The Screams of the Damned

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My friend Rogelio reminded me recently that the 20th anniversary of Neon Genesis Evangelion happened a few days ago. For most of you this means nothing, but for the rest of us who have watched any measurable amount of anime, NGE was (and still is) kind of a big deal. I watched it with my friends in high school exclusively through renting VHS at the local Banana Video down the street; we’d get the latest episodes (there were 26 in all) and rush back to the house to consume it greedily. For me, it wasn’t like anything I’d seen before: it was grandiose and equal parts ridiculously dramatic approaching maudlin and terrifyingly dark and dystopian. I think I liked the “ooh big robots fighting big monsters” aspect the most, at first, but the overarching narrative – the end of the world, the death of humanity and the annihilation of self – sunk in later on as the series became less straightforward and much more existential. The final two episodes were and remain highly controversial because they skipped over a tidy “ending” and instead forced the viewer to watch the aftermath of the end of the world, and to witness the main character’s life and the choices he made that made him the person that he is (for better or worse). It was abstract and headache-inducing and confusing as hell, and I loved every second of it. A lot of people hated it because it didn’t answer any questions or if it did, the answers were cryptic and completely subjective. They required subjective interpretation, invoked passionate argument, observation and critique of symbolism, and musing on what had just happened. That’s now how things were supposed to be: this was a cartoon, damn it. Feels happened, which was very weird (at least for me).

Then the movie “End of Evangelion” came along to add some ego and super-ego to the id of episodes of 25 and 26; it basically filled in the gaps around the utter mindfuck those two episodes caused. But instead of giving clean answers to viewers and saying “Here’s what happened, here’s how and why, thanks a lot,” the movie was a gigantic and almost violently-gleeful middle finger to the fans: sure, it showed us what occurred and how, but the “why” was there and looming even larger than before. Not only did it flesh things out around the main character’s psychological break in episodes 25 and 26, it showed us the other characters that we had come to latch on to over the course of the show… and it then murdered all of them.

It was a kick in the gut, a series of quick and debilitating punches to the face. I remember being left devastated because, to me, killing off characters that I identified with in some way wasn’t supposed to happen like that. It hurt. And things got worse and worse and more confusing and chaotic, and the movie showed the death of the entire world and a perverted, violent rebirth that cost everyone everything they had, all because one person couldn’t face their fears and couldn’t sum up the courage to admit that he was lonely sometimes but perhaps thought it’d be nice to be with someone. And that last line, impossible to translate cleanly from Japanese to English… that was a killer right there. “I feel sick” or “I feel uncomfortable,” given the context, the burning binary stars of the two characters in the last gasping moments of humanity’s death (or not, depending on how you interpret the whole thing). Yeah, Asuka, I feel sick too. Ugh.

I didn’t watch the movie again for a long time, and the next time I did, it made me feel just as sick and weird as I had felt the first time around. I haven’t watched the series again mostly because I don’t have easy access to them in a decent quality format, but partly because I’m not sure I want to experience the dizzying rush of confusion and angst that the tail-end of the series gave me. Don’t get me wrong: I love NGE and it sits as a major touchstone in my personal cultural identity. I don’t care for the reboot, nor do I care for the attempts to spin off an “after” series that apparently removes all of the existential vagaries and open-ended interpretations. Those are a separate universe from the original NGE, in my opinion, and the original series – and the movie as a capstone – still tower over the ancillary works that surround them. As much confusion as they caused me, though, they’re still pretty damned important to me; sure, there is a LOT of angst rendered throughout the series, and the “only kids can pilot these giant killer death machines because reasons” trope grates on me quite a bit, but I can look past all of that and appreciate the headache-inducing, confusing and wonderful core that beats at the heart of the whole thing.