Anime impressions: Evangelion
How to watch: Neon Genesis Evangelion, End of Evangelion.
By psycho, of psychos, for psychos
Evangelion requires special preparation for full enjoyment.
The most important thing to know is that Evangelion is not about meka action and not about optimistically beating the odds. It’s about emotional turmoil, about an unshielded psyche suffering on contact with the world, conveyed through a unique narrative device of artificially stripping most characters of their social mask, their emotional shield. The story merely provides context, and the meka action theme is just a wrapper to attract viewers. Psychic turmoil and captiring the failings of the human psyche that we usually fail to notice, or hide from ourselves and each other, is what the author is really about.
Almost all important characters are socially maladjusted and display traits of various psychoses. Some appear emotionally healthy, then easily break under pressure. This can feel unrealistic and galling to a viewer with a healthy social circle. I recommend to interpret this as a narrative device. Characters are artificially “unmasked”, stripped of their social interface, the critic, the “super-ego” that dictates social behavior. Instead of showing a character’s psyche and inner turmoil separately from their actions, Evangelion tends to show it through their actions, often unrealistic for a normal, socially adjusted human.
Character development inverts your expectations. Typical expectation is that characters progressively get more skillful, competent, powerful, and emotionally stable. In Evangelion, characters get progressively more psychotic and emotionally decrepit. When they get to know each other, instead of forming bonds of friendship and love, they become more wary and afraid of each other. The show explicitly points out how humans need each other for emotional comfort, but also run the risk of hurting each other due to carelessness and differences, and has no shortage of examples.
Many bizarre and psychotic actions can only be understood by relating them to your own emotional experiences. Figuring them out can be a lot of fun. One can view Evangelion as a psychedelic puzzle book. It captures various failings of the human psyche and asks you to recognize them in your own feelings and experiences. It offers you a chance to empathize with failings we often keep hidden under the social interface, which are broadly on display here.
The main protagonist is the most useless, cowardly wimp. Evangelion inverts the usual expectation of the hero growing stronger to beat the ever-greater odds, as the character only gets more pathetic as the plot goes on. The show even toys with our expectations by pretending that the character gets over his troubles, only to snap him again, several times. Evangelion seems to make a special point of building the most guilt-ridden, unwilling, passive “hero” imaginable and dragging him, often literally, into responsibility over the lives of others, complete with the consequences. I haven’t been able to understand this “point” yet, neither logically nor emotionally.
The original series fails to conclude the plot. The last two episodes leave it mysterious, open to speculation and interpretation, and focus exclusively on inner psyche. This can be enjoyable if the viewer is prepared in advance. Otherwise, it can be frustrating. The actual conclusion is “End of Evangelion”, a “movie” released many years after, that continues directly from the third-last episode and concludes the “real world” action, with a healthy dose of psychic puzzles.
Many important details are only briefly alluded to, and need to be deciphered. The series rewards watching carefully, paying attention to details, thinking back, and thinking ahead. There’s plenty of fun to be had by thinking about the implications of many plot details, events, technologies, and more, that are left unexplored on-screen. The show on the screen is like a compressed archive that can be decompressed in your head into a greater sum total of information, getting the most out of it.