The Philosophy of Neon Genesis Evangelion – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Neon Genesis Evangelion!
Written by: Matt Reichle and Michael Luxemburg
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
The Philosophy of Neon Genesis Evangelion – Wisecrack Edition
What’s up wisecrack? You’ve been asking for it and it’s finally time. This week we’re diving into the insanely smart Neon Genesis: Evangelion. Eva is a phenomenally complex story. On the surface it’s about the end of the world and teenagers in enormous biomechanical monsters… who fight giant alien-angel-robot… things. Beneath that, there’s an investigation of psychosexual development, intimacy, unconscious human motivation, and how hard it is to be a person. But the real meat of everything is about… hedgehogs. Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Evangelion. And spoilers. Lots and lots of spoilers.
Just a quick note: even though the Eva reboot is beautiful, we decided to keep our analysis to the original twenty-six-episode series and the films (End of Evangelion, and Death and Rebirth). If you like this, maybe we’ll come back for more. So first-a quick recap. In the distant future of 2015 the earth is under attack by unearthly beings called Angels. In order to combat them, humanity has created ass-kicking robots that sync with their pilots called Evas. Of course, the Evas aren’t all they seem. They’re actually former Angels infused with the souls of humans, “Inside the empty shell of each Eva is a human soul,” specifically the mothers of the various pilots. “Mother?”
Shinji, Asuka, and Rei (who is a clone) work together to pilot the Evas, save the world, and come to terms with their inner demons. Oh, also, Rei bonds the DNA of original angels Adam and Lillith, becomes a being containing the consciousness of all humanity, and portends the end of existence, but don’t worry, we’ll cover that. But to understand the ending of Evangelion, we have to dive into some complicated ideas, but I promise … it’ll be fun.
Part one: Eschatology and Mysticism
Neon Genesis Evangelion literally means a new beginning. Neon is derived from the greek neos which means new, Genesis is a beginning and a reference to the opening book of the bible, and Evangelion is the Gospel or the good news – from the same root as evangelize. So Neon Genesis Evangelion is a new telling of the gospel: genesis. Or the easy way: it is a re-imagining of the book of genesis with lots of brooding, sex, and technology. Or the easy way: it is a re-imagining of the book of genesis with lots of technology, brooding, and sex. Eva is overflowing with religious iconography. Some of the references are easy to spot: The show references the dead sea scrolls explicitly, “Incidents not predicted by the dead sea scrolls may occur. This should teach the old men a lesson,” and Ritzgo installs a 666 type firewall to protect the Magi from a cyberattack.
Not to mention the presence of creatures called angels, two of which are named Adam and Lillith. You might have expected Eve, but Lilith,is Adam’s female counterpart. According to Jewish folklore She was created around the same time as Adam and is usually described as being a mother of demons. You know evil. In Eva humans are the descendants of Lilith. Some of the religious work is Christian in nature. The magi system, the super computer network that runs NERV, has three parts, each named after the three wise men, Casper, Balthasar, and Melchior. Ya know, the guys that visited baby Jesus to give him the gifts of Hellen Mirren, Frankenstein, and Goldeneye. But the majority of the religious imagery is based on Jewish mysticism and the Kaballah.
Kaballah is an investigative practice of faith and mystical teachings that seeks religious revelation and sacred knowledge. Some of its biggest fans are ancient rabbis, and also Madonna. Most of the angels in Eva are taken directly from texts in Judaism’s extended universe like the Zohar (essentially the kaballa’s bible), the Talmud and the book of Enoch.Others are written in el theosophy— a form of mystical writing that uses the “el” suffix, which is one of the many Hebrew words for god, to tie names to the divine, and it’s all over Evangelion: Ramiel, Sachiel, Matarael, and Galadriel. Oh, sorry, scratch that one. In Kabbalistic tradition, the first being is Adam Kadmon, not to be confused with the other famous Adam, a being of light—which is eerily similar to the giant of light that is Eva’s first angel, named Adam, who explodes in the second impact. That second impact kills half the population of the planet and turns the oceans red revelation-style.
This destruction is another call back to the Kabbalistic tradition, an event called the Shevirat ha-Kelim or the breaking of vessels. See in the beginning everything was connected, part of a universal unity that broke apart leaving everything separate and creating the many splendored world we live in. It’s sort of like a theological big bang. The purpose of Khaballah is Tikkun ha-Olam or the restoration of the world—it’s traditionally practiced through acts of good deeds and prayer—but in Eva it is sort of taken literally. The ethical call of the khaballa is the reunification of the world—of the different fragmented parts of Adam—called the Sefirot. Which is depicted as the tree of life—as ten circles in a particular pattern. It creates a sort of visual tree that is meant to depict the tree of life.
It’s why the random circles appear around Eva Unit one when it is attacked by the nine manufactured angels—they are fulfilling the sacred duty or purpose of the khaballa. The Sefirot reunifies everything, recreating the universe as a complete whole, and in doing so destroys the individuality and separation that defines life as we know it. Many characters pursue the goal of literally reunifying the world, putting all the different consciousnesses into one place. “Through indiscriminate death and through prayer, we will return to our original state, and our souls will be at peace.”
This finally happens after the Adam and Lillith DNA combine inside of Rei. The reunification with the masculine and feminine aspects of the angels is the reunification of the world as well. This raises the question of why exactly the world needs to be reunited. What does it mean for the world to be broken? To answer that we need only turn to our adorable friend the hedgehog. NOT that one.
Part two: The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
So much of Evangelion is eye candy. Sex. Big Robots. Explosions. More sex. The apocalypse. But it’s at its most profound when the narrative dives into crimson red lakes of sadness, isolation, and the human condition. “I’m seeing these for the first time, yet it’s not the first time.” It pauses on empty streets, on telephone poles where nothing scares the birds away, on classrooms with no students. The world without half its population is a sad place. The end of times isn’t partying like it’s 1999— it just… sucks. The characters’ miserable lives and intimacy problems can be explained by a hedgehog and the preeminent philosophical pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer.
In his book Parega and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays. Volume 2, Schopenhauer details a short parable that has become known as the hedgehog or the porcupine’s dilemma. In it he explains the human condition by comparing humans to hedgehogs huddled together for warmth. Though they crave warmth hedgehogs can’t get too close because of their quills. So… they keep their distance and remain cold or they learn to live without the warmth of others. What does this have to do with Eva? Well, everything. The hedgehog’s dilemma is Eva’s guiding theme. In episode three Ritsuko explains the parable to Mitsado, “Do you know the fable of the hedgehog’s dilemma?” “Hedgehogs? You mean those animals with the spiny hair?” “Even though a headgehog may wanna get close with another hedgehog, the closer they get the more they injure each other with their spines. It’s the same with some humans,” and Episode four is even called the hedgehog’s dilemma.
That desire to be unhurt drives a wedge between people. It creates a world of despair. We see that world, and its implications in Episode sixteen titled “sickness unto death” which is a reference to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard… a sickness unto death is despair—a terrible existential loneliness, which goes along with Schopenhauer’s hedgehogs pretty neatly; as does Episode twenty three. After Kaji is killed and he leaves a sad message on Mitsado’s machine she remarks: “That’s correct. If the pain is too harsh, you can escape it.” “If you really hate it, Shinji, you can still run.” “No! I won’t! I’m tired of escaping! Yes — I mustn’t run away!”
It’s the epitome of lonesomeness—waiting for someone to reach out and call. It’s a depressing show, filled with depressed people. Asuka pilots her Eva to find meaning in her life. Without it she’s just a sad girl crying in a dingy apartment. We see in flashbacks that though she may seem gruff she fears being alone, and pilots her Eva to draw people toward her and expand her world. “Everyone will be nice to us from now on! So we won’t be lonely anymore!” Then there’s Gendo, who struggles with his ability to show Shinji love and doesn’t know how to be a father. “When Shinji is near me, all I ever do is cause him pain.”
When he is reunited with Yui he explains that he doesn’t deserve love —so he rejected the world so he wouldn’t feel pain. “I never deserved to be loved.” “So you were running away?” “And you rejected the others around you so there was no chance you would ever be hurt.” In his book The World as Will and Representation Schopenhauer argues that life is suffering because the world is made up of will and representation. For Schopenhauer, the nature of reality is unity. We’d all be at peace without the struggle to communicate between individuals. Suffering is the result of individuality. To be human is to suffer because communication, perception, and understanding will never be perfect and that struggle to connect is the source of our suffering. The universe is really one thing in itself–one entity but each individual will or ego can only perceive the world from its own vantage point or perception. That’s what Schopenhauer means when he says representation. Anguish, fragmentation, alienation, and isolation are all because each person is in charge of their will. And there is a disconnect between what we desire and what the world gives us.
Which is echoed by Kaworu: “This is mankind’s fate. The thread of human hope is spun with the flax of sorrow.” That separation of wills is what the show calls AT-fields, which are something like the unique human soul that separates each person’s ego. It is sort of their life force. The barrier that keeps us from truly connecting to each other. Several times characters have conversations about what it means to be an ego and to have a body usually as their body or consciousness is slipping away. Rei does this in episodes 14 and 23. Both exchanges are reflections on what it means to be a human being that has a body and is recognized by others.
Misato: You’re right. At the core we are all the same.
Ritsuko: Our minds lack something basic.
Asuka: And we fear that lack.
Rei: We fear it.
Misato: And that is why we are attempting to become one.
Asuka: We will melt with and fill each other.
Rei: This is the instrumentality.
Fuyutsuki: Mankind cannot live without being surrounded by others.
Ikari: Mankind cannot live alone.
Ritsuko: Although you yourself are always unique.
Kaji: That is why life is hard.
Asuka: That is why life is sad and empty.
Misato: Thus, you want the close physical and mental presence of others.
Rei: That is why we wish to become one.
This struggle with isolation and the pain of rejection defines Eva. Unfortunately, as Schopenhauer tells us, being alive means living with will and ego, and that means pain. That drive to get away from this pain and ego is something we can explain with the help of our cocaine addled friend Dr. Freud. I know people are mad because Freud is considered a hack and didn’t science hard enough. I get it. But, hey- Eva explicitly uses Freudian terms, ideas, and analysis. Episode nineteen is called introjection, a Freudian term that explains how people take on the characteristics of the people around them. You know copy cats. Episode twenty is called Weaving a Story 2: Oral Stage.
The Oral Stage corresponds to the weaning of a child from breastfeeding. According to Freud, wean a child too soon and they’re out of touch with people’s emotions and are generally sociopathic. Ween them too late and they’re dependent too long on the mother for security and end up neurotic mama’s boys. Like that Robin Arryn kid from Game of Thrones. All the kids in the Eva’s pilot classes are motherless children, or so they think. In fact Shinji’s mom is Unit one’s soul and part of Asuka’s mother’s soul is in Unit two. Both Evas use the souls inside them to further bond with their pilots.
How the pilots react to their mother is indicative of their general disposition. It’s as Freudian as it can get—they are all mourning the lost love object that is their mother. Except Rei is less mournful and more melancholic because she has no soul. As an artificial being, she has no real loss to speak of; no mamma soul to snatch and put in a robot. For Freud Mourning happens when we know what we have lost–melancholia is much more serious– it occurs when people have no idea what’s missing, only that it causes their deep deep sadness (hence the need for psychotherapy). That’s why the last two episodes of the show are literally a psychotherapy session inside Shinji’s mind. We mentioned the Magi supercomputers before, but we didn’t tell you that they have the mind of Dr. Naoko Akagi imprinted in them. They are reflective of the tri-part model of the human unconscious: the controlling scientist as the ego, the mother as the punishing and guilt inducing superego, and the woman as the sexual id. Episode eighteen is titled ambivalence – a Freudian idea that Eva really leans into. Ambivalence is the way that people can passionately hate and love at the same time. Like when I eat Chipotle.
For example, Shinji is constantly talking about how much he hates his father— “However, I really hated my father,” yet he gets in the Eva over and over to make Daddy proud. In episode twelve he explains that he pilots the Eva to hear words of praise from his dad. “I think I finally understood the good part about being praised by someone when I heard my father’s words today. And, I also realized that the reason I pilot my eva is to hear those words from him.” He runs away from his dad, NERV, and his responsibilities as an Eva pilot but he keeps coming back. “I mustn’t run away. I mustn’t not run away. I mustn’t run away.”
But the real smart stuff is done with Eros and Thanatos… or the drive to life and the death drive. For Freud, beings are instilled with the pleasure principle—the general inclination to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. So in episode sixteen, when Shinji falls into a Dirac sea (or a pocket universe) he laments that, “This world is filled with too much pain and suffering to go on,” he is expressing his desire to minimize suffering as it pertains to the pleasure principle. This struggle to avoid pain is aligned with Schopenhauer’s ideas about will and struggle. How can we ever avoid suffering when we have to share a world with other people, all of whom have their own desires that sometimes get in the way of ours? How do we find peace? For Seele, NERV, and even individuals like Gendo and Shinji it all comes back to instrumentalization, the process by which all human consciousness is combined into a primordial soup called LCL.
That desire to join a unified whole and no longer be concerned with issues of self comes up in Freud, too. It’s called The Death Drive. The death drive is a desire to return to tranquility—to the peace and harmony of the womb. And what can be more peaceful than the end of everything? once it’s gone there’s nothing to worry about. Episode 25 has a direct call to this with the text: “the case of Shinji Ikari, the boy who wished for death of his own will”. Then Gendo, in the mind of Shinji, states that instrumentality: “is not a return to nothingness. It is a return to the state of beginning. It is no less than a return to the primal womb that we lost so long ago. Souls and minds will become one, attaining eternal balance.”
A return to Lilith and Tikkun ha-Olam. The restoration of the world— or the reunification with the primordial being. And so Seele and Nerv are working for the death drive and they count on Shinji to become the arc for humanity that which will allow them to return to a world without loneliness and isolation. So the human reaction to the hedgehog’s dilemma is to seek tranquility in a return to the womb, but as we’ve seen, that’s simply a desire for death, a running away, so what is to be done? Well it’s Kaworu, a character who is not entirely human, that shows us the way. Accepting vulnerability. Kaworu gives up his individual desires and will so that Shinji can live he is unguarded and open with his absolute love for Shinji. He represents a way out of the cycle of constant suffering and isolation.
And he just gives damned good advice: “I know that by keeping others at a distance you avoid a betrayal of your trust. But while you may not be hurt that way, you mustn’t forget that you must endure the loneliness. Man can never completely erase this sadness because all men are fundamentally alone. Pain is something that man must endure in his heart and since the heart feels pain so easily some believe life is pain.” In the final episodes, and the movie, Shinji initially accepts instrumentalization, but when he understands just what he’d lose … himself, he has a change of heart.
ASUKA: Your self-image is restrained by having to observe the barriers between yourself, and others.
REI: And yet, you cannot see yourself without the presence of others.
SHINJI: Because there are others, I can perceive myself as an individual! If I am alone, then I will be the same without others! For if this world is only of me, then there will be no difference between me and nothing!
At the end of the series Shinji rejects instrumentality. “I am me. I want to be myself. I want to continue existing in this world.” He renounces a world where everyone is primordial soup and shares one mind. “What is this… An empty space? An empty world? A world where nothing exists but myself? But with only myself, I have nothing to interact with! It’s as if I’m here, but not here at all! It’s as if I’m slowly fading out of existence…” He opts for one where people can be hurt— where we aren’t close, where there is separation and individual selves, where there are individual wills, desires, and pain. He confronts the drive to inorganic existence and accepts the inevitability of suffering in life.
MISATO: That’s correct. If the pain is too harsh, you can escape it.
REI: If you really hate it, Shinji, you can still run.
SHINJI: No! I won’t! I’m tired of escaping! Yes — I mustn’t run away!
But he also opens the door for hope and joy. He opts for a world where we he can hurt and be hurt. So the first thing he does when he rejects instrumentality… he turns over and chokes Asuka. She responds by stroking his face, reminding us that the world they chose is one of violence and pain, but also love. All three elements of the story: the theological, psychological, and philosophical deal with something called lack. In psychology lack, as explored by the Freud-inspired psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques Lacan, is the missing center at the heart of our existence ; missing piece between representation and the world in itself. Whether it be a scarcity of friends, failing marriages and relationships, or distance between father and son. Eva is able to consistently weave a plot that delves deep into the visceral reality of humanity’s disappointing existence.
Three pilots: Rei, the Japanese word for soul, ghost, not or zero, in unit zero. Shinji: the pilot of unit number one, the first real person introduced, the other… the pilot of unit number two… a girl. A call back to the expulsion from Eden, the world of infinite knowledge and life. In the end it’s just Asuka and Shinji. A new Adam and Eve. A new Beginning. “How disgusting.”