Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Trojan Horse of Otaku Culture

Genre Subversion and Postmodern Politics

If there is one series that marked the otaku movement more than any other, it might be the 1995 anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion directed by Anno Hideaki from the Gainax Studio. This series is described by scholars on otaku culture as a “record-breaking hit in the anime world” (Sawaragi 197), “often seen as the culmination of anime” (LaMarre 378), and is said to have drawn wide public attention on the otaku culture (Azuma 5). The storyline seems classic at first sight: a shy fourteen-year-old boy, Shinji Ikari, is summoned to pilot a giant robot and save the world from the threatening and powerful Angels. Shinji is accompanied in his quest by two other female pilots, the dynamic and confident Asuka Langley Sōryu, and the introverted Rei Ayanami, as well as a sexy mentor, Misato Katsuragi. As the story unravels however, the characters’ apparent stereotypicality recedes as their memories, feelings and thoughts are thoroughly explored on the backdrop of mecha fights and science fiction jargon.

The 26 episode series gained a phenomenal enthusiasm among the otaku community in the 1990s, up until the two last episodes that left most fans perplex. Thomas LaMarre perfectly summarized the essence of those final episodes, as well as the fan’s reactions:

“In the last episodes, with the final battle imminent, the series offers no triumphant end but lingers on the protagonist’s inability to decide or commit, with a stylistic turn to a sort of degree zero of animation (animated black-and-white sketches). Devotes fans of the series backed at this end in large numbers — unsurprisingly since Anno thought of Evangelion as a critique of otaku fandom.” (LaMarre 378)

In order to satisfy the fans who sometimes violently expressed their frustration at such psychology-oriented ending, two animated films were released in March and July 1997, this time effectively terminating the mecha storyline, but also continuing the psychological exploration of the characters and in particular of Shinji, who is eventually given to decide for himself and for the whole humanity if life is worth being lived. The last movie, The End of Evangelion, ends in a bitter-sweet manner as Shinji decides to live and saves the world, wakes up next to Asuka on a post-apocalyptic Earth[1] and attempts to strangle her to death. He gives up however when she shows him a sign of affection. Even the movies which were deemed more traditional of the mecha anime genre end on a confusing note.

Focusing mostly on the two final episodes of the series and on academic research, this essay aims to explore what makes Evangelion a “critique of otaku fandom” as LaMarre (378) wrote. reflect on the subversive politicality of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Behind a seemingly innocent mecha storyline, this anime series contains thorough reflections on otaku anime and on postmodern society which transcend the conventions of the genre. Evangelion can be seen as a Trojan Horse: it is a philosophical and political tale hidden under the appearance of a usual anime. Otaku viewers and others might be taken aback by Anno’s perverse refusal to give a traditional end to his work, the effect of which is discussed in the following analysis.

Let us begin our analysis with another story, very remote from Evangelion and yet similar in many ways: the one of Oedipus, king of Thebes, made into a tragic play called King Oedipus by Sophocles in 429 BC. The character of Oedipus is famous for having killed his father and married his mother without being aware of his filiation. Sophocles’ play begins with an oracle charging Oedipus to discover the murderer of his father. After much peripeties and reflections, Oedipus reaches the anagnorisis, the tragic recognition of his culpability. From then his wife/mother Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus painfully blinds himself. He will spend the rest of his life wandering around Greece with his daughter Antigone, the heroine of the following Theban play tragedies written by Sophocles.

The storyline of Evangelion bears similar aspects with Sophocles’ play and with Greek tragedy in general. Indeed, both Shinji and Oedipus are set on a quest whose implications they do not understand: Oedipus, to begin with, is forced to find a murderer that happens to be himself. Then Shinji is ordered to kill one by one the Angels without knowing what they are. Eventually, he is compelled by his father in episode 18 to watch his mecha destroy another one and its pilot, unaware (while the audience knows), that the aforementioned pilot is his friend Toji. On episode 24 then, just before the two final episodes, Shinji is ordered by his father to kill Kaworu with which he developed a brief yet close homoerotic friendship. The tragic aspect of the scene is emphasized by a close up on Kaworu, trapped into Shinji’s mecha’s grip, smiling at Shinji just before the latter crushes his body. Both works thus explore the idea of tragic irony, with the audience aware about some information the main characters are unaware of. The audience indeed is aware of the identity of Oedipus’ true parents, aware that Toji is the pilot of the defiant Eva and suspicious that Kaworu is certainly an Angel. Both of Oedipus and Shinji are compelled to execute almighty orders, from the oracle and from the authoritative father, that backfire against them as the story ends: Oedipus loses everything he once had and Shinji has to live with the trauma of having (nearly) killed his friends.

Besides, Evangelion also echoes King Oedipus in the depiction of psychologically complicated characters, troubled with their parents. The myth of Oedipus has famously been used by Freud to analyze the attraction children[3] tend to feel towards their parent of the opposite sex and the anger towards the one of the same sex, and to analyze mental problems as resulting from unconcluded Oedipus complexes. Anno clearly depicts such characters, as it is best shown in episode 25. One by one the main characters are represented sitting in a chair and confronted to their negative thoughts represented either by intertitles (white text on a black screen) or by agitated discussions with other characters, presumably the representation of such characters inside each character’s head. Such exploration echoes the Greek tragedy style which usually contains very little action, most of it happening off the stage, and mostly depicts characters exploring their thoughts and feelings through dialogues and long monologues. While in Greek theater the dramaturgists had to make his characters speak their thoughts out loud in a unrealistic way, in the episodes 25 and 26 of Evangelion most of the monologues and dialogues happen inside the character’s mind, as they talk to themselves and to their mental visions of the other characters.

As it would be too long to detail each character’s inner problems, let us focus on the example of Asuka. In the episode 25 two intertitles depicting the words “separation anxiety” and “attachment behavior” repetitively interrupt the mental debate going on in her mind (06:55). This debate happens between her present self, herself as a child and her image of Ayanami, a doll-like character in Asuka’s mind that reminds her of what her mother wanted her to be: her puppet. The debate is also intertwined with scenes of Asuka’s childhood when her mother ignored her and even seems to have expressed desires to kill her. Towards the end of the episode, Shinji, Misato and Asuka are represented in the same room, Shinji and Misato standing and Asuka sitting in a chair (Episode 25, 19:25). The three of them voice one by one their strongest fear inspired by their parents: to be abandoned for Shinji and Misato, and to be killed for Asuka. Asuka’s fear to be killed by her unloving mother created a general fear for “separation,” and an obsession for “attachment” as the intertitles suggest. Her unconcluded Oedipus complex with her mother can possibly and partially explain her need for people’s recognition as a great pilot and man’s attention as a beautiful woman that she expresses all along the previous episodes. Asuka’s hardship with her mother has deeply affected her, as it is explored in the series and particularly in the penultimate episode.

Altogether, all of the main characters of Evangelion have very deep interiorities, worthy of the best Greek tragedies. They have a troubled past and could not overcome their Oedipus complex, and in the present they experience highly traumatic experiences that send them back to question their role on this planet. A commenter on Evangelion wrote: “Imbued with extra dimensions to their familiar personas, the heroes of Evangelion are much more believable than their predecessors” (Crandol 2002). The “predecessors” referred to here are characters from previous anime series. As mentioned before, the characters all seen at first quite stereotypical. Asuka for example is the proud and confident ally/rival, like Gary (or Shigeru) and his successors in the Pokémon series or Sanji and Zoro in One Piece. Anno however suggests that her confidence is actually a shell behind which she conceals her fears of abandonment and her craving for people’s attention and love. The meticulously scrutiny of Asuka in the episode 25 can thus be interpreted as an attempt to explain the personality of common anime characters, to give them depth. Anno reveals that behind their apparent flatness lie their vast and tormented interior. Despite being a science-fiction anime, Evangelion can be seen as a critique of the genre through its deconstruction. Stereotypes are opened up, revealing endless depth while the story itself is relegated to the background. Borrowing from the characterization of Greek tragedy, Evangelion marked the spirit as a milestone of its genre by focusing on what was usually barely explored.

Sophocles and Anno’s works however differ in a crucial point: hope. Indeed, at the end of Sophocles’ play Oedipus is completely hopeless and in fact his whole family is doomed to die killing each others. Sophocles, as a Greek dramaturgist, depicts a clearly pessimistic ending. Shinji however, when confronted to choose if he wants to live or not reaches an epiphany and decides to keep hope in the future and in himself. A symbolic close up depicts him raising his head and declaring he wants to live (Episode 26, 21:17) and in the next scene his surroundings all applaud him for his decision (Episode 26, 21:30 before congratulating him one by one. Finally, intertitles saying “Thank you father, goodbye mother. And to all children, congratulations.” (21:55) are displayed. These words suggest that Shinji has forgiven his father and accepted his mother’s death. As a result, he seems determined to take his life in his own hands from now on and to be a better person. The persons applauding him must be understood figuratively as Shinji’s perception of them, as ultimately Shinji understands that his problem is himself, and therefore that he can solve it by himself too. By starting to love and trust himself, Shinji feels he can finally accept the love he receives from the people around him. Shinji finally solve his Oedipus complex[4] and emerge as an optimistic and matured up character by the end of Evangelion.

Such optimistic ending disqualifies Evangelion from being seen as a tragedy, yet it also cannot make up for the series to be considered as a typical mecha genre anime. LaMarre (379) writes that “perversion is the movement that results from the tension between these negative and affirmative impulses. Yet even as it oscillates between negative and affirmative, perversion strives to sustain the affirmative impulse.” Anno is perverse in the ending of Evangelion for he ultimately refuses a perfect tragic ending to his series by “sustaining the affirmative impulse.” He confers hope to his main character and an overall happy ending to his story. Such optimistic final note is characteristic of most anime series. Besides, the first 24 episodes and the two movies are also quite typical of the mecha genre: after repetitive fights with enemies, the hero undertakes a final fight, nearly fails, but ultimately destroys his supreme enemy and restores the order of his world. Evangelion can be situated as exactly in-between the classic genre of mecha type of anime and the classic genre of Greek tragedy.

The complex psychological exploration of the main characters and the resolute tragic aspects of the story brings the series nearer to the tragic genre, but the final resolution of the conflict, both internal and external and the ultimate emergence of hope for Shinji (in the series) and for the world (in the movies) dissociates it from the tragic and confirms its appartenance to the traditional otaku anime genre. In-between two completely opposite worlds, Anno’s Evangelion plays with its audience’s expectations, perversely surprising the viewers again and again as the series never fits within a defined genre. As mentioned in the introduction, Evangelion is a Trojan horse, subversively introducing elements of Greek tragedy into the medium of the Japanese animation series.

The effect of Greek tragedy is the purgation of the passion, or the catharsis. The audience is given to identify with the hero, and in the end to feel pity and fear about his fall. Thus the chorus at the end of King Oedipus sings their sympathy for Oedipus, inciting the audience to pity him and to fear that his fate might happen to them one day. The Greek tragedy had a political purpose: the audience who identified with the hero throughout the play would learn from his hamartia, his fatal flaw, so that they would not repeat in real life the same mistake. Oedipus’ hamartia is his blind confidence, for which Oedipus punishes himself by actually piercing his eyes at the end. The audience thus learns a lesson from assisting to the performance of a Greek tragedy.

In Evangelion as we have seen, the hero does not fall but rise at the end of the series. LaMarre (378) summarizes the effect of the series on its fan in those words: “After fans commit to the series, following its intricacies and mysteries intently, the series cut them off. It is a somewhat cruel, sadistic treatment of fandom.” The end of the Evangelion series left many fans, who had become emotionally attached to Shinji and his story, perplex and frustrated. And who would not be? Those episodes mix intertitles with a capharnaum of voices from all the characters so that the audience does not have time to understand who is speaking. The focalization also constantly switch from Shinji, Ayanami, Asuka and Misato. Memories of their past, thoughts in the present and the depiction of impossible alternate realities are also mingled in those two episodes. Moreover, there are intrusions of hints at the nearly abandoned mecha storyline with the depiction notably of the dead bodies of Misato and Ritsuko. All of those elements inserted in the last two episodes made them extremely difficult to follow, but also extremely meaningful in a plurality of layers.

Through the Greek catharsis the audience can leave their emotions at the theater, while Evangelion compels the audience to find out by themselves how the anime takes heart into their own life. Frustrated fans are thus incited to watch those episodes again and again, to pause in order to have enough time to read all the intertitles, to listen several times to the voices in order to identify who is speaking, to assemble the pieces in order to guess what could have happened at the NERV headquarters and if Misato and Ritsuko are really dead, to debate finally among themselves on those final episodes. Those final episodes offer endless chances to understand more about the mecha story, about the characters and about what Evangelion could be a metaphor of. By offering such complicated final, Anno sadistically forces the audience to spend time watching, thinking, talking about it. Such time devoted to the anime series anchors the story into its audience. This is precisely where Evangelion parts from the Greek tragedy.

What political interpretations can be drawn from Evangelion? A commentator suggests the following interpretation of the final episodes:

“Our world is what we make of it, truth is subjective, and one must learn to love oneself before they can love another. Shinji chooses to face his fears and return to the world he knew, and the other characters welcome him back. (…) [Evangelion’s] heroes live out the ultimate fantasy adventure only to find it cannot compensate for the basic humans needs of love and friendship.” (Crandol 2002)

Such understandings on life are quite general and simple, but they can arguably serve to remind oneself of his/her capacity to act and of social basic needs. The frustration experienced in the last episodes might trigger the need to repetitively come back to them in order to make meaning out of them, anchoring such precepts into one’s mind.

Besides, the last episode of the series anchors itself in its audience’s reality through three major means, suggesting that the whole series might be a metaphor of postmodern lifestyle for the audience to learn from. The first process is the intrusion of real life pictures of city details into the anime. The shapes of the construction machines remind of the shape of one of the Angel, the mascot on one sign of Misato’s pet, a penguin, the coldness of the lockers of the NERV headquarters design (Episode 26, 05:06). While such footage possibly hint at the inspirations of Anno, it also blurs the line between fiction and reality. Further on there is a scene which feels extremely familiar, here Shinji is at home with Asuka and his parents, the father symbolically erased behind his newspaper and pressed by the mother to go to work (Episode 26, 15:11). This echoes the typical Japanese family model that emerged in the 1960s:

“In these households, husbands rose early to commute great distances into the city center on packed commuter trains. Trapped by high mortgage payments stretching decades into the future, they stayed late to work overtime, leaving their wives and children alone at home.” (Sawaragi 189–90)

The intrusion of a scene from this alternate reality so close to the reality further suggests how Evangelion could be a metaphor of the postmodern family model and lifestyle (the absent and working father, the loving and passive mother). Finally, the final words of the episode written on two intertiles, “And to all children, congratulations” (22:55) can be interpreted as Anno addressing those words to his fans. The latter are left to question what they are congratulated for: for finishing this anime? For keeping on living in this hectic society? For loving themselves? These last words may even made some fans question whether they deserve to be congratulated. All in all, Anno connects his series to the reality and to his audience in a multitude of ways, further pressing the viewers to actualize the content of the series into their own life.

A final point that deserves to be raised is that the reach of Evangelion should not be restrained to a otaku community or to Japan. Morley and Robins (170) wrote that “the otaku are the postmodern people.” This sentence is actually ironic. Indeed, the scholars want to suggest that people often confer to the otaku a certain personality, “without basic human communication skills who often withdraw into their own world” (Azuma 4) reported for example a Japanese magazine critical about the community. While the otaku might be bigger consumers of mecha genre anime and of anime in general, this essay aims to suggest that Evangelion has a universal reach and that the otaku community is only one particular emulation of postmodernity. Azuma (10) wrote:

“I think that [the development of otaku culture] should be grasped as one manifestation in Japan of a grand trend toward the postmodernization of culture that began in the middle of the twentieth century. It is precisely for that reason that otakus’ works transcend national borders to be well received around the world.”

Popular anime are cultural medium spread all around the around way beyond the otaku community. The subversion performed by Evangelion in criticizing the stereotypicality of the characters and in frustrating its fans while offering philosophical teachings on life are meanings that can affect all people.

To conclude this essay, Neon Genesis Evangelion can be described as an anime series with unexpected elements of a Greek tragedy subtly introduced along the narration. While resolutely designed for anime lovers, the series can be compared to Sophocles’ King Oedipus because of its depiction of characters acting out of fate towards their destruction, of the exploration of their interiority, in particularly of the unconscious impact of their issues with their parents in their lives, and of the strong effect both works can potentially have on their audience. Such effect differs however, in that the tragic hero suffers from his fatal pride and it is his fall that instructs the audience, while in Evangelion Shinji reaches a final epiphany and decides to bear hopes in the future. The final adventures of the series however do not present the ending in such a simple way. Indeed, the last two episodes, which this essay focused on, abandon the mecha storyline to dig into Shinji, but also Asuka, Ayanami and Misato’s interiority and reach conclusions on how to live better in our postmodern society, suggesting that the whole series might be a metaphor of current reality.

From an anime on teenagers, the story draws conclusions that can affect otaku and non-otaku alike, teenagers and adults, Japanese and non-Japanese thanks to its universal reach. The series play with its audience frustration to incite re-watching, assembling the pieces of its deconstructed narration and bringing home into the reader’s mind the evolution of Shinji’s thoughts. More, the deconstruction of the story is also a deconstruction of the whole genre of such anime. Stereotypical characters like the shy hero or its confident rival are opened up, their personality explained, their complexity revealed. By the end, the mecha storyline might arguably only serves to attract an audience to the story and to eventually confront them to reflect on the anime genre and on themselves. Evangelion is in the end a political anime that effectively examines our postmodern society and reaches out to us to teach us out to live through it.

Photo Credit

Cover page photo: https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/5194W3J5FKL._SY445_.jpg

Footnotes

[1] The blurry ending does not clarify whether or not the world is restored back to normal.

[2] This abbreviation is used from now in the analysis.

[3] Freud used the term of Oedipus complex for boys, and of feminine Oedipus complex for girls and saw a difference in the two that is beyond the interest of this essay.

[4] This ending is the one depicted in episode 26 of the series. The movie depicts a more classic ending, as when Shinji reaches his epiphany he saves the world from destruction and comes back to life next to Asuka. While this ending remains ambiguous (Shinji struggling Asuka until she caresses him), overall it is also optimistic as the world is saved and Asuka and Shinji finally express their feelings towards each others. More discussion would be necessary to explore the movie’s last scene, but this essay aims to focus on the series rather than the movie.

Works Cited

Anno, Hideaki. Neon Genesis Evangelion. Anime Series, 26 Episodes. Production: Tatsunoko and Gainax, 1995–96.

Anno, Hideaki. Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth. Anime Movie, 94 Min. Production: I.G./ING and Gainax, 1997.

Anno, Hideaki. The End of Evangelion. Anime Movie, 85 Min. Production: I.G./ING and Gainax, 1997.

Azuma, Hiroki. “1. The Otaku’s Pseudo-Japan.” In: Otaku. The University of Minnesota Press, 2009, pp. 3–24.

LaMarre, Thomas. “Otaku Movement.” Available: http://www.academia.edu/16578561/Otaku_Movement. Last Accessed: 23 July 2018.

Morley, David and Robins, Kevin. “Techno-orientalism.” In: Spaces of Identity. Routledge, 1995, pp. 147–73.

Sawaragi, Noi. “On the Battlefield of “Superflat,” Subculture and art in Postwar Japan.” In: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture. Edition Murakami, 2005, pp. 187–207.

Sophocles. Translation: Watling, E.F. King Oedipus In: The Theban Plays. Penguin Classics, 1950, pp. 25–68.

This essay was originally written for a class on “Politics of Anime” taught at the University of Tokyo in 2018.

Liberal Art Master student, I write my small answers to the big issues that obsess me in politics, development, literature, art, LGBTQ, …

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store