C.S. Lewis said something to the effect that if we take the immortality of the soul seriously, there is no rock bottom. A soul overcome by evil will not just stop at being bad, but keep drifting into the direction of the unspeakably monstrous unless it can be turned around.
One of the things about my whole crisis of faith this year was how it really shone a light into my own darkness. How I had so much inner turmoil that I was afraid to stare down, and it was slowly warping me from the inside out.
Anyway, it was really fortuitous that I rewatched Neon Genesis Evangelion in the midst of it all. The way the show gradually reveals the brokenness of its characters, the intense introspection and angst of it all dovetailed so much with what I was going through. It was cathartic.
So how to talk about The End of Evangelion, a movie which is almost entirely just an explosion of pure catharsis?
Is it worth trying to explain what the hell happens in this movie? Suffice it to say that, the extraterrestrial threat of the Angels having been neutralized, the shadow organization SEELE finally moves to execute its Human Instrumentality Project. Which, as it turns out, involves destroying humanity and fusing everyone’s souls into one perfect being. But they’re also aware that Gendo intends to betray them in favour of living out his own doomsday scenario, and that he holds all the necessary trump cards to do so. This leads to armed conflict between SEELE (by way of the JSSDF) and NERV. The keys wind up falling in the lap of the emotionally devastated Shinji, who does indeed destroy humanity in a fit of despair, but ultimately rejects Instrumentality and instead opts for a post-post apocalypse where where souls can seemingly return to their human existence if they so desire.
I’m sorry if that makes no sense. Watch the TV show.
But where the TV show had elements of surrealism incorporated into it, I think EoE could almost be described as an outright example of surrealist cinema, at least if we understand surrealism not just to mean dreamlike imagery (which the movie has in spades) but also the deliberate deployment of familiar iconography in subversive ways. The iconography in this case being that of the show itself, and otaku culture more generally. I’ve often wondered if the title is meant to carry a double-meaning: the movie does offer a more definitive conclusion to the story than the final broadcast episodes did, but it also seems to be about director Hideaki Anno driving a stake through the heart of his own creation. A deliberate act of aesthetic self-immolation.
The opening scene has Shinji masturbating over a comatose Asuka. It shows the absolute nadir that Shinji has hit, but it also sets one hell of a confrontational tone for the movie. Despite the first half of EoE doubling down on the stuff you’d kinda expect from a conventional finale, it’s clear from the outset that Anno isn’t interested in entertaining. Much has been already written about how the movie is a broadside attack against the worst aspects of anime fandom, about how it becomes a pornographic escape into lotus-eating fantasy, and how the opening (and other moments) throws this right back in the audience’s face in the most incriminating fashion possible.
All this is true, and it also dovetails with EoE’s larger concerns about how we cannot truly love and be loved, how we cannot truly know happiness, if we retreat within ourselves into our own private world as a means of avoiding suffering. This is more or less Shinji’s character arc here (the entire Instrumentality Project is really just this sort of avoidance on a cosmic scale), and in order for this to implicate the audience, Anno has to be programmatically anti-escapist. So even, for instance, the more conventional stuff like the action scenes are set at an uncomfortable tonal register: after a series spent fighting bizarre alien entities there is something upsettingly realistic about watching characters get efficiently slaughtered by JSSDF soldiers.
The second half of EoE abandons any attempts at clarifying the show’s opaque mythos in favor of doubling down on the fourth wall break of the TV ending. In this case the lines between artist, art and audience become more transparent. There is, somewhat infamously, the montage of fan mail and graffiti inserted near the end.
But there’s also the sequence where a child version of Shinji builds a sand castle replica of NERV HQ on what appears to be a movie set. At the risk of reading too much into it, I just get such a strong sense of what artistic self-consciousness here, of the experience of being watched – that Anno put so much of himself into his TV show, and in a sense made a spectacle of some of his deepest struggles, and how much pressure, ambivalence and vulnerability is found there. So Shinji destroys the castle in a tantrum and then tries to rebuild it.
This is the other pillar which keeps EoE from turning into being the revenge fantasy against the fanbase that it is sometimes accused of being: the movie itself functions as a sort of expressionist rendition of what it means to live with crushing depression from someone who has lived that. There’s an earnestness and such naked emotion to it, and so much of the surrealist trickery disarms us so that we can experience it.
And then there’s the whole end of the world sequence which, in a Bergman-esque twist, seems to destroy the animated medium itself, resulting in a live-action interlude before the movie can reconstitute itself and continue (the sudden shots of the empty movie theatre were probably more effective if you managed to see the movie for the first time in theatres).
Anyway, much of the movie is bent upon making you self-aware of the fact that it is an artifice, intentionally constructed by flesh-and-blood people, and intentionally watched by you, a real person. That beneath masks are Others who we cannot know in the sense that we know ourselves, but who we can love if we try. In order to do this, EoE has to make the world of Neon Genesis Evangelion explode. So even if it is merciless (and borderline contemptuous) towards its own characters, it remains peculiarly optimistic in how it believes that we can be better.
Back to my own crisis: I did face up to that turmoil (or rather, I had no choice because I couldn’t keep a lid on it any more) and it did overwhelm me. How could it not, when the world I knew had just fallen apart? I broke down sobbing a lot, often when I was praying. I got better at reaching out to loved ones, about acknowledging the parts of my life that need to change. It’s been such a necessary year for me.