A Kind Angel’s Thesis: Evangelion and the Apocalypse

“Young boy, like a cruel angel’s thesis,
Live up to be a legend…”
Neon Genesis Evangelion (which means “the Gospel of the New Beginning” in Greek) is a very complicated show, and a messy one. It is clever. It is very, very human. It is filled with horror, disgust, tenderness, and wonder in equal measure. It is also deeply influencial in the anime world (you can see it everywhere, from Haruhi to Bokurano to Shirobako to Madoka to Grimgar), linked to our story as a site, and an otaku card must-see. And it’s also the strange kind of show I ended up not liking even when I love the characters, the art style, the music, the brave use of fourth wall techniques in the last episodes, the confusing plot and all its psychological-philosophical-theological-whatever insights. I think it has to do with the last step. For me, it ended up being too much of a cruel angel’s thesis when it could have gone beyond itself, after the fashion of the true Apocalypse.

That may be a surprising formulation, but for all its mystery and horrors, the Apocalypse is not a story of despair, but one of hope. It is the tale of how everything falls down in the sunset of humanity, and Our Lord comes to rescue. Without it, the Bible, the perspective, would not be complete. I think that there are necessary stories that come when a genre reaches maturity and a talented artist notices it. Something speaks of obturation, of collapse, present from the beginning, in a way.

These are stories that deny or question its premises, show its limitations, play with their tropes to say something deep, and open new paths. They show that the stories and genres that we love cannot be self-contained, and need to go beyond. Some of these stories are realistic, as Don Quixote. Some of them are the epilogue of great works of art, like The Lord of the Rings. Many of them are apocalyptic stories. Evangelion is one of these (this is the meaning of the bombastic title, I think). There is a lot in it that rings so very true. It was fruitful, and brought a lot of new things to anime. And yet…

With Misato, Rei and Asuka, Evangelion took beyond the tsundere, the older beauty, and the ice queen. That was an accomplishment. But in Shinji, Evangelion brought us something new and, I would argue, something necessary. Something that was there from the beginning, at the heart of the mecha and the knights-monsters of the future Japan, the primal fighters which expressed the fears and wonders of the world after the atomic bomb, one way or another—at the heart of most anime, even. He is a different kind of hero, but also a real hero. As our former writer Zeroe4, I like him, and will defend him. A helpless, afraid, broken teenager living in self-disgust and doubt can be much more compelling than a brighter persona that just “gets into the robot.” I like him especially at his worst, maybe (which has to be that disgraceful moment with Asuka at the beginning of End of Evangelion; I’m not going to describe it, but in it he says “I’m the lowest of the low”).

Shinji’s motivations are certainly convoluted. He comes from the same emotional world that can give us, say, a Hachiken. Sometimes he is unlikable, even “a brat,” as Asuka once said. He wants to make his father and others love him, hates himself, gets paralyzed in dangerous and frustrating situations, is afraid, loves to ride the EVA, hates the harm he is causing, and can get into battle only by going berserk, which is a serious handicap. It’s a whole mess. But from time to time, he really tries. And, once in a while, he grows. He (spoilers ahead) defies his father and quits when Gendo tries to make him murder an innocent, even before knowing who the innocent is, saving his classmate’s life. In that moment at the very least, he is a hero, because defying his father and letting everyone down are two of his worst fears. But I think he is even braver when coming back to help, putting aside everything else.

Because the world of Shinji is one in which the scars of the atomic bomb (or, in this case, the Second Great Impact) are real and terrifying. Closeness is real and terrifying. Life can go wrong. Success is not guaranteed. Our own hearts, or others, can lie to us. We cannot predict history. Our points of reference may be out of place. Evangelion is so relevant because I, too, I’m so often Shinji. The doubtful, the fearful, the one who blocks his own path, the disgusting sinner. Anno knows his characters and respects them, and refuses to play it easy.

I liked the rest of the cast, too (the infamous Gainax fanservice aside). “The closer we become, the more deeply we hurt each other,” says Ritsuko. We need others, we can hope to receive help, but there is truth in her statement. I followed the cast with interest and compassion. Kaworu, Ms. Misato, Mr. Kagi’s, Asuka, and even Ritsuko and Gendo, had what I found to be compelling dilemmas and arcs. The EVAs and Angels captured my imagination, and I liked the conspiracy plot. As I said, I even liked it when Anno started going into uncharted territory by changing art styles and using all the resources he could think of to get inside Shinji. I can see how the story certainly demanded that of him, to go beyond. If, despite all I have said, I didn’t like the series as a whole is because I don’t think he succeeded there.

Don’t get me wrong: Anno certainly deals with the issues of anime that Miyazaki once criticized (according to Susan Napier´s “Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art”), a world out of proportion, warped, exaggerated, and sometimes even perverted to fit the demands of the impulse and the appetite and might distance us from the real thing, “inundated with images” from childhood. Look at the episodes; it´s all there. But this is where I believe that something more was needed. The thesis of the EVA (and Shinji) as a cruel angel had been developed. But the good news was never delivered.

Because psychological analysis, understanding, Schopenhauer, the tree of life and accepting that we are wounded is all well and good, but human connections were the heart of this story. So the therapeutic ending of the original series, in which Shinji pictures everybody clapping (or maybe the Human Instrumentality Program works and individuality gives place to a hive mind), rang very hollow for me, like a self-centered fantasy, while the End of Evangelion ending, while suggesting what could be a beginning of that, was still too ambiguous and frustrating. I think I can endure death, suffering, him losing his moral compass, the strangeness of the experience, the frustration, the sins, the Apocalypse, but I wanted to see something more. I wanted the Eagles, the miracle, the eucatastrophe—something from beyond. A message, or the hope of a message. After the thesis of a cruel angel, the thesis of a kind angel.

Because, in my own experience, from the horror and the collapse of the Apocalypse comes the messenger of hope. “Angel” means “messenger,” and “Evangelion” means “Good News.” Through the most twisted reflections in which I have tried to quench the thirst for light, fighting with me, stopping again and again after the rise of evil and horror, embracing me like a child among the fragments of something beautiful, luminous, fallen, that seems unattainable now, and reminding me of the truth that really, really, God does not want any of these little ones to be lost. That He loves his precious family, each one, and doesn’t want us to die, but to live, and grow, and love. That, through Him, we will be able to connect. I wanted Shinji to show that neither the cold, violent world represented by his father, Adam, SEELE and NERV and the EVA or the self-absorption and denial of life represented by Instrumentality, his mother, Lilith, and the giant Rei would have the last word. That there was a path. That he could hope for real connection.

Things as they are, Evangelion shows us an ultimately inhuman, almost hopeless world (whose Christian symbology, as Anno long ago stated, was used for mostly superficial reasons) where the hope to become a hero seems ultimately baseless. But God is a hero, and this heroism is in all His Creation. The Father is a Hero: like Abraham, He went through the Passion of His son to recover the Prodigal Son, the lost sheep, again and again. The Holy Spirit is a Hero: he unceasingly pours riches into the soul with infinite delicacy, with the greatest love there is, with the firm purpose of saving the one into whose soul he enters, without surrendering. That is the law of the angels, the constitution of the universe. Despite the powers of the world, of the tyrants, of the bomb, of depression, of the dreadful power of human technology, of the intimate wounds, it remains there. During the entire show, something in Shinji is struggling to get to the other side. But the show ends before we can see it.

The premise of all the mecha genre, Evangelion included, is that, for some accident of fortune, a child has become the most important person in the world, because only he or she can control the supreme power. In the Gospel, the original Evangelion, Jesus put a child in the midst of the disciples, who disputed the order of importance in the Kingdom of Heaven, and told them to take him in. He told them about the lost coin, about the little lost sheep. Be children, and welcome children in my name. Beware of despising one of these, my little ones, because the angels who see the face of God dedicate themselves—therefore, for that reason—to serve them, each one. Asuka, Rei, Misato, Shinji, Kaworu, Ritsuko, Kaji, Gendo. In the order of angels, the powerful protects the weaker. That’s what power, which Evangelion’s angels represent, was created for.

Even if being able to use a great power at the age of fourteen, with all the burdens that it entails, may not be the blessing the mecha genre took it for, at its core remains this fundamental truth: God does not measure the world with the same things as men. He deals with surprisingly little things sometimes. He takes very seriously to respect certain limits concerning us, because He values us. When He showed us His face in Christ, we saw Him laughing, suffering, getting angry, sad, fighting those who were destroying themselves, teaching, healing, washing the feet of His Apostles. So we can trust that, although it burns and destroys, He will fight to brings us life. We may be the lowest of the low, we may be broken, our motivations may be convoluted, but we are important to God. So He will give us a mission, and a path, and come to rescue.

The command not to despise the little is also full of wonder. Wait. Don’t judge the mystery. The Kingdom of Heaven, which is a good and pure triumphant kingdom, is also a gloomy, warped, and warlike kingdom sometimes. The hero is sometimes not quite the hero. The bride may not always be the bride. There is a Church Militant near the Church Triumphant. We may need to live near the military base, and get into our post, and try to create real connections, even as we deal with our own shortcomings. We may need to get out of it, to run away, to escape the idols. There is the hope which brings joy, the hope that gives pause and corrects or purifies the mistaken hopes, sometimes through pain, and the hope that brings courage. And all of them are important. But we know that, even when Humanity collapses, God and His angels will fight for us. Because that is just who they are.

In tune with Evangelion, the last chapters of the Apocalypse reference the beginning of the Book of Genesis. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. There, we find a new Heaven and a new Earth: new water, new fruit, a light brighter than the Sun or the Moon. In the beginning, God united Adam and Eve. Now, the Lamb of God and His bride are being married. “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the bright Morning Star.” The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” Let the one who hears say, “Come!” And let the one who is thirsty come, and the one who desires the water of life drink freely.…”

I have seldom talked about Asuka and Rei, whose fascinating yet unfinished arcs have been described by TWWK here (I see them paralleled in some of the character arcs of Haruhi, by the way). I wonder if the Rebuild movies will change my mind about Eva’s hopelessness with some miraculous, mysterious vision, or with some development in our three main characters. We’ll see.

Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion can be streamed through Netflix.

6 thoughts on “A Kind Angel’s Thesis: Evangelion and the Apocalypse

  1. Great job on writing this post! 🙂

    “Closeness is real and terrifying. Life can go wrong. Success is not guaranteed. Our own hearts, or others, can lie to us. We cannot predict history. Our points of reference may be out of place.” —> These phrases really spoke to me
    The end of this blog post/article remined me (once again) that God loves us more than we could ever imagine.

  2. Thanks for such an incredible review! Neon Genesis Evangelion came as highly recommended, and I have the first manga book The Shinji Ikari Raising Project. I haven’t had the chance to dive in because I suspect it’s the kind of show that requires acute attention to the details.

    1. Thank you for your kind comment! You are right about Evangelion requiring a great deal of analysis to make sense of the plot and the themes, especially as it comes to an end. I have yet to read the manga (I think our writer MRNMD is on it now). It is a very ambitious show, full of fascinating concepts.

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