It would seem that the Rebuild of Evangelion is determined to be a mirror reflection of its parent series. Now, I know what you’re saying. ‘An action packed, visually impressive series that builds up traditional expectations only to blindside the audience three quarters of the way through with depression and subversions? I’m not even sure whether you’re describing Evangelion or Rebuild!’ And after a fashion, you’d be right. Like the Mirror verse Spock, it can be pretty hard to differentiate until you hit upon the obvious beard of thematic difference (and isn’t that a muddled simile). As the lead in might suggest, be aware of spoilers for 3.0 and beyond.
Well, this will be interesting
Let’s take a moment to discuss NGE’s themes, as everyone and their dog has been doing since 1996. The original Evangelion is a story of helplessness and alienation, and a visceral and resonant portrait of adolescent depression. To be fair, the entirety of the cast is depressed and badly in need of therapy, and all therapists were apparently killed immediately following second impact.
But it’s ultimately Shinji’s story, so let’s look at the narrative with him as the focal point. Shinji starts out saddled with a number of issues, not least of which is a serious case of Avoidant Personality Disorder. But surrounded by stimuli and the hope of approval he seems to improve in the short term, leading to the action and romantic comedy-esque adventures of the first half. The depression is never gone, though. Nobody truly talks to Shinji about his issues or tries to help him resolve them. They only try to convince him to move on as if he is a clean slate. But despite the good intentions, that’s not how depression works. You can put it off, sure, kick the can down the road. But it’ll still be there, waiting for the moment when the new emotional walls come down. Shinji is improving like a broken plant tied to a stick – if he doesn’t heal, removing the supports just sends him toppling straight back over.
Meanwhile we, the audience, see monster-of-the-week shenanigans beset by ominous whispers, questions of the true nature of the EVAs and the constantly dwindling population of Tokyo-3. For all the accusations that the tone changes with whiplash speed, or that the trajectory of the story changed with Hideaki Anno’s breakdown, the bones of it are there from the get go (intentionally or not).
As the atmosphere becomes darker Shinji, known for running away only to return when he’s needed most, is further and further removed from the goings on of the world. The dummy plug takes over his actions when Toji is injured; he is precluded from the workings of the conspiracy that Misato is after; and by the time of Kaji’s death, Shinji and the viewer are so removed that the killer’s identity is never revealed at all. There seems to be no meaning, but only a series of random events. It’s frustrating, and many viewers at this point become frustrated and withdrawn from their engagement with the show…much as Shinji begins to try and close himself off from the world. Now, it’s definitely a risky gamble – there’s never a shortage of people ready to critique Eva’s (certainly existent) flaws, or for whom the alienation is too much to bear. I honestly think this is why the show seems to naturally attract and hold onto those who have suffered from depression. The experience is a familiar one to us, whether we consciously realize it or not.
Somebody bring this boy a regime of antidepressants.
And a pint of ice cream.
Eventually, the show snaps from reality entirely, giving us the infamous crayon drawings and badly exposited Existentialism of the last two episodes, followed by Shinji’s supposed revelation. It has all the movements of closure, mouthing the words of what an audience might expect from a happy ending: the hero realizes his flaws, and he overcomes them. It’s what we all wait for in a story. And yet. The moment is both happy and hollow, two lines of dialogue that should be reassuring but come from nowhere and offer no truth. The ending is Instrumentality, and Shinji rejects it as the audience does. It’s not that we don’t want Shinji to recover. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be happy (even if he think he might not deserve it). But the root problem, the end of the world, is still looming. There’s the unresolved, in the plot and at the core of Shinji’s depression. While that’s true, painting on a happy face is never going to feel satisfying.
That brings us to the completely necessary film. The entirety of End of Evangelion is unflinching. It’s real in a way that the TV ending was not. While the images on screen may be cruel, surreal, or horrifying, they are undoubtedly happening. Yui’s final monologue sums it up pretty well (if bluntly): the world exists, and Shinji (and we) are alive. That makes life worthwhile. That makes going on a worthy thing. Shinji understands that, in the end. For all of life’s pain there is a joy in fighting to understand others. There’s meaning in it. At the last we see Shinji agreeing to live rather than to exist, to face reality as more worthwhile than a comforting lie, even if it’s somewhere as bleak as the sands of a broken earth (or, if you follow the time loop theory, the memory-wiped world of Rebuild).
So, what about the thematic thrust of Rebuild? Prior to 3.0 coming out it was praised up and down the street for being the less ‘angsty’ version of the Eva story, for having characters that more people felt that they could relate to, and for having more 14 year old fanservice. Why the outcry? The story is basically the same, after all, at least to start with. It’s just that our shy protagonist is breaking out of the orbit of his depression at last.
But that’s not really true. This Shinji is just off enough to be slightly uncanny to analyze. He’s much quicker to latch onto the world and the people in it, almost singlemindedly so. While the original Shinji was a withdrawn observer, frightened of people and of the world, the new Shinji has a definite vision of how he wants things to go. There’s something very Gurren Lagann about him that way. And you know what? His single minded desire to make the world into the image of his desires, ignoring how his personal desires might reflect the world at large, is the source of disaster. Even in 3.0 Shinji is looking to escape, taking Kaworu’s words and fixating on the promise of going backwards to a ‘before’ where everything is alright rather than moving forward with what is (mirroring the longstanding trope of fantasy taking place in a romanticized, long gone time). Neither Shinji is capable of facing reality, but for this more active boy, oh-so-often praised for being the more ‘manly’ one, it does much more harm. Put another way – Eva!Shinji hurt himself, closing off from the world until he was all but dead inside. Rebuild!Shinji killed most of the world’s population trying to enact the climax of an action movie.
Victim 6,000,000,012 of the “Endless Tragedy Pile-On” school of directing
Where can you possibly go from there? Both stories have a theme of ‘accepting reality’ and ‘trying to understand people, no matter how difficult/painful it is.’ But if Shinji just repeated End of Evangelion again, it would be false (and blood would run in the streets). He would be once more shaping the world in his image, with the only difference being that he was successful this time. End of Eva, for the original Shinji, was about learning to embrace life in all its complexities. These new movies, then, must perform the opposite action. And now we come around to the perhaps inflammatory title of this little piece. For his arc to be complete, Rebuild!Shinji must give his own life.
There’s always been a bit of a martyr complex to Shinji. One gets the impression that part and parcel of his piloting is an unconscious desire to ennoble his suffering (never mind the armchair psychology in episodes 25 and 26). That isn’t healthy, and it’s different from the truly selfless sacrifice I’m proposing. What’s important isn’t that Shinji look back on the others and say ‘I’m doing this for you, so be grateful.’ He has to do it because he decided to, and because he truly understands what must be done.
Much was made of Shinji’s need to ‘decide’ in 2.0, but it went without meaning because it had no context. Shinji isn’t trying to stop the angel, he’s trying to save Rei – a noble goal, but a selfish one when so much more is at stake. In that moment, he doesn’t understand or particularly care what’s happening to him or what effect his actions will have. If Shinji is truly a hero, he can’t reach for the escapist fantasies so often termed ‘heroism’ – a bombastic rescue, the love and adoration of another person, with some vague belief that his own happiness will just make everything else work out (or without care). This is the quiet assumption of many modern narratives, explicitly or not. Following a protagonist so often seems to mean wishing for their happiness, and assuming that their reward is enough. It’s a narrow and childish definition of hero, and however much the audience might wish for it, there’s no place for such selfishness in the message Evangelion is trying to propose.
That’s not to say that 4.0 has to kill everyone and end the world in a final, spiteful attempt to make everything meaningless. It just has to follow its arc, bringing catharsis rather than comfort, with the former acting as a truer feeling in the end. Even escapist fantasy du jour Gurren Lagann, with its poignant and bittersweet finale, understood the importance of consequence. It’s the difference between an outcome that takes into account who the characters are and what has brought them to that point, and having Romeo and Juliet magically escape death because it’s the happy ending the audience is used to getting. There’s nothing wrong with a happy, satisfying outcome either – look at stories like Avatar: the Last Airbender, Tiger & Bunny, or Howl’s Moving Castle. But fit it to your narrative. Don’t twist a story to fit a cage that doesn’t suit it.
My little prediction, then, of how the film might bring itself to a thematic close: Shinji confronts his father, and succeeds in stopping Gendou at the cost of his own life; in his final moments there is a kind of clarity, and Shinji finally stands outside of himself both literally and metaphorically – he sees Rei and Asuka, Misato and Ritsuko, the women who will rebuild earth when he has gone (which would be a nifty way to come back to the thoughtful feminist undercurrent of the original), and is content to know that they will have the strength to start things anew. He has his own visitor in death, the boy who was so very important to him, and who uttered the cryptic line ‘we’ll meet again’ (bonus points for including a visual callback to the Shinji/Rei embrace from 2.0). And here, in this moment, it makes sense. Shinji is no longer alone, and he has achieved the so-called happiness he’d wanted. Even though there will be no one but himself who will know what he did for humanity, no adulation or love to be had, that doesn’t distress him. Shinji, for the first time, understands. And he likes himself.
And this time, I’ll believe every word of it.
How about you, viewing public? Am I completely round the bend of wishful analysis? Have your own theories on the ending? Feel free to share. That way when Hideaki Anno undercuts every last one of us we can feel bereft together (as we pay for another ticket and communal therapy).