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The Anti-Nihilism Themes in the Evangelion Series

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession, but a writer by night. He loves toys and knives. He also has a martial arts background.

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If one will ask me how depressing the Evangelion series is, I will say depressing in a sense that it’s a reflection of a troubled mind. It will darken your brightest day, and probably makes your head itch, if not loopy.

But it won’t certainly leave you in a foul mood.

Believe me, I have seen it all. Regular soap operas are the prime culprit for pure heartaches. Those stuffs known as melodramas could bring in more negativities in your system, far more than that irritating Emo teen that won’t leave you alone. The Evangelion series, particularly the End of Evangelion won’t entertain you the same way as regular animes. But try watching stuffs like “You’re Lie in April” and let’s see if you could still smile (that’s an exaggeration though).

But even with less emotions than your average soap opera, Anno successfully conveyed to the audience what real depression meant. It’s more showing that telling, more as expressions rather than talking. And amid the sea of depressions, our characters still find their reasons for their very existence. In the Evangelion universe, life is gloomy, and destined to end as orange juice. They might as well kill each other or let the Angels take them if that’s the case. But still, our characters discover their worth amid the miseries, and still found meaning in the midst of their fouled-out world.

What Nihilism Would Look Like

It's hard to smile, if he and his kinds are always visiting.

It's hard to smile, if he and his kinds are always visiting.

One can define the world of the Evangelion series as a messed-up universe, destined for a messed- up end. It’s inhabitants seems to reflect the world they live in, through their collections of personal and emotional issues. Maybe the people are only products of such a troubled environment, and sick is the best word to sum everything. To cap it all is the fact that they must survive a constant visit by rampaging Angels, with troubled teens as protectors.

I once wrote how it sucks to be an adult in the Evangelion universe, it’s negativity portrayed in an animated show. A world possessed by personal demons. If that’s the case, why bother living in a troubled universe infested with destructive alien beings, inhabited by sick wierdos and bound to a liquified end? Might as well kill each other if that’s the case, or let the Angels do what they like. It’s a world not worth defending. There is no point living here. Nothing.

That’s exactly how nihilism sounds like. A life not worth living, with no worthwhile purpose. And as bleak as the Evangelion universe sounds like, the whole show won’t last until the third episode if that is the central theme. Because despite of the harsh world they live in and the personal demons haunting them, they still managed to find purpose on their seemingly worthless existence.

The EVA Pilots

Even a guy like this will find his happiness.

Even a guy like this will find his happiness.

Not succumbing into the hopelessness of their world was evident among the characters of the series, despite of their mental and emotional breakdowns. This is apparent on the very people bearing the brunt of protecting the messed-up universe from marauding Angels; the pilots themselves.

Firstly we have Shinji, a boy dealing with a traumatic past and in many ways not an ideal hero to begin with. And speaking of, we also got Asuka, a girl haunted by the demons of a family tragedy. Anno explored how these dark childhood memories overwhelms an individual, and how this leads to the children’s nihilistic state (at that moment). Throughout the show, flashbacks of these traumatic moments were presented, with one vividly shown in an Angel battle. Certain episodes of the series showed us that these characters lost their will to fight for a moment, like Shinji running away and Asuka being found in the tub. But trauma has two possible effects; either reinforcing an individual to survive, so such traumatic incidence could never happen again, or leading to the suicide of an individual. Anyone not familiar with the show could be certain that their dark childhood is a ticket to suicide in the future. Their pasts were already a mess, and now they have an unhealthy job of risking their lives to take on the Angels. No point continuing to leave their miserable existence!

But that’s not the case here.

Strong will overcoming the immovable obstacle was always the trademark of Japanese anime. Dragon Ball Z is a good example. And it was again reuse in the Evangelion series, with Shinji refusing to give up and Asuka overcoming her breakdown to fight in the End of Evangelion. And somehow, Asuka’s family tragedy seems to give her the purpose to become an EVA pilot.

Ryoji Kaji

He never gave a darn if the world will end.

He never gave a darn if the world will end.

Like in the real world, knowing too much could get you killed. Knowing that you will die anytime soon is a hard pill to swallow, especially if you just uncovered the secrets of an impending apocalypse.

At first glance, Kaji is an easy-going womanizer. His outside appearance reflects his somehow lighter personality. In contrast with other characters in the series, he is unkempt, unshaven and prefers a sloppy attire. Nevertheless, he is relatively normal compared with the rest. With the others displaying varying levels of insanity, Kaji seems to be the happiest character here, which is quite ironic. The rest knew little of the impending doom, yet here they are in the point of breaking. But Kaji still looks genuinely comfortable despite knowing how things will end. And it could be seen clearly in the melon scene, where Kaji watered his patch as an Angel battle rages at a distance. By finding the need to water his patches, he expected the world to go on, and it really doesn’t matter if it ends at that moment.

The End of Evangelion

Shinji still found enlightenment despite of this.

Shinji still found enlightenment despite of this.

But perhaps, it was Shinji’s rejection of Instrumentality that sums up the whole anti-nihilism themes of the Evangelion series. Shinji had endured every form of emotional and mental torture, he had been through a lot, and it would make sense that the resulting depressions might affect his decisions in later life. We might as well see a Shinji with little regards to the meaning of his own existence, and at the End of Evangelion, he had the means to control the fate of humanity. Rei just bestowed him that power, but he rejected Instrumentality and chose to live life as an individual. Again, the End of Evangelion, with those depressing imageries had a more hopeful message. Shinji gained a new form of enlightenment on the meaning of existence in this world. Being with people is what gave him happiness, and the pain it caused is just a small price to pay. It is simply worth the pain to be with others. Hence, he rejected Instrumentality to experience such happiness.

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