Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Anime's Apocalypse:
Neon Genesis Evangelion
as Millennarian Mecha

review essay by Mick Broderick

  1. From its startling opening credit sequence the 26-episode TV anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE), which first aired in October 1995 through to March 1996, foregrounds its overtly apocalyptic trajectory and postmodern form. For many the series remains at the zenith of Japanese television animation and it is unlikely to be surpassed any time soon due to its staggeringly complex detail and textuality; its allegory, characterisation and design.
  2. Of interest here is how the program melds the sensibilities of post-war modern Japan with a post-holocaust, science fiction future.[1] It combines ideas/ideals of catastrophe, myth, mecha, agency, spectacle, kinesis, chaos and montage with a ubiquitous sense of imminence, solitude, quiescence, introspection, prophecy, teleology and predeterminism.
  3. It is hardly credible to do justice to the Neon Genesis Evangelion project, designed to broadcast its cumulative ten-and-a-half hours of animation across a half-year of screen programming, in the few pages of analysis allotted here. Hence, my focus is on privileging some of the more enigmatic and subtextual lines of narrative which broach the series' concerns with the apocalyptic and its multifaceted, cross-cultural manifestations.

    Series Summary:
  4. Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place, according to its creator, Anno Hideaki, along the following schema:

      The year: 2015
      A world where, fifteen years before, over half the human population perished.
      A world that has been miraculously revived: its economy, the production, circulation, consumption of material goods, so that even the shelves of convenience stores are filled.
      A world where the people have gotten [sic] used to the resurrection - yet still feel the end of the world is destined to come.
      A world where the number of children, the future leaders of the world, is few.
      A world where Japan saw the original Tokyo destroyed, discarded and forgotten, and built a new capital in Nagano Prefecture. They constructed a new capital, Tokyo-2, then left it to be a decoy - then constructed another new capital, Tokyo-3, and tried to make it safe from attack.
      A world where some completely unknown enemy called the 'Angels' comes to ravage the cities.
      This is roughly the worldview for Neon Genesis Evangelion.
      This is a worldview drenched in a vision of pessimism.
      A worldview where the story starts only after any traces of optimism have been removed.
      And in that world, a 14-year-old boy shrinks from human contact.
      And he tries to live in a closed world where his behaviour dooms him, and he has abandoned the attempt to understand himself.
      A cowardly young man who feels that his father has abandoned him, and so he has convinced himself that he is a completely unnecessary person, so much so that he cannot even commit suicide.[2]

    From this description, written in mid-1995 before the program went to air, it is clear that writer-director Anno had an apocalyptic world-view for his mammoth anime undertaking.
  5. A catastrophic event occurs at the dawn of the new millennium, a time of prophetic rupture in Christian mythology. And like Revelation's upheavals, much of the world is destroyed in the wars following the cosmic cataclysm. But the apocalyptic, millennial and messianic trajectory of the series is dispersed across both macro and micro scenarios. As Anno's prologue suggests, there is another battle occurring; one which parallels the global and cosmic conflicts, namely that of the individual and the interpersonal, where a reluctant and unwitting messianic hero must choose between preordained destiny and withdrawn self-interest.
  6. Anno's description also embraces the intrinsically dualistic nature of apocalyptic teleology—from destruction and chaos comes rebirth and renewal, but only through the conscious intervention and agency of a liberator, one who leads an elect few into a new realm, usually outside history and place. Indeed, this TV series is overtly situated during the apocalyptic interregnum: the time in-between the penultimate and ultimate battles that decide humanity's final outcome.
  7. Neon Genesis Evangelion is difficult to summarise in terms of plot. Its modernist (and postmodernist) narrative strategies deliberately disrupt conventional discourse and expectation both in terms of form and theme. So much so that the final two episodes (25 and 26) deconstruct the entire series, individual characters, human history and the animated/representational process to boot![3] This is no mean feat.
  8. At the risk of alienating its audience, NGE layers its animation with vast amounts of text in Japanese, English and German often making it impossible to read and decipher in 'real time', hence it is self-conscious of its potential cult status, requiring repeated viewings from video-tape and/or DVD releases to aid comprehension. Similarly, the disjunctive nature of the narrative, its temporal and spatial dislocations, the rapidity of dialogue and exposition, and metaphoric/mythic allusions all necessitate an understanding retrospectively at the series' conclusion—a very apocalyptic narrative structure. Yet this is not achieved via a perfunctory coda or gratuitous exposition in order to neatly 'contain' the text. NGE concludes in a manner which is almost impossible to anticipate in a conventional cognitive linear fashion. So, to 'make sense of the ending', in Frank Kermode's ideal we must embrace the discordant elements along the way.[4] And, as Northrop Frye has shown, by applying a hermeneutical exegesis to the series, we can discover the typologies which explain the familiar resonance with Judeo-Christian apocalyptic traditions.[5]
  9. The following summary is linear and historical, unlike the series.

    Figure 1. Second impact at Antarctica

    On 13 September 2000, a mysterious event takes place at the Antarctic that instantly melts the polar cap and sends a devastating deluge across the globe which permanently shifts the Earth's axis. A series of wars and nuclear strikes follow, in which half of the planet's population perish. The United Nations adopts a cover story of a giant meteor strike to explain the event, when in fact it was triggered somehow by human contact with the First Angel, named Adam, a giant of light observed in Antarctica. The disaster is called the Second Impact, the First being a cosmic impact over 4 billion years ago when terrestrial ejecta was large enough to coalesce and form the Moon.

    Figure 2. The first angel, named Adam

  10. A few years earlier in the late 1990s, three brilliant scientists—artificial intelligence engineer, Dr Akage Naoko; the ruthless soon-to-be Commander of the UN's secret agency NERV, Ikari (Rokubungi) Gendou; and a professor of Artificial Evolution, who becomes Gendou's deputy at NERV, Fuytsuki Kouzou—all based in Japan, commence work for the secret SEELE organisation, which operates from the mystical prophecies of the Dead Sea Scrolls predicting apocalyptic battles to come. Their secret task is to implement the Human Complementation Program—a transhumanist project to evolve homo sapiens into a super gestalt being by shedding human form and communing with the cosmic divine. The race is to achieve Complementation before other Angels appear to destroy humanity by their reuniting with Adam.
  11. In order to complete this mission NERV is established to defend humanity and battle the invading Angels. At enormous cost (like an international Manhattan Project) it is clandestinely located at the centre of the Geo-Front, a circular cavity beneath the surface 'decoy' city, the rebuilt Neo-Tokyo-3. But NERV and its director Ikari Gendou have a hidden agenda—to facilitate this (r)evolutionary Complementation.

    Figure 3. The rebuilt Neo-Tokyo-3

  12. At the time of the millennium's Second Impact a number of special children are born, one of whom is the son of Commander Ikari, named Shinji—the Second Child. The series depicts five children selected by the mysterious Marduk organisation to pilot a test range of giant cyborgs, the Evangelions (or EVA units). Despite these other adolescents, it is ultimately the confused and immature Shinji upon whom the fate of the world depends. But his near autistic social and psychological withdrawal from the world, fuelled by oedipal wrath against his father for abandoning him, leaves Shinji seemingly ill-equipped for his messianic task.

    Figure 4. Shinji

  13. When Shinji is summoned to Japan's NERV headquarters he is immediately sent into combat against an approaching Angel (No. 3: Sachiel) after the UN's defence forces fail to penetrate the being's AT (Absolute Terror) Field. To everyone's amazement Shinji melds instantly into synchronicity with the cybernetic AI system of the EVA he pilots (Test type: Unit-01) which also possesses its own type of protective AT Field.[6] In a colossal hand-to-hand battle above Neo-Tokyo 3, inside his robot EVA, Shinji finally defeats the monstrous intruder, which self-destructs in an attempt to destroy them both.
  14. The other teenage EVA pilots all attend Shinji's school in Neo-Tokyo 3. Shinji feels some empathy and a growing affection for the taciturn Ayanami Rei, the 'First Child'—an injured girl-pilot of Evangelion Unit-00, who both saves Shinji and is saved by him throughout the series. Rei is later revealed to be a mere clone, one of hundreds created by Shinji's father, yet a homunculus devoid of a soul. The Third Child, Soryu Asuka Langley, part-German part-Japanese, is flown in from the US NERV centre, and shown to be a precocious, aggressive and over-confident enfant terrible who, like Shinji, has suffered a traumatic childhood of abandonment but compensates by an over-zealous competitiveness. Suzuhara Touji, the Fourth Child, is at first a school bully who picks on Shinji but later admires Shinji's courage in piloting EVAs and befriends him. Shinji is tricked by his father into destroying Touji's EVA and briefly believes he has inadvertently killed his buddy. After this incident Shinji refuses to work for NERV or his father again.
  15. Throughout the remainder of the series, Angel after Angel appear as yokai in astonishingly complex and incomprehensible form—from giant humanoids, insects and sea monsters, to geometrically perfect monoliths, to manifestations of pure light and energy, as well as intelligent self-replicating nanobots and a quantum shadow (the Dirac Sea). Inexplicably, when an Angel sample is analysed by NERV scientists it appears 99.89 per cent compatible with human DNA despite their technology and abilities being regarded as alien. It also becomes clear that the Angels learn from each failed attack, changing shape and strategy to attain ultimate victory: the complete destruction of humanity.

    Figure 5. The 5th angel, Ramiel
    Figure 6. The 9th angel, Matarael
    Figure 7. The 7th angel, Israfel
    Figure 8. The 12th angel, Leliel
    Figure 9. The 16th angel, Armisael
    Figure 10. The 10th angel, Sahaquiel

  16. Finally, the last Angel (No. 17: Tabris, aka Nagisa Kaworu) appears disguised in human form, befriending Shinji as the 'Fifth Child' selected for EVA piloting, but who quickly penetrates all NERV barriers and sets about creating the Third Impact by reuniting with Adam. Like Shinji's first alien adversary, this Angel prompts self-destruction, but with a difference. Knowing that he can defeat Shinji and annihilate NERV, surprisingly the Fifth Child allows Shinji/EVA Unit-02 to kill him, in order to preserve the human species at the expense of the Angelic messengers of death.

    Figure 11. Angel No. 17

  17. In the last two episodes after the destruction of the Last Angel, Shinji begins to lose his human form, becoming an abstract image and a disembodied voice, interacting with other characters from the Evangelion series and regressing back into his childhood.[7] He is explicitly presented thus by the series as a case study in the overall evolutionary move toward the transhumanist Instrumentality:

      Where am I?
      What the hell am I?
      [speaking to himself] So, you need the barrier of the mind.
      What? It's me. The shape that I show to others. The symbol representing me. This, and this, and this, all these are representations of me. Nothing but the things that make others recognise me.
      What am I? Is this me? The true me? The false me?

  18. Eventually he learns to break free from his self-absorption, the anomie of self-pity and hatred that has prevented true interaction with family, friends and colleagues. As his self interrogates the experiential and imagined selves of others (melding with others in a complementary 'instrumentality'), he begins to construct an alternative Ikari Shinji, one whose shape retains the form of his previous self but with a confidence and maturity previously absent. As he emerges from the subconscious dialectical exchanges with the community of voices his psyche evokes as his remembered companion, Shinji asserts:

      I hate myself ...
      But, I might be able to love myself.
      I might be allowed to stay here.
      Yes. I am nothing but I.
      I am I. I wish to be I.
      I want to stay here!
      I can stay here!

    At this point the other characters of the series appear beside Shinji and encircle him. Everyone begins to applaud and join in a uniform chorus of 'Congratulations!'
  19. Shinji, now at one with himself and the universe, thanks those present, especially his parents and joins in the 'congratulations' for all the 'new children', those humans now, like himself, returned to the original state of grace in union with divinity and cosmos.

    Prophetic Apocalypse
  20. So, at the series' conclusion there is another 'beginning', in a truly apocalyptic turn. Not only do viewers witness the individual reborn into a world made new, but the entire human species is remade immortal, liberated from its biological and psychological constraints to embrace a return to Edenic bliss.
  21. When the televised series ended, controversy reigned over the production. Fans and critics alike were often hostile to the move away from the futurist fantasy and mecha elements of the early episodes toward what they deemed self-indulgent psycho-babble.[8] Yet the devolved and deconstructive unravelling of the central narrative and characters is entirely consistent with the typological presentation of the series and Anno's articulation of apocalypse as a 'rite of passage', not only for the messianic hero, but for humankind as well.[9] Hence the personal adolescent malaise haunting Ikari Shinji is the micro apocalypse symbolising the species' desire to reunite with the divine after its fall from grace.
  22. The series is replete with apocalyptic references drawn directly from Persian (Zoroastra), Jewish (Kabbal, Torah), Christian (Old and New Testaments) and Gnostic (Apocrypha) sacred writings. The allusions to this particular imagined apocalyptic schema, which is at once both linear and cyclical, are more than throwaway gestures to knowing fandom. These icons, nomenclatures and beings are iterated across the series in a manner that slowly unveils their mystical and secret semiotics. Just as Jewish numerological mysticism informs the Evangelion epistemology, so too do the poetics, typologies and dream-state transcendences of Christianity's Book of Revelation imbue the narrative and action.

    Figure 12. The mystical seven-eyed SEELE logo

  23. Some brief examples will demonstrate the intertextual sophistication of the series' apocalyptic philosophy. SEELE (from the German 'soul'), the secret organisation behind the creation of NERV, for instance, has as its logo seven eyes arranged along the duplicate sides of an inverted equilateral triangle. Like the shadowy television Millennium Group in the Chris Carter X-Files spin-off, the 12-man organisation of SEELE is said to operate clandestinely, basing its actions on the apocalyptic prophecies contained in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This enigmatic seven-eyed iconography also appears when Misato Katsuragi is shown 'Adam', the giant upper torso of a crucified Angel found in Antarctica and kept in storage at Terminal Dogma, a high security subterranean vault below NERV headquarters. The face of this Angel is shrouded with the same triangulated, multi-eyed logo/image. The Angel also has a large lance impaled in its chest, referred to as the Spear of Longinus (Longinus was the Roman soldier who pierced the abdomen of the crucified Jesus on the cross and who later converted to Christianity.[10] The name also obliquely refers to the pre-Christian Greek philosopher who first wrote about the aesthetic power of the sublime).[11] The creature's appearance is deeply unheimlich and oddly sublime in the Burkian sense, evoking terror and awe.[12] Like Katsuragi's revelation, Adam symbolises the Christian apocalyptic as revealed by John of Patmos, where the mystical number seven repeatedly occurs as an apocalyptic leitmotif. The Lamb of God, representing Christ, appears in Revelation as a seven eyed-divinity. But this representation is itself an antitype for the older Hebrew deity, Yahweh, who is described in the Old Testament and Torah as having seven eyes.[13]

    Figure 13. The giant upper torso of a crucified Angel found in Antarctica

  24. However, the audience is later informed that this being is in fact Lilith (aka: 'Lillith'), the prototypical 'mother' of humanity and first wife of Adam. The earlier secret revelation about Adam is in fact a cover story, or false prophecy meant to protect the true location of Adam. According to ancient Hebrew myth, Lilith is the first wife of Adam, preceding Eve, and formed by God from filth and sediment, unlike Adam's origins in dust.[14] She abandons Adam and his prescriptive carnality, choosing to lay with demons, breeding multitudes of 'Lilim'. It is this term that the Last Angel, Kaworu, calls Shinji (and by association all of humanity). The implication is that the Angels regard humanity as the corrupted, mortal and fallen offspring of the Lilith. After opening the high security vault in Terminal Dogma called Heaven's Door, the Fifth Child/Final Angel is shocked to discover the truth:

      Adam, our mother being.
      Those born from Adam must return to Adam; even by annihilating humanity?
      No! It's different.
      This is Lilith.
      [Then to Shinji] I see. I understand, Lilim.

    So Anno's project is a postmodernist retelling of the Genesis myth, as his series title implies—Neon Genesis Evangelion. It is a new myth of origin, complete with its own deluge, Armageddon, apocalypse and transcendence.
  25. Other instances of messianic and millenarian motifs are apparent. For example, within NERV, the artificial intelligence supercomputer which controls the defence systems is named the Magi—a religious term connoting homage at the arrival of a messianic saviour. It is actually three separate but interconnected systems (Melchior-1, Balthazar-2, and Caspar-3), named after the three wise men (or kings from the east) who come to bestow gifts in adoration of the messiah's birth.

    Figure 14. Magi, the artificial intelligence supercomputer
    Figure 15. Magi Computer

  26. The prophetic pathway linking the series' apocalyptic narrative finds its iconic representation in the 'Systema Sephirotica', seen during the opening credit sequence and displayed above Commander Ikari's NERV office. It depicts the Jewish Kabbalistic rendering of creation as an inverted tree of life indicating the pathway of the material world to the spiritual realm. When contrasted with SEELE's Dead Sea Scrolls' prophecy these two conflicting charts to eternal enlightenment are evident. SEELE works to the archaic plan of apocalyptic prophecy, aiding and abetting its pre-ordained agenda in order to wage a battle of Armageddon with the invading Angels by creating its own force of terrestrial gods, the EVAs. Commander Ikari and his other two NERV conspirators (Akagi and Fuyutski), under the accommodating guise of NERV and its powerful SEELE benefactors, masks his Sephirotic plan to use the organisation to engineer his own apocalyptic mode of human transcendence through Complementation.

    Figure 16. Systema Sephirotica
    Figure 17. Dead Sea Scrolls

  27. If all of this sounds esoteric and irrelevant, particularly coming from a Japanese mass/popular culture product where one normally recognises mythic and religious undercurrents such as the animism of Shinto and the selflessness of Buddhism (all of which is present in the series), then consider the following.[15] The history and origins of Japanese post-war anime are inextricably linked with both secular and sacred renderings of eschaton.[16] The two atomic bombs which brought a cataclysmic end to the Pacific War devastating the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been employed as recurring motifs throughout Japan's cinematic, televisual and original video animation from the late 1950s to the new century.[17] The rapid post-war industrialisation of Japan, its Occupation-enforced constitutional democracy, accelerated modernisation and 1980s economic ascendancy have all contributed to the rise of anime and manga's appeal, particularly to the shin jin rui, or Japanese Gen-Xers [new human beings] and the nerdy outaku fan culture.[18] Neon Genesis Evangelion seems to re-vision the radical and evolutionary transformations of Japanese society during the past two generations, recasting contemporary ruptures in its narrative as historical prediction; the ex eventu prophecy, as John J. Collins would have it, intrinsic to the 'apocalyptic imagination'.[19]
  28. Regardless of creator Anno's stated intentions and artistic agenda, Neon Genesis Evangelion achieves what all major apocalyptic works invoke whether they be narrative, myth, prophecy, crusade or therapy—namely, a vision of society radically transformed from one of chaotic and imminent demise towards the liberation from oppression of an elect into a new realm of perpetual peace and harmony. That NGE in particular, and japanime in general, both render societal and individual rebirth through apocalyptic cataclysm, while maintaining their international appeal, suggests that Apocalypse—as a 'grand narrative of legitimation'—still remains viable, visible and successful in finding mass audience, despite the premature obituaries pronounced by 1980s postmodernists.[20]


    [1] On these trends see Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, (eds), Postmodernism and Japan, Durham: Duke University Press, 1989; Tony Barrell and Rick Tanaka Higher than Heavan: Japan, War and Everything, Strawberry Hills: Private Guy International, 1995.

    [2] Anno Hideaki, reprinted in Evangelion Manga accessed 27 January, 2002, originally from (July 17 1995) Viz Comics.

    [3] Stylistically the series' precursor in the medium was Patrick McGoohan's rich and complex futurist-espionage series The Prisoner, ITC, 1967.

    [4] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

    [5] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, San Diego: Harvest, 1982.

    [6] During the conflict with the Final Angel, Karowu tells Shinji that the Soul is actually the source of the 'AT Field'. He said, 'Yes. You Lilims call it so. The holy region that must not be invaded by anyone. The light of mind. You, Lilims, are aware of that. Aware that the A.T. Field is the wall of mind that everyone has.'

    [7] This sequence recalls the marvellous Chuck Jones cartoon Duck Amok, Warner Brothers, 1955, where the main character's universe and epistemology is deconstructed by the anonymous and ruthlessly manipulative animator (Bugs Bunny/Chuck Jones).

    [8] Manabu Tsuribe, 'Prison House of Self Consciousness: an Essay on Evangelion,' in Otaku Fanzine 10 (1999), accessed 27 Jan, 2002.

    [9] The linear historical movement of the apocalyptic has been considered in this light by scholars. See for example Michael Oritz Hill, Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Right of Passage, Dallas: Spring Publications, 1994.

    [10] 'St. Longinus', at Catholic Saints Online, accessed 27 January, 2002.

    [11] Longinus on the Sublime, trans. W. Rhys Roberts, at Peitho's Web, accessed 27 January 2002. The association between the sublime and the human soul is more than coincidental since, as Longinus points out throughout his writing, 'Sublimity is the echo of a great soul,' Chapter 9, 'Longinus, On the Sublime', tr. W. Rhys Roberts, at Peitho's Web, accessed 27 January 2002.

    [12] 'Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling', from Edmund Burke A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, second edition 1759, accessed 27 January 2002.

    [13] 'Kabbalah and Modern Life - Jews and Non-Jews, Seven Eyes and Seven "I"s', accessed 27 Jan, 2002.

    [14] This précis comes from Robert Graves and Raphael Patai, 'The Lillith Myth,' in The Gnosis Archive: Gnostic Studies on the Web, accessed 27 Jan, 2002. Lilith does of course live on in a single prophetic and apocalyptic reference in Isaiah, about the destruction of nations (see Isaiah 34:14).

    Wild cats will meet hyenas there
    the satyrs will call to each other
    there too will Lilith take cover
    seeking rest.

    [15] Japanese culture does have its eschatological mythologies, but as Jerome Shapiro has argued, they are hardly apocalyptic in the conventional Judeo-Christian sense of the term. See Jerome Shapiro, 'Does Japan have a Millenary Imagination?' Kyoto Daigaku Sôgôningengakubu Kiyô, (July 1994): 133-45.

    [16] See Philip Brophy, et al., KaBoom! Explosive Animation from America and Japan, Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1994. In his introduction to the exhibition anthology Brophy asserts, 'The title KABOOM! Refers both to the childlike innocence revelling in cartoonish explosions, and the ominous yet captivating aftermath of nuclear devastation, which signposts the post-war sensibilities that have governed the modern and postmodern strands of the medium,' p. 9.

    [17] See Mick Broderick (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema: Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Nuclear Image in Japanese Film, London: Keagan Paul International, 1996; and in particular for anime Freda Freiberg, 'Akira and the Postnuclear Sublime,' in Broderick (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema pp 91-102 and Ben Crawford, 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup: Cartoon Properties from Japan,' in Broderick (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema, pp 75-90.

    [18] See Ben Crawford, 'Emperor Tomato Ketchup: Cartoon Properties from Japan,' in Broderick (ed.), Hibakusha Cinema, p. 75.

    [19] John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: an Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity, New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1989.

    [20] For example, see Jean François Lyotard The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979, trans. 1984; and Fredric Jameson 'Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,' in New Left Review 146, (1984): 53-92 and 'Foreword' to The Postmodern Condition pp vii-xxi.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

This page has been optimised for 800x600
and is best viewed in either Netscape 2 or above, or Explorer 2 or above.
From February 2008, this paper has been republished in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific from the following URL:

HTML last modified: 18 March 2008 1006 by: Carolyn Brewer.

© Copyright