Why I love Neon Genesis Evangelion
It was a cold, wet Thursday afternoon. Outside the grey storm clouds rumbled, and the never ending sound of raindrops reverberated on the window to my room.
Pit, Pat, Pit, Pat.
I was in a very depressed period of my life. Just two weeks earlier, I had tried killing myself by jumping in front of a car. And even before then, my already bad grades had already slipped down to D’s and F’s. I had no motivation, no willpower to do anything. All I wanted to do was to sit idly by as I awaited painless death, hoping to drive myself further and further down the rabbit hole to see where I would end up.
It was a time where I had even stopped attending class. Even though it was my senior year and therefore the year that my college applications were due, I no longer cared for my future, nor did I even see a future for myself. Especially after being hospitalized for a week for concerns about my mental health, I didn’t see the purpose in my schooling, especially online, where no one was learning anything.
So I sat there, blindly spending my days on the computer screen, slowly driving myself to a lower and lower point. In schoolwork, I could no longer find the fun or intrigue in learning new things and being able to figure out problems, in gaming, I could no longer find the magic in the highlight clips that I had been so obsessed with, and in my life, I had no one to turn to or to talk to.
But it was here in that dimly lit room on that cold wet Thursday night where I made one of the most personal, intriguing, and cathartic discoveries of my life: a classic 90s anime show called Neon Genesis Evangelion.
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Neon Genesis Evangelion has received enough backlash and controversy to make it not only one of the most controversial mecha anime, but also one of the most controversial anime. While on one side, fans loved its deep, psychological, and personal take on a mecha anime, on the other, people hated the characters, the plot holes, and the protagonist and deemed it boring.
I first started watching Eva not mindful of these two sides. My closest experience to reading a Evangelion review was a friend telling me that it was decent, but not the beautiful experience that classic Evangelion fans would have you believe. So I went into Evangelion with low expectations, not knowing what to expect, hoping for something that would at least pass the time.
What I got instead was one of the most impactful, personal stories of depression and mental health that I had ever come across. The lonely, depressed, main character of Shinji was a far cry from the confident, smiling protagonists of anime that I was already accustomed to. Anno’s unnerving and uncomfortable camerawork was rich in details that told a story lines of dialogue could never tell. And even Asuka’s classic tsundere character being a lot deeper and relatable than most tsundere love interests in anime, it all came together to tell a beautiful and philosophical story, one infused with Anno’s own personal experiences with depression.
And while Neon Genesis Evangelion is not a perfect anime, (far from it, actually) Anno’s personal and powerful take on the mecha genre to tell a story about self worth and the journey through depression is something that not only anime, but also popular mediums don’t have enough of. We can go on and on about Eva’s flaws, but the fact of the matter is good stories about mental health and the philosophy of self-love are often neglected especially in Hollywood, and that’s what makes Anno’s ability to capture these raw emotions in a way that no one can do so damn special.
My name is Josh, and today I’ll be looking at the magic that sets Evangelion apart from other anime, its philosophical insights into depression, and how even after every major plothole or bland character, Evangelion still holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite mediums I’ve ever experienced.
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Eva opens on a harsh, sudden note. White words on a black background saying: “The year is 2015”, and the immediate cut to the viewpoint of a helicopter across the ocean, the chopper’s blades splitting the air as it flies across the water.
These sharp cuts are utilized several times in this opening montage with several different sounds. Life is still in these shots, there is no movement except for the giant monster shown swimming beneath the water. It is devoid of human sounds, as the camera pans toward the destroyed city of Tokyo, the chirping of the cicadas and the sounds of alarms and helicopters eerie and unnerving as we get a first glance at the ruins of Tokyo. The man at the PA system, with his robotic, emotionless voice directing citizen’s to the shelter. A man, scrambling alone along the train tracks to get to the nearest shelter. The sounds of the cicadas starting to get more and more intense, and even as we get to see our first established character, the eerie effect of the cicadas and the still shots isn’t lost.
It’s scenes like this that are the staple of Director Hideaki Anno’s vision. Even before the start of Evangelion’s creative process, Anno had been going through a deep depression, reflected by the failing state of his production company Gainax. When asked by his concerned friend to create an anime without the creative restrictions characteristic of Nadia, he created Neon Genesis Evangelion as a reaction to the depression that had plagued his life for the longest time.
And from the very first episode, we can see Anno’s creative vision at work. The camerawork is clear cut and extremely well executed. Each panning shot and background noise is terrifyingly eerie, but also made with the intention to get the audience to understand the wide array of emotions Anno had faced in his experience with depression.
Each shot, cut, and sound is made with a purpose. Instead of discovering the world with the character, instead Evangelion focuses our story on the characters themselves. Instead of focusing heavily on fight sequences and plot devices, Anno instead chooses to focus on the psychological and philosophical elements of self worth as reflected in his decisions regarding cinematography.
What sets Evangelion apart from other anime is its filmographic ideas and functions that it gives an anime series. Watching Evangelion didn’t feel like I was watching a 26 episode anime show but instead a very long film. In most anime shows, character development and arcs all usually stemmed from a protagonist that was very centered and grounded to the world. But in Evangelion, the eerie camera work and sounds make the audience feel disconnected and almost dissociated to the world of Evangelion.
It’s a disconnect that’s done intentionally. Through the camera angles and seeing the world in this negative and strange way, we’re able to understand what the experience is like for a character like Shinji, an outsider to his home, a person who feels like he belongs nowhere. We feel the fear on his face as he is told to pilot the Eva, we feel and see his pained look as he trains as an Eva pilot.
Anno’s ability to build a character like Shinji using the environment around him rather than the character himself is a talent and technique that just isn’t used in anime. It’s something that’s a far cry from the maturing character arcs that most protagonists have. In fact, Shinji doesn’t quite have a character arc. He spends most of his time in Evangelion utilizing a flat arc, and it’s not only until the very end where Shinji makes the big developments. And while it’s something that could be chalked up to as a bad character choice, it paints a more realistic picture of mental health problems. Paired with Anno’s raw portrayal of emotions, that choice he makes is part of the reason how Evangelion can be realistic but still very powerful to the end.
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Depression has always been a very touchy subject in anime. While it is a powerful tool and can be used to enhance both your audience’s engagement within the medium and the deeper meaning behind it, having a depressed character does not necessarily mean that you have a good anime. There are plenty of people out there who fail to understand depression, and in trying to understand or write about it, fail miserably.
This is a problem that Evangelion doesn’t have. With Anno’s experiences with depression, every part of Shinji’s story is made with a personal touch. Experiencing depression first hand means that you feel and understand the brutal elements and the detailed intricacies of it. You feel what it’s like to want to please people so bad and you feel what it’s like to have an empty, gaping hole in you as it threatens to eat everything you found somewhat tolerable about life.
Part of Evangelion’s intrigue is how Anno writes depression. He doesn’t try and force his way into it, and even then the characters all feel genuine and realistic. Instead of using depression as a crutch to carry the show, Evangelion uses it as a tool, where the audience can relate to and feel more of the emotional stress Shinji is feeling.
In doing so, it increases the impact the anime has. Because we as the audience, through the expert camerawork and character-building see and feel through Shinji’s lens, the impact of the emotional message is more profound and heartfelt. You’re left wanting to cheer for Shinji, or at least acknowledge him as he breaks through, and Evangelion makes it so satisfying when Shinji stands up, loving himself for who he is and not what people view him as, smiling genuinely for the first time in the series.
His heartfelt character combined with the journey to discover one’s self worth is something that resonates with fans and just casual watchers alike because it’s real. I’m sure most of us have felt the fear, the anxiety, and the pain of wanting to please someone, to be noticed by someone, to be complimented by someone. Just like Shinji, we spend years of our lives with this mentality, living for the hopes of receiving those ever rare compliments that satisfy our self worth. But as we go through the same journey as Shinji, although we try going the same way, and we try the same things differently, trying to be a better pilot, doing better in school, studying harder, and we cry silently to ourselves in frustration and in pain, wanting to get out of the hell that god has put us in.
Failure after failure, cries upon cries, admonitions after admonitions, we all feel Shinji’s pain as everything builds up step by step until the pain is almost unbearable.
But this fixed point of view isn’t right, nor is it healthy. We only drive ourselves further and further down our dark path, never finding enough satisfaction. We constantly crave more of love, we constantly crave more in our never ending quest to finally be satisfied.
But as we witness in Shinji’s breakthrough, the only thing we needed was a change in perspective. With the human instrumentality project and everyone merged into one soul, it means that Shinji is now able to see and understand what everyone thinks about him. While he is afraid of others seeing his true self, the human instrumentality project offers a perspective from other people that Shinji never got. Asuka, Rei, and Misato, all telling him that other people could never truly understand him. In his desperation for love and affection from others, he fails to realize that the only person who can sympathize and understand him is himself, something that he realizes. And it’s here, in the tragedy of his situation and his inability to accept reality, constantly running away, that we realize that reality might not be all that bad. That it’s our perception of reality that’s gone bad. With so many realities, so many truths that he could’ve been put in, the only thing that matters is how we look at things. As we come to that realization, realizing that maybe he could love himself, and maybe it was okay for him to be here, the walls of his anxiety and self-doubt crack and crumble, leaving people applauding and congratulating him on his graduation and self-realization, and for the first time, we see Shinji’s genuine and heartfelt smile, a smile worth all the struggles and pain he goes through.
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Evangelion is far from perfect. Major plot points and questions like why only kids can pilot the Eva units and where the Angels come from are left unanswered. The dialogue and shots are uncomfortable and unreal. It’s repetitive, and boring to the people who are never truly able to connect with the show, and for those reasons, a great number of people often come out hating the show.
And yet I still love this show. Every single character is so well designed, with their own backstory and problem that haunts them. Nothing in this show is black or white. Even when Asuka bullies Shinji for being too mellow, or Gendo imposes fear into Shinji and makes him almost commit murder, they’re all pieces of a greater whole. Asuka only acts tough so that people will look at her and won’t leave her like her mother left her in favor of a doll. Gendo never connected with Shinji because he was always scared that he only caused Shinji pain every time they were together.
I love the dynamics that can be achieved with these characters. I loved the amazingly accurate scenes of Shinji’s inner turmoil, I loved the scenes of Asuka’s mental breakdown when her strength is torn apart, I even loved Rei’s detached personality of sandpaper because of her status as a disposable clone.
It’s not perfect. It’s flawed, just like its cast, and these flaws are usually the ones that turn people away. But it’s a story that I need, that society needs. With the amount of triumphant stories of justice or fighting against the odds, we don’t get enough stories that slow it down and tell a more personal story. As a person who struggles with my own mental health, it’s a refreshing and beautiful take on depression that left me speechless.
And while I realize what I’m about to say might not be something new among Evangelion fans, it feels like Evangelion has done more for me than therapy, medication, and parents have ever done. Watching through Shinji suffer in his heartbreaking and unhealthy mentality had a cathartic effect to it. It was like feeling I had someone to relate to, someone that understood what I was feeling, and it was enough to drive me to tears but also able to get me to understand. Understand that maybe the world wasn’t as bad as I originally thought it was. Understand that I was a person capable of not only doing good things but also mistakes, and instead of being so scared of these mistakes, I should instead learn to accept them as a part of myself. And maybe, it was okay for me to be myself, not what others want me to be.
I love this show. And hopefully through this essay, I helped you discover some of the magic that made Evangelion so special to me.
Thank you for reading.