Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Struggle of Existence

Neon Genesis Evangelion is a monumental achievement for the landscape of Japanese animation. As a realistic take on the mecha anime genre, the property immediately became iconic during the 1990s and spawned a franchise, with a new Evangelion film being released just this year. On the surface, it appears to be a show about teenagers piloting massive robots to fend off otherworldly beings known as Angels. In actuality, the anime came to fruition out of creator Hideaki Anno’s own struggle with existence and it focuses on themes such as depression, isolation, abandonment issues, and the complexities of human interaction. These themes are best explored through the protagonist, Shinji Ikari.
To provide context, Shinji’s father, Gendo is director of an organization known as NERV. In the year 2000, an experiment by NERV resulted in a global catastrophe deemed as the Second Impact. After the Second Impact, Angels began to appear and terrorize Tokyo. NERV designed robot-like bio-machines known as Evangelions to combat these Angels. Evangelions tend to be connected to a certain person’s consciousness and can only be piloted by the offspring of that person.
At the age of four, Shinji is abandoned by his father. Ten years later, Shinji’s father calls on him to pilot one of the Evangelions even though they are estranged. However, Shinji’s nature is determined by his father’s abandonment. He’s let his tragic past dictate how he views himself, illustrated by the fact that he lives in self-loathing and feels completely worthless. When asked to pilot an Evangelion, Shinji reluctantly agrees and then finds himself continuing to endure misery as the story progresses.
For example, psychological walls formed by his past cause Shinji to face loneliness and have trouble connecting to the people around him, namely fellow pilots Asuka Langley-Soryu and Rei Ayanami, who are facing their own crises as well. Additionally, Shinji’s piloting of the Evangelion causes him to witness devastating events and be put in many near-death situations, traumatizing him. Not knowing how to solve his problems, Shinji always looks for ways to escape. He’ll escape by either literally running away, using others as emotional crutches for validation, or blatantly attempting to ignore his situation.
Later, it is revealed that there are strings being pulled behind the curtain at NERV. Gendo is in touch with a committee known as SEELE who want to cause another global catastrophe after the Second Impact, correspondingly deemed the Third Impact. This will commence an experiment referred to as the Human Instrumentality Project, an attempt to merge all of humanity into a collective state where there are no boundaries between each other and the living is united with the dead. Gendo also wants this to happen, but on his terms, so he can reunite with his dead wife, Yui Ikari. It is also showcased that there are multiple clones of Rei since she is a being designed by NERV from the DNA of Yui. Gendo hopes to use the last clone of Rei when starting instrumentality.
Although the show has its own specific ending in its final two episodes, the canon ending of the story is represented in the film, The End of Evangelion. In this film, Shinji continues coping with his issues and distress while experiencing new pain, such as witnessing Asuka be disemboweled by new Evangelion units developed by SEELE. When Gendo moves to commence instrumentality, the final clone of Rei rejects his will and goes to Shinji, offering him the chance to commence instrumentality on his terms.
Shinji is at his lowest point mentally and sees instrumentality as the ultimate escape from the pain, trauma, and loneliness of his existence, so he triggers it. As Shinji spends time in the Instrumentality that he triggered, he learns many lessons. He comes to terms with the fact that escapism will never truly solve his problems and that happiness will never be easily available, but still possible as long as he is alive and has the ability to feel emotion. He understands that that normal human existence allows for psychological walls to act as an adversary for people trying to connect with others and that human relationships will always have their intricate difficulties, but that he can also find genuine connections. Even though he’s lived most of his life in misery, Shinji still puts hope in the chance that he’ll be okay one day. As such, Shinji reverses instrumentality and opts for normal human existence.
In conclusion, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a story about overcoming depression, loneliness, abandonment issues, and the difficulties of human connection, with these ideas being exemplified very well in Shinji Ikari’s character arc. The anime may be dark and unflinching when examining these topics, but at the core of it, there is a beautifully hopeful message about how life is worth living even if it is painful and complicated.

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