Apocalypses Great and Small
Since the age of 11, I’ve been fascinated by the end of the world. Not in any sort of morbid way, mind you. Not in the Heaven’s Gate/Aum Shinrikyo/Dale Earnhardt death-cult sort of way. Rather I’ve always found the Apocalypse to be highly entertaining.
It started with a remarkable novel by SF authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle called Lucifer’s Hammer, about a comet that slams into the Earth and the struggles of small pockets of survivors to stay alive in the new primordial America. The book had a profound impact on me, no pun intended, and ever since then, I’ve found myself drawn to tales of Armageddon, from Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon to that unfortunate movie with Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck. It’s one of the reasons why I find myself drawn to dystopian anime like Katsuhiro Otomo’s bleak future vision, Akira (1988), and Mamoru Oshii’s cyberpunk mindfuck, Ghost in the Shell (1995). Nobody does the end of everything quite like Japanese filmmakers, undoubtedly because that land experienced it firsthand back in 1945 and to this day bears the scars inflicted upon it by Fat Man and Little Boy.
Still, two-thirds of a lifetime spent dwelling on the Apocalypse was insufficient preparation for the final installment of Studio Gainax’s hugely popular and influential series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, which ran on Japanese TV in the mid-‘90s and remains a hot-button topic of study and debate among fans and scholars alike, many of whom throw the phrase “greatest anime ever made” with complete impunity. Though the original 24 episodes have been available on video for some time, the feature films that wrapped up the series, Evangelion: Death and Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, are only now available in the U.S. Multi-layered, ultraviolent, and profoundly disturbing, it depicts the end of the world as we know it and after seeing it, I most definitely do not feel fine.
Evangelion: Death and Rebirth encapsulates the major events of the series in an extended montage of pertinent scenes for the benefit of the uninitiated, but said neophytes (like myself) may have to watch it more than once to piece it together—there’s an awful lot going on. Fortunately, Manga Entertainment’s DVD is double-sided, the “Alpha” side being the standard presentation while the “Omega” side contains a Pop-up Video-like feature that provides explanatory text about characters and events. Though watching the series itself would be preferable, there’s enough here to set the stage for the second film, The End of Evangelion.
The Evangelion saga is set in the near future, 15 years after a catastrophic event called “Second Impact” laid waste to much of the world and awakened a horde of monstrous, unstoppable alien creatures called Angels (shito in the original, which actually means “apostles”), who periodically land on Earth, one at a time, to rampage. Using biological material gleaned from the first Angels, a secret agency called NERV constructs equally huge and hideous creatures called Evangelions, or EVAs for short, to battle the invaders. EVAs, however, can only be piloted by a select handful of young people, born during Second Impact and possessing the necessary empathic abilities to bond with the creatures.
On its face, the series reads like a variation on the common anime subgenre mecha (Mobile Suit Gundam, Zoids), with its cadre of teenagers saving the world inside giant robots, but for two crucial differences. One, the EVAs are living but mindless creatures who go berserk if their pilots’ control slips—in one horrifying scene, an unrestrained EVA defeats an Angel and then eats it. And two, the empathy of the young pilots comes with a battery of psychological and emotional problems which only get worse as these kids, abandoned by their parents and forever set apart from their peers, are forced again and again to kill or die.
Evangelion‘s main protagonist is Shinji Ikari (voiced by Spike Spencer in English), a motherless boy whose father (Tristan McAvery) abandoned him to head up the EVA project. This leaves him deeply insecure. When Shinji is called up to become an EVA pilot, his relationship with his father worsens, for it becomes apparent that Ikari Sr. regards his son as little more than cannon fodder in the war with the Angels. What’s more, Shinji hates and fears his EVA, despite an unusually high level of synchronization with the beast. His fellow pilots don’t offer much in the way of companionship. The ultracompetitive Asuka (Tiffany Grant), whose brash and obnoxious manner is her way of coping with the trauma of witnessing her mother’s suicide, seems to hate him both for his skills and his reluctance to pilot.
The preternaturally wise child Rei (Amanda Winn Lee) is eerily cold and distant, concealing a secret nature that is revealed in the series’ climax to devastating effect. Over the course of the series, Shinji makes two male friends, but is forced to kill both of them. His only real human connection is with NERV’s coolly efficient security chief Misato Katsuragi (Allison Keith), a woman twice his age. Roll all of these strange relationships together with an adolescent boy’s typically fumbling sexual awakening, and Shinji’s psyche is revealed as a Freudian tilt-a-whirl of dysfunction, a point driven home by End‘s startling first scene, where a sobbing Shinji masturbates over a naked and comatose Asuka’s infirmary bed.
The Freud runs thick in Evangelion, but so does the Jung, as each colossal, grotesque EVA is quite plainly the animus of its respective pilot given physical form. Thus the series is in large part a metaphor, albeit an extreme one, for adolescence itself. Shinji not only fears his monster’s capacity for unrestrained violence but also the ease with which he is able to connect with it. Asuka, on the other hand, is shown to have repeated difficulty mastering her EVA until she is surrounded by a squadron of enemy EVAs (created by the major villains of the series, a Star Chamber of apocalyptic fanatics), and goes temporarily insane, letting her dark side take over during a truly horrific and bloody battle. As the film comes to its climax, with the fate of the world literally at stake, it falls to Shinji, ill-equipped to make this decision, to decide whether the human race, from which he has become utterly alienated, should live. In other words, Shinji must choose between hells.
Needless to say, Evangelion: Death and Rebirth and The End of Evangelion are not for the kiddies. In visuals, plot, and theme, this may be, if not the greatest, certainly one of the most harrowing anime experiences ever made. Rife with Biblical imagery and allusions, the series and film serves up the Apocalypse in its most literal sense—from the Greek apokolypsis, “revelation”—revealing angels and demons that, in macro- and microcosm, are largely one and the same.
Ultimately what makes Armageddon stories so fascinating is not the spectacle, the skyscraper-high tidal waves of Deep Impact or the metropolises laid waste of Independence Day, but rather the Day of Reckoning occurring behind the eyes of every human being suddenly faced with the end of everything. Loosed from the security of social constructs and in the crosshairs of unfathomable cosmic forces, souls and minds are put to the ultimate test of character. Some will go mad, some will embrace evil in the name of survival, and some will rise to the challenge. As we look or read on in horror, we inevitably will find ourselves wondering into which group we would go in the clinch, and perhaps finding our honest answers disturbing. The beauty and power of Neon Genesis Evangelion are that, unlike Bruce Willis or Will Smith stuck in the rah-rah heroics of the Hollywood happy-ending machine, its young protagonists find even victory to be hollow and scarring in the face of Doomsday.
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[I am indebted to Susan J. Napier’s remarkable book Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (Palgrave, 2000) for its insights into the Evangelion saga.]