Since its release in October of 1995, anime studio Gainax and director Hideaki Anno’s popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion has become a critically and commercially successful entity that has spawned various forms of cultural phenomena. Fourteen years after its release, it remains an influential cultural, economic, and social product that permeates Japanese media and society. But why has Neon Genesis Evangelion remained such a powerful cultural icon through the years? What about the series is distinctly Japanese? How does Neon Genesis Evangelion reflect Japanese society, and in turn, how does it influence it?
With a franchise that has spawned movies, CDs, books, manga, merchandise, and other extensions of fandom, Evangelion is a cultural economic force that is unrivaled, considering the controversial content within it. Evangelion is a mecha (giant robots controlled by human pilots) anime that focuses on the characters of Shinji, Rei, Asuka, and a long list of other supporting characters. These characters have become the source of fandom as well, generating heavy interest as cultural icons who have a devoted following. Here we’ll explore how the rise of religion in Japan in parallel with the economic downturn of the 1990s, the increasingly apparent otaku culture, and the imagery and themes of the original source material have turned Neon Genesis Evangelion into a mythological entity that is worshipped by a culture that follows it with religious-like fervor.
The source material of the series gives an indication as to why it specifically has been chosen as the bearer of such an intense and lasting following. The plot of the series is described by Wikipedia as such:
An apocalyptic mecha action series which centers around the efforts by the paramilitary organization Nerv to fight monstrous beings called Angels, primarily using giant mecha called Evangelions which are piloted by select teenagers, one of whom is the primary protagonist. It follows those teenagers and other Nerv members until the defeat of the Angels and the eventual apocalyptic ending.
This is not the sort of material that other anime juggernauts, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, trade in. With depictions of violence and sexual aberration, Evangelion deals with issues that are not family-friendly, yet cultural depictions of Evangelion often exist in areas where family-friendly objects are typically displayed. In a mall in Totsuka, a small Japanese town, there is an Evangelion section of a store that displays mostly Studio Ghibli merchandise, foregrounding the great contrast between Ghibli’s cuteness and Evangelion’s apocalyptic sci-fi aesthetic. Evangelion memorabilia is sold at 7-Elevens, and there are even Evangelion-themed pachinko parlors. With such reflections in the larger culture, outsiders might get the impression that Evangelion is a new cultural entity, considering how much promotion and cultural space it takes up. The truth is far stranger, being that the series is 14 years old.
Above: Toy models of Evangelion characters on sale at 7-Eleven,Totsuka, Japan. Below: Evangelion merchandise on sale at the Modi mall in Totsuka, Japan. (Photos: Cyrus Fard)
Jennifer Robertson’s description of a cultural matrix helps illuminate the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion. She describes a cultural matrix in which “sociohistorical forces and relations are generated and reproduced, stimulated by encounters with ideas, things, and peoples both within and outside the matrix as a whole or any area in particular.” The context and historical background behind Evangelion makes up a large part of why the series continues to be so relevant. In the post-war period in Japan, Christianity saw a huge rise in followers, thanks to the influence of American Protestantism during the American occupation. Evangelion was one of the first mainstream anime series to use Christian themes and imagery, making for groundbreaking visual territory. Thus, the parallel between the rise of Christianity in Japan and the large amount of Christian themes in Evangelion might be one important aspect to its aesthetic popularity.
The rise of new religions (or “new new religions”) have found Japan becoming an increasingly faith-based society. This does not apply simply to religious institutions, but to media and culture as well. Pop idols and performers are known to have devoted followings that border on the religious. A parallel can be drawn to fans of the anime series, which is centered on the otaku culture of teenage boys enveloped in the world of anime and manga. The characters of Evangelion have given the otaku personalities to identify with. Shinji’s depressed and weak demeanor is countered with his inherent strength and ability, which some otaku might project onto because of their own insecurities. Asuka and Rei have also become either characters of female strength to women, or objects of sexual desire for men. Regardless of one’s perspective, the fact remains that these characters struck a chord with Japanese society at the time. The anime industry took notice, and Evangelion is widely seen as restoring the anime industry in terms of critical appreciation and originality. Psychoanalytic series of anime were released in droves following Evangelion’s success, with many failing, and others—like 1998’s Serial Experiments Lain—relatively succeeding. Many anime today continue to parody or reference Evangelion, as it made mecha anime more legitimate in the 1990s than they were prior. The fact that the series was able to tap into the psychology of the otaku, who used the series as something to have faith and devotion in, allowed for this quasi-religious following.
The 1990s were also a hard time in Japan after the economic bubble burst in the late 1980s. Japan tried to regain footing, but people were on hard times as the economy suffered greatly. During this period, creator Anno suffered his own depression, battling with psychological issues that would go on to influence the characters in the series, who have psychological problems and disorders of their own.
Psychological issues that exist in the series include the father issues and Oedipus complex of Shinji, the problems of self-worth for Asuka, and the relationship quarrels of Misato. All of these tap into the human emotions and philosophical dilemmas that humanity faces. And because it is within the sphere of anime, the fan community allows those of all ages to enjoy and relate to it, as one can either enjoy while they are in their teenage years, or watch it nostalgically or reflectively as an adult. This psychoanalytic obsession would come to play in the final two episodes of the series, which are quite controversial for their vague and symbolic nature. The focal point is that the show dealt with alienation, despair, depression, and other psychological issues that it could be argued Japan as a socio-historical body was dealing with following the economic downturn in the 1990s. In this sense, the series was reflecting how Japan was feeling at the time, but in turn, Evangelion had a large effect on Japan as well.
Productions of Evangelion, in addition to the original 26-episode series, include one additional anime spoof series, seven films, four manga series, eight video games, eleven CDs, and an unquantifiable amount of unlicensed or less popular media productions. Without a doubt, Evangelion saturates Japan as a cultural icon. And while the series has made an imprint on the worldwide market, it is still largely a Japanese icon that continues to thrive despite all the subsequent anime that followed it.
There are various reasons why Evangelion continues to exert its hold on the Japanese imagination despite its age—a great feat considering how quickly trends shift in the anime world. Anno has stated:
Many different desires are motivating us to create the new “Evangelion” film … The desire to fight the continuing trend of stagnation in anime. The desire to support the strength of heart that exists in the world…Many times we wondered, “It’s a title that’s more than 10 years old. Why now?” “Eva is too old”, we felt. However, over the past 12 years, there has been no anime newer than Eva. (Anime News Network.com)
Despite Anno’s confidence in the series’ inherent quality, the otaku fandom that surrounds the series is instrumental in keeping it alive. One community that has kept Evangelion fresh with new material is the fan fiction network. Fan fiction occurs when fans of a cultural entity decide to write their own material based on the original product, to keep it going or give it more life. Evangelion has one of the larger collections of anime fan fiction on the Internet, with roughly 5,630 stories on the website fanfiction.net alone, whereas the average anime from that time has only several hundreds. The stories generally either involve the sexual fantasies of fans who indulge in all the things they wished were on the show, while others just expand on the original series by offering their own explanations or writing creatively using the characters provided. This also exists on YouTube, with people making anime music videos for Evangelion, a popular activity among otaku who indulge in their fantasies. While otaku culture certainly existed before Evangelion, the characters of Rei, Asuka, and Misato have given them objects of sexual desire, while Shinji has become a character that many identify with. This otaku culture thrives today, especially in areas of Tokyo like Akihabara, which is known as a center for the financially affluent yet socially aloof.
Further Evangelion merchandise at Totsuka 7-Eleven (Photo: Cyrus Fard)
Given the far-reaching and long-lasting influence of the anime, it’s clear that the franchise of Neon Genesis Evangelion creates a liminal space where a communitas of fans can come together anonymously through the media provided. With the rise of the Internet, such connections are made on such a grand scale, with intense discussions occurring on message boards and fan web sites expressing their fondness for characters or the series. The power of Evangelion’s liminal space is what allows for parallels to be made between it and religion. The entire franchise makes billions of dollars and is still as strong now as it was when the original anime was released, if not more so now that the media have grown over the years due to the aforementioned fan following.
The prototypical Evangelion fan is seen by the media as something like that of a 16 year-old boy, but as the years have passed, the communitas has provided room for both genders and a wide age range to identify with the various aspects of Evangelion, whether it be the religious imagery, the psychological themes, or the violent action scenes. Regardless of the specific draw, the point is that it worked to provide a liminal space for groups that are typically alienated by the mass media and culture, and looked for something that could encompass that angst. Neon Genesis Evangelion happened to come at the right time, defining the zeitgeist for modern Japanese culture, giving solace to Japanese who wanted something that spoke to their ambivalence to modern life. The fact that it continues to permeate so widely today is due to the rabid religious following that is devoted to keeping it alive.
In particular, the mythological orientation of Neon Genesis Evangelion allows its co-option by fans of the series. The series’ characters, along with the iconographic use of mechas, create cultural entities that are easily identifiable. The mechas (known as Evas in the series) are interesting anthropological objects, commonly associated with Japanese anime, but not limited to the country. America has a similar phenomenon in the form of the Transformers, giant mechanical beasts that are objects of wonder and amazement. The spectacle that is created with these objects has psychological undercurrents of technophilia. These monstrous figures may reflect society’s anxieties and fascination with rapid modernization and the technological advancement that has occurred since the 20th century. Regardless, the series has succeeded in branding itself with the image of a mecha aesthetic, which is in complete opposition to the obsession with cuteness emphasized in the majority of anime. The characterization in the series is also particularly effective in bringing in a wide spectrum of fans that use the liminal space to focus on their own personal anxieties or feelings.
There have been anime before and after Evangelion that have been original or groundbreaking, but Evangelion remains potent in the commercial market, with several films released in Japanese theaters recently, garnering a high ticket sales and a lot of press. Several more films have been produced and are set to be released in the upcoming years as well.The irony is that these films were an edited and updated rehash of the original series. So despite the fact that the original series is the only original storyline of the franchise, it continues to be reproduced, to much success. This lasting essence of Evangelion suggests that it is original material of the story and characters that has kept people so religiously devoted.
The mythology and liminal space created by the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in the context of a depressed Japan of the 1990s, functioned as the perfect place for a thriving communitas in which a religious devotion exists. The rise of otaku culture and religious fervor in Japan coincided with the popularity of the anime series, a formula for creating a following that keeps the series alive by injecting their own creativity into it. These contributions have allowed Gainax to create new media additions to the Evangelion universe, such as films and manga, long after the original series ended. The characters, imagery, and psychological content of the anime are an important draw to the series, but what has kept it relevant is the association the Japanese public has with the series in their own lives. As long as the communitas is active and the franchise resides as a haven for otakus or any other member of the Japanese public, Neon Genesis Evangelion will continue to be a cultural force unlike any of its kind.