an action film, first, wherein the first half is dedicated to war (external and not), and the latter portion to its after-shocks, in a way that’s visible rather than implied. Yet for all these changes — all of them, by the way, stylistic, or on the level of plot — it is important to realize that the exchanges between characters are still quite similar to those in Evangelion. The ideas re: death, living, identity, personal boundaries, and pain are the same, and expressed with the same mix of novelty and platitudes. One could argue, then, that Hideaki Anno was merely tossing darts in the hopes that a few of them would stick, a ratio he’s not improved upon since the original series. For every well-parsed line or interesting phrasing, there are atrocities such as: “If you decide to live, anywhere can be heaven — because you’re alive. There will be chances to be happy anywhere. As long as the sun, earth, and moon exist, everything will be alright.” In short, the material can still be bad, bad, bad, with the caveat that a noble failure, as parts of Evangelion are, can be MUCH better to learn from, for the sake of the future, than a merely solid work of animation, as The End Of Evangelion generally is.
Is Hideaki Anno interested in ‘the future’? Perhaps, but in a medium that’s so often controlled by the whims of the consumer as opposed to an artist’s vision, the tendency is to dumb things down, and to pander. One of Anno’s inadvertent controversies, for instance, is in the film’s last line: a line that gives a clue to the whole series, really, and the fallout from which can be deduced the state of health not only in animation, but the arts, in general. The line is Asuka’s, and she says “I feel terrible.” It’s sometimes been translated as “disgusting,” or “I feel disgusting” — a squabble that, amazingly, has led to research, interviews, and other second-hand accounts (for once an art-work is finished, all else is second hand- including the input of its creator!) that pay remarkably little attention to what’s actually happening on the screen. In short, the line may mean one thing or another, but the scene, as a whole, will still have the same artistic function, and this is to keep the possibility of Asuka’s death a mere possibility, as opposed to a fact. This is why, for instance, there is such a lingering shot of her eyes (seemingly dead) before they dart in Shinji’s direction. And it is this, and not her comment, that’s the most dramatic part of the exchange, a fact that telegraphs we are now dealing with Evangelion as plot, as opposed to the (slightly) deeper, ideational qualities in the last 2 episodes of the series. It’s amazing, to me, that so few viewers seem to pick up on this, or even care that, despite their great love for the show, they don’t see how their reactions build up a less deserving moment, here, in exchange for the de-fanging of another.
And perhaps that is the difference between love and knowledge, for while the two can inform each other, they don’t have to: and this lack of a command is taken as license, where love (being pleasant) is not conditional, and knowledge (being tough) is bounded. And while this is an OK blueprint for life, it is a terrible one for art. This is because great art, for all it can do, can’t live within your narrows, while life, for all its good, can only benefit from them. So, which one’s which for the otaku? The answer, in fact, should be irrelevant. It is not. It is also, to be sure, not the artist’s responsibility.
The Verdict Is Elsewhere
In trying to find a proper ‘finish’ to Neon Genesis Evangelion, it’s all too easy to bring up some image or a snatch of dialogue, and call it emblematic of the whole. Yes, it might give you an accurate take on the show’s art (pro and con), but it’d also be falling into the same trap that Evangelion sets for itself, over and over again: the belief that an art-work may refer only to itself, without pushing against the bounds of some deeper reality of character and psyche. So, let’s stop talking about the show, for a second, but use it to get at something higher, a key to the sort of thinking-patterns and decisions that inform popular ideas of art.
In The End Of Evangelion, 29 year-old Misato gets shot, and although the viewer doesn’t know it quite yet, is about to die. Prior to this, Shinji is being his typical, selfish, 14 year-old self, a fact Misato chastises him over, then proceeds to give him an “adult kiss” (as she calls it), requesting they “do the rest when you come back.” Now, it’s hard to tell whether she does all this because she’s been shot, and is now delirious, but it matters not; the scene, as many scenes of sexuality in anime, as a whole, are little more than ‘fan service’ from the director, as a kind of wish-fulfillment for his demographic. It is a decision, then, that bears little artistic import, for such things are both quite far from recognizable, human behavior, as well as a mere trope within the genre, revealing how poor — especially ca. 1997 — anime’s own allusiveness really was. Always referring back to itself, to its own story, its own universe, rather than any deeper thing ‘out there,’ the idea was (and still is, in many regards) that we are dealing with genre, first, as opposed to art of its own accord.
This is a mistake, and one that sets up limits to what is ought to be limitless. This is because genre, literary conventions, and many of the so-called artistic ‘rules’ are an illusion, with the belief that one must follow them (or else!) a delusion. Too often, essays fear to branch out, or even experiment with the structure of their paragraphs; novels go from A to B to C, with no care for the how of such a trip, much less the reasons for it; and consumers, for all of their demands for what should be, forget what it actually is and can be: communication, which brings all these other wants and desires under its umbrage, thus deepening them, providing a sense of purpose, and only demands that they’re done well. It is, I’d think, a liberating thing — to be able to do precisely as you wish. Yet I’ve not seen too many otaku take solace in this fact.
Now, I started this essay with 3 epigraphs, and told you that 2 of them were complete bullshit. I hope the reader can, after reading this far, make a distinction between them, but they’re worth analyzing, anyway. The first quote makes the observation that we’ve come to the end of the ‘grand narrative,’ i.e., that values have been overturned, and things (especially in fiction) have lost their totalizing and intrinsic meaning, wherein things like ‘otaku culture’ can now thrive in the interstices. Sure, it’s an influential idea, but one that takes a peculiar view, held by a minority of people, held — if anyone needs to be reminded — only when the question is in fact posed, and extrapolates that into the ‘modern condition.’ Few people, if any, really believe this, for literally 99.9%+ of their existence pays respect to a grand narrative, day to day, and should not simply disappear when pressed. And this, in fact, is why so many academic theories fail, even as they purport to base themselves on the real world.
The next quote bemoans what’s happened to the (Japanese) imagination, claiming that — as with so much of anime — people’s thought has now turned inward, as opposed to seeking deeper referents from the outside world. It’s better than the first, but still too overstated. In short, any inward turn is temporary, and simply one of the many cycles the art-world has had to go through, and will continue to go through, then shake off after taking something of value from it, to rehabilitate it and use it for its own ends. Far from reaching an ‘end-point,’ such things merely atrophy, in the short term, before consolidating — or being consolidated — into something better.
And the last word, of course, belongs to James Baldwin, for it ties all of this together. To say that ‘the camera sees what you want it to see’ is not a complaint, really, but a precis on what art is: that art, at best, is a grand manipulation by some creator, no matter how deeply it gets at and cuts into reality, and will therefore do exactly what its author will tell it to do. In short, no excuse-making, no pleas about some ‘new age’ and its problems. The artist is either in control, or he’s not.
And this, perhaps, is what people need to learn, because there have simply been too many people — artists, even — who’ve been led astray by the sorts of diversions one sees not only in the art-works, themselves, but, even more importantly, in people’s reactions to these works. For in the needless condemnation that Evangelion has received, as well as in the hyperbolic praise for things that it most certainly is not, there are patterns that ought to be examined, there are keys to mass thought, to the new directions art can be pushed, as well as to the mass delusions that, yes, the ‘new age’ can indubitably feed.
Although I was too young to ever watch Evangelion upon its release, I recognize, today, all the little markers of — and in — the show that helped define an illusory decade, a decade whose fraud, prosperity, and reneged (in some cases, never made) promises are only completely apparent now, two decades after the fact. I see Evangelion in the way we’d play in the street: that is, only half-way, for we were the first generation to live in media while others had to contend with the ‘real’ world, and thus have our imaginations turn inward, and en masse. I see Evangelion in how kids related to one another with an innocence of bigger things that, only a few years earlier, they’d not ever have been able to escape from, and might, with the right combination of stupidity and ill luck, have even been killed by. And I’ll see what meaning (if any) such recollections, now, might have in the future, when such things go distant. For while Evangelion’s Nerv might have had Robert Browning’s most famous quotation, they missed his more salient one, the one that applies both to the show, as well as those who’ve been affected by it: those that wanted something better, something deeper, if only for themselves, but didn’t quite know how to proceed:
Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for…?