October 1995 saw the appearance of what may yet turn out to be the defining work of 21st Century science fiction.
Written and directed by Hideaki Anno 新世紀エヴァンゲリオン is an animated TV series that ran for 26 episodes and birthed one of the most enduring and successful franchises in the history of anime. Released in the west under the nebulously evocative title of Neon Genesis Evangelion, the series’ original title can be literally translated as “Gospel of a New Century”.
Gospels are useful things to bear in mind when approaching the Evangelion franchise as Eva is not just a TV series but a series of more-or-less consistent works that more-or-less rework the events and themes contained within the original TV series. Given that Eva is a hugely commercially and massively commoditised trans-media franchise, it is tempting to view these later films in the same way as we might view the similar properties that have emerged from Hollywood over the last ten years. Concepts like ‘remake’, ‘reboot’ and ‘reimagining’ might be useful in trying to understand the relationship between different Batman and Star Trek films but the Eva properties are far more personal and so the relationship between them is a lot closer to that between the various Christian gospels.
While the gospels may share a setting, a cast of characters, and a message to convey, they do not necessarily line up in terms of narrative and character detail. For example, the book of Matthew claims that the Resurrection was reported by women while the book of Mark suggests that they kept the fact to themselves. More substantially, the book of Mark presents Jesus as a conduit for information about the world to come while the book of John treats Jesus as a spiritual teacher whose example we are expected to follow. Theologians may well argue that the various gospels are consistent as long as you squint a bit and deliberately misinterpret things but another way of accounting for the inconsistencies is to view the different gospels as different and more-or-less successful attempts to articulate a single divinely-inspired vision. Anno’s desire to articulate his vision has taken over twenty years and resulted in four broadly different iterations of the same basic story.
It is tempting to explore the differences between the various iterations of the Evangelion story but that would require me to write a much longer article. Suffice it to say that people who are interested in getting to grips with Eva are advised to start with the most recent run of films. The original TV series and Evangelion: Death and Rebirth are also worth checking out but they are considerably harder to find and End of Evangelion is really just an expanded and reworked version of the events described in Rebirth meaning that it will make little sense to anyone not already familiar with the themes and characters.
I’ve not written anything about Eva before but the recent UK release of Evangelion: 3.33 struck me as an interesting place to start as the current iteration of the story — the so-called Rebuild of Evangelion tetralogy — is now several years behind schedule and growing ever-more opaque with each additional volume. In fact, the development problems are so severe that Western home releases of the film were delayed by two whole years amidst rumours of demanded re-translations and re-dubbings. At time of writing, it is not clear to me that Rebuild of Evangelion will be any more successful or definitive than previous articulations of Anno’s vision but the incomplete vision we have is already more arresting and mind-blowing than any Western science fiction film in recent memory.
The first film in the series — Evangelion: 1.11 — takes place on a future Earth where humanity has come under attack from biomechanical monsters referred to only as Angels. While the origin of the Angels is never spelled out through anything as vulgar as an info-dump, the implication is that the creatures that are currently attacking the Earth are products of the same malign intelligence that tried to wipe out humanity in Biblical times.
If we assume that the Angels are literal Biblical Angels then the First Impact produced the great flood and the Second Impact exterminated half the human race, turned the seas red, and prompted the signing of the Vatican treaty. The Vatican treaty can be seen as humanity’s response to the reappearance of the Angels and the political engine behind the foundation of NERV.
NERV is the gigantic and fractious bureaucracy responsible for marshalling humanity’s remaining resources and getting them all pointed at the Angels. By the beginning of the series, NERV has successfully constructed humanity’s last line of defence; a vast armoured citadel that serves as military staging point, home for surviving humans, and advanced research facility. The series opens with the arrival of another Angel and the realisation that conventional weapons are useless against the alien invaders. Cue the rise of Gendo Ikari.
Rebuild of Evangelion presents Gendo Ikari as the weapons researcher responsible for the Evangelion project, an attempt to reverse-engineer Angel technology and build weapons capable of destroying an Angel. The series begins with Gendo in an unfortunate position as, while he may have successfully constructed and tested an Eva, his latest battery of tests resulted in the Eva going berserk and nearly killing its test pilot Rei Ayanami.
This event may be presented as an accident but the near death of Rei Ayanami mysteriously coincided with Gendo’s decision to reach out to his estranged son Shinji, an isolated and clinically-depressed teenager who turns out to be mysteriously gifted when it comes to controlling enormous cybernetic weapon systems. Without even bothering to greet his son, Gendo presents Shinji with an ultimatum: Get in this robot and fight that monster, or fuck off back to whichever hole in the ground you happened to crawl out of. Confused, miserable, and desperate for his father’s affection Shinji reluctantly agrees to become an Eva pilot and somehow manages to defeat the Angel.
Much like Lost, X-Files and other Calvinball-like texts, Evangelion’s narrative is powered by a vast conspiracy, the details of which only ever make sense retroactively. The most visible actor in this conspiracy is Gendo and what emerges from Evangelion: 1.11 and 2.22 is that he has spent years painstakingly micro-managing the emotional and psychological development of his Eva pilots.
Shinji’s depression and neediness are not just products of a dead mother and a distant father but traits that have been encouraged as part of a carefully scripted psychodrama. For example, while Gendo remains distant from Shinji throughout all three films, he ensures that Shinji sees him talking to Rei, a young woman who appears to experience no emotions other than slavish loyalty to Gendo. Envious of Rei’s relationship with his father, Shinji transforms his parental neediness into a more general need to be liked that builds an esprit de corps that helps the Eva pilots work together.
While the relationship between the Eva pilots provides much of the emotional energy that drives the plot (and the unfurling of the conspiracy), it is impossible to talk about Rebuild of Evangelion without addressing the jaw-dropping brilliance of the action sequences.
One of the most singular things about the various iterations of Evangelion is that while their themes, narratives, and characters are all somewhat elusive, their influences are blindingly obvious. The most obvious influences are the so-called super robot anime from the 1970s and 80s like Go Nagai’s Mazinger Z and UFO Robot Grendizer. Often running for years and hundreds of episodes, super robot anime would often stick to a ‘monster of the week’ structure so slavish that producers were able to reuse the same animated footage in almost every episode. For example, every episode of UFO Robot Grendizer involves an alien monster coming to Earth, a sequence in which the pilot runs along corridors before attaching himself to a mechanism that transforms his costume and inserts him into the robot, and an extended action scene in which the heroic robot grinds through the same list of attacks before eventually defeating the monster of the week.
This type of show provide the spine of Evangelion and so Evangelion: 1.11 plays out as a series of action set-pieces in which Angels turn up, pilots are transported to robots, attacks are deployed, and victories claimed. However, while Evangelion uses the vocabulary of the super robot show, it refuses to be repetitive meaning that every action sequence is a masterpiece of invention and animation as the pilots are inserted into their robots through astonishingly complex mechanisms before confronting radically different-looking monsters in a series of entirely new ways. While the Rebuild of Evangelion films focus upon sequences that are spectacular and destructive, the original TV series would occasionally present these confrontations as tense and claustrophobic as in the episode where an Angel assumes the form of a virus that tries to breach the NERV mainframe.
Aside from being ceaselessly inventive and beautifully animated, these action sequences are also surprisingly effective. Indeed, despite living in an age where Hollywood studios churn out 20 city-crushing superhero films a year, Anno’s action sequences are extraordinarily tense and exciting. Anno achieves this level of effectiveness by ensuring that every battle is placed in an appropriate context. What I mean is that, rather than relying upon the strength of his visuals or the technical brilliance of his editing, Anno goes out of his way to provide a frame of reference through which to appreciate the on-screen carnage.
For example, the first action sequence in Evangelion: 1.11 begins with thousands of tanks and rocket launchers firing ineffectually at the oncoming Angel and the Angel wiping out these conventional forces with barely a flick of the wrist. This provides some much-needed context for the offensive capabilities of the creature as it effectively takes a kicking from a force the size of the entire US Army and barely blinks. Similarly, the deployment of a nuclear device against the creature fails to slow it down. The decision to use conventional forces to provide scale also forms a handy connection between our world and that of the films… these aren’t just men shooting guns, these are the types of weapons that allowed the Nazis to take over half of Europe and the Americans to topple Saddam Hussein.
These types of conventional weapons feature repeatedly throughout the first two films in the series but Anno also provides a variation on this theme in the form of an Angel that can only be killed with a directed energy beam, forcing NERV to deploy not only an EVA as a sniper but also hundreds and hundreds of portable generators and sub-stations that power the weapon. These generators not only give us an idea of how much energy is passing through the weapon but also serve to feed the tension as the generators need to be brought back up to speed before the Angel can fire back at the Eva and destroy it.
Also excellent is the way that the film goes out of its way to show us hundreds of humans being evacuated to safety prior to every fight sequence. This not only humanises NERV and provides some inkling as to the stakes involved in every confrontation with the Angels, it also makes the damage more impactful as these are not just buildings being destroyed, but people’s homes. Our sense of connection to the human population of the Evangelion universe is further strengthened by the introduction of a pair of teenaged boys who recognise Shinji as an Eva pilot and warm to him as his performance improves. In fact, the first thing the boys do upon being introduced is beat up Shinji after his failure as an Eva pilot results in the injury and hospitalisation of one of their sisters.
It is telling that Anno first allows us to glimpse an Angel while Shinji is standing on the street waiting for a lift to NERV headquarters. While the film rapidly moves away from this ground-level point of view, the fact that we first see the Angel as something that towers above us means that we are forever mindful of their size and destructive capabilities. As the series moves on, Anno is forever showing us robots and Angels passing in front of high-rise balconies and stepping between buildings… framed by the mundane, these creatures seem terrifyingly large and impressive while many of their Hollywood contemporaries seem insubstantial and tedious. Indeed, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy features a vast spaceship crashing into a vast alien cityscape but because the film fails to either acknowledge the inhabitants of the city or stress the relative power of the spaceship, the crash seems tedious and formulaic where those of the Evangelion series feel tense and resonant. Hollywood’s issues with scale and context were even more obvious in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as it simply did not occur to any of the people working on the project that Superman destroying a city would mean the deaths of tens of thousands of people.
Anno’s mastery of scale is also evident in the beautiful transitions from large-scale carnage to small-scale intimacy where shots of repair crews, people returning to work, or new construction projects not only help us to re-orient our sense of scale but also to cleanse the palate in the manner that Yasujiro Ozu would often use footage of city streets to relieve tension between dramatic moments and provide audiences with a bit of breathing space in which to reflect about what they just witnessed.
Evangelion: 2.22 begins with a series of deliberately jarring transitions between the different fields of play: We open with a new Eva pilot named Marie Illustrous Mikinami chasing a resuscitated Angel through a series of tunnels before destroying her robot in an attempt to prevent the Angel from escaping. From there, we are transported to a rare moment of rapprochement between Gendo and Shinji as father and son visit the grave of their wife and mother. This moment of small-scale intimacy is immediately disrupted not only by the arrival of another Angel but also the arrival of a further Eva pilot named Asuka Langley Shikinami.
This ceaseless shifting between scales signals what turns out to be one of the recurring motifs of Evangelion: 2.22, namely that while there are friendships to build and Angels to destroy, neither of these areas of human endeavour provide a complete picture of the events that are unfolding in the Evangelion universe. The introduction of Asuka (a non-Japanese pilot) informs us that while NERV may be the focus for humanity’s attempts to resist the Angels, they do not have a monopoly on either the development of new technologies or the formation of new pilots. However, while the introduction of Asuka serves to drive home the message that humanity may not be as united as previously thought, it is Marie who raises the possibility that various human groups might actually be working against each other.
This idea that the Second Impact might have produced multiple political subjectivities and agendas can be viewed as a fleshing out of the final scene from Evangelion: 1.11 in which Gendo is seen having a cryptic conversation with a series of black monoliths marked with a logo for a group named SEELE.
The decision to present SEELE as a series of disembodied black monoliths is another conspicuous demonstration of the inspirations behind the Evangelion franchise. Indeed, while Eva may look a lot like the super robot anime of the 1980s and while its mythology may be littered with references to Christianity in general and Christian mysticism in particular, another massive influence on Evangelion is the hard science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, author of a short story named “The Sentinel” that inspired the creation of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
While a thorough investigation of Clarke’s work may be beyond the scope of this article, it is interesting to note that Clarke is perhaps best remembered for what is known as Clarke’s third law:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Subject to numerous interpretations and un-packings, this observation resonates throughout Clarke’s work as many of his novels and stories revolve around humanity coming into contact with technologies so advanced that they might as well be magical for all the insight that contemporary science has to offer. This idea that the universe might prove not only indecipherable but also indifferent to human concerns is evident from Clarke’s 1972 novel Rendezvous with Rama in which a 50km-long alien spacecraft spends just enough time in our solar system for humanity to launch an expedition. The explorers discover the spacecraft to contain not only a city but also an ocean that begins producing life the closer the spacecraft gets to the Sun. However, just as the humans begin to recognise the level of understanding the aliens must have had in order to construct such an artefact, the object passes out of human space leaving far more questions than answers.
The link between technology and magic is made even more explicit in Clarke’s early novel Childhood’s End. In this story, a group of mysterious aliens arrive in Earth Orbit and proclaim themselves overseers of human affairs. However, rather than enslaving the human population, the aliens limit themselves to abolishing the Spanish sport of bullfighting and preventing the blood-soaked collapse of South African Apartheid. When the aliens do eventually show themselves, they turn out to resemble Christian demons and humans are only able to work out the location of their home planet by using Ouija boards. At first, the alien overlords usher in an era of peace and prosperity but this soon results in cultural stagnation resulting in the decision to build a new colony devoted to artistic experimentation. When the children born on this new colony begin demonstrating psychic powers, it is suggested (though not explicitly stated) that the aliens engineered both the flourishing and the stagnation of human culture in order to prompt a response that would result in humanity achieving the next step in its own evolution.
Clarke is often associated with both Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein as one of the “Big Three” science fiction authors but while Asimov was prone to robotic pathos and Heinlein was prone to fits of chest-thumping patriarchal masculinity, Clarke’s sensibility was always much closer to the existential detachment of the philosopher and novelist Olaf Stapledon whose Last and First Men articulated a vast future history in which political change, environmental collapse, and technological advancement transform humanity into a race of terrifying God-like titans who exist as more-or-less individuated hive minds that wind up spreading life to other worlds and engineering the emergence of countless other sentient species.
Clarke’s idea that advanced alien species would exist on a level that was more mythological than humanistic resonates throughout Anno’s beautifully ambiguous suggestion that the Angels might well be literal Biblical Angels sent by God to eradicate the human race. It is not just that Anno hints at this connection without ever spelling it out, it’s the way that he refuses to clarify whether the term ‘Angel’ is something that humanity has applied to the creatures or which the creatures applied to themselves. This ambiguity is manifest in one of the less talked about implications of Clarke’s third law: It isn’t just that technological advancement makes aliens resemble gods, it is also that technology conspires to make God look like just another advanced alien, and why should we take orders from God when we wouldn’t take them from an alien civilisation with comparable powers? Anno’s ambiguous vision of a hostile alien species so advanced that it might as well be Divine is pure and undiluted Arthur C. Clarke, as are the actions of SEELE.
Aside from assuming the form of 2001-style monoliths, SEELE also embody the Clarkean idea that humanity might somehow evolve into something that we would currently consider inhuman. While 2001 associates the next step in human evolution with the mysterious star child that appears at the end of the film after Dave Bowman touches the black monolith, SEELE refers to something called the Human Instrumentality Project.
The Human Instrumentality Project is central to Gendo Ikari’s plans. Gendo appears to be a SEELE agent in so far as he is using the resources provided him by NERV not only to fight the Angels but also to bring about the next step in human evolution. While the details of Gendo’s plans are never made even remotely explicit in this series of films, the basic idea is that the Eva are more than they appear. Gendo may have sold NERV on the idea of a cybernetic link between Eva and pilot on the grounds that it improved reaction times but that link between a human mind and reverse-engineered alien technology also allows for the possibility of what can only be described as transcendence of the human condition.
Rebuild of Evangelion hints at this idea throughout the first two films by suggesting not only that the connection between human and robot might become so ‘deep’ as to be dangerous but also by revealing a fully automated EVA to be a terrifyingly brutal killing machine that is really no different to the Angels it was designed to combat. Without a human, an Eva has no ‘soul’ but an ‘ensouled’ Eva has the potential to become something considerably more than a giant stompy robot with a plucky teenaged pilot.
The plan to trigger the next step in human evolution depends upon Gendo being able to abuse and manipulate his son to the point where he has a complete psychotic break whilst at the controls of an Eva. Thus, Gendo’s distance from Shinji compels him not only to become the best pilot he can be but also to form profound bonds of friendship with his fellow pilots Rei and Asuka. Having allowed his son to enjoy friendship and belonging for the first time in his miserable like, Gendo returns him to a state of existential loneliness by disconnecting the boy from his Eva when he insists upon trying to save Rei from a particularly potent Angel.
Disgusted both with himself and with the coldness of his father, Shinji resigns from NERV until he sees the Angel defeat and consume Rei. Having now lost not one but two friends, Shinji jumps into his Eva and battles the Angel only for his emotional turmoil to begin affecting the robot to the point where it continues to function even without a working power source. His fusion with the Eva complete and his mind shattered by the loss of his friends, the coldness of his father, and the stimulation of battle, Shinji reaches into the spiritual core of the Angel resulting in the Eva absorbing the Angel’s essence and becoming precisely what it was designed to be… something only a little more than human and only a little less than divine. At this point, Gendo’s plan seems complete as the fusion between Shinji and the alien technology known as Angels appears to have created something entirely new, a human-made and human-controlled Angel that looks precisely like the creature that caused the Second Impact.
In these days of hunger games and road furies, we tend to associate the word ‘apocalypse’ with the literal end of the world but the Greek word ‘apokalypsis’ is usually translated as ‘revelation’. The association with the literal end of the world comes from the Christian book of Revelation describing the cataclysm that was due to happen at the end of Christian history:
And I heard a great voice out of the temple saying to the seven angels, Go your ways, and pour out the vials of the wrath of God upon the earth.
Apokalypsis can relate to the actual end of the world but it can also relate to the end of one spiritual state and the beginning of another. This ambiguity is present in the Bible as Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God and different Gospels interpret this as either being a literal place that will enter into existence after the literal end of the current world or a spiritual state that one can enter into if one follows the teachings of Jesus.
Evangelion: 2.22 reflects this ambiguity by suggesting that Shinji’s spiritual awakening and the accompanying creation of a divine or pseudo-divine being results in the literal end of the world in the form of a Third Impact similar to both the Second Impact that destroyed half the human race and the First Impact that may (or may not) relate to the Biblical Flood. Why Shinji’s spiritual awakening or the emergence of a new man-made Angel should result in the literal end of the world is not made clear in this film and rather than unpack the link between these two sets of events, Anno ends the film with the Third Impact being interrupted by a spear that impales Shinji’s Eva just at the moment of transcendence.
If this makes little sense to you then welcome to Evangelion: Where profound philosophical concepts combine with ancient mythological symbolism to produce iconic imagery that resonates on dozens of levels and yet never manages to make an ounce of sense.
Much like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death and Rebirth, and The End of Evangelion, Rebuild of Evangelion starts to run into trouble around the time that Gendo’s plans come to fruition and Asuka is compromised by an invading Angel. The primary engine behind the varying iterations of the story appears to have been Anno’s desire to produce a satisfactory ending to the story by tweaking characters, narratives and symbolisms. Despite repeated attempts over the last twenty years, Anno is still struggling to create a satisfactory conclusion to this story.
Evangelion: 3.33 is best understood as a transitional film in that rather than advancing the story, it rephrases the final story beat of Evangelion: 2.22 while paving the way for what must be the most radical reworking of the series’ conclusion to date.
To signal his willingness to depart from ground already covered, Anno opens the film in low Earth orbit where an Eva equipped with solid-fuel rocket boosters is attempting to rendezvous with a mysterious black crucifix. Changes in the world are slowly introduced beginning with the revelation that the Eva attempting to capture the object is being piloted by a piratical-looking Asuka who is now working in tandem with the rogue Eva pilot Marie (referred to by Asuka as her “four-eyed crony”).
When an Angel appears on top of the object just as Asuka is preparing for re-entry, Asuka reveals that the object contains Shinji, who has been catatonic inside his Eva since the events at the end of Evangelion: 2.22. The Angel summarily defeated, Asuka returns Shinji to Earth where everything really has changed.
We are informed that fourteen years have passed since the end of the previous film. The spear that impaled Shinji’s Eva prevented the completion of the Third Impact and so the world is now frozen mid-apocalypse. Earlier on, I mentioned the ambiguity of the word ‘apokalypsis’ and this ambiguity is maintained throughout Evangelion: 3.33 as while the Third Impact began both Shinji’s transformation into a God and the conventional end of the world, it also marked the unleashing of the human instrumentality project which was supposed to elevate humanity to a new spiritual level. Evangelion: 3.33 maintains the series’ apocalyptic ambiguity by skirting around the question of what happened to the rest of humanity… We see ruined cities, we see mountains of skulls and bodies frozen in torment, but there is also talk of the human instrumentality project having been at least partially successful and so it is not clear whether humanity has been exterminated or forced to transcend. All we know is that the attack on Shinji’s Eva thwarted the Third Impact.
Watching Evangelion: 3.33, one could be forgiven for thinking that the film is little more than the series treading water. After all, the film begins with Shinji catatonic after a thwarted apocalypse and ends with pretty much the exact same thing. Indeed, I would argue that the point of Evangelion: 3.33 is not so much advancing the plot as re-running the final story beat of Evangelion: 2.22 albeit with a slightly different setting and cast of characters. Presumably Anno did not feel confident of concluding the Evangelion story with the narrative tools he had at his disposal at the end of the second film and so the third film should be viewed as a rather heavy-handed attempt to get the characters, setting, narrative, and themes to a point where he feels able to deliver the type of conclusion he wants. Partial apocalypse = Partial mid-story reboot.
Shinji awakens to find himself in the hands of WILLE, a humanist resistance group that fights the Angels, opposes NERV, and works to thwart any and all apocalypses you care to imagine. Born of what would appear to be mass-defections following the events at the end of Evangelion: 2.22, WILLE has salvaged a massive fleet of battleships, a pair of working Eva and the wherewithal to reverse-engineer some of Gendo’s discoveries and build the Wunder, an advanced Eva-powered spaceship with enough firepower to fight multiple Angels at once.
Shinji’s old friends blame him personally for the Third Impact. The military genius and high-functioning alcoholic who welcomed him into her home, lured him out of his shell, and encouraged him to make friends with the other Eva pilots now struggles to address him directly and Asuka’s first reaction upon seeing Shinji is to slam her fist into a reinforced window so hard that it cracks and deforms the glass. Unable to comprehend what has happened in the last fourteen years, let alone why his friends have all decided to blame him for something he was manipulated into doing, Shinji offers to help WILLE in their battle against the Angels but is summarily rejected. It must be said that this is one of the series’ weaker story beats as it relies on that old Calvinball staple of having everyone appear to act in a completely unreasonable manner whilst also refusing to articulate their grievances in a way that would allow normal people to talk through their problems and find some sort of common ground. However, regardless of how well-rooted these reactions are in character, WILLE’s decision to re-awaken Shinji only to keep him in the dark and feed him on bile (yummy) serves to set up the next story beat, which is well-grounded in what we know of Shinji’s character.
Shinji is clinically depressed and desperate for any form of validation. Psychologically bereft after the death of his mother and the deliberate estrangement of his father, he began to series desperate to win back his father’s affection and only began to find some sort of inner peace when that neediness was transferred from his father to his friends. The opening of Evangelion: 3.33 places Shinji in a terrible position as his friends have not only turned their backs on him but turned their backs on him as a direct result of his attempt to do the heroic thing and sacrifice himself in order to save Rei and Asuka. The reason Evangelion: 3.33 makes it feel as though the series is treading water is that it positions Shinji back where he was prior to the ending of Evangelion: 2.22, namely estranged from his father and unable to turn to his friends for comfort. While the plot of Evangelion: 3.33 is nothing more than a decompressed re-iteration of the second film’s final act, this sense of repetition actually makes some sort of sense when you remember that Gendo had scripted the events of Shinji’s life leading up to his transcendence. The second and third acts of Evangelion: 3.33 can thus be understood as Gendo’s attempts to salvage his plans by forcing his son through the same series of scripted events designed to lead up to a psychotic break at the controls of an Eva.
Unable to call on his roster of Eva pilots, Gendo dumps Shinji in the ruins of NERV headquarters while deciding what to do. Rei is present but has both forgotten much of her own history and returned to the anhedonic state in which she found herself at the beginning of the first film. Shinji tried to rebuild his friendship but Rei but Rei seems completely disinterested. Enter Kaworu.
Kaworu Nagisa is one of the more ambiguous creations of the Evangelion franchise. Initially introduced in the series as a replacement for Asuka, Kaworu is later revealed to be both an agent of SEELE and an Angel in his own right. The reason for the character’s ambiguity is that he always serves as the primary conduit for final act revelations about the broad context of humanity’s battle against the Angels. The Ambiguity is a product not only of Anno’s frequent tinkering with the Evangelion backstory but also of the backstory’s inherent lack of clarity. Regardless of how we understand Kaworu’s true nature, his functions in Evangelion: 3.33 are those of both an ideal friend for Shinji and a tool for the pursuit of Gendo’s plans.
With nothing much to do, Shinji wanders around the ruins of NERV headquarters until Kaworu approaches him and invites him to help him practice the piano. Beautifully animated, these interludes are really training montages in that Gendo’s plan involves Kaworu and Shinji piloting an experimental Eva together. While practicing piano duets helps Kaworu and Shinji learn how to work together, it is Kaworu’s attempts at answering Shinji’s questions that earn his trust. According to Kaworu, the abortive Third Impact all but destroyed the human race and their only chance is to travel deep inside the bowels of NERV headquarters and retrieve an alien weapon that will allow them to ‘fix’ the Third Impact. Desperate for a friend and happy to be helping his father, Shinji accepts Kaworu’s version of events without a second thought but a compliant Shinji is only half of what Gendo needs and so Gendo’s assistant is sent to inform Shinji that the strangely distant Rei is not only a clone but a clone of his long-dead mother. Now not only desperate but also teetering on the brink of another full-scale psychotic episode, Shinji leaps into the experimental Eva and descends to the lowest level of NERV headquarters where Gendo has kept the remains of the Angel who allowed Gendo to reverse-engineer Angel technology and create the Eva programme.
The events that follow make perfect sense when viewed from the perspective of Shinji’s character but little sense when viewed in terms of the broader plot as Anno does not just introduce a shitload of new concepts all at once, he complicates each of these concepts by hinting at a number of different, competing, and politicised understandings. For example, Kaworu and Shinji arrive at the corpse of Lilith believing that removing the spears from its dead body will allow them to unravel the devastation caused by Third Impact. However, the pair are attacked by WILLE as soon as they step foot inside NERV and Kaworu is so confused by what is happening that he simply seizes up while the desperate Shinji fights off his old friends and tries to carry out his father’s plan.
Aside from setting in motion a series of events that look a lot like the events at the end of Evangelion: 2.22, Kaworu also makes reference to the idea of Gendo being the “King of the Lilin” implying that while he may have been acting alongside SEELE to bring about the Human Instrumentality Project, the Human Instrumentality Project is also part of a broader struggle that might very well explain the Angels’ decision to attack humanity in the first place. This recalibration of sides and groupings must be understood in terms of Anno’s desire to partially re-boot his own characters and narratives in preparation for what he considers to be a more satisfying conclusion to his own story. Thus, rather than entering the final film with the tri-partite confrontation between NERV, SEELE and the Angels that featured in earlier iterations of the story, we have a tri-partite confrontation between Gendo’s Lilin, the Angels who have been attacking humanity, and the humanist resistance group WILLE.
Realising either that he has been manipulated or that Gendo has been working from bad intelligence, Kaworu tries to talk Shinji out of carrying out Gendo’s plans but the desperate teenager removes the spears from the Angels body and inadvertently causes his Eva to begin transcending, initiating what would appear to be a Fourth Impact. His eyes now fully opened, Kaworu takes control of the Eva and impales the robot on the purloined spears, causing not only his own destruction but also an interruption to the Fourth Impact. In terms of the grand arc of Evangelion’s narrative, this deposits us exactly where we were at the end of Evangelion: 2.22 only now we have both different power blocs and slightly different relationships between the major characters.
Another End to Evangelion
Both Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion conclude with an apocalypse of both the body and the spirit. In both works, humanity is both destroyed and transformed by a process that does away with the abyss of human loneliness that separated every human being from the people that surround them. In Neon Genesis Evangelion, Shinji finds happiness by accepting his reliance upon other people and deciding to move beyond the wall of negative emotions that has kept him miserable and alone for much of his teenaged life. In End of Evangelion, Shinji is presented with a subtly different choice between remaining alone in the face of humanity’s transformation and surrendering his individuality by opening himself up to the realities of existence. In both cases, Shinji imagines himself confronted with a choice between being and non-being but in reality, the choice is between misery and some form of contentment.
While I am in no position to speculate as to how this iteration of the Evangelion story might conclude, it is interesting to note the ways in which Anno has tried to overlay:
- The movement from childhood to adulthood
- The path the enlightenment
- The choice between life and death
- The choice between misery and happiness
- The choice between ego integrity and communal togetherness
None of these themes are particularly novel and many works achieve profundity by linking two or more of them together. For example, the British tradition of hard science fiction as articulated in the works of Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Stephen Baxter has long drawn comparisons between adulthood and sentience by treating the human condition as a short interlude between two impossibly lengthy expanses of inhumanity: From stuff to personhood and personhood to godhead.
Anno’s problem is that he has refused to limit his purview. Rather than selecting a theme for this project or assembling a coalition of themes that are used to operating together, he has chosen to maintain the symbolic power of every possible theme and interpretation. Evangelion isn’t just about God, technology, parental relationships, or adulthood… it’s about all of these things at once and a number of other things as well. Anno’s refusal to limit his purview explains why every shot of this series seems to resonate on multiple levels but it also accounts for why this story has proved so difficult to conclude in a satisfying manner.
Evangelion is a franchise that struggles under the weight of its own influences: Had Anno been content to make a super robot show then a confrontation with a giant robotic god would have been an awesome conclusion. Had Anno been content to make a work of hard science fiction then a description of the technological singularity and the elevation of humanity to godhood would have been an awesome conclusion. Had Anno been content to make an ensemble show about a group of high school-age teenagers piloting robots and struggling with parental disapproval then having Shinji turn his back on Gendo and choose to remain with his friends would have been an awesome conclusion. However, because Anno chose to tell a story that is about super robots, technological transcendence, and growing up, he’s struggling to produce an ending that works with all of the different themes and concludes every plotline in a satisfying manner. Evangelion cannot be all things to all people even though this has long been at the root of its success.
To my eyes, the only way out of this impasse is to produce an ending that is both intimately personal and a commentary on the franchise’s bizarrely lengthy existence. Consider all of the various themes touched on by Evangelion and you will find they share a refusal to acknowledge the toxic influence of God the father: God the Father set in motion the events leading to the war between Angels and Lilin, Gendo the Father set in motion the events that made it impossible for Shinji to be happy, Gendo the God destroyed humanity in order to force it into his desired shape, God is responsible for the misery of the world and God is the one who must be destroyed. As Voltaire arguable should have said, if God were not already dead it would be necessary for humanity to kill him.
Evangelion is also a gospel in so far as it speaks to the limitations of the Creator. According to Christianity, God created the world in seven days only to find himself compelled to remedy his mistakes through a series of interventions leading first to the great Flood and then to a carefully pre-scripted suicide designed to wipe the slate clean and set the stage for yet another iteration of humanity’s grand story of alienation, temptation, and redemption. Looking at Christian sacred history, God’s plans have failed so many times that we must assume either his malevolence or his incompetence as the story he chose to tell is simply too sprawling and complicated to satisfy on every level. Much like Christian myth, Evangelion must conclude with the defeat of the Creator, the displacement of the Father, and the recognition that these types of stories can never provide us with the moral or spiritual consolation they purport to offer.
Rather than looking to the gospels, Anno would be wise to take inspiration from the humanist response to these types of writings. Voltaire’s Candide famously drags its characters from one catastrophe to the next as one character foolishly repeats that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Having seen the horrors that God the Father supposedly visits on man for his own good, the characters conclude by turning their backs on metaphysics and looking to the Earth with the simple assertion that it is time they cultivated their own gardens.
Re-reading Candide, I am mindful of the horrors that Shinji has been forced to endure by constant re-iteration of Evangelion’s story. How many times must Shinji ride that subway? How many times must he watch the destruction of Asuka’s Eva and feel the cold of his own existential loneliness? Anno can no more bring this character consolation than God and so it is time for Shinji to cultivate his own garden.
Evangelion: 3.33 is a beautiful and mind-boggling film but the only moment that really matters is the one where Asuka drags a broken Shinji from the wreckage of his giant robot and sets off across the desert of the now. Consolation lies in people, not in prophecy.
That was an awesome read, Jonathan. I’ve contemplated getting into Evangelion numerous times over the last fifteen years, but was always at a loss as to where to start. I think I might now have a starting point!
Thank you Shaun :-) The films are definitely worth tracking down, they put America’s summer films to shame really. Pure jaw-dropping spectacle with proper characterisation and really thought-provoking themes.
Somehow missed this post until just now when I was looking forward to it and all! I think you’ve managed to summarise the series fairly adroitly, which is no small task.
I’m not even sure how to offer much commentary, as at this point my own involvement with the series is so tangled up in extra-cirricular reading and differing perspectives through multiple incarnations. For example; I can provide a succinct reading of Gendo’s ideology and his relation to Seele, but I’m not sure I could argue this is exoteric knowledge, or even halfway related to the core texts. I don’t know how much time you spent in fan spaces when researching this piece, but needless to say, there is a quasi-Gnostic fervour people have when approaching the series.
In lieu of opening up a nightmarish can of worms and parallelling Anno’s own psychological oversharing by discussing the films, I’ll throw out a few things that strike me as interesting, if a little ancilliary;
– Kaworu is an interesting character from a biographical perspective, in that if we track Shinji as Anno, Kaworu is inspired partly by Kunihiko Ikuhara, the director of Sailor Moon and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Anno actually said Shinji regarded Kaworu as his idealised version of himself, and it gives me a kick to compare how each director deals with these multi-layered, highly symbolic works… because Anno is generally happier now than when he was directing the first series, I actually think he’s in a better position mentally to bring together a proper ending.
– In Sadamoto’s manga adaptation (which only managed to finish recently, despite starting when the original series aired…) Gendo actually apologises to Shinji and essentially admits that he is the failed version of Shinji, who couldn’t learn how to share Yui’s love with his own son. It’s neater, but more unsatisfying. Weirder still is Sadamoto’s biographical note that his mother tied him up outside a building site when he was young to teach him a lesson. Everyone related to Evangelion must have been vetted for unsettling childhoods.
I deliberately remained clear of fandom spaces until I was writing up and wanting to double-check spellings.
The reason for this is that I didn’t want to disrupt my own interpretation but also because fan spaces like the wiki seem to proceed from the assumption that you can fill the holes in one version of the narrative with stuff that’s explained in another version. I’m not sure that’s a sound methodology… it’s interesting to examine each version of the story in terms of the other version but I think Anno’s willingness to re-work his own narratives means that you have to consider each text in relative isolation.
I wrote this piece assuming the primacy of the films, I didn’t even go back to refresh my memories of the previous iterations and I’m not actually familiar with either the games or the manga (though I think you’ve recommended it to me before). I understand that this is not the methodology preferred by fandom :-)
– I suspect you’re right that he’s in a better position than he was. If nothing else, a lot of time has passed between this iteration of the story and the events that originally inspired its creation. You can’t stay mad at daddy forever.
I think viewing Kaworu as a perfected version of Shinji is quite interesting as it not only explains the weird dynamic between the two characters (why does Kaworu care so much about Shinji?) but also poses all sorts of interesting questions about Kaworu’s relationship with Gendo and the surprise Kaworu obviously felt when he realised that he’d been lied to and manipulated… just like Shinji.
– You’re right… that ending does sound both neat and unsatisfying. I don’t think the series can be resolved purely in terms of Shinji and Gendo’s relationship… maybe if Gendo’s plotting hadn’t destroyed the world then maybe ending the story with the Angels defeated and the family reunited might have worked on a couple of levels but I think the story has moved beyond that particular character dynamic and trying to resolve the story purely in terms of one dynamic is necessarily going to be unsatisfying.
[…] Despite its parallels to Christianity, the gospel of Evangelion implies a much more humanistic reality. Christians might cringe at the Creator’s displacement, but Voltaire would certainly be proud (warning: contains profanity). [Ruthless Culture] […]
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