neon genesis evangelion - on subtelty and more
Shin Seiki Evangelion, also known as Neon Genesis Evangelion, is a 26 episode TV anime which aired in 1995. Directed by Hideaki Anno and produced by Studio Gainax, the show has now become famous due in part to its unconventional ending and use of religious symbolism, which along with other aspects have been the subject of much debate. Today however, these aspects are mostly seen as unimportant and not of interest, with the more common points of praise being related to the character writing and themes of depression and the struggle of interacting with, and understanding others as the biggest strengths of the work. I am here to offer my take on Evangelion, as my opinion on it has varied greatly throughout each additional viewing, and since I am a huge fan of the director. Now Evangelion is really segmented and made up of multiple aspects. That second part? Fairly usual. Everything, from the ground we walk on to the people we talk to, is and are made up of multiple aspects: both literally and figuratively. In the same way that people are made of good and bad things, and no one is just on side, Evangelion is much the same. I can enjoy various parts of it, and dislike others.
I like the parts that are more subtle, and I have strong distaste for the parts that throw subtext out the window, and just decide to state things directly. In episode 1, there’s a scene where Misato wrecks her car, after a nuclear explosion just happened. However, Misato’s thoughts don’t go to the safety of her or Shinji; rather her train of thought leads to worrying about insurance, and how she just recently fixed up her car. This really signifies her as an adult, as someone who has issues and problems that children don’t. This is then contrasted with Shinji and his in-group, the issues he is dealing with. Scenes such as that is what makes up most of the good parts of Evangelion. Shinji doesn’t have any friends, although for some reason this is directly stated by Misato and Katsuragi around the four minute mark in episode three, when we can understand this just fine through observing how Shinji behaves at school. This aspect of Shinji’s character, which was already communicated visually, is also repeated through dialogue. It doesn’t elaborate, neither does it add anything new, it purely repeats what we already gathered visually.
And this is indicative of my biggest problem with Evangelion. It shouldn't be difficult to visually communicate that a character doesn’t have any friends. I know this because it happens around the seven minute mark of episode three, where Touji and Aida talk about how Shinji, who is the new transfer student, is rumoured to be the Eva pilot. He sits alone, no one talks to him, at least until it is revealed that he is in fact, the pilot, although his situation quickly reverts back to its original state.
This concept, of a person being accepted into a role within a larger organization, and that person being filled with self doubt and having difficulties accepting their position: all of that, is just an Ace wo Nerae reference. In Ace wo Nerae, Hiromi is a high school student who joins the school’s tennis club. However, to her surprise, and everyone else’s, she is selected to play doubles together with the club’s star player, Reika Ryuuzaki. kk This earns her scorn, both from people outside and within the club, as she only recently joined and is seen as unskillful by the majority of students. She feels lots of self doubt and worries about whether she truly is qualified or not, and she also begins to hate the fact that she was selected, as she experiences bullying and ostracization from other students. Now Anno already used this as his blueprint for Top wo Nerae! Gunbuster (the title itself being partly another Ace wo Nerae! reference), however for Evangelion, Anno decided to add a few more layers of abstraction. We still have the same beats, in that Shinji gets ostracised, and, specifically Asuka, repeatedly questions his ability to pilot the Evangelion, as do others around him, such as Toji. Shinji often doubts himself and has confidence issues, as is shown when he literally runs away from Nerv, and in turn his resposibilites, because he dislikes piloting the Evangelion, due to the high expectaitons being placed on him and his difficulties in meeting these expectations.
What I’m attempting to convey by making this comparison is to show that Anno’s work are partially a combination of the various things he likes, such as Ultraman, Uchuu Senkan Yamato, Gundam, Ace wo Nerae, and lots of other works, obviously. However these aforementioned ones are the most clear, and their influence on him show very clearly in his works. The submarine in Nadia and the captain are lifted almost straight out of Yamato, the previously mentioned premise of Gunbuster and Evangelion from Ace wo Nerae, Shinji being an unwilling pilot is taken from Gundam, and the plot structure of Evangelion, as well as a lot of the imagery is taken from Ultraman, although as I haven’t really engaged with much Ultraman media myself, my understanding of this aspect is severely lacking. The idea of a human using a machine to become big and fight monsters each episode is clearly a reference - for something more specific, the Evangelions themselves have a five minute long time limit when not plugged in, and after it runs out they stop functioning, which is similar to how in Ultraman, the transformation only lasts for 10 minutes.
I mention this because I think it is an aspect which is severely unrepresented in analysis and general reviews of Evangelion. You can’t really talk about Anno’s work without mentioning his inspirations. I think it is amazing that Evangelion has been able to gain a life of its own, that people who don’t even know these previously mentioned works exist are able to watch Evangelion and get something out of it. That is great. But you are missing an insane amount of necessary context, and without that context, you won’t be able to understand his work. Now I still have a lot of homework on that front to do myself, as I’ve only watched six episodes of Ultraman Nexus, and that's from the middle of the 2000s - not exactly what Anno would have been watching in the early 90s. Humans are made up of multiple aspects. And Anno’s work are a representation of his influences. Now am I not attempting to claim that he simply stitches together his favourite TV shows in a collage and calls it a day, that would be hugely reductive. But for a work as closely tied to its director as Evangelion, where one can’t even find an analysis not mentioning his name, I find it hugely disappointing that his direct influences are rarely, if ever mentioned at all.
The topic of subtlety and its worth is a difficult one, as there are works which I despise exactly because of their disregard for it. For example, the works of Bong Joon Ho, more specifically Snowpiercer and Okja. However, I absolutely love Parasite, and I also really like Barking Dogs Never Bite and Mother. And yet it isn't as if those three are particularly subtle with their themes. In comparison with the aforementioned works? Without a doubt, but when compared to other works, far from it. To move the conversation back to anime, there are a lot of works within this medium which don’t utilize subtlety, and yet I find them to be favourites of mine, chief among them being Uchuu Senkan Yamato (1974), which, while I’ll defend the quality of it until my dying breath, i’d be hard pressed to call it subtle. Kodai’s monolouge during episode 24 of Season 1 is sure to make the viewer understand the point being made. To quote directly: “Victory… tastes like ash!”
Despite Kodai and the Yamato crew having defeated the Gamilans, who wished to destroy all of humanity, Kodai, nor Mori Yuki, feel vindicated, and as they look onto Gamilus being destroyed in front of their very eyes, the message is clear: war is hell, and both sides have committed unspeakable evil, and the aforementioned line is prefaced with a long monologue furthering these thoughts. So why is it that I feel annoyed about the lack of subtlety in Evangelion? I think it is the fact that I prefer when there is a veneer of subtlety - otherwise, i would find simply having themes to be a positive, when such a thing isn’t worthy of praise, it is simply to be expected. For it is the way in which these themes are explored and conveyed which is important.
“The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
As this verse so states, nothing new will be, for it has already happened. And I think I can use it to exemplify more of my issues with Evangelion. “[... ] and there is no new thing under the sun.” This could very well just have said “there is precedence for all.” However, it instead uses very evocative language, such as referencing the sun. Now what is the sun? The sun is vital to our existence, and it is omnipresent. Everything that has ever happened in the history of humanity has happened under the sun. And this is what I mean when I say veneer, and it is just that which Evangelion lacks. And this is where the specifics come in.
In regards to character writing, then sure, there’s a lot of subtlety, such as when Shinji offers no objection to dressing in very feminine clothing in episode nine. You can derive a lot about how he views himself from that. However, in terms of how it conveys its themes, it is as if it wasn’t taken into consideration at all. This is mostly apparent in episode 16 and 25 and 26, where the characters just outright state their thoughts. In episode 16, Shinji thinks about the fact that everyone perceives him differently, even though he is one. He is himself, one, and yet there are an innumerable amount of Shinji’s in the minds of those around him. All the different versions of him are just as real as the other ones, and yet only he is him. To quote directly from the episode:
I am you. People have another self within themselves.
The self is always composed of two people.
Two people? The self which is actually seen, and the self observing that.
There are many entities called Shinji Ikari.
The other Shinji Ikari that exists in your mind.
The Shinji Ikari in Misato Katsuragi’s mind, the Shinji Ikari in Asuka Sohryu, the Shinji in Rei Ayanami, and the Shinji in Gendo Ikari [...]”
In conclusion, Evangelion certainly isn’t without positives, things such as its detailed backgrounds, striking character designs, and character writing, memorable soundtrack and cool doors all contribute towards what would usually constitute a good work. The animation is also one of my favourite aspects, the movement of characters and mechs, as well as doors, are smooth in how they slide, and mechanical, which I really like. It also has a very varied colour palette, which is great because the urban area setting can very easily become drab and boring.
All of these aspects are good, and I want to bring them up in order to explain why I don’t have the show at a negative rating. The complete lack of subtlety really bothers me a lot, and it may, to some, seem as if i’m making a small issue into something big, but I do care a lot about how a work conveys its themes, and Evangelion, as I have explained, simply does not do a good job of conveying that in a way which appeals to me. Even after having made this, I will still be dreaming of Evangelion, perhaps forever. You are never done rewatching a show until you are dead. Preferences will change, and your opinion on art with it. I used to have Evangelion at a 10, then an 8, and now a 5. Who knows what score I will give it the next time I rewatch it?
I think dream is an apt word to describe my thought process regarding works such as this. I am not completely sure, but I think. My opinion
will change, just as I will wake up one day. I suppose it sounds as I’m my opinion is fake, as if its not real, and maybe it is. Am I the final form of myself? If I were incomplete when I was born, then surely I must have a perfect me? Is it even possible to achieve something such as that? Perhaps not perfect in the conventional sense of the word, but perfect as in that I am complete, not without flaws but finalized. Will I reach such a point in my 40s? Will I suddenly degrade afterwards, until I die? So I dream. I dream of the future. I’m going to die one day. That much is for certain. I don’t know what will happen afterwards. I don’t know for sure. I can hope, but I don’t know. It feels like I’m in a haze of sorts, as if I'm not truly awake. I will never be able to have a certain, 100% opinion on anything, but for now, I’m pretty sure of my thoughts. So, after having watched Evangelion four times, and having laid down my thoughts, however messy they may seem I think I can say that at least for now…
I can stop dreaming of Evangelion.