The Meaning behind Evangelion
Author: Matt Leporati
Dated: August 13, 2003
The Mysticism behind Evangelion
It is commonly assumed that Neon Genesis Evangelion is merely a story about children who are chosen to pilot giant robots to war against "angels" who threaten mankind's existence. On the basis of this assumption, the intense, psychological ending of the series (and, to an extent, the End of Evangelion) is a disappointment.
Luckily, this assumption is wrong.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is, in actuality, a story that addresses the maturation of the Self and the realization of that Self--it raises the very questions that careful introspection has drawn from mystics of all races and creeds: what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to exist at all? What accounts for the apparent antinomy between the self and the not-self? What is reality? Does anything exist beyond the purview of the five senses? Through the character of Shinji Ikari, we see the process that is currently known to psychologists as Self-actualization, a process that is comparable to the deepest mystical attainments and the highest magical initiations. In the sense of its universality, Evangelion is a True story; indeed, it may be the Truest of all stories.
The purpose of this paper will be to discuss the various meanings behind Evangelion--not to analyze the series to death, but to illustrate concepts that will illuminate future interpretations of the anime so that the reader can come to conclusions for himself. In no way does this paper purport to be the definitive interpretation of Evangelion.
With that said, the first item to be mentioned should be the Qabalah and the Tree of Life. Much literature (most of it repetitive and irrelevant to the topic at hand) is available on these subjects, should the reader wish to research it further. For now, let us stick to the basics: "Qabalah" is a Hebrew word that roughly translates as "received," implying that the system was received from "God." It is the system of Jewish mysticism, a convenient method of classification, and a guide to the physical, mental, and "spiritual" parts of the Self.
Let me make it clear from the outset that the Qabalah, though Jewish in origin, has virtually nothing to do with Jewish theology (outside of the use of a few Hebrew terms). The transliteration "Qabalah" (with a Q) generally indicates an attempt to separate the system from the Jewish religion and universalize it. In other words, using the Qabalah as a means of Self-actualization does not require one to be Jewish, believe in God, or anything else.
The most widely known Qabalistic symbol is the Tree of Life (the shape formed by the Eva Series in End of Evangelion when Shinji's ego-barrier is eroded and the world is destroyed), a diagram of the universe comprised of ten spheres, called "Sephiroth" (pronounced seh-fear-oht; singular: Sephira). An eleventh Sephira (Daath) is sometimes placed in the abyss that divides the phenomenal from the spiritual (the "Supernal Triad" at the top). To each sephira is assigned a dizzying array of correspondences, such that everything one sees can be attributed to one part of the Tree or another. While interesting (and related to a particular kind of Buddhist meditation), this point leads us away from Evangelion rather than toward it.
It is important to note that each of the sephiroth is perceived as an emanation from Kether, the topmost sphere. This is the "divine" energy of creation. Kether represents pure existence (the "god name" attributed to it is Eheieh, the Hebrew word meaning "I am")--it divides itself into the ten spheres, pouring its energy all the way down to Malkuth (the bottommost sphere, representing the physical world and the body). Yet, Kether is present in all other spheres equally, or, as it is said, "Kether is in Malkuth and Malkuth in Kether." The highest and lowest are inexorably linked. The entire system has its origins not in existence, but in non-existence, the three Negative Veils situated above Kether: Ain, Ain Soph, and Ain Soph Aur (Not, No Limit, and Limitless Light, respectively). The whole Tree, then, manifests the Nothingness that prefigured the universe. (It may also be noted that "Nothing," in this instance, should not actually be interpreted as negative, i.e. the absence of something, but as positive, i.e. No-Thing that our minds can ever imagine and thus limit. Nothing itself is limitless).
Now we see how this links up to the final episode of the series, in which Shinji finds himself lost in Nothing, where even he ceases to exist. In order to express himself, understand himself, and love himself, he must limit this freedom of Nothing by creating "Not-Nothing"--Something. In other words, he must formulate his Tree of Life.
What prompts this realization in the storyline? One could point to his slaying of his soul mate Kaoru as a factor that pushed him further into understanding the implications of his actions and destiny. One could also cite the Human Instrumentality project, which never receives a full explanation in the series. Essentially, this plan involves destroying the world (that is, the differences between us) and blurring all souls into one. It is the erosion of our ego-barriers, or AT Fields: that which sustains us as separate beings that feel pain. As long as Nothing manifests as Something, there is division which creates an emptiness that humanity instinctively fears. This is the root cause of all sorrow and pain. "There is an emptiness at the very core of our souls, a fundamental incompleteness that has haunted all beings since the very first thought.this void is the cause of anxiety and fear."
Yet, this manifestation through division, wrought with pain though it may be, is preferable to the non-existence that Shinji finds himself immersed in during episode 26 and in End of Evangelion (in the world of no AT Fields). Significantly, Shinji rejects the world of Nothing in both instances. " 'I thought I could run away, but there was nothing good in the place I ran to, either. After all, I didn't exist there.which is the same as no one existing'. 'Is it ok for the AT Fields to cause you and others pain once more?'. 'I don't mind.'" We have no choice but to move forward into existence and face reality. We "mustn't run away."
This idea of Qabalistic Zero, the Negative Veils, finds its counterpart in the Buddhist concept of Nirvana, which translates as "cessation." It is the cessation of sorrow through the destruction of all concepts--it, too, is a destruction of the world, our differences, our AT fields. Importantly, though, this Nothing is not located in some far-off locale. As the Buddhists say, "Where is the world of no-birth and no-death? Within the world of birth and death." Or, as mythologist Joseph Campbell insists, "Eternity is now." The ultimate ground of being, the emptiness, the Nothingness, is present even at this moment. This is why we must not run away from reality, but face it, as it reflects our Self. The identification of the Self (the True Self, that is--Kether, not the socially conditioned ego) with Nothingness brings us to the realization that our consciousness binds together the apparently existent and disparate elements of our life into one cohesive unit: " 'My clothes, my shoes, my room. These are all parts of what makes me up.' 'These things are connected through your consciousness.'" Observe this high doctrine in the Chinese classic, the Tao Teh Ching: "The ten thousand things are born of being. Being is born of nonbeing" (chapter 40) "Know the universe as your self, and you can live absolutely anywhere in comfort. Love the world as your self, and you'll be able to care for it properly" (Chapter 13).
Episodes 25 and 26 represent Shinji's understanding (or, at least, an inkling of understanding) that his True Self, from Eternity, has formulated these apparent "others" for the purpose of understanding Itself. " 'Without others to interact with, you cannot truly recognize your own image'. 'Because there are others, I can perceive myself as an individual'". This, of course, is True of all people, not just Shinji, though he is the example of instrumentality we see. The End of Evangelion presents a grand-scale, macrocosmic view of this process, as opposed to the microcosmic, personal view given in the series.
The will to live is exhibited by the journey from zero to two (a number representative of the universe, with its pairs of opposites; see the work of Qabalist Aleister Crowley). This will enables Shinji to return to his own form at the end of the movie. Throughout much of the series, the boy felt strongly the will to die, Thanatos. Perhaps one must experience Thanatos and desire the end of the world (death of the ego, Nirvana) before one can acquire the will to live. Such contradictions mark mystical thought-Zen Buddhism is full of contradictions like these, labeled "Koans," designed to occupy the conscious mind so that Truth can leap forth from the subconscious and bring about an Understanding. It may very well be that Evangelion itself serves as a Koan, expressing through its host of characters the Truth that underlies all of existence.
The Symbolism behind Evangelion
Evangelion is wrought with cross-symbolisms: energy blasts, pathways, and (occasionally) shadows take the form of crosses throughout the series. Though typically dismissed as "meaningless," this recurring symbolism goes a long way to establish the mood of the anime. Self-sacrifice, the ideal embodied in the Christian Cross, is a major force in Evangelion: the sacrifice of Misato's father to save his daughter, the sacrifice of Rei II to save Shinji, the constant sacrifice Shinji makes to pilot the Eva, and the ultimate abdication of the personality into the world of Nothing. Eventually, the further sacrifice of the perfect freedom of Nothing is made, so as to enjoy the presence of others down on the Tree of Life. In a sense, Evangelion is nothing but an exposition on the symbol of the cross in its highest, mystical sense. Even during the End of Evangelion, when the world is destroyed, a host of crosses spring up in place of the slain egos, representing the ultimate image of self-sacrifice.
This concept of "total giving" of oneself finds a parallel symbol in male orgasm (for obvious reasons)--the climax is a "death" in which the self (the ego) is snuffed out, ending the world/separateness, as discussed above. Because of this, Shinji's masturbation over Asuka's unconscious body at the beginning of the movie becomes a kind of foreshadowing for the great orgasm-destruction that comes later.
It has been suggested by some that perhaps the End of Evangelion picks up after the series, despite the film's clear labeling as an alternate to episodes 25 and 26. Yet, if we follow this line of reasoning, something interesting develops: the apparent self-realization in episode 26 suddenly becomes the discovery of masturbation in Shinji's private world, allowing him to cope with his growing lust for the female figures in his life. While a fascinating thought, I find it more fulfilling to see the two endings as concurrent--both an internal and external view of the same event.
As long as we are on the masturbation topic, it should be noted that the Hindu God Shiva is associated with the end of the world, bringing it about by opening his "third eye." Those paying careful attention to the preceding three paragraphs should have no trouble catching the reference here (especially since Shiva is the God of the Lingam, the male reproductive organ). Additionally, masturbation is often compared to the act of strangulation--once again foreshadowing the vision that triggers the end of the world: Shinji's violent attack against Asuka, choking and (presumably) killing her. This symbolism returns in the final scene as well and is also comparable to Dr. Akagi strangling Rei I, suggesting that all of these scenes and character-relationships are somehow related.
In each of these instances, strangulation is an act of frustration, just like Shinji's bedside masturbation. It is the acknowledgement of the existence of the "other," a presence apparently external and beyond the control of the self (ego). As such, it represents frustration at the sorrow of life--the trance of Universal Sorrow, known to Buddhists as dukkham.
Dr. Akagi finds herself consumed with jealousy, directed at the clone of Ikari's wife. The commander is only using her. Shinji is sexually frustrated, isolated from the rest of existence. Asuka is his ultimate other-the one with whom he cannot unite. She represents the existence of something beyond his control; thus he must obliterate her. His sexual repression explodes into sadistic fury, a sharp contrast from his typical masochism. Clearly, this is a Shinji who is still under the dominion of his ego-self, not the Self-actualized, happy Shinji that the series ends with. This serves to illustrate the point that the movie does not continue from the series but forms an alternate vantage point for viewing the ending.
The main female figures surrounding Shinji, it should be noted, all serve as anima figures. Misato and Rei are mother archetypes, whereas Asuka presents herself as the Temptress or Whore. The attraction Shinji feels towards Misato and Rei, coupled with Misato's sexual advances near the very end, underscores the incestuous tendencies of these psychic relationships--the mother image suddenly blurs into that of the whore, just as when a child learns about sex (the once-pure mother image becomes irrevocably defiled). The scene that illustrates this best is the one in which Shinji visualizes himself viewing Misato in actu coitus: she remarks that this is the side of her that Shinji must never see.
The Whore, of course, is a character in the Christian Book of Revelations, which deals, naturally, with the end of the world. The Whore is called "Babalon" or "The Scarlet Woman," suggesting a fiery or passionate nature similar to Asuka's. In the Bible, the Whore rides on the Beast, a title given to Shinji in the second and twenty-sixth episodes, in a clear dominant/submissive relationship, strikingly akin to the antagonistic nature of Asuka's dealings with Shinji. It has been observed that Asuka and Shinji have an all-or-nothing relationship, constantly at each other's throats. " 'If I can't have you all to myself, I don't want anything to do with you.' 'Then, try being nice to me...'"
In a nutshell, Shinji is the Beast, a symbol of male power roughly equivalent to the Hindu Shiva, bringing us full-circle once again. Apart from the eschatological connections with these deities, there is at least one additional association with mysticism . In British mystic Aleister Crowley's work The Vision and the Voice, he records the following vision he received in North Africa: "They are clasped in a furious embrace, so that she is torn asunder by the terror of the god; yet so tightly clingeth she about him, that he is strangled. She hath forced back his head, and his throat is livid with the pressure of her fingers. Their joint cry is an intolerable anguish, yet it is the cry of their rapture, so that every pain, and every curse, and every bereavement, and every death of everything in the whole universe, is but one little gust of wind in that tempest-scream of ecstasy."
Life itself is an expression of the marriage bed of the god and goddess, bound so closely together that they strangle one another. Is this the symbolism employed at the end of the film? Do Asuka and Shinji symbolize the fierce love that gives birth to all of life and all of humanity? Certainly, there is an undeniable Adam and Eve connection in the final scene--as those who have returned from the Sea of LCL, the young pilots have the task of parenting the next generation of humanity (as did Adam and Eve after the fall from the Garden, the world of no AT Fields).
Shinji sees his ultimate other once again--the one with whom he cannot unite. He strangles her in rage and fury, only to be halted by a gentle caress from his beloved (so similar to that of his mother), causing him to cry and sob uncontrollably. In a final master touch, lest we think that Asuka has changed completely, she concludes the movie with a simple, telling line: "How disgusting" (sometimes translated as, "I feel sick").
In all likelihood, this comment is directed at Shinji, for whom Asuka has always felt a measure of disgust. Yet, given the context, this line takes on a much broader meaning: it may be disgust at being alone with Shinji, forced to copulate with him to advance humanity. It may also be a disgust at being alive, though she wished for it more than anything else in the first half of the movie-does Asuka, too, feel the sting of dukkham? Perhaps not-her uncharacteristic caress of Shinji's face suggests something more.
Manifestation implies pain, the dukkham or sorrow of existence that the Buddha saw all too well. Shinji feels this ache acutely, even though he freely chose to return to existence with pain as his price: " 'Is it okay for the AT Fields to cause you and others pain?' 'Yes, I don't mind.'" As the realization of the horror of existence hits him once again, he strangles Asuka, still frustrated, still under the dominion of his lower self (ego), which he reclaimed upon entering manifestation. Her caress confuses him, and he sobs, unable to deal with the emotions he experiences. Asuka glares at his crying form and denounces him: "How disgusting." It is almost as if she implies that tears and sorrows are disgusting--an improper understanding of life.
"You don't understand anything!" Asuka had hissed at Shinji in a vision during the Third Impact. Here lies his problem. In the final scene, Shinji functions as the conscious mind, which seeks to understand but cannot--accordingly, he feels pain and cries. Asuka, representative of the subconscious mind, expresses disgust at his attempt to dominate her. The lesson here: the sorrow of existence is overcome not through logic or reasoning by the conscious mind but rather the submission of the conscious to the unconscious, which "understands" both the necessity of existence and the joy therein. Notice that in this final scene Shinji lies on top of Asuka as the camera pulls back to give us a wider shot (the Beast riding the Whore, an improper arrangement). In the world of no AT Fields (paradise), Rei had sat atop Shinji while the shot widened. The dominance, not submission, of the subconscious grants us ultimate understanding, which Shinji cannot attain in the final scene.
Is the ending sad, then? Did Shinji err in returning? I think not, and this is one of the most beautiful lessons Evangelion has to teach us. "Anywhere can be Paradise, as long as you have the will to live. After all, you are alive-you always have the chance to be happy." The words of Yui Ikari shine as a beacon of optimism in an otherwise pessimistic world. This hope lies within us all; Shinji experiences it when he accepts pain (bears his cross, so to speak) to reenter manifestation: "I want to see them [his friends] again because I know my feelings were real." Indeed, the hope within us is symbolized as both Rei and Kaworu, the hope that people will one day understand each other--the words "I love you."
This is the stirring picture we are left with--the hope of love and happiness that makes the pain of existence bearable. This hope is our consolation as we weave this world and dream a dance of others in which we attempt to define our own self, climbing back ever towards the Paradise from which we sprang. At the End of Evangelion, Shinji has not "run away," but plunged headlong into manifestation, painful though it may be, and exists with the hope of love and happiness guiding him (symbolized by the brief appearance of Rei Ayanami). The End of Evangelion is as happy an ending as one can conceive. After all, "As long as the sun, the moon, and the stars exist, everything will be alright."
The Value of Self in Evangelion
The characters' inner issues contribute greatly to the true plotline that runs through Evangelion. Underlying all of their actions is a powerful self-hatred and fear, coupled with a sense of weakness. Shinji, unsure of his reason for existing; Rei, convinced that she is but a puppet for Gendo Ikari; Misato, deeply dependent upon men and terrified of being alone with herself; and Asuka, projecting a mask of power and pride to conceal a strong sense of self-loathing prompted by traumatizing experiences in her childhood.
Each of these characters experiences the same inner emotions, to greater or lesser extents, and each reacts in a different way--yet, these differences are strangely bound together by a common thread: namely, the fear of the emptiness in the human soul, discussed above. We are left with a cast of dysfunctional characters that reacts to the same basic emotions but in such varied ways that most scenes reveal a bit more about all those involved. This justifies the explanation in episode 26 that we formulate others in order to know ourselves.
Each character seeks a reason for their existence, expressed through the question, "Why do you pilot Eva?" Sadly, the answer for each of them is that they use Eva to form their identity. Piloting is their life--they each "have no other value." This statement represents a sense of worthlessness and lack of identity apart from their function in the capacity as pilots.
What develops here is most interesting: Evangelion's exploration of the issue of functionality versus actuality. Simply put, which is more important: that which one does or that which one is? Throughout the series the main characters attribute significance to their roles as Eva pilots, downplaying or ignoring their intrinsic value as human beings. Accordingly, their performance in this role defines their selves and identities as humans. The state of their personalities is contingent upon their success in their roles: Shinji hinges on words of praise he receives for piloting, Asuka descends into insanity and depression after she is incapable of piloting, etc. Since they have no other value, the identity of the children is based solely on their skills behind the controls of an evangelion.
Like the children, Misato (a child herself, as Shinji observes in the first episode) bases her identity on her relationships with others. Apart from her role in the lives of others, she considers herself unimportant. She, too, despises herself and desires nothing more than to be exposed and humiliated for the whore that she must feel she is. The self-deprecation and pain in each of these characters goes beyond description-all of them latch onto something beyond their selves, using it as a means of identification. All of them rise and fall with their successes and failures in these roles, suffering the joys and sorrows of life.
In a similar fashion, our world and our society are bound up in functionality. Our culture remains overrun by the notion that our role outweighs our being in terms of importance. So much emphasis is placed upon "getting into a good school," "getting a good job," and "making something of yourself," that we lose track of our identities and value as individuals in the same manner as the characters of Evangelion. If our lives mean nothing more than the kind of school we go to, the kind of job we have, and the amount of money we make, then our identity is completely at the mercy of our success in those areas. Humans suddenly become no more than a series of statistics: a list of degrees, a name of a position, a salary made, bills to be paid, outstanding debt, etc. Our worth, then, is determined by how successful we are, how much we contribute to society, etc. Add to this the unfairness our society has created, reserving its most lucrative positions in life for the wealthy and well connected, and we have a powerful recipe for rampant unhappiness and sorrow in our own world. All of us, as a whole, are in the same position as the characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion--do we have any other value?
"I see. So this is another possibility. This current myself is the same way. It's not the true myself; I can be any way I wish to be. I see. And myself who is not an Eva pilot can exist as well." Here, Shinji begins to understand that the Self is something beyond one's present conditions, which only serve as a means to understanding the Self, not as an ultimate goal. This points directly to one of the most important messages of the anime--that humanity has an intrinsic value. "Is it ok for me to be here?" Shinji asks. The answer, of course, is a resounding yes-because he is here, because he exists, and (in both the series and the movie) he has the will to live. "A person's truth is so simple that most ignore it to concentrate on what they think are deeper truths." One's truth is the fact of one's existence: "I am no more or less than myself. I am me. I want to be myself. I want to continue existing in this world. My life is worth living here!" Shinji's existence grants meaning to all else, even his role as an Eva pilot, which is merely incidental. Until this realization, it had been presented the other way around-he expected his position as a pilot to grant meaning to his existence, which, of course, is a fallacy.
What a marvelous message to come from (of all places) Japan, a country where conformity and service to the community are of paramount importance, a country where children compete to get into the best preschools, so as to advance to other great schools, a country where loyalty, dedication, and obedience are stressed above all else. Look at Shinji Ikari and all of the other characters through the course of twenty-six episodes and two movies--they are the result of placing the value of humanity beyond that of the Self. They embody the pathologies of any culture where the Truth goes unrecognized and the status of a human is reduced to that of a cog in the gears of society. They grant us a vision of the kinds of personalities we all are developing--ones that react to the primal emptiness of the human soul and are incapable of mature relationships with others.
However, that being said, notice that Shinji does acquire the will to live at the end of both the series and the movie. He comes to realize his self-worth and that he can exist without piloting an evangelion. This is part of the ultimate revelation the series has been leading up to the entire time. Though Shinji may not love himself, he is certainly on the right path, and the hope of understanding others (love) in his heart, which is actually the hope of understanding the Self, is there to guide him. Hopefully, we may learn from this tale and come to understand that we are, in truth, much more than our function and role in society.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deep and complicated work that requires repeated viewings to fully appreciate the scope of its subject and its masterful exploration of the human condition. Its themes are stirring, both immense--the fate of humanity, the invisible bonds forged between people, the sorrow and pain of existence--and miniscule--the microcosmic view of an individual's mind, the battle to love one's Self, the discovery of one's value as a human, and the understanding of one's place in the universe.
Yet, this paper, as lengthy and drawn out as it has been, has barely scratched the surface of the treasure trove of insights contained in this marvelous piece of animation. In a very broad overview, this essay has examined Evangelion as an embodiment of the highest aspects of mysticism, both ancient Hebrew and otherwise, an exposition of the symbolism of the Christian cross, a discourse on the joys and sorrows of manifestation, and a revealing image of the value intrinsically present in humanity, as much as our culture might deny it.
One might wonder whether or not these themes are actually present in Evangelion, or if they are the product of reading too deeply into a simple piece of animation. I think it is fair to say that, given the numerous ways in which Evangelion departs from the typical conventions of anime, it is undeniable that Hideaki Anno wished to say something substantial with this series. Coming off of four years of extreme depression, Anno had visited the depths of despair, the nadir of human life, doing nothing but running away. We've all felt the tendency to do just that--run away. We've all felt the same crippling inner pain that Shinji expresses to us throughout the anime (in greater or lesser degrees, of course). It is this empathy which allows us to connect with the characters of this epic drama and understand the universality of the meaning behind Evangelion.