This post is in the theme “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom”. Read the first.
September 7, New York: Neon Genesis Evangelion is my absolute favorite piece of anime and one of my all-time favorite works across all media. I find it in the same genre as The Invisibles— a masterwork sourced from a million different inputs to create a dense universe that the audience must pry apart. In this case it is giant robots and gnosticism. Yes, please. Evangelion is that rare work (like, perhaps Mulholland Drive) that has eluded my clear comprehnsion and explanation.
Okay, so for the first time in my life, I am going to try to explain what is happening in Evangelion. (Note: I’m not going to look up anyone else’s explanations.) Be wary, reader, below yon spoilers are rife.
Let’s start with the basics: Shinji is a whiny teenager who gets recruited to pilot a giant robot that is protecting the earth from mysterious giant invaders called The Angels. The robot he pilots, the Evangelion, is the size of a building and humanoid in shape. One of our first clues is the early revelation that the Evangelion is not a robot at all, but a biological creature of some kind that can ‘go berserker’ even when it runs out of reserve power.
The organization that built the Evas, and is run by Shinji’s father Gendo Ikari, is called NERV. Its motto is “God’s in his heaven. All’s right with his world.” Some real ‘as above, so below’ shit here, in case you’re looking for gnosticism. Ikari’s office has a map of the sephirot on his ceiling. NERV answers to a shadowy world government organization called SEELE, which in turn claims to take its direction from prophecies laid out in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Mmmhmm?
So there’s SEELE, but officially there is the UN, which in this world has some teeth. See, at the turn of the millennium 15 years prior, there was a massive explosion in the Antarctic which melted all the ice and caused sea levels to rise cataclysmically across the Earth. Much of Japan is submerged, including Tokyo. They built a second one as the new capital. And now they’ve built a third one as a fortress to protect against The Angels. Tokyo-3.
Why protect Tokyo-3? Well because the Dead Sea Scrolls have predicted a series of tests against humanity. These take the form of the Angels, beings with the molecular structure of light (both waveform and particle matter) and 99.98% DNA match to humans. They come in a dizzying array of body types and are protected by what is called an AT Field. The opening credits tell us this stands for “Absolute Terror Field”, but basically the AT Field is the soul, outwardly projected. Where the boundary of a human soul exists roughly at the line of the skin, the angels (and the Evas) have a soul that surrounds them like a force field.
The very first Angel was Adam. He’s the one who destroyed Antarctica. But that’s a state secret. Also a secret? Adam is locked up under Tokyo-3*. That’s why the angels keep attacking— to get to Adam.
*- But wait, it’s not Adam that’s locked up under Tokyo-3, it’s Lilith! She is the being from which all humanity is derived. The final angel, who comes in human form, discovers this just before he’s killed in one of the most incredible scenes of filmmaking I have ever seen. This angel becomes Shinji’s only true friend (and perhaps lover) then turns angel and has to be battled. After a 12 minute fight sequence, he demands Shinji kill him. And we watch a still frame of the giant robot holding the tiny angel while Ode to Joy plays in the background… for over a minute. It’s incredible.
Augh, okay, back to the explaining.
The Human Instrumentality Project
But what is Lilith all about? It’s rooted in the Human Instrumentaility Project, which is mentioned from time to time as another secret NERV project. First, there’s Rei. She’s a quiet girl, Shinji’s age. We learn over the course of the series that Rei is a clone. That they’ve engineered her like gods. That’s step one. The next step is engender the final evolution of the human species. What does that even mean?
Well that brings us back to Evangelion Unit One. Unit One is special— while the Evas are dependent on external power sources, Unit One activates on its own without power all the time. It also, once, took Shinji into itself. His whole body just disappeared into it and his consciousness began to dissolve. In that episode the Eva is saying to him “Don’t you want to become one with me? Of one mind and one body?” This is what Human Instrumentality is all about. See, Unit One already has a soul: Shinji’s mother was taken into the Eva the same exact way. Now she *is* the Eva. But the next step is for humankind to join with the Eva. The Evangelion beings are vessels for a human collective consciousness. They are described as “an ark.”
The final episode
And then you have the final episode. In a piece of television that angered nearly half of Japan (so I’ve heard), Hideaki Anno presents this existentialist cross-examination of Shinji in the most abstract of ways. Single repeated shots. Blurry live action shots of crowds on streets. Meandering, soul-searching voice over. The American voiceover actors admitted they totally didn’t get it.
Fans hated it. So they went back and made a few movies, movies that Anno begins with the text: “This is the way Evangelion was supposed to end.” There is some epic robot on robot fighting, some heart-wrenching moments as your favorite B-characters are snuffed from life, some gorgeous cello-driven classical music. And then some positively Salvador Dali-esque planetary imagery over the strangest little pop song you’ve ever heard.
And this is what I think happens: The fate of the world rests on a decision Shinji has to make— to release his ego into oneness with all other beings or to maintain his individual identity. As best I can tell, he chooses individual life. And somehow that is saving the world. Despite all the efforts of his father to the contrary, to evolve humanity into collective consciousness.
“Man is the eighteenth angel,” claims someone late in the series. “All the other angels were other possibilities.” Adam, the model for Eva, was the first angel. So perhaps Shinji’s saving of the species is rejecting a return to that early possibility and maintaining the human being, however messy, hurtful, and hateful it might be.