“Ah yes. The anime that cured my depression by giving me an even worse depression.”
Hey, did you know Neon Genesis Evangelion was about depression? Don’t worry, someone will tell you. But depression isn’t just one thing. Technically, sure, it’s a chemical imbalance, possibly caused by trauma or genetics or bad luck or all of those working together, but, well. You’re never going to know, are you? You just end up one day and you’re in a new city getting attacked by eldritch horrors — “monster” is an understatement, kajiu at least have eyes—
Anyway, there’s this woman you’re living with and she seems nice enough but she’s unfamiliar and she’s certainly not your mother — let’s not talk about parents right now — and nothing feels right or safe, and then you get told you have to fight the eldritch horrors, you personally, or maybe someone else does it and gets horribly brutally injured, and so you go, you fight, and it hurts and you barely have control of your own body now and—
Wait. I’ll come back in.
I’ve started this feature three times, and neither of the first two attempts to say something new, or even interesting, about Neon Genesis Evangelion really got very far. Google has 36 million reports for this franchise: a lot of people have said a lot of things. After the original series, there were movies, more movies, a mountain of merchandise that gleefully repeated some of the very behaviors the show critiqued, a stage play with absolutely stunning bunraku puppetry, and…probably more. There’s usually more. Series creator Hideaki Anno has said that the most recent movie (3.0+1.11 Thrice Upon a Time) will be the last, but it’s hard to say, really. Someone could announce Evangelion on Broadway at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, and the only thing that would surprise me would be that Hamilton was closing.
The original Neon Genesis Evangelion anime (NGE from now on) ran weekly from October 1995 to November 1996; it’s kind of appropriate that it ran from fall to early spring. Every time I revisit the show I’m reminded just how much plot they pack into this show. It all happens in a rush: Shinji comes to a new city; saves the world, repeatedly, by fighting gigantic, cruel, unspeakable horrors; navigates his difficult relationship with his father; makes his first friends, falls in love once or twice or more; discovers some (but not all) of the secrets of NERV, the secret extra-governmental agency his father runs; cries; screams; hallucinates; is forced to hurt the people he cares about; has something of a nervous breakdown; and kind of sort of remakes the world. And that’s just what happens to Shinji personally! People get murdered! Clones get destroyed! We learn weird shit about NERV that Shinji doesn’t know about! There are fifteen Angel fights! (Goku’s final fight against Freiza, one single adversary, in Dragon Ball Z lasts twenty episodes!)
Anno has said, many times, that Neon Genesis Evangelion was created in part as a response to his own depression, which for four years left him unable to work and, in his words, “simply not dead.” Virtually every character we meet in NGE has a visible struggle with self-worth and/or mental illness, and that’s before they start getting hammered by the plot.
As I said, depression isn’t any one thing, and like all other mental illnesses, it shows up differently in different individuals. Some depression is situational and doesn’t last very long. Major depressive disorder might never go away. Some people get insomnia. Some people sleep too much. It can manifest as rage, or sorrow, or numbness. NGE makes the viewer feel it all.
The show’s ability to paint a convincing, reasonably accurate portrait of mental illness is probably why so many guys on the internet still call Ikari Shinji a whiny little bitch.
Shinji feels real. He’s a fourteen-year-old kid asked to save the world for little glory and immense pain, and he does not handle it well. His mother is dead, and his father is monstrous; he was mostly raised by relatives who seem to have cared very little for him. He’s used to living independently and not asking anyone for help, so he pushes away many of the people who try to reach out to him. In some cases, his skepticism is well-founded. The ground is constantly shifting under his feet. Even if he was surrounded by support, the physical and emotional wringer he goes through in the first 25 episodes of the series would be enough to challenge the most resilient adult. Shinji is none of these things, and he struggles and often fails. His distrust and mental illness are un-pretty and often unsympathetic. His actions sometimes seem inexplicable, to the viewer and to himself.
Last year, Hulu released a miniseries called Fleishman Is in Trouble. Perhaps you heard of it; it stars Jesse Eisenberg and Claire Danes, set in present-day New York City with no giant monsters or secret societies. The show is anchored by Lizzy Caplan’s narrator; she plays an old friend of Eisenberg from Jewish summer camp. Eisenberg plays an upper-class hepatologist in Manhattan who is forced to deal with the sudden disappearance of his ex-wife (and the mother of his children). He makes do, as best he can, gradually becomes a better parent, and then, finally, finds out where his wife has gone.
The series’ penultimate episode focuses on this revelation, as Danes reveals to a stunned and horrified Caplan where she’s been (sleeping in the park, mostly) and how rapidly and dangerously her mental health has deteriorated. At the beginning of the next episode, Caplan rushes to Eisenberg’s apartment, a triumphant detective who’s finally solved the mystery. She didn’t run off on a vacation, she tells Eisenberg. She had a mental breakdown. It wasn’t her fault.
Eisenberg says, “That’s it?”
Caplan is floored. No, she says, you don’t understand, she had a breakdown. She was sleeping in the park. She is expecting shock, sympathy.
She doesn’t get it.
But I think I do.
It’s the same reason so many of the NGE cast, many of them knee-deep in their own pain, can’t figure out why Shinji’s so damn reluctant to get in the robot.
Gene Park wrote this reflection on how he recognized himself in Shinji as a teenager. Like him, I didn’t put the pieces together for a while: it took years for anyone to figure out that I had postpartum depression, and years after that for me to really crawl out of it into the light. I didn’t take a leave of absence from work. I didn’t enter a day program. I didn’t have time. Who was going to watch my kid? My dad was sick all the time, which meant my mother had plenty on her hands. My ex-husband never hesitated to remind me that his job meant he couldn’t really take time off, though he did carve out some weekend time so I could rest when things were really bad.
And honestly…I didn’t tell anyone just how bad it had gotten until much later. I didn’t even realize it myself. (“Maybe I laid on the cheerfulness too thick,” Misato, the one adult who seems to consistently give a fuck about Shinji’s feelings, thinks in the second episode. “He might see right through it.”)
It’s not kind, and it’s not pretty, but sometimes in that long journey, I did resent the people who just could…stop. It wasn’t a choice, of course. I might have been better off, in the long run, if I’d put my foot down and found a day program. But that’s a luxury that distance can give you. Every time I rewatch NGE, I’m a different person, and with luck, a wiser one. Every time I find something else that resonates.
Shinji’s depression doesn’t look like mine, because depression doesn’t work like that. I can see his misery from my house, but it’s hardly surprising that not everyone can. Anno himself has said: “Evangelion is like a puzzle, you know. Any person can see it and give their own answer. In other words, we’re offering viewers [the chance] to think by themselves, so that each person can imagine [their] own world.” In that respect, NGE becomes a Rorschach test, telling you as much about the viewer as it does about its subject. One of the show’s great strengths is what left its fans open to hating the lead character and buying merchandise with the very fanservice it criticized. It’s what kept people talking about the ending in the years after it came out. It’s what means we’re still talking about it today. It may even be why Anno himself kept coming back.
Polygon has an absolutely wonderful article about NGE’s origin and impact that’s well worth reading. (The Anno quote above came from this piece, translated by Lawrence Eng.)