Apocalypticism Japanese Style--Jewish-Christian Symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion

Dr. Mark MacWilliams Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York
 

I. Introduction--NGE as an Apocalytpic Japanese Anime--

A. Anyone who has been exposed to Japanese pop culture realizes that many Japanese popular science fiction deals with apocalyptic "end of the world" story lines. They are science fiction stories, as Susan Napier has pointed out, that revel in the "imagination of disaster." One thinks, of course of the 1954 film Godzilla, where a gigantic prehistoric monster awakened by American barbecues most of Tokyo with his radioactive breath.
 
B. An important contemporary Japanese anime (animated cartoon) that has an explicitly apocalyptic story line is Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangelion), the wildly popular 26 episode t.v. series produced by Gainax that aired on the TV Tokyo network from October, 1995 to March, 1996. Screenplay and direction by Anno Hideaki, "the mad genius of the anime industry" and character designer Sadamoto Yoshiyuki. Since then there have also been two movies: Death and Rebirth (March '97) and The End of Evangelion (July 97)
 
C. My talk today is an exploration of the religious meaning of this series. Anno himself describes it as another "robot and cute girl anime" but it is much more than that. I will argue that while NGE shares what Catherine Keller has called the apocalytpic pattern that is found in many other global pop cultural films like Terminator Two, End of Days, and the like, I will argue that NGE imaginatively combines an eclectic mix of Jewish and Christian symbols into its futuristic high tech story line that raises specific issues of great concern to the series original audience, Japanese teenagers. As an apocalyptic myth, it is a sacred story that raises ultimate questions about existence. Does God exist? What humanity's relationship with God? Why are we here? Who am I? What's the meaning of life? These are some of the questions raised throughout NGE. You can see this sense that the story has religious significance in some of the fan web sites for NGE. That this myth, or a variation of it, resonates among disaffected Japanese youth can be seen in t Mika Rika, a young person initially attracted to Aum, who commented that her "generation has a very strong consciousness that this world is heading for destruction... For a long time now I felt a deep anxiety that this is reality." Six months before NGE aired AUM tried to instigate the end with their sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20th, 1995.
 

II. Overview of NGE

A. Any attempt to give an overview of the series has to be given with a warning. It has a labyrinthine plots that is filled with mysteries upon mysteries that make the series an Otaku's dream. As one fan out it, "How scewed up was Hideaki Anno? After viewing 26 TV episdoes and movies it appears the project greatly troubled him, or his life is not making any sense to himself, let alone to anybody else." In fact it is this sense of mystery that NGE fans hope will be revealed by the end of the series --with what James Berger calls the "merging of clarity and oblivion" after 26 episodes of convolutions of the plot
 
B So, what's the basic plot? It's the standard apocalytpic scenario.
 
1. First, it is an apocalyse in the first sense of the word as the end-- the "definitive catastrophe" which destorys the world as we know it. The year is 2015. Fifteen years before, the history books record ,the prophecied millenial last judgment nearly came when according to the authorities a meteor at near light speed struck the Antartic. This was called the Second Impact, recalling the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs. The force of the impact changed world climate patterns, wobbled the earths axis, raised ocean levels by 60 meters, submerging coastal zones. This was followed by a world exchange that led to the nuclear destruction of Tokyo as well as half the human race. The Valentine's Day treaty on Fe. 14, 2000, ended this war. This catastrophic event, however, was no cosmic accident, but the work of mysterious entities known as Shito (disciples, Angels. Their motives and origin is unknown.
 
2. Second, NGE is apocalyptic in the fact that it reveals the paradox that the End is never the end. The text and world continue after the definitive catastrophe. In the Book of Revelation there comes the New Jerusalem. In much of modern SF, what exists after the end, the post apocalyptic is a desert wasteland (e.g.Planet of the Apes) or an urban or suburbian ( as in the case of 12 Monkeys ) dystopia. In NGE the sunken ruins of Tokyo and the Japanese archipelago are the final battleground as the Angels return after fifteen year hiatus to attack what's left of humanity at Tokyo 3, a newly built city/mechanized fortress in Hakone. Underneath the city buried deep below ground is the gigantic undergrond base of NERV, a secret governmental organization under the aegis of the U.N whose supreme commander is the mysterious and grim scientist Gendo Ikari. There NERV has developed Evangelions--100 meter bio-mechanical humanoids designed to beat angels whose AT (absolute terror) fields renders even nuclear mines useless. Evangelion robots can only be piloted by 14 year olds who have special psychic abilities to synchronize their minds with the Eva units. Discovered by the mysterious Marduk institute, there are only three child. Perhaps improbably for a story about the struglle to stave of the end of the world, NGE is primarily about the three children who are regularly shown doing the normal things 14 year old students do--placidly sitting in their homerooms at 3rd Shin Tokyo junior high school. That is, until the Angels strike, when they rush to NERV H.Q. to pilot their EVAS in the defense of humankind. The hero of the series Shinji Ikari, the so called "Third Child" (EVA 01). At the start of the series, Shinji is thrust into his pilots role after the first angel appears. Even though he has no idea what he is supposed to do, he pilots the EVA against the third angel Sachiel, the angel of water whom he defeats. Shinji is an interesting character-- an orphan whose scientist mother Yui died mysteriously testing EVA 01, the same EVA he pilots, he is clumsy socially and lacking self confidence. He is also commanded by his estranged father Gendo whom he hasn't seen for ten years. This is the hero of humanity who must stop the angels from destroying the world.
 
3. Third, NGE is apocalyptic in the sense that it is a revelation. Annon himself remarked that NGE involves some big questions that are combined with mysterious clues scattered throughout the series. NGE's revelatory quality--of pointing to a hidden theological realities is underscored by Anno's use of a complex mishmash of Jewish Christian signifiers.You can see this interweaving in the opening credits--in a brief pastiche of images you find:
 
a. The Systema Sephoroticum drawn by the 17th century priest Athansius Kircher. This is the diagram of the Jewish Kabbalistic Tree of Life also known as the Ten Sefirot or radiances of God that serve as the model for the creation of the world and humanity.
 
b. Adam, portrayed as a Giant Being of light as portrayed again in Kabbalistic texts before his Fall
 
c. Shitos ---Translated as Angels (also means deisciples)--their coming is foretold in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
 
d. Robots are called Evangelion or Evas (German words for Gospel and Eve). They are also similar to the Golem, the giant warrior of stone who protects against intriders in Jewish legends
 
e. SEELE's logo--the 7 Eyes of God from Rev 5:6 description of the lamb as having "seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God sent into all the earth."
 
f. Lilith In Jewish folklore, the first wife of Adam and night demon who slays children. Here she lies in "Central Dogma" the basement of NERV and is the mother of humankind (the lilim)
 
g. Cross symbolism. Here lilith with the spear in her chest is also identified with God. Cross symbolism is found everywhere in the series, but particularly with the Eva children.
4. The issue becomes whether what is revealed is a post modern "pastiche" in Jameson's sense of aesthetic of quotations pushed to their limit linked in their failure to access the symbolic, or whether there is something more here. Something beyond a schizophrenic breakdown between signifiers. Something that perhaps is revelatory in the sense that it satirically ymbolizes the realities of the human condition. If so, NGE offers an apocalytpical clarification--the end reveals who's good and who's evil, who's godly and ungoldly. The mystery that needs to be revealed is who is it? Humankind run by the heartless technocrat Gendo Ikari or the Angels who while strangely cruel also seem strangle beautiful and even loving--the last one in human form declares his love for Shinji. Is the NERV logo (from Browning) true that "God is in Heaven and all is right with the world"? In any case, just like Steven King's The Stand , the series seems moving inexorably toward a definitive catastrophe where everything will be cleared up. This is the standard apocalyptic scenario. (Reached definitively only in the movie--End of Evangelion.).

 

III. Story as Mythic Telescope: The Japanese Social Myth of the Hero

A. That being said, to understand NGE we have to see it for what it is not. At first glance, that is, NGE does not reveal the post modern "incredulity toward master narratives" but seems to revalorize them. The Jewish-Christian symbols scattered throughout the narrative point to a plot that seems to replicate the old master narrative of Armageddon, the great cosmic battle at the end of time between good and evil. The war between Angels and Evas in NGE is reminiscent of "The War between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness" of the Dead Sea Scrolls with its inevitable end--the triumph of God's chosen good or a demonic evil.
 
B. In fact, at first glance,NGE seems yet another example of what Conrad Ostwalt has called the "Modern Apocalyse." It looks like contemporary films like Bruce Willis' Armageddon and Schwarztenegger's End of Days that display "the secularization of the apocalyptic tradition." These films share a number of common features that distinguish them from traditional Jewish-Christian apocalyptic. They: (1) Take place in a familar modern setting (America at the end of the millenium); (2) have ordinary human heroes rather than divine messianic saviors sent from God as in trad. apocalyptic (Willis--an oil wild-catter and Schwartenegger, an ex N.Y.P.D. cop); (3) the hero saves the world through by making a herculean effort (landing on an asteriod, beating up on Satan)--that is, the prime mover in history is the human hero not God, who takes destiny into his own hands through his act of self sacrifice (Bruce staying on the asteriod to blow it up, Arnold's death in the church) that leads to salvation; (4) In these films, the hero is assisted in his task by the miracles of modern technology (the space shuttle, banks of computers in the basement of the Vatican); (5) Modern apocalyse keeps to the notion of destroying evil ( the big meteror, Satan) but eliminates the traditional apocalytic transcendtal eschatology of God's total destruction of the world leading to His establishment of a new heavenly Kingdom. Rather, the hero staves off the apocalypse allowing humanity a second chance to renew itself (restore American family values, restore faith that the church has role to play in modern life). Susan Napier calls this a form of "secure horror" (seen in Godzilla for example) where the hero is a hero of the collectivity who works on behalf of the powers that be (Nasa and the Vatican) to destroy the alien threats that come from the outside (meterors, monsters from Hell beneath the streets of N.Y.)
 
C. NGE only superficially fits this modern apocalyptic pattern. There are important differences, however:
 
(1) The setting of the cosmic battle between good and evil is Japan, not the U.S. --Tokyo 3 in 2015;
 
(2) The hero is 14 year old child, Shinji Ikari, not an adult. In Japanese anime the hero is always a young person. Adults are always portrayed in Japanese anime as decadent, corrupt, and evil themselves. For example, Gendo Ikari, the supreme commander of nerve in the clip we have seen is a brooding presence who seems to have his own mysterous plans for the future of humanity. He's cold, cruel and heartless, ordering his very own son to kill one of his best friends in an Eva that has come under the control of the Angels. Parents are often conspicuously absent in these drama. Shinji's mother is dead, killed while experimenting with the very Eva Shinji is piloting and his father--who is also his supreme commander, hasn't seen him for ten years. At NERV Gendo ignores him totally unless he has a use for him. While the cosmic battle takes place around him, much of NGE focuses on Shinji's struggle to come to terms with his feelings of abandonment, with the harsh world in which he lives where he is called upon by his father, and the government authorities to be like angel "ascending to Heaven" working not stop, sacrificing his own life, even the last shred of his human decency to do his job appointed to him--to fulfill his destiny as determined by the bureaucatic organizations and "Magi" supercomputers that run NERV.;
 
(3) As the show progresses it becomes increasingly unclear to Shinji whether he is saving the world or not. Why are his enemies his father says he has to destroy called Angels? How could his father ask him to kill one of his own friends? Why did he have to good his best friend Kaoru, who tells him he loves him to save humankind after it's learned that he is the 17th angel? Rather than having a clear idea that humanity is good and the aliens are evil, the stuff of secure horror, near the end of series Shinji learns that humanity was born from Lilith. That we are her children the Lilim , the little demons. It is an increasingly nihilistic view of humanity and society is revealed to Shinji at the end. It leaves him increasingly powerless--what should he do to save the world and himself?
 
(4) the very high tech Evas he pilots seem evil. Unlike much of post war Japanese SF that seemed to embrace the postive value of technology produced by modern capitalism for Japan's progress on the world's stage, Technology here is literally demonic. Human souls are tied into behelmoth machines that run beserk tearing the guts out of angels and eating them like ravenous animals after an orgy of destruction of the city Tokyo 3 it was supposed to protect. Shinji is trapped within the Eva to do as his father commands--for good or ill, he is a cog in the machine. Like Akira and other famous contemporary Japanese anime, NGE is a "Tech Noir film" exorciating the evils of modern destruction that seems to be destroying the very life it was designed to save;
 
(5) finally by the end of the series, the story focuses less on saving the collective from the evil from outside, that on Shinji's struggle to deal with his melancoly and despair--how to live and live as a good soul, an independent free spirit in a soulless world of corporate evil and technological madness?
 

IV. Story as Mythic Microscope: Shinji Ikari and the Loss of Childhood

A. So what symbolic level is NGE pointing to? Although NGE is about many things I want to suggest that it ultimately fulfills one more key characteristic of apocalyptic literature, what Frank Kermode in his A Sense of Ending calls apocalyptic desire, the human urge "to imagine the end of the story in which they always find themselves in the middle." As James Berger has noted, "It may be when the seals are broken and absolute evil identified and isolated, the Blessed will look across the abyss and see themselves." A key role of apocalyptic is to offer a trenchant critique of the unacceptable situation we find ourselves--the Roman Babylon of the Book of Revelation , or, I would argue that fragmented, confusing high tech world of late capitalism in Japan.
 
B. While there is not enough time to go into details, I would argue that NGE offers in 14 year old Japanese audience with a fantastic representation of this world, particularly as exemplified in Japan's troubled secondary school education system . The title of Norma Field 's trenchant analaysis of that system, "The child as laborer and consumer: The Disappearnce of Childhood in Contemporary Japan" says it all in which she argues that the technologies of literacy have been the agents of childhood's destruction in contemporary Japan. The high levels of stress in Japan's "Examination Hell system" to compete for the best universities has led to the rise of adult diseases among school age children. For example, a 1990 survey showed that 36.2% of grammar school kids had ulcers, 22.1% had high blood pressure, and 21.4% had diabetes. There are no child labor laws to protect the 50% of 4th to 6th graders who attend cram schools after the regular classes. Field's argument is the childhood is lost, not because of war, disease, or malnutrition but because in Japan education is endless labor. "It is the ordinary Japanese child who has become the raw material for the insatiable schooling industry, the ordinary child who at once toils and consumes, toils at consuming the products of this industry--cram schools, reference books, study guides, and above all tests, tests, and more tests." They are locked in the same cage of chronic fatigue, stress, and fear as their parents. It isalso a world of lonelines,s of a time increasingly spent alone in transit from school to school, alone doing one's homework, with little time outside school for play with age mates or time with parents who must work outside the home. It is also a system that is increasingly marked by "abuse" with rising rates of school bullying (iijime) and teacher's violence, for example the June 7th, 1990 killing of a junior high school girl by her teacher who crushed her to death when he slammed the gate on her because she was tardy for school--a trend Field calls "Education as abuse."
 
C. While Shinji and his friends are not fighting angels they are at #3 Shin Tokyo junior high school doing what their viewers typically do--listen to the droning lectures and preparing for their tests. NGE becomes a kind of exciting escapist fantasy from the dull everyday routine within the walls of the school. But, this daydream also contains within it a darker nightmare. For in Shinji's life is caught in a system like the world of modern Japanese children where the line between childhood and adulthood is effaced through technologically ordered labor. Shinji works for the company NERV just like his father. He is submitted to endless tests in which he must survive through keeping his sychronization rates at 100% higher than any of his pilot companions if he wishes to succeedd. If he wishes to be somebody. Shinji's is also a loner, someone who feels isolated from his peers and is unable to deal emotionally with others--which creates a sadness as he sits alone in his EVA that almost overhelms him. NGE is also all about child abuse--horrific images of Shinji and the other pilots being crushed and tortured by the very machines that define their role in life, built by their parents. It is a dark world in which the religious symbols, especially the Cross appear again and again on the apparel of the characters, or in the cosmic battles they fight, particularly after some horrific explosion. If the Christian symbol of the cross means anything here, couldn't it refer to the sense of cruxifiction on the cross of modernity that children are experiencing. A world in which God as the father has commanded them to live and allows them to be sacrificed on the altar of success?
 

 

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