The Nostalgia Trap: On Watching Neon Genesis Evangelion in 2019
Notice: this piece includes spoilers for an anime series that’s nearly 25 years old, but is only experiencing a broader pop-cultural moment now due to its release on a streaming service (Netflix). If you are the sort of person who thinks that spoilers ruin a series, you are warned now.
It also includes discussion of depression and adolescent sexual development, because it’s Evangelion and that’s what the whole show is about.
Last night, as of this writing on Saturday morning, Edgar and I began to rewatch Netflix's release of Neon Genesis Evangelion. In the lead-up to this release, people started talking about Evangelion again on the internet, releasing a number of think-pieces, a number of which are actually worth reading. I hope to add to this discourse.
This morning, I saw a status from Joe, one of the actors who's in that podcast this website is technically about (he plays Seeger,) but which will not finish until after our engineer gets married. Both Joe and Alex, the engineer, have been friends with me for more than half of my life – only slightly shorter than I've known the subject of this essay.
As such, I'm inaugurating another ongoing series (the one on Masculinity will continue Wednesday, if all my plans pan out.) which I'm going to call “the Nostalgia Trap.” I intend to revisit a good deal of the media that I enjoyed when I was younger and comment upon it. As such, we can consider this the second entry – my piece on The Refused playing in Lawrence, KS could easily be seen as the first.
I'm currently 32, and I don't exactly think of myself as experiencing a mid-life crisis right now: it's more that my quarter-life crisis never really stopped. We live in a profoundly nostalgic moment, wracked as we are with the sickness of homecoming, of returning to the things that meant so much to us in childhood. Of course, these things never really left: they've always been here, reverberating around a cultural moment that metastasized to the point where it's hard to imagine anything new.
When I was in my early adolescence, I discovered Evangelion. I discovered it because it was referenced online in analysis of my then-favorite video game, Xenogears. It came into my life alongside The Refused and the Presidency of George W. Bush (and, as such, my awakening to politics as something to be concerned about. I feel no nostalgia for George W. Bush's presidency, but people around me do, to the point where my country decided to reenact it as Made-for-TV-movie in 2016.)
My firm conviction is that culture is always contextual: it is impossible for me to think of Evangelion as something I didn't watch the final episode of on the evening of 9/11. It is impossible for me not to imagine images of it set to “The Deadly Rhythm” by the Refused or “Where is my Mind?” by the Pixies. My life created that connective tissue and I can't bring myself to make the amputation, because it generates meaning for me.
While I don't especially feel that everything that I consumed when I was younger is worth bringing up here – I spent a good long while watching low-budget comedies on Comedy Central, for example, but I'm not about to wax rhapsodic about or do a deep dive in to Beer Fest or similar – there's been a bit of a moment in the media about Evangelion. I realize it's just the algorithm bringing me more of what I looked for, but consider this: I found a New Yorker article on Evangelion because there even was a New Yorker article for the algorithm to bring me in the first place. The things I enjoyed as an adolescent have entered the reach of the Nostalgia industry, and it's serving them up to me and those who shared the cultural moment with me, along with such things as The Toys that Made Us – which clearly references something I've brought up here before.
I referenced “cultivation theory” in the piece I entitled “The Problem of the Protagonist” but the discussion of Evangelion brings to mind a different theory, which Edgar explained to me this morning as I drove them to work: “reception theory.” The basic idea (as I understand it and intend to use it) is that a text only exists in a complete form when read, but how it is completed will vary from reader to reader, and there will thus be a huge number of different decodings.
In my mind, Cultivation and Reception theory work in tandem to allow us to use culture to create the world we live in. This is because we are not “cultivated” by the work itself, we are “cultivated” by our reaction to the work, which emerges in light of everything else we are conscious of.
For example, Edgar and I have begun rereading the landmark essay by George Trow, In the Context of No Context, and as such my mind is fumbling around trying to form of Trovian reading of Evangelion. I've also been reading (intermittently, I admit,) Anti-Oedipus and the works of Mark Fisher, and so my mind is drawn to Post-Structuralist and Fisherian readings of the show. But because I am returning to something from my childhood, I can't help but feel that Hideaki Anno – the series's director – contributed to the toolbox I used to unpack Trow, Deleuze and Guattari, and Fisher.
This is going to be a bit scattered, but I'm going to try to tease out some thoughts on rewatching.
1. Adulthood vs Childhood
I think it's obvious that a show – or movie, or comic, or book – about a young person being forced into a giant metal simulacrum of an adult body and forced into traumatic situations is about growing up. It perfectly captures the feeling of growing into adulthood in the modern era, though I might be saying that because the metaphor was given to me, below my awareness, before I was an adult.
You are forced to pretend to be an adult so many times before you feel yourself to be an adult. You have to go to the DMV, you have to wake up before the sun, you have to buy your own toilet paper (the only marker of adulthood that really matters.) All of this happens, often, before you are given the power to make any sort of decision regarding your situation. You are burdened with these responsibilities and expectations, and at the end of the day, the hatch opens up and the child clambers out of the simulacrum of the adult to watch television or lie in bed listening to music on their headphones, or whatever it is that children do before they forget how to be children.
Eventually, it gets harder to open that hatch. Eventually, you stop opening it, and the simulacrum becomes something like real. But the feeling that you're faking it never really goes away: you just can't remember what you were before you were faking it.
This is why the last two episodes have nothing to do with giant robots or fighting monsters: because, when you get down to it, that was never the point. That was just Syntax, not Paradigm. The story was about the thoroughly depressed and dysfunctional protagonist – Shinji, a character I identified with heavily when I first watched it in my early adolescence (highly necessary caveat: during the series, not so much the film) , and now struggle to find at all relatable, due to the fact that I'm in my 30s and just stopped being a teacher – growing into something like a healthy adult. In the film’s ending he fails, which is commensurate with what Anno is doing (see part 3 of this piece.) but in the series he succeeds.
The monsters, giant robots, and religious symbolism are all window dressing on this view. Which is why so many anime studios have lifted the syntax almost wholesale and copied it like it's a photoshop filter. Almost none of them got it and just decided to repeat motifs, ignoring the logic that underlies the selection of the motifs.
2. “They changed it, and now it sucks”
I'm somewhat grateful to Netflix for doing a new translation and rerecording the dub of the series (Evangelion is one of the series I principally – though not exclusively – watch dubbed. Please hold the torches and pitchforks until the end of the piece. We have a comments section for any drawing-and-quartering activities.) This is because it defamiliarizes the series. It makes something I went over and over and over like a length of rosary beads in high school into something that I've never seen before.
This is something that nerds, regardless of background or national origin, hate.
I very rarely label anything other than fascism as wrong in a blanket sense. This attitude that nerd culture has towards the new is one of those things that I will label as wrong without reservation.
You can hate a change. You can think it was made for dumb reasons. You can object to it, but hating something because it's different from how it was is an untenable position: the things you love wouldn't exist if people simply repeated what had already been done forever.
Being afraid that an experiment will fail, that the end result will not work as well as what was done previously, is a tiresome attitude, and one that has no place in the creative process.
This is not to say that the new translation or new dub have no problems: there are some awkward pluralization issues from the original Japanese that have been preserved, they attempted (I'm given to understand) to remove some subtext that reads as homoerotic to western viewers from later episodes, and they didn't even give the original dub cast a chance to re-audition for the roles (the loss of Allison Keith, the voice actress who portrayed Misato Katsuragi, is something that I think is a misstep, more than any other change to the recording.)
But, on the whole, I feel some translations have been improved: the change of “I mustn't run away” to “don't run away” is, I feel an improvement (changing it from something phrased as a statement of fact to a demand makes it more natural.)
3. A Monument to Loving Spite
In addition to the series itself, Netflix has brought over the two original movies that completed the series. I don't much care for Death & Rebirth: it's a compilation, meant to bring people up to speed. Beyond being a necessary artifact for the era it's from (the late 90s, before a home version of the series was available,) it's not terribly interesting to me.
But the other movie, The End of Evangelion, is one of the most profound pieces of cinema I've ever seen, simply for the sheer unbridled frustration is evinces on the part of its creator. I can appreciate it in the way that someone who watches a meticulously planned and far-too-elaborate practical joke can.
To explain: the creator, Hideaki Anno, received death threats following the completion of the series, because it abandoned the extraneous Syntax of the giant robot series. People loved it up until that point, but their reaction to the ending (a piece of experimental television that I feel is on par with Twin Peaks: the Return, Episode 8, especially considering that it was made on a shoestring budget) showed just how little people understood what it was he was doing.
In many ways, the series functions as an extended commentary on growing up and on the pathology of nerd culture in its Japanese form (the figure of the otaku, which is possibly more reviled that the western geek or nerd), and discusses how to escape some of the worst aspects of it.
People hated it. They demanded, much like the more recent fans of Game of Thrones did, that the ending be redone.
Anno did just that.
The opening scene of the movie is famous, and the perfect summation of what Anno felt that the fans had done: the lead character, Shinji, masturbating to completion over the comatose body of Asuka, a character who had from time to time been positioned as a potential love interest, a young woman who had been through the wringer and been thoroughly broken by the events of the series. They demanded that these characters get together, that they be given a climatic final battle.
Anno spent an hour and a half showing the fans what they wanted, explaining that he knew exactly what they desired, and refusing to give it to them. By, in fact, destroying what they wanted so methodically and thoroughly that it is impossible to say that anything of similar scope has ever been done.
And then he followed it up with a sequence that, essentially, explained thoroughly that the audience could just as easily not be like this. That they could choose to be different. That they could embrace the world as it is and work to make it better instead of retreating into the walled garden of their own desires.
But the punchline, the final moments of the film, when no one is left alive in the whole world but Shinji and Asuka, alone on a beach overlooking an ocean of bloody red liquid and surrounded by ruins, Anno gives the film in microcosm: Shinji moves to strangle Asuka, gripped by such despair that he wants to kill the whole world. Asuka doesn't fight back, caressing his cheek instead, and he breaks down crying.
She responds by saying either “I feel sick” or “How disgusting”, depending on the translation. The voice actresses, both the Japanese and English (respectively), were instructed to give an honest reaction to the first scene of the film.
In short, Anno tried to give them a prompt that would make them genuinely echo the response he had to being tasked with making this movie.
But there are other moments that add nuance to this. As is explained earlier in the film, the world is not destroyed. All of humanity has been broken down and gathered into the sea, rendered into one collective dreaming mind. As soon as a person can seize hold of their own identity, they will be freed and climb up from the sea shore.
In short the message here is that, as soon as you're willing to deal with the pain of living in the world, you are free to rejoin the world. As soon as you quit demanding that your every desire is catered to, you move into something like real adulthood. One could easily read it from a situationist perspective, as a work of détournement hidden in a culture industry product, as a medicine that many will spit out, many will pass without having symptoms, but which will have the desired effect on some who consume it.
I feel, from having seen some of his new iteration of the project Rebuild of Evangelion, that he is attempting to do the same thing again writ large: not simply remaking the project, but reworking it from the bottom to top so that it functions in the cultural landscape it is being released in, trickling into the zeitgeist, making it so that its ultimate message continues to echo. Of course, the vagaries of Reception Theory mean that not everyone will get it, but the repetition of the Paradigm in a new syntax makes it so that the message might make it to more and more people.
4. The Takeaway
Evangelion has inspired many imitators with many unique perspectives. Some are blatant cashgrabs, while some might have illusions to being some kind of artistic inheritor. None has truly succeeded as a successor, and I feel that in the context of a few ideas we've played with in the course of writing this blog it's fairly obvious why.
Almost everything that attempts to imitate Evangelion has done so by remixing the aesthetic, but none have married it to a truly innovative paradigm. They are all working within the constraints of the world created by the introduction of Evangelion into Japanese popular culture. At root, Evangelion, especially the run of innovative episodes starting from Episode 16, deals heavily with the director's struggles with depression. It is his metaphorical retelling of the director's psychodramatic hero journey: he descended into his own personal underworld, faced what was there and came back. He laid bare the depression he had obviously been struggling with for a very long time and processed it in public.
There is, admittedly, something distasteful about this: something very clearly deeply private played out as a spectacle for an unsympathetic audience that was very clearly only in it for the appearance of depth, not for the actual depth. They wanted something that could essentially be positioned as the X-Files with giant robots. They got something completely different.
But none of the imitators managed to capture this “something different.” They delivered the audience exactly what it wanted without capturing what made the original what it was. Which is fine: their goal was to make money, and many of them did that. Outside of an anti-capitalist reading, that doesn't make them bad. I enjoy a number of them. But they are lesser.
The Paradigm of Evangelion, the thing that allowed it to do what it did, is this: Hideaki Anno laid out his depression – not just the personal, chemical depression, but the social forces at work on him – and used it as a foundation. He made a sustained attack on the forces influencing his life, and he did so with everything he had in him. The work could almost be considered a Deleuzoguattarian attempt at Schizoalanysis: looking at the interconnections that lead to the undesirable situation, and cutting, rerouting, and adjusting them so that the situation no longer arises.
But it is the personal aspect, the authentic vulnerability, the willingness to fail, that made Evangelion what it is. All of its imitators lack that, and anyone setting out to do it will have to recognize that any real successor will look completely different because of that.