Neon Genesis Evangelion is the perfect story for this moment in history

Neon Genesis Evangelion has returned for a second life on Netflix, legally available for the first time in a couple decades. Watching Neon Genesis Evangelion in 2019 is fascinating for a number of reasons — namely, seeing what a new generation of people will make of the show — but the most interesting is the new world it’s been released back into. The anime was always apt, but in the two decades since the original series was first broadcast on TV Tokyo, it’s become the ideal anime for our time; thematically, the series is about the awful courage needed to stop an oncoming apocalypse, and what the people charged with protecting everyone else are obliged to cope with.

Neon Genesis Evangelion was critically acclaimed and beloved on its release (aside from the last two episodes, which were to put it mildly, controversial) both because it was a dense work of psychological fiction and because people could recognize it as a genuine artistic achievement. In 1995, when it was released, the western world was relatively prosperous and stable; Japan, however, had recently undergone both an earthquake in Kobe and a terrorist attack in Tokyo, which, that close to the end of the millennium, must have felt like the first rumblings of doomsday. Hideaki Anno’s masterpiece came into that void and had something to say about depression, cataclysm, and what it costs to save the world.

The plot goes something like this: Shinji is a 14-year-old boy who’s been conscripted by his estranged father, who runs a secret intergovernmental agency, to pilot an Evangelion, one of the titular giant robots. The organization’s purpose is to defeat the Angels — equally large aliens that are hellbent on destroying the human race — and the Evangelions are humanity’s final weapon, the only thing that’s strong enough to destroy them. Shinji does not want to pilot the Eva. And yet he has to, or humans are doomed.

While the show was always very good at synthesizing its philosophical influences into a coherent, cohesive whole, the fourth episode in particular does this quite well; it’s one of the earliest signs that Neon Genesis Evangelion is not just another fable about giant mechs and even bigger monsters. In episode four, we find Shinji breaking down from the stress of piloting the horribly beautiful EVA Unit 01, from fighting Angels. He runs away from the apartment he’s sharing with his guardian, Misato, and into the field surrounding Tokyo-3, the city built for the fight against the Angels. (And I mean: can you blame him? That’s a lot of stress for one hormonal teenager.)

This is one of the great tensions of the series: Shinji doesn’t want to fight and potentially die, but he has to. Only certain people can pilot the EVAs, and he’s drawn a cosmically short straw. Shinji returns to the city eventually, recaptured by the shadowy organization. He has a conversation with Misato (who also happens to be his boss) in which she forces his resignation because he doesn’t have the right attitude to be a pilot; she seems to think he needs to be more enthusiastic about saving humanity. There’s a beautiful shot of him at the train station, missing the train back to his former life, and being welcomed back by Misato to the only real home he’s ever known. He gets back in the proverbial robot.

That’s a very brief summary of the episode’s plot, but what’s really interesting here is the way Neon Genesis Evangelion depicts that emotional shift to the audience. It uses the Hedgehog’s Dilemma — an example drawn from the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), the last major work he published before he died — to make a smart point about intimacy. The dilemma, in brief: it’s a cold day, and a group of hedgehogs is huddled together for warmth. The problem is that the closer they get the more their quills prick. The idea, naturally, is that humans work the same way: intimacy is often quite painful.

Shinji doesn’t really have anyone close to him, and therefore for him any kind of intimacy is as unbearable as the loneliness he can’t escape. (His father is the head of that aforementioned shadowy intergovernmental organization, and he transparently doesn’t care about Shinji’s well-being; his mother is dead.) He can’t seem to connect with his classmates, and he’s afraid to let Misato care for him because she doesn’t, at this juncture, seem emotionally capable of it — she’s an avatar of the work he hates and yet is compelled to do. Because again: everyone will die. And that, to Shinji, is the most unbearable thought of all.

Currently, we are facing our own seemingly intractable — but ultimately solvable — problems, much as Shinji faces the Angels. Right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise around the globe; climate change, still unchecked, is beginning to ravage the planet; and economic inequality is more visible than it’s ever been before. There are concentration camps in America, and there is a government agency tasked with conducting raids of unsuspecting immigrant families and capturing the ones without what the government deems correct paperwork. The president has personally approved this. Things are bad, and they are getting almost unstoppably worse. Morally and physically, the world is on the brink of disaster.

Here, Shinji’s reaction in episode four — which, by the way, is called “Hedgehog’s Dilemma” — is instructive. Stress leads him to flee, to look away from the fights to come; but he returns in the end because of his moral obligation to the rest of society. I don’t think, in the end, that he returns out of a noble sense of duty. Shinji returns because he’s betting on the small chance that he, a hedgehog, can move a little closer to Misato and, through her, to the rest of humanity.

Watching it now is unsettling because of how timely it feels. The idea that we are required to help the people who can’t help themselves — anyone materially threatened by the current regime — is powerfully resonant. It feels like an emotional guide for what to do next.

Nowadays, it also feels like social media has turned the experience of using the internet into its own kind of society-wide hedgehog’s dilemma; private abuses can be broadcast to a global audience instantly, and that is its own terrible intimacy. When children die in government-run camps for migrants, for example, or when police shoot unarmed black civilians, to take another, more common scenario, we hear about it through platforms like Twitter and Facebook; we’re close enough now to feel the spines.

And it is unbearable. It is an unbearably intimate thing to see or to hear about. Another example. The other day I saw a video in one of my various feeds, of white cops beating a restrained and hooded man. It began to autoplay, and what I saw was abjectly horrifying.

The strange thing, however, was that watching the video felt in a way like bearing witness. It was as though I’d come face-to-face with the unedited present; I understood that a version of that beating — comparatively mild, in the grand scheme of things — was playing out in various unseen ways across the country. It is not so often that you witness someone exercising power over another person when they’re not afraid of the consequences of being watched.

Shinji never becomes a righteous, unafraid hero. He can’t help but be himself; he can’t help feeling terrified and powerless every time he enters his EVA before a battle with an unknown and unknowable Angel. And here, I think, is the final lesson: intimacy is painful, but the warmth that’s possible when people draw together is worth fighting for. Even if you’re afraid, and especially if you feel powerless. We don’t have to change ourselves to fight. The prick of those spines should spur us into collective action.

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