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Supercomputers and Giant Robots: An Exploration of Technology and the Human Soul in Neon Genesis Evangelion

Supercomputers and Giant Robots
An Exploration of Technology and the Human Soul in Neon Genesis Evangelion

Author: Charles Duan (Enthusiast)
Source: Charles Duan's Webpage
Dated: May 12, 2001

What is the final frontier? A dictionary would define "frontier" as "an undeveloped area or field for discovery or research," so one might say that the final frontier is the last area unexplored. For centuries man has explored what was thought to be the final frontier. Columbus explored the final frontier of the vast, unexplored Atlantic Ocean. The starship Enterprise explores the final frontier of space. Students of Expository Writing are exploring right now the final frontiers of completing the culmination of their semester-long education in writing. But in each case the discovery was that the "final" frontier was not quite final--Columbus discovered a new continent, the Enterprise discovers new frontiers such as time travel, writing students are discovering still more ways to improve--what was thought to be the final frontier becomes merely a gateway to more frontiers. What, then, is the final frontier?

Anyone who is familiar with the mecha genre of Japanese animation, the division which deals with supercomputers and giant robots, including such well-known titles as Power Rangers and Gundam Wing, would not hesitate to say that the final frontier in this genre is technology. Technology is, after all, portrayed as the greatest advancement of mankind and, more importantly, as the last one; neither of these two fairly long-running series ever really depicts any discovery beyond advancements of technology and science. And one might be inclined to apply this idea of technology as the final frontier to Anno Hideaki's Neon Genesis Evangelion, a show which is similar in appearance to the previous two shows in numerous ways, including having both giant robots and supercomputers. But on closer investigation one realizes that this is not quite so. Just as the exploration of the "final" frontier led Columbus and the Enterprise to frontiers further beyond, technology leads us in Evangelion toward another unexplored territory as well. By looking closely at the exploration of the frontier of technology in Evangelion, we will see that it leads us to a much more distant, much more complex, and much more final frontier, the frontier of the human soul. Realizing this, we can interpret Anno's message to the technologically oriented Japan and the technologically oriented world in general.

In order to see how Anno's exploration of technology leads us to the final frontier of the human soul, let us first consider where technology appears in the series itself. This is a fairly simple task, considering how prevalent technology is in the series--after all, it is categorized under the mecha genre. Military technology has surpassed even the atomic bomb in destructive power. Supercomputers can efficiently run the entire world. Robots taller than ten-story buildings block nuclear warheads just as easily as I catch tennis balls tossed at me. And that's just the first three episodes.

But more important than the appearance of technology itself are the actual workings of such technology revealed as the show progresses, particularly regarding the supercomputers and giant robots. Let us consider what those workings are in the computer systems first, so that we may see how technology is used as a vehicle for the human spirit in Evangelion. For as much as they ought to be testament to the power of technology simply by virtue of their being computers, we discover in the ___th episode that the real intelligence behind those computers, known as the MAGI system, is not man-made, but of man himself--the computers actually contain within themselves the soul of Dr. Akagi Naoko (mother of Dr. Akagi Ritsuko), the female scientist who designed the system. The exact specifics are fairly complicated, but the general idea is that the computers' decisions are actually made through the decisions of the doctor's spirit. In fact, in the final movie of the series, the computer system actually chooses autonomously to protect Dr. Akagi's lover Ikari Gendo, at the cost of potentially bringing about the end of the world, a decision that, one would assume, no man-made computer would make. Thus the MAGI system in Evangelion is essentially a vehicle for presenting the human spirit.

The appearance of the giant robots in the show follows nearly the same pattern as the MAGI system: they first appear to be proof of technology, but later they turn out to be containers for the souls of humans, namely Ikari Yui (the wife of Ikari Gendo and the mother of Ikari Shinji, who will be discussed momentarily), and Sryu Kyko Zeppelin (mother of Sryu Asuka Langley, another character in the series). But the Evas (the name for the giant robots, short for Evangelion) reveal something more: they demonstrate the degree to which the human soul is unexplored. After all, most of us would like to believe that we understand how the human spirit works--most of us would believe that we know our abilities and limitations, as well as the abilities and limitations of others. But Evangelion does not show this to be so. For one thing, there are numerous cases in which humans lose complete control of the Evas. Twice in the series does an Eva go on a wild rampage destroying buildings and often nearly killing the pilot inside. If humans understood the human soul, then logically they would not create a machine containing a soul which could not be controlled. We discover, by trying to manipulate the soul through a machine such as the Eva, that the soul is not completely understood, that it has not been fully explored.

Director Anno shows even more how little we understand of the human spirit through the incredible powers of the Evas. Naturally, many of these powers are the result of technological enhancements, but the cases in which I am interested are those in which technology has explicitly failed, for those cases are the ones through which we will see the complexities behind the power of the human soul. Ikari Shinji, the focal character of the series who pilots the Eva containing his mother's soul, finds himself two times without any electrical power, making it technologically impossible for his Eva to function, just as a car cannot function without gasoline. And yet both times it not only functions, but it apparently has enough power to defeat the enemy and win the battle. How does one explain this power that seems to have come out of thin air?

In the first case, presented in the sixteenth episode, this is directly explained: we are shown images from Shinji's mind, and in one of them his mother hands him "power" in the form of a glowing blue ball, asking her son if it is enough. The second case, which appears between episodes nineteen and twenty, is much more complicated; the only clue that we have as to why Shinji's Eva was able to harness inexplicable power is the fact that Shinji also "dissolves" into the Eva, so that his body loses physical form and his soul is essentially floating around inside the robot. I have heard numerous explanations for Shinji's dissolution--one of them even involves a Freudian analysis of Shinji resolving his Oedipal complex by "becoming one" with his mother-but none of them explain the source of the unexplained power, beyond that "it came from his mother." In neither case is a physical explanation given behind exactly how Ikari Yui produced enough power to save her son--an amount on the order of 992 atomic bombs-and, more importantly, the characters can understand the source of such power no better. Because this power is unexplained, the human soul must not have been completely explored or completely understood.

From the above we realize that the human soul is not understood, at least by the characters in the series; as the series continues toward the final episodes, we realize that the human soul cannot be understood. The reason behind this is encapsulated in what is arguably the most important concept of Evangelion: the Absolute Terror Field (AT Field for short). Initially the AT Field seems to be nothing more than a technologically created force field, not unlike the force fields of any other science fiction work. They are fields of incredible strength; not even nuclear bombs can make a dent in them. Yet in the twenty-fourth episode we learn the truth about these fields, through the last enemy of Shinji:

Yes, you humans call it [the AT Field] that. The sacred region that cannot be invaded by anyone. The light of the soul. You humans are aware of it. Aware that the AT Field is the wall that separates individual minds.

The AT Field is, then, the impenetrable boundary which seals us off from entering, and thus exploring, the human soul. And thus the soul is in unexplorable area--a frontier which can never be broken through, making it truly a final frontier.

Actually, it is possible to break through an AT Field. The obvious case is the AT Fields of the Angels, the enemies which Shinji fights. However, it is revealed at the end of the series that the Angels are actually failed attempts in the Creation (i.e., the Biblical Creation) that preceded mankind, and it is not unreasonable to extrapolate from that the possibility that, since they were failed creations, that their AT Fields are not as strong as the fields of humans. More interesting and more important is the breaking down of the human AT Field, which occurs at the end of the series.

An initial reaction to that last sentence would be, why do I claim the AT Field which protects the human soul to be impenetrable, if there is apparently a way to penetrate it? The answer lies in how the field is penetrated and how the secrets of the soul are to be explored, and such an answer will demonstrate even more strongly that the human soul is the final frontier.

The word "apocalypse" comes from a Greek root meaning the "revelation of secrets," and in Evangelion the revelation of the secrets of the soul can only come out through apocalypse: Shinji's Eva, through an elaborate ritual, summons an "Anti-AT Field" of global proportions that kills every human on the face of the earth in order to release their souls from the AT Field barriers. As a result, the gateway to the soul has been opened and the frontier of the human soul in the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion can finally be explored. But such an exploration comes at the cost of destroying the planet, destroying everything else that could be explored. In the previous case the human soul is the final frontier because it cannot be explored; in this case the human soul is the final frontier because, by entering such a frontier, we destroy any other frontiers that could have been explored. One way or the other, the human soul portrayed in Evangelion is the final frontier.

So what does it mean, such a portrayal of the human soul as the final frontier? The answer to this question is not complicated; one only needs look to the context of Evangelion with respect to the world and the times. Let us begin our exploration of this context by considering the context of its creator, an animation director at Gainax Studios named Anno Hideaki.

Why would Anno have decided to portray the human soul as the final frontier, rather than making technology the primary focus? By doing so he was choosing not to follow suit both with other mecha anime and with the actual state of his home nation of Japan during the mid-1990s, a nation which was making extraordinary progress, especially in technology. The obvious answer is that art is a reaction against the problems one sees in life, and this may very well explain Anno's choice of final frontier. As incredible as progress was in Japan, it was causing its share of social problems as well, the two most important being the loss of traditional culture and the formation of masses of nameless "salarymen." It is not illogical to attribute both problems to the growth of technology; after all, technology does antagonize tradition and create corporate structures with nameless entities making up the bottom rungs.

Anno himself has expressed a dislike of such systems--in one interview, he jokingly claimed that he once tried unsuccessfully to destroy the system--and thus it is not unlikely that much of his message in Evangelion reflects this personal dislike of the soulless system of people working for progress and technology. And what better way to comment on--even satirize--such soullessness than by making the soul the central thematic focus of his show? Anno's use of technology as a means to find the final frontier of the soul could be interpreted, then, to parallel his intended message for the world: technology should be used not as the end-all solution to all of the problems of the world, but only a means by which the inexplicable powers of the human soul can be brought out. We don't have to literally implant souls into machines, but Anno would apparently like humans to use their own abilities through such machines, rather than depending on the abilities of machines alone.

But regardless of implications of society, it is clear that Anno believes, in Neon Genesis Evangelion, that the human spirit is the final frontier, and not technology. He uses mankind's conquest of technological ability to show the unconquered territory of the soul, and he demonstrates his belief that the soul is not only unexplored but also unexplorable. Anno hopes that we learn that we do not really understand our souls, and thus we do not really understand ourselves. But at the same timehe hopes that we learn that what we don't understand about ourselves is our own potentials, potentials that exceed any machine or any technological creation. If nothing else, he must hope that we learn that those potentials are greater than any supercomputer or giant robot.