'Evangelion' Asks Big Questions, But Doesn't Always Earn Its Answers

'Evangelion' is at its messiest when its plot and themes collide.

by Ricardo Contreras
Jul 18 2019, 2:45pm

Screenshot courtesy of Netflix

Neon Genesis Evangelion is often touted as a "thinking person's anime." Despite it's unevenness, it does tend to stay away from a monster of the week narrative and will often devote entire episodes to the mental states of it's main characters. What sometimes gets conflated with this fact is that all of this deep introspection lands or has narrative weight every single time it happens. At its best the show weaves plot and themes effortlessly, but sometimes just asking existential questions isn't enough to hand wave the ways characters have acted or been treated throughout the show. Can an existential line of questioning feel earned even if it ignores previous character growth? Does it cheapen earlier plot points when thematic elements ignore literal narrative? We tackle these questions and more as we discuss Episodes 20-21 on this week's Waypoints. You can listen to the full episode and read an excerpt below:

Content Warning: Discussion of suicide from around 1:48:00 through 1:52:00 and 1:59:00 through 2:04:00

Rob: There's all these implications that "ah, he's starting to connect with people. His relationship is starting to change and, What I want to be make here is that I'm aware of how depression works and it doesn't follow plot arcs. At the same time is a fucking TV show, and I need this character to start— like, literally we have seen some of these beats repeat. I think this episode is worse in the context in which it appears, where we just went through a couple really kind of searing episodes, and it basically discards that.

Oh, he uh, you know, accidentally mangled his friend and this entire thing is being set up to basically take advantage of kids and grind them into powder for NERV. And here we go back to, "Yep, it's his familiar themes of alienation and sort of deep-seated Mommy and daddy issues." And that's kind of a rough place to go after episode 19, and for an episode 20 in this series where we've seen Shinji develop maybe a little more growth than that right? Like develop a little more self-awareness?

And I think it ends up kind of flattening some of the texture of his depression and what his issues actually are in favor of some really broad and generic Freudian imagery and metaphor that I don't think does justice to the show to date or this characters arc over the series.

Patrick: Yeah, this is a character that just finally like came up to his father, like showed him up, we all cheered. It was like "oh! like we're seeing this character advance in a direction." And this episode seems like "yeah, but what's more interesting is the all that stuff that was happening before that." and like not giving us a sense of, like, it's not like it sits with Shinji to be like "boy, What was it like to be in that Eva when all that shit went down."

Austin: Right "you, felt that shit."

Patrick: Right, it would be understandable if we are given a moment a beat to be like "This actually set him back." Like he thought he had hit this moment and that he had achieved some self-satisfaction, some emotional growth that will move him along whatever journey he's trying to achieve. And the show is not, it doesn't give us that moment. It just skips right to "Well of course that happened! 'Cause it's Shinji!"

Which then that gets us back to why do people look at a character like Shinji and go "Boy, just what a whiny little boy that can't get a shit together." It's 'cause actually the show repeatedly fails to acknowledge or provide that the links between those moments and then it'd be easy to just sort of like roll your eye at some of the character and his actions. And I think this episode is like very indicative of that as Rob points out for this late in the arc.

Austin: So, this ends up being my biggest beef with this whole final arc, like the final from here forward with Eva. Instead of engaging with the particular traumas that the characters have gone through which I've been rendered on the screen what is subbed in is sort of a universalized system that requires you to buy into an essentialist reading of selfhood and often of gender and often of just like what it means to be a human. Shinji's particular trauma over the last new episode should be incredible raw material to do a set of episodes about his decline back into the depth of his depression.

You know, he feels some somewhere where he is at once at conflict between what he and Eva Unit-01 have successfully done, in contrast with the sort of image of him as someone who has to be contained in calm and quiet. There's all sorts of stuff you can dig into that's great raw material. I think the same thing end up happening with Ritsuko's arc and to some degree with Misato's arc, both of which are still kind of being played out in front of us at this point. In place of the sort of specific histories that they have, what ends up happening is they end up treating their particular histories as if they are analogous with "Ah, yes, this is the woman's journey."

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