Being young hurts. Never let anyone tell you different. We can wax nostalgic all we want, but youth is the place where all the muscles get their first taste of resistance in the form of daily life. From lessons about co-existence to the heartbreak landmines one must endure, it’s no wonder so many retreat headlong into realms of fantasy. It’s a fundamental reaction to a sometimes relentlessly harsh world, devoid of many things to depend on. It is this core truth for so many that lies at the heart of Hideaki Anno & Gainax’s great claim to fame. Looking back two decades into not only Evangelion’s strange, and world-altering history, but also of my own personal tumult, it isn’t hard to see why it all mattered so much when it was first unveiled upon an unsuspecting public in the fall of 1995.
I can spend erudite paragraphs extolling the virtues of this still celebrated and debated piece of anime iconography, but it felt like something more was required. After all, art tends to connect best with a public that is ready to embrace it. So many factors play roles here that it can often be dizzying. But the goal here is to help best understand what happened so we can at least cursorily chart what has happened since. So with this in mind, let’s look a little into the era which inspired the series, and perhaps unearth why it still connects so well with old as well as young fans. Unexpectedly, or perhaps expectedly if you are sensitive to the state of the world, the realm where we should most prominently look is no further than economics.
It’s often bandied about on many a Japan enthuisast’s site that the 1980s was a time of economic potency. Credit had become shockingly easy to come by, and the banks didn’t seem too concerned about quality. And access to even shades of the high life seemed within reach for many average families. So when things took a turn for the worse come the end of that decade, and a malaise began to set in come the early 1990s, it was in many ways a crushing spiritual blow to all who had grown accustomed to that level of plenty. Notions of familial expectation were raised, only to see these notions come to a halt when the youth of that era saw harder times, especially in regards to employment prospects. Not unlike the effects of the Stock Market crash of 1991, the idea of growing up between expectant parents and the realities of the world outside began to gleam like a sun impacted prism. The break between adults and kids found itself burrowed deep within what the US experienced in the Seattle grunge music scene. After all, what was the point of a future if it was so out of reach?
Such notions were not lost on other forms of art, such as in film and animation, which suffered immense blowback from the ensuing loss of production funds. No strangers to such concerns, was the fledgling anime Studio Gainax, who had been practically buoying themselves to safety since the middling box office of their robust raison d’etre in Royal Space Force (1987). After having entered the direct-to-video market with titles like the jiggle-parody-goes-space-opus, Top Wo Nerae! Gunbuster(1988), and their risky, self-shotgunning pseudo parody Otaku No Video(1989). And soon after, riding the NHK train with the Jules Verne & Miyazaki hybrid, Fushigi No Umi No Nadia(1991), the limping bunch of ragtags with “no business sense”, found themselves in need of a hit. And badly so. Enter, Neon Genesis Evangelion. A title shrouded in veils of so much mystery, that it could only spell disaster from opinions inside and out.
It’s completely needless to elaborate what happened afterward, but it might be good to consider the implications of Evangelion’s arrival, and what has come in the wake of it. Twenty years of anime bubbles and bursts, twists and turns, often reaching to the best of any studio’s ability to harness some of the show’s all consuming fire. Despite chasms in budgets, and often harshly idiosyncratic turns by established icons, few to no series reached such thematic highs. It was, and continues to feel as if Anno’s rollercoaster met a collective wavelength that had little to no room for other serialized series. All it took, was a creaky premise, stark portrayals of archetypes that would inevitably become a license to create thousands of merchandise-worthy knockoffs, and an unerring sense of synergy with the minds behind it. Anime, had suddenly become the mirror image of a once high society’s less considered population. At long last, the disenfranchised youth of a hard driving, win-at-all-costs generation found itself an identifiable icon, and a punching bag for those less willing to acknowledge it.
Shinji, for all his emotional instability and sullenness, is the part of us that we often shove in a broom closet for fear of feeling disposable.
So when the series’ still-debated finale came to pass, to the often exasperation of a first wave of disgruntled internet fans typed furiously. In a great many ways, it was the first show of what would become a cliche in the fandom today. To this day, there isn’t an hour that doesn’t go by where some Twitter war has trails of smoke coming off of my feed, or memes concerning what character trait is the most chuckle inspiring. Yet few television shows have created such a ravenous fervor to the point that the chance opportunity to produce a feature film rendition of the finale would be a blood-smeared retort the likes few franchises have ever inspired. The bile of the complacent fan was about to come face to face with the full-fisted reciprocity of the medium.
All things on the table, for me ,Evangelion ended with the now-laughably titled, The End Of Evangelion (1997). A film that takes the Up With People finale of the show, and vomits it back in fans’ faces. An alternate ending that reduces the heroes into something a lot less palatable, and without redemption. And while other shows have tried valiantly to play the “fans have no idea” hand, rarely has it ever been so eloquently executed. Beyond the works of Tomino, and various others, EoE forces viewers to face these less than flattering elements, and to decide for themselves or not to proceed with the attitudes they espouse so heavily in their incessant commenting. It remains my personal favorite ending, not so much because of its overwrought nature, but it’s will to lay an entire mythos on the line for an exploration into the grandest question of all..
“Why the hell am I here?” – Without offering anything clearer an answer than, to grow.
Beckoning the public to not allow themselves to be prisoners of their own despair seems to be at the core of the best Evangelion has to offer. Any “deeper” interpretations feel lacking to absurd in comparison. What many imitators failed to understand about it was that underneath all the gloom & doom, lies a sincere leveling. Using a largely escapist medium the way it does can be considered verboten, even today. And yet there it defiantly remains. The show understands that youth is but a temporary place, even as so many of us pretend that we never left.
Growing up over a hundred miles from any city in either a northern or southern direction, couldn’t not have a profound effect on how a younger me viewed the world. Being from a desert area, where the expectations for a local kid were to either become a fixture in the local resort industries, or escape at the earliest opportunity, it was easy to find onesself locked in one’s own mind. Unable to connect due to a certain lack of philosophical diversity, and an overall state of economic gridlock, seeing past the world presented, made it hard to envision possibilities, let alone feel motivated to change anything. The pressure did not come from overbearing parents, but of a location’s disgust for its future generations, and a nostalgia that bordered on toxic. But as long as many of us desert children were able to embrace the arts in one form or another, and not find ourselves in the throes of early parenthood or chemical addiction, hope seemed to at the very least be a flat tire fix for a realm rife with shattered glass filled ditches.
But art & words remained my sanctuary, and continue to help shape who I will become, even as these forces can continue to beckon me into a form of submission. One can either be dictated by your passions, or sparked by them. Addiction beyond those that plague our veins is a very real thing, and it can be hard to consider the world and its ever illusory weight. But looking through the very works that helped us process our mutual evolutions rather than ensnare them, shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion remain powerful because they speak to difficult trials many of us face during that most challenging of life periods. To acknowledge the abyss, and to allow onesself to be transformed by expression, is one of the great gifts that art can provide. Being a kid is fucking brutal. Especially when one has little to no what to process what is happening all over. Thankfully, even an often derided form of entertainment can cast a healthy light to help all this madness make a lick of sense. And for this, I am grateful for The Children.
– Upon starting this piece, a part of me wanted to talk a little about the Rebuild feature films, when it hit me that the films themselves seem to be less about character, and more about the series as a whole. Which creates something of a distant echo. Something that works more on a curator level than on a personal one. And while that has its admirers, it simply lacks the cutting immediacy and urgent voice. So, forgive?