A Cruel Angel’s Antithesis: Metaphysical Conflict of Themes
**Contains spoilers from the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion**
Neon Genesis Evangelion is considered one of the greatest works in animation history. Its grim, pessimistic plot is backed up by psychological trauma and religious imagery, with a variety of well-rounded characters. But, the series ended in a controversial manner: the ending of the original series has been regarded as highly complex and difficult to understand. However, the answer can be inferred once one examines the metaphysical concepts of idealism and how these are incorporated within the story. These serve as a compliment to the psychological nature of the plot and to reinforce certain themes emphasized in Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The story develops in a post-apocalyptic Japan after a meteorite crash causes a massive amount of human casualties and the appearance of a mysterious race of giant beings known as Angels. The governments of the world allow for the creation of NERV, a paramilitary organization that uses the remains of the meteorite and of the first two Angels to create specific weapons against the incoming Angel threat. NERV finalizes the creation of biotic weapons known as Evangelions: cyborgs imbued with a human soul and an energy reactor. The Evangelions however, need a pilot in order to maintain them in balance and carry out their main functionality; otherwise they would go berserk or cease to function.
The main character of the series is a young teenager by the name of Shinji Ikari. Shy, insecure, and introverted, Shinji is chosen to pilot the Evangelion model called Eva-01. However, he is faced with many challenges that compromise his duty. Shinji’s flawed personality constantly hinders his progress as a pilot, being gripped by fear of dying, ire at his father for leaving him out of his care, and depression caused by loneliness. Though at every turn Shinji manages to persevere and continue his duty, it is only at the end where he truly has a change that leads to the self-realization of his troubled personality.
The same can be said of the supporting main characters. Shinji’s main companions: Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley, are mentally unstable. Rei is a genetic experiment, a being that harbors the soul of the Angel Lilith, the second and one of the most powerful Angels. As such, her body can be replaced whenever she dies, leading her to have a low self-esteem and no feeling of self-worth, while being socially inept and withdrawn. Asuka Langley, on the other hand, is a talented but ill-mannered girl who hides her fears and shames behind a façade of pride and arrogance. She is traumatized after her mother committed suicide, and at the first sign of failure she enters a mental block that lowers the quality of her performance.
The main characters rely heavily on the interactions they have with the supporting cast and each other. For example: in various fights in the series, the only way the Angels were destroyed was by cooperation between the pilots; as seen in episode 9 where Asuka and Shinji attempt to put aside their personality flaws and train in unison to destroy an Angel. Shinji constantly yearns to be enough for his comrades and pinpoints his reason for participating in NERV is to be liked. Even Rei, who pushes away most human contact, forms a bond with the head of NERV, Shinji’s father, which allows her to cope with her existence. This emphasis on human interdependence defines how the story moves and resolves, as later on it will be a focal point in the conclusion of the story.
Throughout the plot, there is mention of the Human Instrumentality Project. Spearheaded by Shnji’s father: Gendo Ikari and the government group known as SEELE, the purpose of the project is to bring humanity into its peak evolution. This would be achieved by awakening Lilith, who shares her DNA with human’s genetic code, uniting them into a single being solely composed of mental consciousness. The result of the Human Instrumentality Project would be a world where nobody felt alone or insufficient and everybody could be complimented by each other’s strengths as a collective whole.
Lilith’s unification of all human souls is a representation of what is called subjective idealism: a branch of metaphysics that rejects the concrete world and accepts the existence of the mind. The mind in turn, creates the world as it observes different perspectives and creates the false reality. The finality is that the connection of all things would produce an existence that is in close contact with God.
Stephen S. Colvin connects the world of ideas with psychology. He states in his article that:
The external stimulus (standing for the extra-mental object) becomes a conscious fact only by exciting the end organs of sensation, traversing the afferent nerves, and producing a change in the cerebral cortex. To suppose that a process so mediated can reveal to us an independent reality, we are told, is sheer nonsense. We must reject the world of the naive realist, and admit that all we can know are elements of our own consciousness. (page 2/7, Colvin)
He presents that there is a reality that differs from in [delete in] our consciousness, something that is beyond our normal reasoning. This sustains the main point of subjective realism: that the world is created by different perceptions and stimuli to the senses. However, he is later quick to state that the numerous stimuli have their own existence, even if they are unable to think, acknowledging that there is a need of accepting the existence of the real world. By extension, this leads to what is known as objective idealism. This idealism, formulated by the likes of Georg Wilhelm, Friedrich Hegel, accepts the separate existence of material things, but denies that human spirit is connected to this world.
With what is presented on the context of idealism, and what is known from the characters’ dire situation, we can infer that the Human Instrumentality Project is an escapist resolution towards the turmoil of the characters. As defined by Longeway:
“”Escapist” entertainment’s essential purpose is to draw us away from our everyday troubles, and, sometimes, to help us to fantasize ourselves as better, more important, and better off than we really are.” According to this definition, we can infer that the project allows for the characters to bring an end for their pain by becoming one. The three pilots can finally live their lives happily, and Gendo Ikari, the mastermind behind the project, can reunite with his deceased wife and become a happy family with her and Shinji. Not only that, all humanity would be devoid of suffering, so it would seem that the Human Instrumentality Project would resolve humanity’s suffering by focusing on the necessity of human interaction.
There would be a catch to the project, though. The fusion of all humans would eliminate the idea of the individual. The ego would be lost, and the main purpose of escapism would not be achieved: to achieve a better sense of self. According to Longeway, this type of escapism, which he calls entrenched escapism, would not lead to the correct course of actions, as he states:
“But entrenched escapism, escapism of the sort that would avoid a belief even when it is importantly relevant to one’s present concerns, is not ever theoretically rational, and it is not pragmatically rational except as a compensatory mechanism, correcting for some problem within the individual’s psychology, or the fact that the individual must live in an impossibly hostile environment (that is, an environment for which its optimal functioning is not designed)”. (p. 18, Longeway)
This demonstrates that by not being able to confront his situation, the individual has not resolved his problem The Human Instrumentality Project qualifies as this type of escapism because the realization would not be of the individual, but of the collective. This is represented in the way the characters are dependent on each other to keep their minds stable.
As mentioned before, there are two endings. The first one, released in the original series as episodes 25 and 26, consists of the consciousness of four characters as they begin to merge because of the Human Instrumentality Project. The three pilots, Shinji, Asuka, and Rei, accompanied by Shinji’s legal guardian, Misato Katsuragi, are interrogated by the supporting characters and each other with different questions in order to tear down the psychological barriers that cause their personality flaws. By episode 26, Shinji is the focal point of the project and is lead down to the path of realization. He is told by his friends and comrades that he must learn to believe that he has self-worth in order to become happy, and that he is only determined by that which he sets out to do. After a sequence of introspection, he realizes that no matter what he might do, that he can learn to be himself and be content with who he is. He is later congratulated by the cast of characters and thanks them for their help.
This ending is seen as the triumph of subjective idealism and escapism. Noting the need for human contact in order for survival, humans are unified in a single consciousness. The final scene with Shinji being congratulated is the success of the Human Instrumentality Project of integrating Shinji in the collective consciousness. Now that Shinji has let go of his flaws with the help of his comrades, he is now unified with humanity.
The second ending is shown in the movie The End of Evangelion. This supplement to the series instead show the process of the Human Instrumentality Project as the new incarnation of Lilith creates the union between all human souls: Lilith’s Egg. Once Shinji is absorbed into the egg, he begins to ponder if this existence, free of pain, is worth it. He is given control of the project by Lilith; yet, as the souls become one, he feels the immense pain of all humanity, and begins to feel a strange emptiness in the lack of recognition of others. After he debates whether or not the existence as a single being is the correct path for humanity, he decides to abandon the project, seeing as life’s fulfillment through one’s own realization is the best way to live. Lilith dies, and humans begin to return to Earth.
This ending is the objective idealist ending, and a rejection of escapism and subjective idealism. The idea of a utopic life fills Shinji with a sense of emptiness, and he realizes that pain and suffering is part of a true existence. All of the material feelings that he had where essential to him, and he wishes for the world to return back to his rightful place.
What is the point of presenting both endings? What is this contrast between the acceptance of a unified existence and the rejection of that same way of being? This is connected with a theme of perseverance found in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Hideaki Anno, series creator, writer, and director, mentions in an interview: “…He ran away from something in the past, so he decides that this time he will stand his ground. The same theme was carried over into Evangelion, but I think it was something more than just transposing one show’s theme onto another …” Throughout the story, Shinji has been tempted to give up on his life as an EVA pilot, due to the massive stress caused by his duties. He always ends up taking the pilot’s seat and riding the bio-mechanical creature into battle.
The endings are in reality the wish to escape versus the will to persevere; the first one being the culmination of all the effort Shinji has put on his life and the ultimate renunciation, while the other is the continuation of said effort. Both ends are rewarding, one gives Shinji happiness, the other, allows him to grow into maturity and true self-appreciation. However, the first ending is the best example of human weakness leading into our own destruction, seeing as humanity has transformed into something else because of its inability to cope with its own natural emotions and problems. Whereas the second ending is what ties in with the theme of continuation through strife that Anno placed in Neon Genesis Evangelion, and therefore serves as the best culmination for the original series. As stated in Lilith’s dying monologue: “As long as you are alive, you have the chance to be happy”, the perfect example that no matter what humanity does, it can always realize its true potential as long as it tries.
Neon Genesis Evangelion uses the mixture of metaphysics and psychology to teach us the importance of perseverance, the power of ideas and the mind, the importance of human coexistence, and other themes. This 26 episode animated series, accompanied by the 90 minute movie, gives us an insight towards different paths we can take to better ourselves, and that if we truly appreciate ourselves, we can reach the point where we accept ourselves. We just need to look in between the lines, filled with complex spiritual, religious, and psychological imagery.
Contributor: Jose Porrata
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