This post is the sixth in a series of posts on Neon Genesis Evangelion and has spoilers for the entire series, including End of Evangelion
This post covers Neon Genesis Evangelion episodes 20-26, plus End of Evangelion.
If cliff-hangers at the end of chapters and episodes are a crime, then cliff-hangers at the end of a book or series are surely an unconscionable evil. After finishing Neon Genesis Evangelion though, I had to ask myself – would I rather have two endings, or none? It’s not as simple a question to answer as you might think. I did not like the original ending to Neon Genesis Evangelion, for reasons that I will dive into very soon. I barely considered it an ending at all, especially after the four episodes preceding it did such a masterful job of taking the story’s tension through the roof. The original ending felt like a disservice to the story I had been following and was invested in, not to mention a case of truly awful storytelling and pacing. It was that deep dissatisfaction more than anything else that pushed me to watch End of Evangelion. End of Evangelion was always going to be on my list but I had expected it to be largely supplementary to the series’ true ending rather than a wholesale replacement. I went into End of Evangelion full of certainty that the movie length ending that I was about to watch would be the ending that the series deserved, because after all, there was no way it could be worse than the droning inanity of the original ending. I wasn’t wrong, I don’t think; in almost every single way, End of Evangelion blows the original ending out of the water. While End of Evangelion certainly isn’t perfect, there is simply no comparing the two, not by any measure of quality that I know of. Yet, in my mind, albeit with some reluctance, I am almost entirely certain that I’ll be going with the original ending as the series’ ‘true’ ending. What gives?
There are always two ways to end the world: the easy way, and the hard way
As you’re no doubt aware, I’ve always maintained that the series’ conclusion would depend heavily on Shinji’s state of mind. I can assure you, however, that I never had something quite this literal in mind – specifically, I didn’t expect the ending to literally take place in Shinji’s mind. There is absolutely no way that I can think of to reconcile the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion with End of Evangelion – at least, not without bringing in half-baked theories involving a psychotic break in Shinji. A psychotic break in Shinji would honestly be perfectly normal at this point, true, but I believe we need to accept that there are definitely two, mutually exclusive endings at play here. There is one ending which gives Shinji a contrived, bizarrely happy ending, and another that shatters Shinji’s world, leaving him physically sound but mentally broken. Neither is perfect; in fact, both are rather upsetting, albeit in very different ways.
Before I begin bashing the series’ final episodes, I want to make it clear that I’m neither unaware nor unsympathetic to the series’ litany of behind-the-scenes worries. The challenge I face is that I don’t know what kind of concessions to give the series for those backstage troubles – an episode that feels like 3 (out of 10) doesn’t suddenly become a 7 because the director was depressed. I can only evaluate and comment on what I see on the screen. So, rather than add in a sentence that starts with “To be fair…” after every criticism I make, I figured it would be easier to just acknowledge right here that budget problems have been the bane of many a creative endeavor and in an ideal world Neon Genesis Evangelion would have had the funds it needed to get its ending right the first time around. Similarly, Hideki Anno is neither the first nor the last artist to suffer from depression; as terrible as it is to say it like this, I do feel like Evangelion benefited from his illness as much as it suffered from it. The depiction of Shinji’s deteriorating mental health comes with saddening, and familiar, ring of authenticity – a fact that has undoubtedly contributed to the series’ current place in the anime hall of game. I’m sure Anno did the best he could, given the circumstances, but at the same time, I can’t claim to have found the final two episodes to be anything but spectacularly dismal.
The Easy Way
The first and foremost of my criticisms of the original ending is that it takes place almost entirely in Shinji’s head. While the psychological element of Neon Genesis Evangelion has always been prominently featured as the series’ centrepiece, it was the broader narrative consequences of those psychological conflicts that gave them context and weight. Without the science fiction, post-apocalyptic setting and the tension of the impending Angel-led cataclysm, Neon Genesis Evangelion is little more than a meandering academic essay on isolation, low self worth and depression. The original ending removes the more traditionally interesting elements of the series and leaves with a dry, repetitive think-piece set in the haunted, traumatized headspace of a depressed overwhelmed teenager. It also offers absolutely no closure to any of the other characters’ arcs and represents an abrupt end to the entire story of the impending Third Impact and the story of the fight against the Angels. As it currently stands, it is neither interesting nor pleasant to watch, which only really makes it harder for the audience to follow along.
There is also the matter of how this unpleasant and uninteresting ending is told. In terms of pacing, dialogue and visuals, these episodes offer the least of all their peers. Most of what the audience is presented has been recycled from previous episodes and much of it is just cycles over and over. Repetition in dialogue has its place and its uses but this did not feel like artistic intent; it felt like filler. The dialogue itself was droning and nothing more than a series of barely connected, disjointed monologues which required intense concentration to penetrate. It was the direct, persistent violation of one of fiction’s more sacred laws: ‘Show, Don’t Tell’. Shinji’s internal anguish is interesting only so long as he is actually making progress – it’s infuriating to see him make some progress and then stumble back to square one. To make matters worse, the final two episodes force a resolution to Shinji’s mental issues that is neither clear nor convincing – the only comfort the audience can find is that some solution was found at all.
Lastly, there is the matter of the absurd, but admittedly poignant, comedic alternate-universe. The intent behind it was clear enough; it was to show Shinji that there was no reason things had to be as consistently awful as they were, that better possibilities existed should he chose to take them. The execution of this little piece felt so jarringly out of place that it was almost painful to watch – though it doesn’t help that it also came at the end of a particularly arduous section of moping dialogue. The whole thing was, perhaps intentionally, an exercise in absurdism – and there are ways to make such a scene work without totally destroying the atmosphere and changing the tone so drastically. Either toning down the whacky tone of the high school piece or by adding in some less extreme alternatives along with it could have both served the same purpose with less disruption. Then there is the final scene of the series, where everyone is congratulating Shinji for powering through some of his self-worth issues. If you believe that there is no need for such on-the-nose meta acknowledgement of character development, the congratulatory scenes are corny. If you don’t think the little progress Shinji has made in the final episode is enough to even constitute anything more than a tiny step towards addressing his many issues, then those congratulations and well-wishes are either comically premature or cruelly sarcastic. Either way, it represents an enormous shift in tone from the rest of the series and a somewhat unconvincing end to the rest of the series.
Or so I felt when I first saw it.
The Hard Way
End of Evangelion is a better ending to the series, no matter how you slice it. It offers closure, though none of it is fun to watch. It is better written and brings all the elements of the series together in its climax though even so, though it is also confusing in its own right. It is an ending that is very much in keeping with the series’ dark, depressive tone and offers no ray of hope without subsequently thoroughly smothering it. It is not a movie that you can walk away from feeling happy and carefree and on an emotional level, there is no fulfillment to be found in knowing that Shinji ends the series even more miserable and disturbed than he was when it began. End of Evangelion‘s role in the series is perhaps best represented by the scene of a young Shinji building a fine sandcastle before smashing it in a fit of rage only to then rebuild it, crying. End of Evangelion takes every piece that Anno put in place over the course of the series’ 24 episodes, tears it to shreds. The final half an hour attempts to salvage with it can from the aftermath but even the rescued remains of the characters are horrifying twisted shells of what they used to be.
End of Evangelion gives the audience the climax to the story that the original ending denied them. Instrumentality, the driving force behind both NERV and SEELE for entirety of series, is reduced to a sideshow in the original ending. It’s unacceptable; Instrumentality is really the moment that Neon Genesis Evangelion had been all about since the very beginning. It was about that moment in which the fate of all of mankind’s collective consciousness rested in the trembling hands of a fantastically disturbed young man with a less than favorable view of the rest of his species. It was the most literal way in which Shinji’s psychological state could decide the world’s fate. It is an endless fascinating concept with untold potential for narrative tension – which is perhaps why the way it did finally play out felt a little lackluster. All the Instrumentality scenes focused on Shinji alone; but a deeper exploration of the concept of Instrumentality could have allowed for a much deeper discussion of how the rest of the mankind saw the world. Shinji’s self-worth crisis could have been better assuaged by showing him that he was not alone in his crisis, that characters like Asuka and Rei faced similar crises of their own, or by showing him that why his father became what he was. There were more interesting narrative options to explore and could have provided better avenues for character development than what ultimately chosen, avenues that would finally move beyond Shinji’s self-pity.
The closure that End of Evangelion offers is the ultimate poisoned chalice. While watching the original ending, there were all kinds of unanswered questions – what happens to characters like Asuka, Misato and Rei? In some ways, the ambiguity of not being explicitly shown their fates was less painful than knowing with all certainty that none of them met happy ends (with the possible exception of Asuka, who going out in a blaze of glory and at peace with her mother, was closer to true happiness than at any other time in the series). Yet, at the same time, Shinji is the only character over whom the audience has a choice to make regarding how his story ends; for the rest, End of Evangelion is the only ending they get since the alternative is no ending at all.
A Hedgehog Massacre
It’s remarkable how many characters in this series share the same tragic fate; they die incapable of understanding either themselves or each other. In several case, there are solid cases to be made that the reason they die is because they are incapable of reaching that understanding. In this section, and for the rest of the post, we will take a look at each of the more prominent characters and see how they meet their miserable fates. Thus far, I’ve only really talked about what the story was but haven’t said much about what I make of what it was. That final missing element will go into the final, overall series review, where it belongs. Most of the discussion of the plot really ends up being discussed under one character’s section or the other, as you will soon see.
The Akagis: Like Mother, Like Daughter
Not 10 episodes ago, I was ready to dismiss Ritsuko as just another utility character, ala Kaji, whose presence in the series was to act as Misato’s foil. It became clearer as the series went one that while her role would never be truly pivotal, it was nevertheless going to be fairly important. Yet, no discussion of Ritsuko’s character can begin without a discussion of her mother – a simple fact that would undoubtedly have infuriated her.
Ritsuko’s tragedy is that she worked so hard to not become what she ended up becomming. It’s not that simple; few things ever are. Ritsuko admired Naoko the scientist, despised Naoko the mother and perhaps never really understood Naoko the woman. That is a complicated set of feelings to navigate about any single person, let alone a parental figure. From the beginning Ritsuko has been an enigma; on one hand, she was the very stereotype of the stone cold scientist to whom nothing was of interest unless it affected her calculations, but at the same time, she was also one of the very first characters to express any concern for Shinji’s mental well-being (though whether this was out of concern for Shinji or to protect her interests in her research efforts is unclear). She stayed, wisely, clear of the drama constantly enveloping the rest of the characters and as such, until the final set of episodes, it was almost impossible to establish anything beyond a casual understanding of her character. Ritsuko’s relationship with mother is the first step to a deeper understanding of her character. She saw her mother more as a rival than as a maternal figure – a view that led her to join NERV (but with different colored hair to dissuade comparisons) and that led her to seek a romance with the same man (this is purely conjecture). Both women even share their dislike for Rei – Naoko strangles the first Rei while Ritsuko destroys the Dummy Plug System.
Ritsuko’s relationship with Gendo, in particular, bear further looking into. It takes far too long, for someone of Ritsuko’s intelligence (though not very long for someone so of her emotional intelligence), that she is nowhere near the top of Gendo’s priority list, that she is literally a tool that he wouldn’t think twice about discarding. Her one-sided rivalry with Rei is unbecoming as well; although perhaps given the inappropriately close relationship that Gendo and Rei share, its perhaps not entirely unfounded. In a clever bit of foreshadowing, we get the hint in episode 13 that Casper, the MAGI computer representing Naoko’s womanhood, is only one to hold out against the Angel attackm, an indication that it is the ‘strongest’ aspect of her – when Ritsuko tries to blow Gendo’s operation up, it is again Casper that overwhelms the other two in rejecting the command. Ritsuko herself sees this as a direct rejection by her mother’s spirit – even in death, her mother chose her man over her daughter. The other major action Ritsuko takes is the destruction of the Dummy Plug system (the reveal that the Dummy Plugs are powered by clones of Rei is a huge reveal that I’m not really doing justice to here, but it’s impossible to talk about Ritsuko’s demise without talking about the Dummy Plug System’s dark secret). Gendo sending her to be the sacrificial lamb instead of Rei was the final straw for her; it was in that moment that she realised, that despite all her efforts to the contrary, she had made the exact same mistakes as her mother and felt that the best way to end that connection was to break ties with Gendo conclusively – by destroying ‘Rei’. The irony, of course, is that that made her even more like her mother than she realized.
To put it succinctly, the tragedy of Ritsuko’s character is that she tried so very hard to not become what she ended becoming. She ended up seeing her mother more as a rival to surpass than as a maternal figure to look up to. The end result was a series of decisions, made independently of her mother, yet fundamentally influence by her – the decision to join NERV as a scientist, the decision to seek an inappropriate romance with the same man, the self-deception involved in thinking that Ikari Gendo was ever capable of truly loving either Naoko or Ritsuko and jealous self-destruction that resulted when they found out just how low on Gendo’s priority list they really stood. It all makes Ritsuko’s decision to dye her hair blond to not resemble her mother so much seem all the more pitifully inadequate.
Ayanami Rei: The Puppet in Human Clothing
This will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this series of posts since the beginning but I’ve struggled with understanding Rei’s character. To my credit, I’m very aware of the fact that there is something to her character that I’ve been missing out on entirely but that doesn’t really bring me any closer to figuring out what that something is. As a result, this section is going to be a lot shorter than the character actually deserves, but what the hell, I’ll give it a shot.
The revelation that Rei was just one clone of several is the final piece that I needed to solve some of the puzzle surrounding her character. In the long history of existential crises, Rei’s personal existential crisis certainly has more justification than most. It’s bad enough knowing that you’re just one, replaceable clone of many, but when compounded by the fact that you’re not even a clone of the original ‘you’ (in that Rei was a clone of Yui, there never was an original ‘Rei’), it makes the whole thing that much messier. I’m a little unclear on just how many Rei clones we actually see throughout the series but I know for a fact that there have been a minimum of three clones – one murdered by Naoko, one killed in the fight with one of the final Angels, and the one that we see from there on out, including End of Evangelion. Given the dangers of fighting Angels and testing out the Evangelion, it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more – and since the clones seem to retain most memories between incarnations, it’s not like it would be all that obvious when one clone died and was replaced by a new one. Of course, the number of clones is ultimately irrelevant – it is the fact that there are clones waiting in line behind her that makes the current, active Rei question what value her life really has.
There is a second dimension to this, however. Knowing that you can be entirely replaced at any moment by someone, who thanks to the memory transfer mechanism, is basically yourself, would be enough to make anyone question their inherent need for self-preservation. The fact that she can die, and yet not die, has got to colour everything she does. Many, if not most, of us are motivated to make the most of our lives because we know this life is all we have. Retaining the memories from her prior lives makes the matter that much worse – it’s not clear whether she remembers being murdered by Naoko (we do know that her memories of her second death are cloudy) – but regardless of whether she actually remembers the deaths themselves, she has to be aware of the fact that she has died and that too must Colour her worldview. Between that, and her status as the vessel for Lilith’s soul which clearly sets her apart from the rest of her classmates, it’s not surprising that she feels so isolated and embittered.
The Ikaris: Marital Bliss in Post-Apocalyptic Hell
Perhaps fittingly, given my difficulties decoding Rei, I also struggle with Ikari Yui. It’s impossible to discuss Gendo in isolation of Yui but that doesn’t hold the other way around. At first glance, the role Yui plays in Evangelion is similar to the role Lily Potter plays in Harry Potter. Her influence seems to be largely posthumous at first; a scar left on both her son and husband. Yet, the more you think about it, the more you have to question her role and her position. You begin to question why she volunteered for the experiment that would fuse her with Unit 01. You begin to question why she allowed Shinji to watch the experiment given the inherent risk. You begin to question what mettle she had below her surface given the horrific damage she inflicts on the Angels that threaten her son. Ultimately, she is one of the series’ few unambiguously good characters but that only makes her even harder to understand. It is tempting to think that she predicted some elements of how the Third Impact and SEELE’s Instrumentality attempts would go down and presciently placed herself in a position to protect her son and guide him through the Third Impact. Yet, I don’t see how that’s possible or why she wouldn’t talk to Gendo about it before if those were indeed her suspicions.
That brings us nicely to the topic of Ikari Gendo. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Gendo has his hidden depths. For a good chunk of the series, Gendo was pretty much irredeemable and I’d argue that nothing that is revealed in End of Evangelion really changes that much. He becomes a little easier to understand but I’d argue that if anything, it makes him pitiable without making him sympathetic. The whole angle of him doing all of this just to be reunited with his wife is a little hard to buy – while we did see him seemingly genuinely depressed when she died, he doesn’t seem to have had any compunctions about sleeping with other women or mistreating his own son. Neither are actions that you would associate with a man who can’t get over his wife. No, what I really found interesting about Gendo is his ultimate similarity to Shinji. Like his son, Gendo doesn’t mix well with the other kids (i.e. the rest of humanity) and seems stuck inside his own warped worldview. Gendo’s excuse that he didn’t know how to interact with Shinji is exactly the sort of poor-old-me bullshit you can imagine coming from Shinji, were he to ever reach adulthood without therapy. Like Ritsuko, Gendo’s fate is tragically ironic – after all his yearning for his wife, he dies at her hands, forsaken by both his ‘children’. I can’t say I felt much emotion at his death – he was a pretty terrible human being and whatever justification we received for his actions, somehow made me less sympathetic towards him.
Misato – The Mom Who Never Was
Truth be told, none of the characters that we’ve talked about so far have really interested me all that much. Ritsuko, Gendo and even Rei came to life (to me, at least) far too late in the series for me to investment a lot in the conclusion to their stories. The characters that we will soon be discussing however, are a different matter entirely. Misato, Asuka and, of course, Shinji himself, are characters that I’ve probably spent the most time talking about in my previous posts and, I think, rightfully so. They have taken centre stage throughout the series, for various reasons and investment in them has been less a conscious choice and more a base requirement for enjoying the series; if you aren’t invested in Shinji’s fate, for example, then really, what are you even watching this show for?
Picking an order between these three is pretty tricky – though really, the only competition is between second and third – but I think the revelations surrounding Asuka’s past and her sudden, stunning fall from grace help her edge Misato out in the competition of which character gets the longer essay from me. It’s not really Misato’s fault; most of her character has been laid for the audience to see prior to this cataclysmic group of episodes. We’ve explored (and talked about) her relationship with her dead father and how that continues to have a powerful influence in her life and in her relationships with those around us. We’ve also talked about how her presence at the Second Impact has shaped her attitude towards the Angels (and indirectly, towards the rest of the world). That is not to say that we are done talking about Misato, of course – End of Evangelion gives us her tragic death along with a few questionable moments that we will need to examine.
Before we go into the specifics, however, I think it would be useful to look at her character’s development throughout the series. She goes from the pragmatic commander yelling at Shinji to get into the damn robot already, to becoming a real mother figure to him. Yet, as positively warm and fuzzy as that sounds, I don’t really see her character’s journey as all that positive. Her mistakes throughout the series are numerous but beyond that, I think she does a great deal of damage to the characters around her and to herself. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Misato has failed to recognize that what Shinji needs in his lowest moments is not a drill sergeant bullying him into taking action, but a sympathetic ear that will allow him to talk about what he’s going through. In fact, it seems like the only times that Misato is thoroughly incapable of serving as a guardian is whenever anyone requires her to do so. End of Evangelion and indeed some of the earlier episodes, add a creepy subtext to this as well when she kisses Shinji and promises him that they will have sex when they see each other next. I don’t really want to get all Freudian but really, after watching that scene, how can I not? The explanation is thankfully simple enough; Misato seems to have mixed love, affection and sex together. It was simple when it was Kaji – in a boyfriend, those three things are healthy. However, having never had a family or a kid before, it seems that Misato’s brain could not compute how to proceed, resulting in a bizarre scene in which she tries to console a desolate Shinji by trying to seduce him. His horrified refusal actually puzzles her which is just all kinds of messed up for everyone involved and is just another example of how utterly incapable she is of being an emotional caretaker to him.
The original ending to the series sheds a little more light into just why Misato is the way she is. As is the case with Gendo in End of Evangelion, it’s not enough to fully redeem her many mistakes but it does go a fairly long way – the key difference between the two characters being that while Gendo never cared enough to try, Misato tried and frequently failed. You can argue about which is truly to more damaging to Shinji (I can’t decide myself though instinct tells me it would be Gendo) but if thoughts are all that count, then Misato’s practically an angel. We see that Misato is, at heart, a deeply conflicted individual – she has maintained a facade long enough that she had, prior to the series’ original finale, managed to convince even herself that it was real. It was the facade of someone who was in control and had her shit together – the consummate professional, the savvy tactician, the badass who would hop off one Eva, into another, rogue Eva without all that much hesitation. Yet, to the audience, the facade was never convincing – we saw what a mess her personal life was, from the messy state of her home life to her stormy relationship with Kaji, we could have guessed that one of those two versions of Misato was a phony. It could have been that she was just pretending to be a hot mess at home but that’s just not very logical, is it? I say it now like it’s all obvious, but I didn’t really put all that together until Misato herself spelled it out for me in the final (original) episode. Her drive to push herself to be outwardly perfect to paper over her insecurity and loneliness is probably one of the more realistic ways I’ve seen that dynamic play out in a fictional character. However, the saddest thing about Misato is her relationship with her father – a man who thoroughly neglected her and her mother but also saved her life. It’s a love-hate dynamic not unlike Ritsuko’s own dynamic with Naoko – with similar results. She dies saving Shinji despite contributing to several of his emotional scars.
Asuka: Therapy Through Violence
Of course, no discussion of parental damage and emotional scars can even begin without Asuka. Ah Asuka – remember when I thought she was the most normal of the bunch? You know what? I still maintain that she is the most normal of that lot – after accounting for the simply unreal amount of shit she has had to deal with. In some ways, I think Asuka was the only character who got a truly happy ending – which is an incredibly cruel thing to say about a girl who was blinded and stabbed repeatedly while fighting off overwhelming odds. We will talk about her death shortly but first we need to look at how we even got there.
Episodes 20-24 were anything but kind to Asuka. We’ve always known that her abilities as a pilot were her one single source of pride and self-worth. To the audience, that’s practically absurd – she’s a pretty, smart, confident (if occasionally obnoxious) young girl, with plenty going for her. To Asuka and the numerous issues dragging her down, nothing less than saving the world is enough to silence her internal critics. The series has been slowly taking the tag of the ‘best pilot’ away from her for a long time now. I had naively thought that Misato crowning Shinji the best pilot would be Asuka’s low point but looking back, those were such happy days compared to what came after them. Asuka enters a downward depressive spiral characterised by all the usual emotional symptoms – anger, withdrawal, hopelessness. It’s not easy to watch; Asuka can’t believe she’s ‘losing’ to Shinji and being as familiar with Shinji as we are, it’s hard for us to believe it too. There is even a scene with her in a bathtub which looks suspiciously like she is about to commit suicide – and yet another example of a child following in her parent’s footsteps. Of course, Asuka does not ultimately follow in her mother’s footsteps (though her fate in the original ending is left unclear, like so much else) but we will, as I keep saying, get to that.
When Misato mentioned Asuka’s troubled past way back when, I definitely didn’t imagine something quite like what we got. Her mother’s affection for, and murder of, the doll that she honestly thought was her daughter was shocking by itself; Asuka witnessing it first-hand added another dimension to it. It explains why Asuka rejects Rei so strongly and so absolutely and why Asuka is perhaps the least passive of all the characters (though, it should be noted, often to her own detriment). Asuka’s mother’s inability to recognise her own daughter was a blessing in disguise you could say but it did leave the deep, emotional scar on Asuka who was left feeling like she always had to do something to catch everyone’s attention. To her credit, Asuka went about that by pursuing success – whether it was graduating from university at a young age or being the best pilot she could be, she was willing to do anything it took to get others to acknowledge her presence and existence. Things got complicated when that didn’t happen though; Kaji rebuffed her repeatedly and Shinji was just in no place emotionally to respond to her advances (and when he does, I don’t think jacking it over her comatose body is what she had in mind). In Shinji’s defense, those advances definitely would not have been all that obvious to a young teen. Before we move away from Asuka’s childhood and upbringing, let’s take a moment to remember that Misato is Asuka’s guardian too. I don’t know if Misato missed the signs of Asuka’s oncoming depression or just confused them with menstruation – I actually hope it’s the former since mistaking the former for the latter would just make Misato bad at life – but it’s clear that Misato has a favourite ‘child’ and it’s definitely not Asuka. I know we don’t need further evidence that Misato’s really not that great a parental figure but imagine how Asuka must feel when the guy she has a crush on is screwing around with her ‘mother’ figure.
All of the above is partially why I feel so tempted to label Asuka’s death a happy ending even though it’s probably not, objectively speaking. It’s just that I think her journey from almost killing herself and in the midst of a depression to kicking all kinds of ass (albeit for a very brief time) is positive one. She goes out fighting like a woman possessed, easily showing skills that neither Rei nor Shinji have and reclaiming her position as the best Evangelion pilot before being butchered alive. She found a way out of the dark hole of depression and even if it did result in her death, I find it weirdly heart-warming that she was able to connect with her mother one final time before they both got figuratively nailed to the cross. It isn’t stated explicitly but it would seem that Asuka’s mother lost her sanity to Unit 02 in a similar way to how Yui lost her ‘life’ to Unit 01 – it’s a pity that Shinji and Asuka never understood that they had both lost their families to the Evangelion madness.
Shinji: I Really Should Have Just Run Away And Never Come Back
Speaking of Shinji, it’s about time that we got down to discussing him. There is obviously a lot to say since he is not only the star of the show but the only one who is substantially affected by the change in ending. Before we even get to that fork in the road however, we need to consider his journey thus far. The Shinji we see in this handful of episodes feels markedly different from the Shinji we’ve known for most of the series. The difference is neither staggering nor unexpected since we do know the events that led up to his state, but if you had told me, at an earlier stage in the series that Shinji would end the series more psychologically damaged than ever, I wouldn’t have believed you. He had been making such great progress, but episodes 20-24 treated him just as harshly as they did every other character.
We need to look very carefully at how Shinji ended up walking back all the progress he had made in order to understand the decisions and frame of mind he is in by the final two episodes. In all fairness to Shinji, it’s not so much a personal failing of his that leads to his unravelling but rather circumstances that conspire to force him into unfortunate positions. To an extent, Shinji is also the victim of everyone around him falling to pieces at the same time he needed them most. Asuka’s confidence crumbles and she first lashes out and then withdraws while Misato’s begins to fall apart after Kaji’s death as well. I don’t feel like Kaji’s death made much of an impact on Shinji – the two were on talking terms but I never got the impression that they were very close. In addition to the above, Shinji has to witness Rei’s death – the emotional damage was done, and shortly after he realises that Rei is a clone and that there is a lot more going on than he previously thought. On top of all that, whatever small steps Gendo had taken to heal their relationship was instantly destroyed when Shinji was forced to watch as Gendo ordered the destruction of Unit 03. In the previous post, I talked a little about how horrible it must have been for Shinji to be in a situation where he was sort of trapped in his own mind – his ‘arms’ acted without his approval and he couldn’t stop them – but as bad as those feelings of frustration and powerlessness must have been they don’t hold a candle to having to actually make the decision to kill someone, which proves to the straw that broke Shinji’s scrawny back.
I’ve avoided talking Nagisa Kaworu thus far for several reasons. I found his appearance in the story rather bizarre from a story telling perspective and given that he was only in the story for all of one episode, I prefer to see him as a device rather than a character. He was the device that gave Shinji exactly the kind of emotional support and assurance that he so desperately needed after Rei’s death and the constantly stream of troubling events coming his way. In some ways, I think we can see Kaworu as Shinji’s final hope for salvation – after Kaworu’s death (at Shinji’s hands no less), there is effectively no turning back. There was nothing that could repair Shinji after he had to personally, with his own hands, upon his own decision, kill the only source of happiness and comfort in his life. It’s almost comically savage – Shinji spends the entire series searching for someone who can help him understand himself and his place and purpose in life, only to have to kill that person soon after finding him.
All of this basically brings us to the fork in the road; the choice between the blue pill and the red. The blue pill will keep you living the lie; that Shinji somehow miraculously was able to discard all his burdens and move from a state of near catatonic trauma to one where he is on the verge of recovering from his depression. The blue pill, like I’ve mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, will give you the emotional reward you’ve been searching for throughout the whole series; it is the assurance that your emotional investment in the protagonist was not for naught and somehow everything is going to work out. The red pill drags you out of the matrix – no punches are pulled and the cold hard truth is laid bare for you to see. There is a satisfaction in this too – you see the fates of the other characters for yourself, you get closure to the story and fuller understanding of what it was all about. Yet, it’s not exactly pleasant to watch characters suffer that much at each other’s hands and still get no pay-off (Shinji ends End of Evangelion every bit as messed up as he was when he began it, if not more so). Keep in mind, I’m not really talking about the quality of the endings – I’ll do that soon – but just the strengths and weaknesses of the endings as they pertain to Shinji.
Let’s look at how the original ending plays out. There are pieces of it that it shares with End of Evangelion; the deeply introspective tone is reminiscent of the scenes just before Third Impact begins, for example. The main thing we need to note about this ending is that Shinji is able to reach some sort of peace with himself. I would personally say that the peace that he finds is a tenuous peace at best, but nevertheless from an audience’s perspective, it’s sufficient to know that after all the horrible things that Shinji’s been through, he’s managed to reach a better place for himself. I don’t personally like the way he goes about reaching that equilibrium with himself – there’s just something about it feels too simplistic. The burden Shinji has borne since the first episode is simply just lifted in the course of ten minutes and if that’s all it took then it feels like it should not have taken this long to get there. In this ending, Shinji learns that he is defined partially by how others see him but primarily by how he sees himself. He also learns that the rest of the cast doesn’t hate him and don’t see him as inherently useless unless he’s in the cockpit and that forms the basis for his new outlook.
Then we have End of Evangelion. The version of Shinji that we see in End of Evangelion is certainly more much troubled than his counterpart – from him masturbating over a comatose Asuka, to his more overt and frequent pleas for help, to his increasingly violent outbursts. It feels like in the original ending, he was dangerously close to breaking down but in End of Evangelion, he is well over the edge. To be fair, even at the start of End of Evangelion, he is still making some effort at trying to save himself – indeed, he looks to Asuka for comfort when he realises that he’s not sure what Rei is and Misato has shown herself to be incapable of helping him. However, when Asuka cannot help him either, he basically just shuts down and has literally run out of people he can look to for help. This might be a cruel thing to say but at some point my sympathy for Shinji begins to wane rapidly; I can understand trying to seek help when you’re clearly overwhelmed but Shinji himself has never really helped anyone (you can make the argument that he’s not in any emotional position to offer any help) and that at some point, if there is no external help to be found, you have to help yourself. Indirectly, this is the advice that Misato gives him before her own death but even that rubs me the wrong way because her own failings are partially to blame for him requiring help in the first place. I’m also not sure how to feel about Misato’s kiss being the thing that shakes Shinji out of his BSoD state but that’s another can of worms entirely.
By the point of Asuka’s death, it’s all over for Shinji and things aren’t looking good for the rest of mankind. The story is in a situation where humanity’s collective conscience is in the hands of a deeply troubled teenager. Shinji is essentially given a choice on whether or not to choose Instrumentality and given all that he has been through, he picks self-defence. He doesn’t want to be hurt anymore and if that means not having people around him then so be it. When have people brought him anything but misery anyway? The scene in the train car reinforces this – from Shinji’s point of view, everyone is mean and hurtful to him and if the solution to that problem is to get rid of them all, then that’s what he will do. It’s classic Shinji – throughout the series, he has often opted to run away from his problems, only to regret it and reluctantly drag himself back. It’s no different here; he picks Instrumentality as a way of avoiding being hurt by other people but eventually regrets it and walks his decision back. There is a lot that happens in the subsequent scenes that I can’t really follow. Things get extremely trippy but the gist of the matter is that Shinji is forced to learn the uncomfortable truth – the same thing that allows others to harm him is also the same thing that gives him a sense of self. In a state of Instrumentality, no one can hurt Shinji but neither can Shinji (as he sees himself) even truly exist. He decides that he would rather risk being hurt because with that risk, comes the possibility to positive experiences too. Instrumentality is (sort of) reversed and Shinji is at peace encouraged by those he loves. Even if he hasn’t really sort out all his issues, he has made great strides forward and reached a similar state to his original ending version.
If End of Evangelion had stopped there, then all would have been well and I could have just forgotten that the original ending even happened. As things turned out though, there was an epilogue scene of sorts where Shinji has gone from being at peace with himself, back to being as thoroughly fucked up as he was before. Shinji is in some post-apocalyptic world, nothing is explained and even less makes sense. It’s certainly not a happy ending; Shinji chokes Asuka again and then breaks down with her calling him disgusting again. It’s a reflection of his choice – when he chose to reject Instrumentality, he implicitly chose the possibility of being hurt by others, of being lonely and of not being understood by those he wished to be understood by. That post-apocalyptic world is what Shinji ended up choosing and I think the depressing tone that it’s portrayed in is an indication to the audience that one thing will never change: Shinji will never be rewarded for choosing not to run away, but he will continue to fight his desire to run from the pain because he thinks it’s the right thing to do. I also can see that whole epilogue scene as the series in a microcosm; human beings helping and hurting each other through the process of just interacting.
Alright guys, that just about wraps this bad boy up. I’m going to start working on an overall review of the series which will focus a lot more on the execution of the plot and characterization and my take on the series as a whole. As always you can support me by contributing a little something to my Patreon – anything you spare is appreciated and keeps the site up and running. I’m on Facebook too!