An edited version of an old 2007 essay I wrote on Evangelion (TV series DVD version) and End of Evangelion. Annotations removed.
Evangelion is a notoriously complex (and arguably convoluted) series. It would be pointless to try to compete with the volumes of text written on the series since its original airing decades ago – and it would also miss the point of the series to get lost in its many details. The purpose of this essay is to neither endlessly analyze its references (cultural, religious, philosophical, etc) nor to quickly dumb it down and miss the crucial details that shape the characters.
In this essay, I shall focus on The End of Evangelion movie and argue how its cryptic visuals not only tie into the original series - but also how the movie ends on a final scene that summarizes the themes of the entire series. Ultimately, that theme revolves around the idea that we can only evolve as individuals and form meaningful relationships with others if we come to terms with the “ugly”/ dysfunctional parts of ourselves and others. The world can be a chaotic, messy, painful, and unpredictable place - but the only way for its characters to move forward is to embrace this inherently chaotic and unpredictable nature of the world. This theme stems from the fact that Eva was made by a man (Hideaki Anno) coping with depression – and as a result he made a series that attempted to make sense of his own personal demons.
End of Evangelion tying into TV Show Ending
The original Eva miniseries had an incongruently happy ending that resulted in angry fans and death threats to Hideaki Anno. A movie was later released, The End of Evangelion, that was even more cryptic than the show, leaving fans with only more questions. However, both show the same ending, but their focuses are radically different. The original miniseries ending shows no fighting, but is instead a purely psychological probing into the minds of the main characters. In contrast, the movie essentially assumes you have seen the original TV ending and is much more interested in showing the bombastic imagery the original show didn’t have the time to create - the original final episode begins with the text “… there is far too little time left to make mention of it all”. I would argue that both versions are less powerful on their own, and complement each other if watched together.
What makes the movie essential for discussion is that it moves beyond the original ending of the series. The original TV show ending shows Shinji, the main character, finally making the decision to accept himself and reach out to other people, which results in a final shot of everyone in his life around him applauding and congratulating him (this is all taking place while humanity is merged into one whole unit, via the Instrumentality Project that is mentioned throughout the series). They are all levitating above a pristinely clean Earth that has no land, allowing us to see the highest skies and the very bottom of the ocean floor.
In the movie, you see Shinji at the bottom of the same pristinely clean ocean floor from the original ending, and he again has his revelation to move on (now worded as “… eventually, I’ll be betrayed… But still, I want to see them again…”). Both versions are showing the same ending.
Final Scene of End of Eva
Shinji, now more sure of himself, decides to accept the chaos of humanity and returns to Earth (rejecting the Instrumentality Project he was previously submerged in during the original TV ending).
A stark contrast from the pristinely clean world we were left with in the original ending, he now finds himself in a barren world inhabited by only himself and a slumbering Asuka (one of the two other Eva pilots). However, this is a decision made by a more enlightened Shinji, who now realizes he wants to live and embrace the messy and painful nature of reality. A copilot, Rei, tells him, “Anywhere can be paradise, as long as you have the will to live”.
Now the point of contention that has sparked controversy is Shinji’s strangling of Asuka (another copilot and ambiguous love interest of Shinji) once he finds her asleep next to him. This scene, not surprisingly, has given the movie a reputation for being in stark contrast to the original TV show ending. However, this scene succinctly encapsulates the entire series.
Shinji and Asuka’ psychology must be taken into consideration into understanding what makes the interaction meaningful. There is a recurring motif throughout the series of close-ups of Shinji’s hand clenching – usually when he refuses to pilot his Eva fighter (running away). We later see close-ups of his hands clenching to pilot the Eva (doing what he is told). Generally his hands show him looking trapped and acting without true agency - he is either running away or impersonally piloting an Eva that performs actions for him. The one notable exception to this is when he establishes a friendship with Toji by punching him (due to Toji's own insistence). Even though violent, the punch satisfies Toji, and creates a bond between the characters.
The following dialogue between Shinji and Rei sums up the hand motif.
Shinji – “Nobody wants me, so they can all just die”
Rei -“Then what is your hand for?’ (Cut to shots of first his clean white hand and then hand covered by his blue Eva glove)
End of Evangelion's first scene continues the hand motif. It begins with Shinji masturbating to Asuka. Desperate for help, Shinji frantically grabs a sleeping Asuka with his hands, only to accidentally turn her over and reveal that she is partially naked. After a few ambiguous pans of the hospital room and audible grunts from Shinji, we see a close up of Shinji’s hand covered in semen. “I’m so fucked up”, Shinji comments to himself. He tries to connect with her, but is unable to, and reverts to solitary self involved behavior (masturbation).
This hand motif is continued later on, during the apocalypse/Instrumentality Project, when there is an imagined scenario between Shinji and Asuka. He tries to reach out to her verbally (“I want to be with you”), but she rejects his advances, ultimately pushing him into a hot pot of coffee. He then progresses to a physical response with his hands (by smashing the chairs around him), but we still see he has not crossed into Asuka’s personal space. Asuka is unmoved. Shinji finally reaches through Asuka’s personal space and strangles her with his hands, finally directly showing his emotions to her. This causes the fictitious scene to end.
The final scene of the film (of Shinji actually strangling Asuka) is just a variation on the previous scenes mentioned. Each version progresses from the last, with Shinji becoming increasingly aggressive, until he finally eschews words and strangles Asuka in real life.
While this final strangulation occurs we see a close up of Asuka’s hand twitching to life. She raises her hand to his face tenderly (continuing with the hand motif). This is the first time in the entire series that Asuka is ever tender with anyone, revealing a completely different side to her character.
This causes Shinji to loosen his grip, and we see his tears fall on her face. He now produces tears on her face instead of semen on his hand. Shinji has confronted his fear of rejection by showing the ugliest side of himself to her. He reveals how deeply hurt he has felt by her previous rejection of him, but to his surprise she responds to his display of ugly unfiltered emotion with tenderness. She reveals she feels affection (not hatred) for him after all. Shinji then proceeds to break down into uncontrollable sobbing – a loud release of his own bottled up neuroses. Both of the characters have changed and grown to be more vulnerable with each other. Just like with punching Toji, strangling Asuka ends up becoming a trigger to disrupt the dynamics of their relationship and shift it in a new direction.
We are left with an infamous final line, which (depending on the translation) is either Asuka saying “I feel sick” (popular translation) or “How disgusting” (the official American Manga Entertainment translation). This is not Asuka rejecting or judging Shinji, but her merely expressing her own trauma, instead of insulting or berating him like she normally does. The line also mirrors Shinji’s own line, “I’m so fucked up” that he uttered after masturbating to her in the beginning of the movie. Given the disturbed, damaged and idiosyncratic natures/ behaviors of both characters, it is oddly cathartic for them both to express their trauma so bluntly to each other.
Ritsuko, a high level NERV scientist, earlier says to Shinji while in the Instrumentality Project, “If you understand yourself, you can be kind”. Asuka’s tender touch to his face reveals she is learning to be kind. If both characters had not progressed, Shinji would have been catatonically huddled amidst the apocalyptic landscapes alone, quietly taking endless verbal abuse from Asuka. Shinji’s shell of defense was retreating physically, and Asuka’s shell of defense was posturing and pretending to be strong. Once their actions are taken into full context, we realize just how much is implied in the movie’s ending. Shinji is revealing his anger beneath his walls of defenses, and Asuka is revealing her vulnerability beneath her use of anger as a defense mechanism.
The original TV show ending also contains additional complementary lines such as Rei telling Shinji “None of [the things around you] will last forever. Your world is made up of continual change” and “You are merely not being used to being loved by other people”. Hideaki Anno has himself said recently, “[Evangelion] is a story of will; a story of moving forward, if only just a little”. The ending is not bleak, but is instead a portrayal of the slow and difficult process of how humans can change and grow over time.
This moment of understanding found at the end of the film is echoed through the rest of the characters of the show. In essence, the series operates by taking opposites and pitting them against each other, in the process revealing each to be essentially the same as the other. Once the revelations are established, the series probes these characters and meditates on what has caused their essentially similar nature to externally manifest as polar opposites. The truth is often traumatic, but allows for a deeper understanding of their realities. Once this understanding is established, the characters are then able to slowly progress.
However, the progress is subtle and realistic – there are no ultimate solutions provided to the character. The character is instead wiser and more enriched than they were previously. The celebration lies in the growth of the character, and not attaining an improbable state of God-like perfection (something often portrayed in the Mecha genre through power fantasies for young men).
All of the characters are dealing with past traumas of some kind. Asuka emphatically yells “I am not a doll!” to Rei, who herself later rebels with the same words “I am not a doll” to Gendo Ikari (Shinji’s father), when he is using her (as mentioned above) to merge with Lilith and manufacture the apocalypse/Third Impact. Rei is a chronically submissive character, while Asuka arrogantly opposes all those who stand in her path. It is no accident that such polar opposites are given essentially the same lines at critical points during the story.
Humanity is even portrayed as a polar opposite of itself, using two factions (the Japanese NERV and the international SEELE organizations) fighting each other throughout the entire series. The irony of these supposed opposites is that by the end of the movie we realize that both organizations were essentially planning to do the same thing – merge humanity into one collective whole via the Human Instrumentality Project. They disagreed about how they arrived at that point, but in the end, they both get what they wanted of merging the human race into a unified sea of "LCL" (a liquid goo that merges both the living and the dead in a new state of consciousness that can live on indefinitely).
In this state, all of humanity is united and able to fully understand each other in a world without pain or mortality. Shinji and Asuka decide to leave the Human Instrumentality Project and embrace the harsh reality of the new apocalyptic world, and the pain it can bring, but they also are then able to retain their individuality as people, and potentially live a fuller life by embracing those painful realities of what it means to be human (vs living forever as liquid goo).
In conclusion, the different versions of the show all contain a unified message that acknowledges humanity’s flawed state, but also acknowledges its limitless potential for positive growth and the overcoming of obstacles.
If the truth can set you free, and “The truth is very, very traumatic”, then Neon Genesis Evangelion is a world where trauma and freedom are dispensed equally. As Shinji is told while in the LCL, “You were using fantasy to escape reality… Your dream is at the end of your reality”.