Arts and Entertainment

The Meaning of Life Through Neon Genesis Evangelion

“Neon Genesis Evangelion” conveys human emotions and problems realistically and gives insight to people on the meaning(s) of life.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Ismath Maksura

One of the most beloved and influential anime of all time, “Neon Genesis Evangelion” by Hideaki Anno, is more than just a mecha. Though it has plenty of robot action, its most memorable quality is its focus on the human mind, psychology, and philosophy, which it explores through its well-developed characters and complex world-building. This introspective lens makes it undeniably different from other anime in its genre and has kept “Evangelion” culturally relevant to this day.

“Neon Genesis Evangelion” focuses on a young boy, Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata), who is called on by his father to save the world from alien invaders called Angels. Ikari and a group of other teenagers, including Asuka Langley Soryu (Yūko Miyamura) and led by Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi), must pilot Eva units (massive robots of mysterious origin) in order to defeat the Angels and save humanity. While this plot is by no means a revolutionary premise, “Evangelion” shines in how it explores the cast’s instability, loneliness, insecurities, and interpersonal relationships.

From the start of the series, Anno dives deep into the human psyche and its motivations. Viewers can deeply relate to the anime’s characters and resonate with their thoughts and struggles. Ikari, grappling with anxiety and depression, represents nihilism, the belief that life is meaningless, at first. Nihilism is often portrayed as a radical pessimistic way of life with no morals, as coined by Friedrich Nietzsche. Ikari finds life to be pointless and figures that intimacy only leads to suffering. One poignant inner monologue that conveys nihilistic rhetoric is by another Eva pilot, Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara). She asks, “What is human? Is it something that God created? Or is it something that humans created with each other? What I own are life, something in my heart, and a cockpit… Who is this? This is me. Who am I? What am I? What am I? What am I?” Her repeated sentences and general confusion about life reflect her struggle to find meaning in the world. This existential dread she faces is sorrowful and null, almost inescapable.

Throughout the show, Ikari embodies escapism––running away from his problems and trying his best to seek any type of distraction to disregard his obligations as a defense mechanism. In episode four, titled “Rain, After Running Away,” the Hedgehog’s Dilemma is presented. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is a concept by Arthur Schopenhauer in which he conveys the dichotomy of intimacy. When Ikari runs away from home due to the stress of being an Eva pilot, he and Katsuragi have a pensive interlude, during which he decides to stay as they empathetically look at each other with understanding. Intimacy should bring about love and comfort but brings out the opposite, pain and suffering. Ikari wants to attain that intimacy with people but chooses not to because it leads to discomfort and affliction, which expresses the notion that intimacy is challenging, and in order to attain that closeness with someone, you have to endure some sort of pain. Schopenhauer lays out the analogy of hedgehogs desiring warmth and closeness on a cold day with one another but their quills pricking each other when they get close, hence the name and conjecture that life remains intimate even through pain.

Anno frequently shows the negative effects of escapism. Anno uses Ikari to point out that escapism will not solve your problems and that you must resolve your own issues and come to the realization that life is full of suffering, but also moments that make living life worth it. This concept goes hand in hand with existentialism, a term coined by French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, which states that you are the one to decide how your life plays out, and you have the free will to determine how to live life. The argument that life should be lived authentically is a major tenet of existentialism. The fact that Ikari has an active choice in what he can do leads to his anxiety of having to navigate his own life and its troubles all by himself as there is no one to lead the way. Throughout the show, Ikari does what he’s told and almost denies his own freedom of choice, which pushes him into finding his own meaning and place in the world.

Additionally, he abides by Jean-Paul Sartre’s “bad faith” concept in existentialism, in which people comply with whatever they are being told when under pressure. While it’s easy to do what you’re instructed and be guided through life by other people, you should live the way you want to and do what is the best for yourself while finding fulfillment.

“Evangelion” also deeply explores Freudian psychology and philosophy. One example, the death drive, Thanatos, explains that life’s goal is death. One character, Ayanami, deals with this drive toward death and self destruction, knowing she is a replaceable clone and ultimately losing her sense of self. Soryu, like Ikari, only pilots her robot, Eva Unit 02, for praise and puts on a facade in front of others to blanket her self-hatred. She wants to be intimate, but can’t as it only leads to pain––with her mother, with her father, and with Ikari. But by the finale, “End of Evangelion,” she chooses to slightly embrace Ikari with her hand on his cheek. They themselves choose to live life and not deal with instrumentality (the merging of everyone where loneliness ceases to exist). By the time the curtains close, the characters decide to experience life how they want to and be in control of their choices.

The show’s legacy remains to this day one of the most popular and highly regarded anime of all time. For more than two decades, “Evangelion” merchandise and iconography have been all over Japan, making a lasting impression on the country’s popular culture. “Evangelion” was able to intellectually stimulate audiences of all ages and prompted anime to be a viable medium for discussing meaningful and philosophical topics. “Evangelion” does a superb job of presenting human emotions and philosophical ideas throughout the show, making it consumable for anyone while integrating challenging emotions and deeper thinking into animation. As a result, it forever changed the genre, critiquing life and its struggles to show that life is actually worth living for, despite the suffering.