Constructing the Self

An analysis of Neon Genesis Evangelion

Is this essay “getting it wrong”?

There is a page on the Internet that states:

The religious symbolism in NGE is actually not used in any sort of religiously meaningful fashion. According to Evangelion Assistant Director Kazuya Tsurumaki:

"There are a lot of giant robot shows in Japan, and we did want our story to have a religious theme to help distinguish us. Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious. None of the staff who worked on Eva are Christians. There is no actual Christian meaning to the show, we just thought the visual symbols of Christianity look cool. If we had known the show would get distributed in the US and Europe we might have rethought that choice"

An example of someone getting it wrong: "However, it is revealed at the end of the series that the Angels are actually failed attempts in the Creation (i.e., the Biblical Creation) that preceded mankind". You may notice how the essay in question is very old, written in 2001, so early inaccurate translations of the show may have contributed to the confusion.

The “example of someone getting it wrong” links to my own essay.

Though one of the authors of that quote is generous enough to give me the benefit of the doubt as to an erroneous translation, I do not believe that my essay was misled by a mistranslation. It is my view that the above quote is misguided for the following reasons.

Everybody Lies

First, I have no reason to believe that the statement of an assistant director is an accurate reflection of the authorial processes that created Evangelion. Even if we assume that an assistant director is fully knowledgeable of the artistic vision of the principal director, there is still motivation to downplay the literary complexity of the work. It is easier to sell merchandise for a fun TV anime with cute girls and big robots. Somewhat harder to market an angsty, philosophical work. No one really buys Dostoyevsky dolls.

Additionally, it seems reasonable that the Evangelion staff would want to discount the importance of Christian symbolism in the show. Japan is not a predominatly Christian nation, and suggesting that the show had too much to do with Christianity might be a turn-off for some fans. A public statement denying the connection would be a reasonable business decision, regardless of the actual creative intent.

Propaganda versus Symbolism

The argument of the quote seems to implicitly be that Evangelion is not trying to push a religious message, so the religious symbols are meaningless. This is not much of an argument. Authors use symbols from all over the place all the time. Star Wars, for example, draws on a lot of Eastern philosophy in its idea of the Force. I don't think anyone argues that Star Wars is propaganda for Taoism. Does that mean you should just ignore the Force when trying to figure out Star Wars?

Evangelion is not a story about religion. It is a story about existentialism and human relations, as I argue in my various essays. The religious symbolism is used to advance these themes of existence, and by ignoring those symbols, one risks diminishing or even overlooking these themes.

If the Shoe Fits

It seems a little hard to believe that the Evangelion staff just threw Christian symbols together randomly, when those symbols fit together so neatly that it seems more than coincidental. That is, after all, what I am doing in my essay: showing that various elements in Evangelion, when considered as a whole, produce a single, unified message that is too well-constructed to be accidental.

Consider my interpretation of the Angels as failed attempts at creation, observed in the initial quote. As I argue in my essay, Evangelion is essentially an exploration of the barriers between individuals, which are represented by the AT fields in the story. (This is why, as I argue in my other essay, it made sense for the director Anno to follow up with Kare Kano, a story about breaking barriers between individuals.) So it just makes sense that the Angels should be failed attempts at Creation, so that Shinji can get better and better at breaking through AT fields—the barriers between individuals—until he finally breaks through the most impenetrable AT field of all of humankind, forming that giant red blob of human souls.

Perhaps you think that there is a different underlying story to Evangelion, that it is not about existentialism and solipsistic human boundaries but something else. I remember one essay from someone at Stanford saying that it was about motherhood. Sure, if you can find the right clues in the story, I will believe you. Maybe we are both right. But it is somewhat disingenuous to say that there is no meaning to the symbols. If Evangelion were really just a sequence of robot fights, I could not have written one, let alone two, full essays on it.

It's All Mixed Up

There is one reason why the assistant director's statement is relevant, though. The fact that none of the staff was Christian and that the show was primarily for a non-Christian audience tells us that we should not read too much into the symbolism.

Some authors will use religious symbols (or any symbols, for that matter) with the assumption that the symbol carries meaning with the audience. For example, an author might say that a character was "hanging on a cross," and safely assume that the readers would associate the line with the crucifixion, which would provide insight into the character.

With Evangelion, it is less safe to make such assumptions. Since it was not written to a Christian audience, the writers could not use "coded messages" like the cross one above, expecting the viewers to understand. Since it was not written by people well-versed in theology, the writers were unlikely to fully understand the symbols themselves, and often even misunderstood them.

But when it comes to a religious concept as simple as Creation, it seems reasonable to believe that the Evangelion creators intended to send a message to the audience, drawing on their admittedly limited knowledge of theological doctrine. Indeed, to come to the conclusion I came to regarding the Angels and creation, all you really need to know about the Creation story is that first there was nothing, and then God created man. Now you have a richer understanding of what the Evangelion creators were thinking of when they came up with the Angels. Wasn't that worthwhile?

Nobody Else Matters

Finally, so what if the Evangelion creators don't think their show has any deeper meaning? It is you who takes anything away from the show. So if something has meaning to you, it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks. (This is why Marcel Duchamp gets away with hanging a urinal in an art gallery. So what if everyone else thinks it's a bathroom fixture; he thinks it's a cool looking shape.)