A Brief History of Anime in America
We watch Evangelion without context. When it was first localized in the west, American audiences in particular barely had the language and vocabulary to understand the conversation the show had with what preceded it. While Japanese cartoons had been on American televisions for over sixty years — titles like Astro Boy and Speed Racer in the ’60s or edited versions of Space Battleship Yamato and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (known as Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets) in the ’70s — it wasn’t until the ’80s the medium began to dominate. Comic publishers began translating manga, select titles like “Appleseed,” “Lone Wolf and Cub,” and, of course, “Akira.” This was the age of the mecha. This was time when cyberpunk took hold. Home media became a dominant force, and it spawned a subculture where people exchanged these obscure shows on videotapes, often supplying their own translations. Otaku and otaku culture had seeped out of Japan.
Then, in the ’90s, anime exploded. There was Dragon Ball. There was Sailor Moon, albeit in a heavily edited version with ridiculously silly transitions. There was Pokémon. There was a wide breadth of material suddenly available on cable cartoon channels and kids couldn’t get enough of it. The Matrix released in 1999, and it wore its influences openly and proudly, drawing more attention to titles like Ghost in the Shell. I grew up in this environment. I remember the promos and the ads that ran on Cartoon Network. My friends already seemed neck deep in the movement while I was figuring out how to pronounce the names.
The ADV Evangelion tapes appeared in 1997, with the Spike Spencer, Allison Keith, and Amanda Winn-Lee dub. The show itself aired, heavily edited, on Toonami in the year 2000.
Since Americans got anime in bits and pieces, it wasn’t until the 2000s and 2010s when streaming took hold, that we saw more classic titles and, subsequently, better understood the culture in which Evangelion was created. Because it was such an early entry-point for many viewers, for the longest time, there was this feeling that Neon Genesis Evangelion existed in a vacuum, apart from other anime, and it paved the way forward with new ways of presenting its story. Evangelion probably has a lot more in common with The Last Jedi. Both of these texts are slight subversions and reactions to what’s come before them, both want to press their genres (the space opera, the mecha epic) forward. (Not for nothing, Last Jedi includes a sustained homage to Eva, with Rey in the cave echoing Rei Ayanami’s cosmic epiphany later in the series.)
This isn’t to say Evangelion isn’t innovative or inventive or even ground-breaking. It’s more that it was able to push boundaries because it was so in line with its predecessors.
In an interview with Protoculture Addicts after the end of the series, Hideaki Anno said, “Evangelion is my life and I have put everything I know into this work. This is my entire life. My life itself.” Indeed, more than any of his previous projects, Anno took his experiences, from his cultural obsessions to his deepest emotions to his formative life events, and molded them into the weird and wild experience that is Neon Genesis Evangelion.
A Brief History of Hideaki Anno
Born in 1960, Anno grew up in post-postwar Japan, when the country’s economy boomed and, maybe for the first time in all Japanese history, it opened its borders to the West. Manga appeared in street shops, the books stacked like fruit. Animation played on primetime TV. By all accounts, Anno shaped his worldview through animation, filtered his experiences through these stories. He consumed so many series he eventually had to contribute to the conversation.
Anno was so obsessed with art, he barely made it out of high school. He managed to enroll at the Osaka University of Arts, where he met Hiroyuki Yamaga and Takami Akai; along with several other classmates, they would go on to establish the studio Gainax. Together, they produced an amateur animated short called Daicon III, which took various characters from numerous franchises — Godzilla, Ultraman, Star Wars, and Gomora — and threw them all together in this short. They animated the film on industrial vinyl celluloid they cut and punched themselves and shot the whole thing on 8mm, using the linoleum in their apartment to properly illuminate the cels.Continued below
He was later expelled from Osaka University of Arts because he failed to pay his tuition, but that short helped him launch his career.
Kazuhiko Shimamoto, one of Anno’s classmates and friends, created “Blue Blazes,” an autobiographical manga of this time period. It was later adapted into a live action short, where Anno was portrayed as socially inept but passionate, odd yet skilled. I have no other reason for including this tidbit except that Blue Blazes cracks me up.
Following his expulsion, Anno worked on various small animation projects until he came across an ad from Topcraft, the production company behind Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. He hedged all his bets and went to meet Hayao Miyazaki, who was allegedly so impressed with his work, he gave Anno difficult animation assignments. He graduated from there to finally found Gainax with some of his former classmates. Together they produced several other video games and movies before finally finding success with Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, a project Miyazaki had been developing at one point but abandoned.
Production on Nadia was fraught. A power struggle occurred within Gainax, resulting in inflated costs and animators working on character models and sequences in secret to throw in before anyone noticed. Anno replaced the original director, though he never had much interest in doing it and had little say in how the series looked or operated. He vanished during production, disappearing for as long as four episodes. Following the completion of the series, he fell into a four-year depression.
And then he created Evangelion.
First and foremost, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a mecha series. Its premise is built around people using giant robots to combat other, bigger threats. Chief among these inspirations are Mobile Suit Gundam and Space Runway Ideon. Ideon, especially, in how that show so wantonly kills off its cast and wreaks havoc on the cosmos. Ideon, especially, in the look and feel of the robots. The idea the robots have organic parts is certainly novel to the series, but it’s not the first time that had been introduced.
It also borrows a lot of the crew dynamic and psychological unraveling from series like Space Battleship Yamato. Anno found Eva’s ending in Go Nagai’s Devilman. In its presentation and storytelling approach, the cinematic wonders of Hayao Miyazaki are all over the screen.
Among its many other Japanese influences, Anno also weaves in elements from Western texts. There’s Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, notably in the scenes at NERV, where the characters hover over the enormous holographic readout. Much of their reactions and interactions echo the command center in that story. Arguably, the design of the title cards, from the breaks to the eventual interruptors, can betrayed back to Robert Wise’s film adaptation of The Andromeda Strain. Anno also turns to Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood End for its Instrumentality concept and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door for the Eva’s makeup and foundation.
Of course, there’s also all the stuff with Christianity and Christian Gnosticism.
The series creators have maintained they had no actual intention or motivation behind their Christian imagery. “We just thought the visual symbols of Christianity looked cool,” said Kazuya Tsurumaki, an assistant director. “Because Christianity is an uncommon religion in Japan we thought it would be mysterious.” Anno said, “I am not familiar with many things in Christianity, and I have no intention of approaching it or criticizing it either,” though he would eventually admit there was definitely a deeper meaning.
And yet, and yet, the series is called Evangelion. The robots are Evangelion Units. The word “Evangelion” refers to the Gospel and literally translates from Greek for “Good News.” The main antagonists are called Angels, these creatures bent on humanity’s destruction, the offspring of the Seed of Life Adam. One of these days I’ll go into the backstory revealed in the video games and light novels and other texts beyond the main series.
When they die, the Angels burst into giant crosses. The crucifix itself appears throughout the series, in particular in the latter half of Evangelion, and in the concluding film, End of Evangelion. Stigmata scars are a recurring element.
NERV’s motto, taken from the Robert Browning poem, “Pippa Passes,” reads, “God’s in His Heaven, All’s Right in the World.” Characters often talk about God or reaching God-hood, although the show never gives a true definition of God.Continued below
Again, the creators have remained coy about their usage here, but of course there’s a deeper meaning, of course there’s more connections they’re going for than just the superficial sacrificial cross.
In a memo to the Gainax staff, Anno wrote: “I tried to include everything of myself in Neon Genesis Evangelion — myself, a broken man who could do nothing for four years. A man who ran away for four years, one who was simply not dead. Then one thought. ‘You can’t run away,’ came to me, and I restarted this production. It is a production where my only thought was to burn my feelings into film. I know my behavior was thoughtless, troublesome, and arrogant. But I tried. I don’t know what the result will be.”
Even in these first handful of episodes, we see that influence and personal experience at work. Shinji, overwhelmed with the attention his classmates put on him and racked with guilt over hurting Toji’s sister, once again refuses to get in the damn robot. Like Anno on Nadia, he was thrown into a situation he didn’t understand or have much investment in, Shinji runs away, then resigns, before, at the end of “Rain, After Running Away,” realizes piloting the Evas is something he has to do. It’s all external still, Shinji’s willingness to drive Unit-01, but we see him finding other reasons to get in the cockpit besides appeasing his father. By the way, who is all too happy to toss him to the side and try out other pilots, even though people continually tell him Unit-01 only reacts to Shinji, for reasons that will become clear later.
In terms of subtle subversions, while most mecha protagonists are eager to hop into the giant robots, without qualm, without thought, Shinji, of course, has no interest in this. Only Kensuke Aida, one of Shinji’s classmates, with thick glasses and a camcorder, shows any classic Gundam protagonist qualities. At one point, he even remarks he would give anything to pilot one of the Evas. (Spoiler: he never gets to.) That being said, there’s also something to note with Toji Suzuhara, the other friend Shinji manages to make. He’s not wowed or scared by the giant robots roaming around Tokyo-3, but more bored by the concept, desensitized. The only thing he cares about is flirting with Misato and taking care of his sister, who was hurt in the Angel Sachiel’s attack. He’s the only other character who understands Shinji’s reluctance. Later in the series, when he’s revealed to be the Fourth Children, he, too, takes his time to decide what to do.
Of course, we haven’t been introduced to Asuka yet.
There’s a line of critical thinking that says nothing should exist beyond the text. It’s all extra-textual and doesn’t matter. Our stories, however, aren’t created in a vacuum, no matter where they’re from in the world. Neon Genesis Evangelion has made such an impact on the culture and the conversation, people have dug deep into its themes, symbols, meanings, and influences with gusto. Anime might have been slow to arrive in America, but we’ve embraced it and been able to better understand the environment in which it was created. There’s certainly a wealth of material about this show out there and it’s so easy to get lost in the weeds when we’re talking about it.
Anyway, these sources were instrumental in helping me get through this piece:
Austin Carpentieri, “Hand to God: Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Gnostic Gospel of Deconstruction” State University of New York
Aaron Stewart-Ahn, “Neverending Evangelion” Polygon.