What does the apocalypse mean to you? Does it mean the end of everything? Does it mean rebirth? Does it mean change? Does it mean heaven or hell or something altogether different? The apocalypse has been externalised in all kinds of media. The Road by Cormac McCarthy, the Fallout series of games and the Mad Max films have all sought to externalise some kind of world-shattering cataclysm but they also, to varying degrees, internalise it in the psychology and actions of their characters. In his ground-breaking anime Neon Genesis Evangelion director, writer and animator Hideaki Anno internalised his own apocalypse.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is about a lot of things. It’s about religion, mental illness, trauma, fascism, bodies and motherhood. Strictly story wise it’s about a vulnerable boy named Shinji Ikari who, in the alternate future of 2015, is summoned to the city Tokyo-3. There he pilots a giant robot called an Evangelion and fights off a series of cosmic super-beings known as Angels alongside fellow traumatised child pilots Asuka Langley Soryu and Rei Ayanami. It’s a series that, despite its complex themes, revels in gory violence, giant robots, teenage nudity, slapstick comedy and did I mention there’s a sentient penguin called Pen-Pen?
In the opening minutes of the 26 episode series a nuclear bomb goes off. In any other show this would be the climax to at least a season if not a series. Instead the atomic weapons used against the invading Angels are a regular occurrence. In a world that was devastated by a near-extinction event 15 years prior known as Second Impact what power does the atom have in comparison to man’s shattered pride? Witnessing a nuclear blast would mentally scar most teenagers for life. Shinji’s emotional scar tissue is too thick to even be scratched. His traumas – paternal estrangement, chronic loneliness, seemingly inescapable depression – form a kind of armour around him. One nearly as thick as that of the monstrous mech he pilots.
The Evangelions, like the teenagers who pilot them, are unstable, impulse driven symbiotes of synthetic, organic and divine material. When an Evangelion is struck the nerves beneath its armour plated skin transmit the pain directly to its pilot. The mechs are eviscerated, crushed, hit by lasers and have their limbs ripped off on a regular basis. With this kind of pain being transmitted to you every time you fight for the fate of humanity mental trauma comes quick and easy.
But Neon Genesis Evangelion’s depictions of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia didn’t come out of a vacuum. Hideaki Anno was already a respected director, writer and animator before the show having worked on Hayao Miyazaki’s pre-Studio Ghibli fantasy Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind as well as several projects at his own studio Gainax. After two poorly-received projects in the early 90s, Anno fell into a depression that lasted nearly four years. But when Japanese media giant King Records offered Anno a time slot for whatever he wanted, he saw it as his chance. It was.
To say that Hideaki Anno poured his heart and soul into Neon Genesis Evangelion would be putting it lightly. The anime thrums and pulses with pain. It’s hard to put into words what watching the show feels like but to say that it feels like a raw nerve being plucked isn’t far off. Disregarding the contorted faces and lurid body horror of its animation the sound of Neon Genesis Evangelion sticks in the mind like the death rattle of a close relative. Dialogue at major plot points often boils down to characters screaming each other’s names in a way that would shred the throat lining of an untrained actor. Gun shots and bomb blasts are deafening but worst of all is the rippling, enraged howl of the Evangelions.
Giant robots are no stranger to anime. The Gundam franchise has been running for decades but after Neon Genesis Evangelion in the 1995-96 winter season, giant robots felt distinctly unnecessary and very frightening. Put it this way: what person in their right mind would get into a pod full of quasi-amniotic fluid before that pod is injected into a robot powered by both electricity and the souls of those who died in creating said robots? If it’s these kind of unholy amalgamations of machine and flesh that are being used to save the world from eldritch horrors then maybe the apocalypse is long overdue.
The apocalypse does come in Neon Genesis Evangelion but what that means is up to the viewer. It was depicted inside Shinji’s head in the final two episodes. Sitting in a folding chair, Shinji grappled with his overwhelming emotions and the responsibility he had to all mankind. What happened outside would eventually be shown in the just as cerebral film The End of Evangelion but the logical conclusion to the series was there from the start.
The series starts out close to Shinji and only gets closer as time passes. We know of his pain and his burden despite the fact they are inherently unknowable. Rather than a strong-willed, well-liked hero Shinji is a scared, lonely little boy with no one to turn to. He is alone in the face of the apocalypse and yet still he fights, albeit reluctantly. As the series goes on it gets closer and closer to Shinji until eventually everything takes place in his mind.
The Lars Von Trier film Melancholia asked what better way to escape the numbing pain of depression than with total global annihilation? That’s certainly one way to look at the end of the world. Nearly twenty years beforehand, Neon Genesis Evangelion asked what better way to escape the numbing pain of depression than total self-acceptance? As Kaworu Nagisa, the last Angel, said: “The thread of human hope is spun from the flax of sorrow.”
Neon Genesis Evangelion’s attitude to the depression and traumas that knock so many of us down is one that is echoed by other anime such as Cowboy Bebop and Welcome to the NHK. Surviving is not a mistake. It’s in our nature to try and make something of life. Even when nothing makes sense and the world is on the brink, there will always be hope. Hope is human nature. Even at our darkest periphery we will always have hope. Neon Genesis Evangelion taught me that.