Speaking Once as They Return: Gainax's Neon Genesis Evangelion

Written by: Carl Horn
Source: AMPlus Issue 2
Dated: February 12, 1996

Even though (Evangelion) is being made on the second floor, I know absolutely nothing about the plot. Maybe that's just as well. But having seen the already finished episodes, all I can to say to those who haven't seen any of it is, I don't understand it. Having said that, it does seem that (writer/director) Anno is unusually relaxed about the series.

Takeda Yasuhiro, Gainax (1995)

I don't understand (Gainax's) Honneamise in the least. Therefore it has to be terrific.

Yamashina Makoto, Bandai (1987)

From the above quotes, it would seem that Gainax, the legendary studio of fans turned pro, has accomplished a remarkable artistic feat; whereas its first production, 1987's Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise was incomprehensible only to its corporate backers and the general public (Gainax dryly refers to it as their "little-known masterpiece".), its latest production, Neon Genesis Evangelion, which began on TV this last fourth of October, is opaque even to Gainax itself.

Without going too far with the joke, though, there do seem to be two things the otherwise distant Honneamise and Evangelion share in common. Both mark the beginnings of eras for Gainax—namely, their first (1987-1991) and now, second era of producing original animation. And both appear to be dominated in their viewpoint by one man. Whereas Yamaga Hiroyuki last year said that Honneamise reflected his opinion of the world at the time he wrote and directed it, Anno Hideaki declared in last November's issue of Newtype that he's going only by his own value system in judging the series. That, combined with Anno's surprise remarks at the end of vol. 1 of "Eva" character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki's Evangelion manga (itself a similar, but "alternate" version of the anime story) that this project represents the end of four years that were for him no more than "simply not dying," indicate this TV anime series is personal and deeply felt to Anno.

That kind of personal feeling might seem like a risky thing for Gainax, raising the possibility that Evangelion might suffer what Okada Toshio, Gainax's first president, described as Honneamise's fate—to be understood by only a fraction of the audience the first time around. Yet, Okada's remarks on the unique nature of Gainax also suggest that it is inevitable, indeed necessary, that Eva be founded in personal feeling. Despite their own satirical, Fortune 500 fantasy life as the anime production arm of a merchandising conglomerate as portrayed in Otaku no Video, Gainax does not play this role in real life as many studios do, turning out "product" as a means to selling other people's toys. And, although Gainax is bursting with ideas, a million ideas, says Okada, are never sufficient for them to make an anime. Making anime is impossible for them if it isn't in their hearts to do so. Pioneer was at one point to finance a sequel to Honneamise, written by Yamaga and directed by Anno, yet the project fell through because, Okada relates, Yamaga's heart wasn't in what he was writing; his script was becoming a parody. Today, Yamaga says he is once again looking at the world with eyes ten years older in order to write a true sequel; but now, is the moment for Anno Hideaki's heart to show with Eva.

And they're enjoying the show: unlike Honneamise, the audience is opening up to Evangelion; it's pulling good ratings and, as a mecha show, is beating even the Bandai-backed Gundam Wing. Eva has thus far been on two Animage covers and four of Newtype; at the recent Winter Comic Market, Eva doujinshi were the hot item for both male and female readers. It is the most talked-about show in the industry, the hot topic among Japanese fans, and the subject of a fierce and as yet unresolved bidding war among multiple companies for the American rights, which has already gone well beyond triple the opening price.

So What's It All About?

Alot of things, actually. Here is your basic plot background. The year is 2015. Fifteen years before, the history books record, the fabled millennial last judgment nearly came when a meteor accelerated to near-light speed struck the Antarctic continent. The half of the human race that was still alive a year afterward called it the "Second Impact," recalling the asteroid strike thought to have once rendered the dinosaurs extinct; the force of the Antarctic detonation changed world wide climate patterns, wobbled the Earth's axis and raised the ocean levels by 60 meters, submerging the heavily-populated coastal zones.

The Second Impact, however, was said to have been no act of cosmic chance, but the work of mysterious entities called "Angels". Their motives and true aims unknown, the Angels have returned after fifteen years to challenge the reconstructed remnant of humanity at Tokyo-3, a newly-built city in Japan's Hakone area designed as a mechanized fortress for the defense of humanity. Underneath Tokyo-3 is the gigantic underground base of NERV, a secret organization under the aegis of the United Nations. There, NERV has developed the Evangelion units, robots designed to defeat the Angels, whose "AT (Absolute Terror) Field" renders ordinary weapons—even nuclear mines—useless.

The Evangelion units, though, can only be piloted by 14 year-olds with certain characteristics, and at the story's beginning, a worldwide search by the mysterious Marduk Institute has found only three: the third being our protagonist, Ikari Shinji, who is summoned to NERV on the day of the Angels' reappearance to meet Katsuragi Misato, NERV's Operations Chief and his new guardian. Compounding the problem that Shinji is suddenly expected to pilot the Evangelion, whose very existence was unknown to him before today, is the fact that NERV's Supreme Commander is his estranged father, Ikari Gendou. The strain on Shinji is immense, but neither he nor the human race have any choice but to fight.

The Complications Begin

Those are the basics, the first few episodes of the 26-episode series (If there are no pre-emptions, Evangelion will end on 27 March.). But Eva is a show that has been having people wondering since long before it premiered on 4 October of last year. Early in 1995, the first rumors started to come out of Japan of some of the unusual premises of the show-to-be: What is the nature of evolution? What is humanity's relationship to what we call the divine? Does "God" exist? And ask yourself—what would it mean for the human race if we could finally answer "yes" or "no"?

Unusual premises, indeed, for what Anno himself describes as a "robot and cute girl anime". Anno has already directed what some would describe as the ultimate robot and cute girl anime, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster, back in 1988, but the script for Gunbuster passed through Okada's and Yamaga's hands as well as his own, and Anno, for the personal reasons related above, desires Evangelion to be a more serious take in general than the half-comedy, half-drama Gunbuster (though Evangelion certainly displays a similar mix at times, notably in episodes 8 and 9).

Fundamental to Anno was the question he posed to Newtype last spring: "If a person likes robot or cute girl anime, can that person get past the age of twenty and still really be happy? Maybe they can be if they don't know that there is greater happiness out there in the real world—I guess I've begun to doubt such happiness." Anno is a master of occult knowledge as a super-otaku, and a wielder of mighty powers as one of Japan's top animators—but like Nicol Williamson's Merlin in Excalibur, he is also given to cryptic and ironic utterances such as the above—reflections on the SF-anime otaku "world" and the way he himself has shaped it.

Like Gainax's previous works (even Honneamise, to a small extent), Evangelion is chock full-o'otaku in-jokes and references: The Prisoner, Thunderbirds, Ultra Seven, UFO, The Andromeda Strain, even The Hitcher. But its overriding influences are not the world of SF movies and television, but literature. Anno acknowledged early on how Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End informs the show, but there is also Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Man series (from which is taken the name of one of Eva's most mysterious elements—what is sometimes translated as the "Human Competition Project," but which Anno says should be rendered in English as the "Instrumentality Project"). And most recently, the influence of Philip K. Dick has come to the fore. The title of episode 12 is a reference to one of his stories and reveals interesting similarities now apparent between Evangelion and Dick's 1981 novel The Divine Invasion, which also postulates an extraterrestrial connection to human religion and an interpretation of the Kabbalah.

A Giant Robot X-Files?

The Kabbalah needs a little discussion in any article on Evangelion. The diagram, "Systema Sephiroticum," ("The Sephirothic System") that appears in Eva's opening credits over Misato's right hand (and on the ceiling of Gendou's office) was drawn by a German priest, Athanasius Kircher, in 1653 (We won't speculate on whether Kircher's brother Jesuits you saw in Shogun entrusted a copy to Anno's Tokugawa ancestors). Kircher's drawing was based on his study of the Kabbalah, which means "tradition" in Hebrew. The word "cabal" is derived from it, and with good reason: The Kabbalah is a highly esoteric strain of mysticism within Judaism that first arose in Spain in the twelfth century. The Kabbalah claims to be a collection of secret knowledge handed down directly from God to Adam to Moses that provides the initiate with the ability to approach God directly. The Kabbalah was originally based on what might be called a cryptologic premise, that Creation itself was a process involving the ten digits (as "divine numbers," or "sephiroth"), and the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet; together they constitute the "32 paths of sacred wisdom".

The Sephiroth later became associated with facilities both human and divine—such as beauty, wisdom, and glory—and was seen as the very framework, the model, through which God had created both the human being and the Universe—this framework is what the "Systema Sephiroticum" portrays. The esoteric influence of the Kabbalah is seen most clearly in modern Judaism inside Hasidic communities, but the Kabbalah has fascinated scholars—from priests to psychologists such as Carl G. Jung, and secret societies of every stripe since the close of the Middle Ages. In Umberto Eco's ultimate secret society novel, Foucault's Pendulum, a character insists that even the first automobile was designed along the lines of the Sephirothic System—and indeed this may be where we come into what the Kabbalah, motifs of which are flashed at the opening of every episode of Eva, has to do with the show. Ayanami Rei, one of the Evangelion pilots, refers in episode 14 to the "entry plug" with which pilots are inserted into their EVA units as "the throne of the soul," a very Sephirothic concept. Most giant robots are in human shape, of course, but in Evangelion this fact may be given mystical overtones as well—not quite what people expected from Anno when he said that he wanted to be liberated from the design constraints that would come if Eva had been financed by a toy company!

Evangelion is teeming with Hebrew and Biblical lore besides the Sephirothic System, with the EVA units possibly connected to the legend of the Golem, a giant artificial man which does its creator's bidding, the mystical Hebrew calligraphy at the very end of the opening credits resembling that found in the seventeenth century "Book of Raziel," the Hebrew code-names given the "Angels," the mysterious "remains of Adam," the quote from Genesis 2:8-9 that is the apparent epigram of the series, the line from Browning that is the motto of NERV, and the suggestion that the Angels' attacks were foretold by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest fragments of Jewish scripture, discovered in 1947. Take Anno's remarks about how Evangelion was going to involve some big questions about the truth between God and man, and combine it with these mysterious, mystic clues scattered throughout the series—already giving rise to many fan "theories" about where Eva is leading—and it's not too much to say that those who like The X-Files may find a lot to like here as well.

A Robot and Cute Girl Show

"We're not computers, Sebastian," Roy Batty admonishes in Blade Runner, "We're physical." Physical is the word to describe the terrific robot combat in Evangelion: in episode 2, Shinji's Eva-01 unit fights the Angel not with a swarm of homing missiles as in Macross, but with its fists and feet—not Bruce Lee stuff either, but the savagery of a barroom brawl. The EVA is trying to beat the Angel to death, and the collateral damage to the city of Tokyo-3 is high. Unlike the chunky, linebacker mobile suits of Gundam (They appear that way, in part, because it makes them easier to balance as toys.), the three EVA units seen thus far are built with the tall, lean power of a Carl Lewis or a Hakeem Olajuwon. Synchronized fighting techniques between the EVA units becomes a developing theme, although Anno is certainly not above milking it for satire, as in the balletic attack made by Shinji's and Asuka's EVA units in episode 9. The Eva units possess the unusual quality of requiring their pilots to be submerged in LCL, a super-oxygenated silicon liquid researched by the U.S. Navy (It has been pointed out that this would lower the speaking voices of the pilots by several octaves, but an otaku could suggest NERV's computers automatically compensate for this during radio transmission).

With this studio, you would demand cool design or your money back, and Evangelion delivers all the wonderful minor details: from the studied clutter of Misato's room (Like Anno, she likes to begin the day with beer), to a particular Gainax specialty: clever signs and readouts. a design element dating back to Gunbuster but which also today reflects the considerable software expertise of Gainax. Even Shinji's walkman (a Super-DAT) becomes more than a simple prop, when its track-skippings are used to underline Shinji's wandering thoughts or even slice time into separate pieces, as in episode 4.

The link from mecha to characters reminds one of the obvious: there are a lot of cute girls in Evangelion, although Misato thinks Shinji has a pretty face as well (No doubt the women at Comic Market agreed). Although Sadamoto Yoshiyuki said in Newtype that he was deliberately trying for a different approach from his work on Nadia—"With Jean, you just put some blush in his cheeks, gave him some glasses, and boom, there he is"—and make characters for Eva that "looked more ordinary, the kind of people you might see on the street," there's no getting around the fact that Eva's characters have captivated the fans; Rei has already shot into the top 5 favorite characters in Animage's monthly poll, with Shinji not too far behind.

The trailers at the end of Eva's episodes that tell the viewer what's up next week often promise "service". "Service shots" are the anime industry's term for lecherous flashes of female (There have been a few of Shinji, in some sort of affirmative action program) characters nude or in compromising positions: Misato bending over in her cut-off jeans, for example. The fans love it, of course, and it is in itself another Gainax tradition, dating back to their primordial "bounce" in 1983's Daicon IV opening video. But no one in Eva is a bubble head, and those who "flash" on the surface are often hiding much underneath.

In one of the series' most evocative moments thus far, Shinji goes to Rei's apartment in episode 5 to deliver her NERV ID card. Rei appears to live alone in a massive, gloomy, apartment block in the midst of a construction zone—we hear the rhythmic clang of a pile driver throughout the scene. Shinji's nervousness about visiting Rei comes not only from Misato teasing him about it but the fact that her apartment appears dark, deserted, and full of garbage—and bloody bandages from her recent training accident are strewn about. Shinji discovers a cracked pair of what appear to be his father's glasses on Rei's dresser, and puts them on. Pale and ghostly, Rei strides into the room, naked, moving up to Shinji, and without a word, takes the glasses off his face. Shinji, nervous as hell, stumbles and catches himself on Rei's drawer, and he falls to the floor upon her with Rei's underwear showered on them. In, say, Ranma 1/2 or City Hunter, you would expect at this point the appearance of a ten-ton hammer or a cry of "Ecchi!" ("Pervert!"), but Rei just lays there silently and looks up at Shinji for a long moment before finally asking him to move off. It's a scene reminiscent of the most controversial one in Gainax's Honneamise, ten years before—but here in Eva, the moment slows down to show us the mind-set of a character. It's a eerie, mysterious scene, and erotic in a dark way rather than that of the "cute" service shots.

Behold, I Show You a Mystery (Wednesday Nights at 6:30)

If you're like most people in the English-speaking world reading this, you still haven't had the chance to see Neon Genesis Evangelion; those who have are in general lucky enough to have Japanese video stores in their communities or be pen pals with those who do. Rest assured, though, that there's still many surprises awaiting everyone: even those who have seen some Eva are working with admirable but admittedly quite preliminary fan translations. And if it appears that much has been given away in this article, the truth is actually still out there: even beyond the halfway point of the series, we don't really know what the Instrumentality Project is (human-induced evolution, as hinted at by Anno?), exactly why the Angels are attacking (to stop the Instrumentality Project?), what makes the "children" of Eva special (if they were genetically engineered as pilots as some fans originally assumed, then why was it necessary to conduct a worldwide search to find them?), and what the relationship is between the "technology" of the Angels and that of the Evangelion units. We often get maps to the puzzle piece rather than the pieces themselves.

But it's not just solving the background puzzle that keeps viewers watching, for there is another mystery at work in Evangelion; the mystery of human emotion. Evangelion is very much a human story: a story of war, of growing up, of reconciliation, romance and love among its multi-generational cast. It is becoming increasingly apparent to the fans that the intriguing writing of Eva does not merely include a mysterious plot with a human element, but a story which combines the search for personal growth with the fearless vision of the best science-fiction; a combination Gainax displayed long ago in Honneamise.

Overriding it all, as the noted Japanese social writer, Sato Kenji, has remarked, is Anno Hideaki's overall honesty, his own whisper of the heart—"to live is to change"—from one of Japan's top animators, caught for four years in the personal hell of depression and helplessness as an artist. It helps to remind one that the people who make anime don't do it just for the often paltry living it provides, but to express what's inside them with these tools they know. To make something that means something to them is the reason Gainax makes everything. "Arrogant and selfish" is how Anno describes it. An egotistical, fan boy, inward-seeking approach, bound to fail? You can ignore their work as easily as a spiral on the sea: hurricane arms, wrapped with otaku dross like shipwrecks, secret at the center, storming with ambition.

Carl G. Horn

(The author would like to express his thanks to Gainax, Okada Toshio, and Mitsuhiro Wada, who greatly assisted in the preparation of this article)