Saving Humanity through Gender Reversal

A Feminist Interpretation of Shinseiki Evangelion

Author: Genevieve Petty
Source: Danae's Portfolio
Dated: Unknown (2003)

In 1995 Studio Gainax produced a twenty-six episode anime series for Japanese television called Shinseiki Evangelion.   Anno Hideaki, one of the founders of Studio Gainax, was its writer and director.   Previously he had been a principal animator for Wings of Honneamise and was in charge of Fushigi no Umi no Nadia. With it he broke all the rules that had previous defined anime. The television series achieved immense popularity in Japan. Later, Gainax released it first on video and later on DVD.  With its video release it achieved popularity in America and in Europe under the title of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the autumn of 2002 Gainax released its long-awaited movie sequels, Death and Rebirth and The End of Evangelion, which foreign fans had been sighing for.

Both fans and anime critics have been puzzled by Shinseiki Evangelion.  Patrick Macias in Animerica (a magazine devoted to anime) recommended that its viewers “Just give up.  Let go.   Forget about cause and effect for awhile.” However, in this paper, while I readily admit that the elusive Shinseiki Evangelion is open to as many interpretations as there are viewers, I will demonstrate that this anime can offer a radical solution to the socio-environmental curses of patriarchy.  Borrowing apocalyptic mysticism found in the Judeo-Christian religious system and wedding it to both Shinto mythology and modern technocracy, it constructs an answer of human salvation through gender role and attribute reversal.

To begin, there is the matter of its name.  Evangelion is Greek and translates into English as “gospel.”   In Japanese, Shinseiki literally translates into English as “new century” or “new era.”  However, when marketing it in the West, Gainax decided that Genesis might convey their concept better.  They might have used “Neo Genesis Evangelion” but Gainax did not want fans to consider their series derivative of Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo.” Thus, the idea behind the original title becomes a “Gospel for a New Beginning” which implies a message about a new start.

Even a cursory examination of the series and movies reveals elements taken from Judeao-Christian mysticism.  The first mission of NERV which the audience learns about is protection of “Adam” from contact with an angel. Contact would result in human extinction.  The “Evas” (nicknames used throughout the series) are blends of mechanical and organic components which are potentially sentient and which serve as Adam’s protectors.  Although they are piloted by human adolescents, they can awaken and act against pilot direction. The Evas are much more than robots and are female in every reference.  Of course, “Adam” and “Evas” recall the Biblical originators of the human species from the first book of Genesis.   Many feminists trace patriarchy within Judaism and Christianity to this Biblical myth of origination by pointing out that its female, “Eve,” was derived from its male, “Adam,” and that Eve was blamed for all evil because she desired wisdom.   Interestingly though, the roles of Adam and the Evas in Shinseki Evangelion are reversed from the roles assigned to males and females under patriarchy.  Usually the male is expected to protect a dependent female.  Here, the three female Evas protect a helpless male through spectacular violence.

Another person connected with Adam in Jewish folklore is Lilith, his “first wife” who refused to submit to his rule.   When Kaoru, the last angel, breaches all defenses at NERV, he discovers Lilith, not Adam.  Lilith is transfixed in a crucified posture.  The audience learns that Lilith is the mother of all humanity who voluntarily sacrificed herself and remained on Earth at First Impact. Lilith, the female, thus assumes the messianic martyr role of the male Jesus Christ for the love of humanity.

Much of the plot of Shinseiki Evangelion is an imaginative series of twists on mystical references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, writings of the Essene community at Qumran.  The Essene community had a very apocalyptic vision wherein they saw a war in which the Sons of Light would fight and triumph over the Forces of Darkness.  Very poetic descriptions of Elohim (angels) are mentioned. Ikari Gendo in Shinseiki Evangelion uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to predict the arrival of the Angels with whom the Evas fight. As Patrick Drazen points out in Anime Explosion, the concept of apocalypse itself does not exist either in Shintoism or in Buddhism (Japan’s major religions), so the whole scenario of massive planetary destruction as a finality was borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Other borrowings include the three Magi from Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ. In Shinseiki Evangelion the Magi become the three parts of the super-computer that operates NERV.   Once again, though, Anno has reversed the gender.  The original Magi were three male astrologers who brought gifts to the messiah. In Evangelion the Magi are the three aspects of Ritsuko’s mother – herself as a scientist, herself as a mother and herself as a woman. It is the aspect of woman which is able to resist the angel’s viral infection.

When SEELE, the secret sponsor of NERV which is also its enemy, sends forth its attack, it refers to the Third Impact which destroys humanity as a “sacrament.” SEELE is also an oblique reference to the Seven Seals, which are opened in the last book of the New Testament, Revelations, to release the woes upon Earth. Another clue to the symbolism in Evangelion is the motif of the Tree of the Sephiroth, from the Kabbalah, which is featured at the opening of every episode.

Then there is the treatment of Ikari Shinji by the other characters as a messiah.  He is summoned by his father from obscurity to be the Third Child, pilot for Eva 01. Everyone expects him to save them. No matter how reluctant he is, no matter how often he refuses or whines protest, no matter how incompetent he conducts himself, everyone expects Shinji to save them.  From beginning to end of the series, he is treated as their chosen messiah.

All these elements of Shinseiki Evangelion have been lifted from either Judaism or Christianity.  But the mythos is not entirely Western.  The splitting of Deity into White Moon, who was buried under Antarctica but who birthed the Angels, and Black Moon, who elected to remain as Lilith under the Izu Peninsula and birthed humans, which event constitutes the First Impact, references the Japanese creation myth wherein the “light” separated from the “heavy”.  The light floated upward to become the celestial realm while the heavy formed the sea. Such mingling of Lilith with the Japanese origination story places Japan as the source of the human species.

Thus, mythic ideas from both East and West are joined with a vision of a technocracy that governs Earth societies after the Second Impact.  According to Shinseiki Evangelion, the Second Impact was deliberately engineered by science and resulted in the Angels’ attacks. Technology is the weapon both Angels and humans use against each other.  However, neither SEELE (which appears to be a set of sentient computers) nor Ikari Gendo, who is in charge of NERV and the Instrumentality Project as well as being Shinji’s father, desires to stop the destruction of the planet at the Third Impact.   Both want to control the Third Impact for their own agendas.

Because the underlying premise of Shinseiki Evangelion is that the human species has reached the summit of its evolution.   There’s no further humanity can go.  Survival as humans is no longer possible … or even desirable for SEELE and Ikari Gendo.  Something new – which is not human – must survive and evolve to its potential.

Once this premise behind the story has been grasped, the question which viewers must ask is why.  Why should there be no future for humanity?  Shinseiki Evangelion provides its answers though its characters.  Each character is insulated from the other in its own hell by individuality.

Katsuragi Misato is the woman in charge of operations at NERV.  She is depicted as a consummate professional when she’s working.  She makes decisions on life-and-death issues with courage and logic.   When Shinji is cornered under the stairwell, whimpering, cowering, wanting death, Misato rescues him with swift kicks and bullets to his assailants.  She drags and bullies Shinji to his Eva. It has always been apparent throughout the episodes that Misato genuinely cares about Shinji.  At the end of their relationship, she gives him more than a pep talk; she gives him her kiss and her cross to let him know how much he means to her, even though she herself is dying. Misato is strong and capable (as most women in animation are not depicted).  Yet – she has weaknesses too.  At home she is a slob and an alcoholic. In her personal relationships she cannot commit.  She uses sex as a distraction for loneliness instead of a bridge into spiritual intimacy.  Misato kills her lover Kaji because he is a spy, even though he has helped her uncover some of NERV’s mysteries.

Ritsuko, Misato’s best friend, is a brilliant scientist and daughter of a brilliant scientist whose personality and wisdom became the Magi super-computer. Facing crisis, Ritsuko is detached, logical, serene.  But she is undermined by emotions of lust and jealousy that Misato never suspects until Ritsuko murders all the clones of Ayanami Rei because her genes were made from Ikari Yui, Gendo’s dead wife. Both Ritsuko and her mother have been his paramours.

Sohra Asuka Langley is the Second Child.   She has all the confidence of an Alexander the Great, all the aggression of Attila the Hun, all the competitive spirit of an Amazon when viewers first meet her. Within though, Asuka is a child bewildered by her mother’s suicide that she perceives as abandonment. She suffers deep-seated guilt and loneliness.  While she behaves with contempt towards others, she hungers for association.

Ryouji Kaji is a spy for SEELE inside NERV as well as Misato’s lover. He is charming and clever.   He understands Misato and he understands way too much about the realities around him.  To Misato he drops hints because he loves her. To his “friend” Shinji, he commits the care of his treasured watermelon patch, his refuge from professional dangers, when he anticipates his imminent death. But he has to record his final message to Misato on her voice mail.  He refuses to change his fate even though he has foreseen it.

Ikari Gendo seems to be the one individual who knows all the secrets and controls all the maneuvers at NERV.  He is as aloof from human involvement as a mountain peak.  Only Ayanami Rei elicits any warmth from him. However, in his final confrontation with Rei, when he expects her to re-unite him with the deceased Yui, he gets abandoned. Viewers learn just as he does, that he never had any real control.   He is alone in his darkness.

Shinji is Gendo’s son that he seems willing to sacrifice on the altar of his Evas again and again.  Shinji is sensitive, passive, obedient, does things like pilot an Eva for the approval of others, avoids conflicts by running away.  Notice how all these attributes are usually considered feminine.  He finds it utterly impossible to communicate with people.  On the one occasion when he feels loved – by Kaoru, the angel, he kills him and goes into shock.

Each of these characters as well as all the other personae, whether male or female, in Shinseiki Evangelion are equally isolated by the barriers of individuality.  Their lives are equally unhappy futile shams.

After Kaoru’s demise, SEELE launches an attack against NERV, pitting all its technology against humanity; so that by destroying it, Shinji’s mind will evolve beyond individuality in its merge with his Eva. This expresses a conviction that humanity, lacking an external enemy, will turn its violence upon itself and indeed self-destruct.

Gainax is certainly not unique with such a viewpoint.  Many people fear apocalypse will occur in our reality.  Feminists often ascribe this potential for apocalypse to the inculcation of violence in our species by the patriarchal system.  Examples that feminists cite include parents who push toy guns into their sons’ hands as soon as they can toddle, movies like Rambo which glorify violence and war, school systems based on “win at any cost” competition in both academics and athletics, and police who indict female victims for their own rapes.  Riane Eisler contends that patriarchy began in violence with the enslavement of virgins at sword point. In medieval Europe patriarchy burned midwives at stakes to ensure control of medicine, sciences and population. On television in the 1950’s, Ralph Kramden comedically threatened his wife “I’ll send you to the moon, Alice!” in order to assert his male authority as patriarch in his home.   Patriarchy has other tactics like propaganda and bribery as reinforcements, but violence is its mainstay.  Given the current level of technology combined with a predilection for violence, an apocalypse that destroys the planet seems as plausible as Shinseiki Evangelion.  The Japanese particularly would understand this problem.  They suffered the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Driving the violence, of course, is patriarchy’s will to dominate, to control, to exploit everyone and everything.   So, patriarchy depletes natural resources for its industries, colonizes any neighbours too weak to resist, economically enslaves the uneducated and the disadvantaged. On a more individual level, patriarchy convinces its perpetrators of their intrinsic superiority, thus constructing a wall of arrogance which isolates them from intimacy with others – whether those others are rivals with whom they are forced to compete or their ‘inferiors’ who are not worthy.  Therefore, each individual becomes imprisoned in himself. The victims are equally isolated inside their low self-esteem, feeling unworthy of intimacy with others like Shinji and Misato.

I believe the conclusion of Shinseiki Evangelion holds the proposal of Gainax’s solution.  In the final episode of the television series, Shinji’s mind – his individual ego – dissolves.   All the other characters (who have been physically killed) then appear as part of his mind, as components of himself, smiling and applauding him. He is no longer Shinji.  The barriers of individuality have vanished.  He is everyone … she is everyone … Shinji is all humanity together as one being that is no longer separated by individuality.  This same conclusion is shown from a different perspective in the movies.  A broken Shinji is forced into his Eva by Misato.  Every character, then, gets killed except for Ayanami Rei, the clone formed by Yui’s genes (an entity who both is and is not Shinji’s mother).  Rei deserts Ikari Gendo (Shinji’s father) and, more importantly, his will, unites herself with Lilith (the mother of all humanity), consumes the energy of the entire Earth to become a Goddess who rises up to merge with Shinji.  Significantly, when Rei first approaches, Shinji is afraid and resists the merging.  Only when Rei assumes the aspect of the angel Kaoru, who represents love to Shinji, will he be willing to merge with her into a new state of being that has no individuality.  While in this new universal consciousness where time and space cease, he-she understands that pain is created by the barriers that isolate people into individuals.  To be individual, then, means to accept pain and not run away from it and make an “other” suffer it.  Coming to such realization she-he makes an extraordinary decision: to return to individuality with its experience of pain.  In the final scenes Shinji discovers himself as a human strangling a still-living Asuka.  He desists and caresses her cheek.  She reaches up with her bandaged arm to touch him and says, “You idiot!”  On a ruined landscape these are the only two left.  They have the opportunity to be a new Adam and a new Eve and rebuild human society.

The gospel I believe Gainax is communicating is twofold: the social system that creates an individuality that isolates people from each other must be totally dissolved and a new order that unites people into an intimate communal consciousness needs to be created; such a process can only be accomplished by individuals who have reversed the current gender roles and attributes like Shinji and Asuka.  By patriarchy’s standards of conduct, Shinji is and has always been female and Asuka is and has always been male in attitudes and behaviours.

I have already mentioned how feminine Shinji behaves throughout the series.  He obeys others in order to conform to their desires rather than his own and thus gain their approval.  He is emotional in his responses to stimuli, not intellectual. When he fights (except in the case of Kaoru), he reacts out of gut level terror, instinctively and violently, but not with any soldier’s discipline.  His style is more akin to a female animal defending her young.  He seems to have no core of self which he can express and, thus, fails all attempts to communicate with others. 

Also previously noted is Asuka’s “masculinity.”  She is aggressive and very self expressive.  She reasons out her fighting tactics to fit her circumstances like a professional soldier.   She wants to fight as an Eva pilot to demonstrate her competency before others. At the age of fourteen she has graduated college in Germany.   Asuka studies with Shinji only to learn Japanese. She contrasts sharply with the situation of modern Japanese women wherein education acts as a career deterrent.  “Indeed, Japan is the only industrialized country where education has a negative effect on women’s employment.  The more educated a woman, the less likely she is to enter full-time employment and the shorter her average periods in the workforce.” Asuka not only possesses a higher education but she also pursues a high prestige career as an Eva pilot.  On the other hand, her career and the equally prestigious careers of Misato, Ritsuko, and Yui do not entail the disagreeable drawbacks which attend “male career paths” in Japan today.  Japanese women claim that the long hours, traditional drinking bouts, absolute corporate loyalty, and obsequious manners demanded of ambitious males discourage their interest. 

Such an interpretation makes Shinseiki Evangelion an evangelist for radical feminism – radical because it suggests the total destruction of patriarchal civilization and replacement with a reversed arrangement of everything.  ‘Start over from the beginning’ is its advice.

However, this message would undoubtedly be filtered differently among the different cultures around the globe.  Some aspects would find more acceptance in some places than in others.  In Japan, for instance, the idea of total annihilation would find more acceptance than in America.  After all, the Japanese are forced to deal with periodic devastations from earthquakes, volcanism, and tsunamis.  Violent forces of nature have conditioned Japanese psychology into a fatalism about catastrophes that Americans and Europeans generally do not share -- or would want to share since such a gestalt flies against an optimism for the future which Western cultures consider sacred.  Also, as previously mentioned, the Japanese have already experienced the nuclear holocausts of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.   These facts make believing a human-inaugurated apocalypse like Shinseiki Evangelion easier for them.

Also, because Japanese culture generally conditions people to rank benefiting society far above any benefit to individuals, the idea of submerging all individuality into a universal intimacy of consciousness would find greater acceptance as a solution to human alienation.   Hyper-individualistic Americans and Europeans, as much as they suffer loneliness, probably find this notion repugnant if they perceive it in Shinseiki Evangelion at all.  As the articles in Animerica reveal Americans have been confused by the themes of Shinseiki Evangelion.

Both Japan and America are patriarchal.   Both have been even more patriarchal in past generations.  Most women in both cultures still conform to patriarchal standards and roles.  Yet changes are at work in both places.  Japanese animators in recent years have been showing characters in stories where the criterion for heroism has been the same whether characters are male or female.  Magic Knight Rayearth from CLAMP, Ghost in the Shell from Mamoru Oshi (based on the manga by Masamune Shirow) and Princess Mononoke from Miyazaki Hayao and Studio Ghibli are just a few examples.  Gainax goes a step further in promoting feminism by suggesting a reversal of gender assignments is necessary for a re-creation of human society:  male must become female and female must become male for genuine humanity to survive and evolve.  The also suggest the professional atmosphere in Japan needs to change by showing an absence of factors discouraging to women in Shinseiki Evangelion. The solution for our world, according to Gainax, is mix the female and male until it is only undifferentiated human, just like the animators mixed Judeo-Christian mysticism with Shintoism and mecha to create the shocking series Shinseiki Evangelion.