These days Evangelion is once again getting some attention since the third movie of the reboot recently came out in Japan in BD format, and fansubbers are hard at work on it (and fansubbers also usually do a better work than official releases, since a work of love is usually better than work done for money).

While reading some of the comments on the forums I saw links to two commentary videos, specifically on the ending of both the TV series and the two sequel movies (not to be confused with the reboot itself that has still a fourth movie before it’s completed), that suggest a few ideas that I consider better than speculation. They are coherent with all the canon, providing a neat interpretation that doesn’t clash and doesn’t feel forced. Moreover, it could also connect with these recent movies. I’ll repeat for the most part the ideas in these videos, so I suggest watching them, especially the first. Here are the two commentary videos:

I’m definitely not the first to put Evangelion in the wide and blurry basin of postmodernism, it’s just what it is, but usually the aspect the is brought up is about the deconstruction of “genre”, in this case the giant robots, fighting for survival in an apocalyptic setting against unknown alien monsters. Evangelion follows a trend that is common to most genres. It’s especially evident in comics, since you can see easily how even the drawing style moves toward modernity. But you can also notice how the modern super-hero stories are also evolving toward a certain maturity and realism. You take a canon and make it “serious”, add detail, cause and consequence as if they were real. “Gritty” and complex. Evangelion fits perfectly in this trend since it’s an evolved and realistic rewriting of the genre canons, “aware” of itself. So becoming also a sort of meta-commentary on the genre itself, subverting and manipulating all its small parts.

This “deconstruction” is usually the prominent aspect in postmodernism, but I consider it just a part of it, without representing the true core. In the case of Evangelion too, the deconstruction of the genre is not its more relevant aspect. Postmodernism is about breaking rules, more specifically about breaking “frames” and points of view. Breaching boundaries of all kinds, of expectation, physical or metaphoric. It’s then a consequence that the subversion of canons is a direct aspect, but not the meaningful one. Going beyond the frame of a story means an awareness of who’s telling that story and the influence on it. And that’s why it often comes, in postmodern works, in the form of breaking the fourth wall (goes both ways, like an author putting himself in his work). It’s just one possible type of breach. But most importantly, it goes to the core of the issue, that is the relationship between the author and the audience, the message for what it can or cannot be.

Evangelion, while also being a very popular franchise built in collaboration, is also an extremely personal work of his director, Hideaki Anno. It’s his masterpiece and most complex and ambitious work. The core of the show is represented by the explicit interplay of three “actors”. There’s Anno himself as the writer/creator, there’s Shinji, the main character and true fulcrum of the show, and there’s the audience. These three actors exist in every other work, but in this case they exist WITHIN the work itself. All three actors converge and become one, become interchangeable. Anno gives the main character a lot of himself, identifying with him, but Anno is also at the same time the audience of his work, since he’s talking to himself, finding ways and solutions, exploring contradictions and set backs. But the main character is also the archetype of an “otaku”. It speaks to a social reality, its audience at large, its fans. It speaks individually to who’s watching, but it also represents and criticizes society at large. So in this interplay of micro and macrocosms, Evangelion contains its external context. Anno is Shinji, Shinji represents the audience made into a type, to which Anno naturally belongs. Within the fictional world you have a replica of the total “real” world. With all its issues. The subverted canons that the show preserves while manipulating them become metaphor of the wider context. As it is well explained in the video, the giant alien invaders, unexplained and sudden, represent the real world and difficulties in life that force one to grow up, prepared or not. It’s a violence of reality that presses on with its demands. And this metaphor is extremely powerful because it reproduces that despair in front of insurmountable obstacles: giant alien monsters. Those aliens don’t need any further, logic explanation, because Evangelion is first and foremost a powerful metaphor. Explicitly.

The huge controversy exploded when with the last two episodes of the TV show Gainax ran out of everything. Out of time, out of money, out of hope of wrapping everything up. Anno himself was obsessed with the show and struggled to find its message, as if he was constantly fighting the response he was getting from the fans, displeased by their demands. So he made the boldest and most ambitious choice. For those two last episodes he dropped COMPLETELY the dressing up of metaphors to focus solely on the internal spiritual journey. He dropped characters, plot, giant robots and conspirations. The story ending abruptly with nothing more than extremely vague hints, and it instead all become a symbolic journey in the main character’s soul. It shows in the most explicit and powerful way the “message”, directly, without filters. It’s the most explicit part of the whole show, but it’s also a complete mind screw, destroying all kinds of expectations everyone had.

The fans were not happy. Evengelion was at the time a HUGE cultural thing. The backlash was insane and Anno received all kinds of insults and serious death threats. He also fell in depression because he put everything he had on the show to the point of exhaustion, working restlessly on it, a labor of true love that was then received in the most violent way. At that point Evangelion was so big that it wouldn’t be over like that, so Gainax was already fiddling with the idea of producing a theatrical movie, that would have bought some time to do things properly. But due to the outlash of the fans this became for Anno an ongoing dialogue. With himself and his audience. The audience that now was RAGING against him in unprecedented ways.

The common theory about the TV series’ ending and the two theatrical movies that follow it, is that these two represent two inverted faces. The TV finale shows the metaphorical ending (“the message”) while dropping the fictional layer of characters and plot. Whereas the theatrical movies reprise what the fan forcefully pretended: plot and characters, robots and fanservice. Telling how the story ended, with the thematic aspects remaining in the background, symbolic and vague. And here the video commentary above suggests a different interpretation that works much better. Those two aren’t just two sides that were split for creative and practical reasons, but two completely separated possible endings. Not only, but they are also antithetic. The TV show’s ending celebrates “success”. It’s an happy ending. The character achieved what he was meant to achieve, he affirms his life, grows up and is finally cheered and applauded. Instrumentality is successful! But the theatrical ending is, while subtle, the opposite. It’s the celebration of “failure”. Shinji fails to come to grips with his problems, he actually descends into nihilism and self-pity, and rejects instrumentality. He’s unable to overcome his personal problems and difficulties. He unleashes anger and despair, he’s ashamed of himself and rejects everyone around him. He’s unable to love truthfully. It’s the tragic ending. But all this, because of the meta-fictional, postmodern level, is also Anno’s act of vengeance. The three actors, Anno, Shinji and audience. By condemning Shinji, Anno condemns his public, the “otakus”, their reactions and demands. They pretended giant robots fighting, spectacular setpieces, female characters being sexualized, use of mythology and religion to dress up the plot in fancy ways. The theatrical movies, as opposed to the TV show ending, gives all of this aplenty, and in this they determine the “failure” of the message of the show, represented by the failure of Shinji.

Anno is also himself an otaku. He loves what he’s doing. Evangelion is a labor of love, and so he puts his own passion for the giant robots and all those aspects of genre. Anno is Shinji in the story, and he is also audience. This work is overall dialogue between all these parts, as I said representing them within the show itself. The TV show’s ending together with the theatrical ending provide alternate possibilities, opposite between each other. It’s the sublimation of that same dialogue going on. The other potentially interesting idea in the commentary videos is that the new reboot movies may be also part of the same scheme.

He points out how the titles of each movie have a duality similar to the duality of TV show opposed to the theatrical ending. Success or failure. “You Are (Not) Alone”, “You Can (Not) Advance”, “You Can (Not) Redo”. Especially with this third movie there’s a fan theory that is getting increasing attention about the possibility that this isn’t simply a “reboot”, as in the story being readopted and rewritten, but that these movies “follow” what we’ve already seen, instead of overwriting it. It’s as if Anno is wrapping everything up, the TV show, the theatrical end and the reboot movies, together in a broader meta-fictional or even completely fictional context. A bigger story of cycles that repeat oveer and over, of time loops or parallel worlds that follow similar patterns but that ultimately diverge. Evangelion is first and foremost a spiritual journey, that’s what is contained in the “true ending”, and the religious symbolism is actually more than dressing up (the fictional “A.T. Field”, for example, is described in the show as a barrier that keeps human beings separated as single entities, instead of melting into undivided “oneness”, but this is EXACTLY what is described in authentic Kabbalah, explained as the “breaking of the vessel” and the final return to god, achieved by regaining that unity of spirituality, and, exactly as it happens to Shinji, it’s “egoism” and self-absorption that keeps one isolated and “individual”).

The more you think about it the more it’s an extraordinary work. I haven’t even touched on the deep psychological layer and complex relationships that these kids have with their parents. As you see the deconstruction and subversion of genre is what’s more obvious and explicit, awareness of its time and purpose, of its medium, but the true genius is in how the show recreates within itself the macrocosm of reality, using every fictional moving part as a metaphor, giving it meaning and purpose that are much stronger than just a superficial dressing-up. It’s about Anno examining what he loves, but also Anno himself, and his dialogue with his fans. His own vengeance and condemnation on them. It’s a vehement critique of society as well as of the genre itself and all its fans, like a giant FUCK YOU ALL. Anno dares. In one scene at the end of the movie the hate mails and death threats are shown on screen, including scenes from the theater where the first movie was projected. This scene ends by making the people disappear. The theater is deserted. Anno erased them all. It’s the end of the world, and he canceled humanity. But as it often happens it’s at the same time also a celebration, because still filled with the same: spectacular giant robot battles and fanservice. Someone summarized this quite brilliantly: “he wants to have his cake and eat it too”.

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