What Is Neon Genesis Evangelion About?

by Hazel

Since its debut in 1995, Neon Genesis Evangelion has become a cornerstone of anime culture, significantly influencing the genre and leaving an indelible mark on fans and critics alike. Created by Hideaki Anno and produced by Gainax, the series is renowned for its complex narrative, psychological depth, and innovative approach to storytelling. This article delves into the intricate layers of Neon Genesis Evangelion, exploring its plot, themes, characters, and lasting impact on the world of anime and beyond.

Plot Overview: A World Under Siege

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place in 2015, 15 years after a cataclysmic event known as the Second Impact devastated Earth, causing massive loss of life and ecological destruction. Humanity’s remnants have since rallied to rebuild, but they now face a new existential threat: mysterious beings known as Angels.


The series follows Shinji Ikari, a 14-year-old boy reluctantly recruited by his estranged father, Gendo Ikari, to pilot a biomechanical giant known as an Evangelion (Eva) Unit. These Evas are humanity’s last line of defense against the Angels. As Shinji grapples with the immense responsibility placed upon him, he is joined by fellow pilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu, each with their own complex backstories and psychological struggles.


Themes and Symbolism: Beyond Giant Robots

While Neon Genesis Evangelion initially presents itself as a mecha anime, it quickly transcends genre conventions, delving into profound psychological and philosophical territory. The series is a rich tapestry of themes and symbols, many of which are rooted in religion, psychoanalysis, and existentialism.


Psychological Exploration: One of the most striking aspects of Neon Genesis Evangelion is its focus on the inner lives of its characters. Shinji, Rei, and Asuka are all deeply flawed individuals, each grappling with their own insecurities, traumas, and desires for acceptance. The series uses these characters to explore concepts such as identity, self-worth, and the human condition.


Religious Symbolism: The series is replete with religious imagery and references, particularly from Christianity. The Angels, the Human Instrumentality Project, and the cross-shaped explosions allude to themes of salvation, sacrifice, and the quest for meaning in a seemingly indifferent universe.

Existential Questions: Neon Genesis Evangelion poses fundamental questions about existence and the human experience. Through the struggles of its characters and the apocalyptic stakes of the narrative, the series examines themes of loneliness, connection, and the search for purpose.

Characters: The Human Element

The characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion are central to its narrative and thematic depth. Each character is meticulously crafted, with their own arcs that contribute to the series’ exploration of psychological and existential themes.

Shinji Ikari: The protagonist, Shinji is a reluctant hero plagued by self-doubt and a desperate need for approval, particularly from his distant father. His journey is one of self-discovery and confrontation with his deepest fears and insecurities.

Rei Ayanami: A mysterious and emotionally detached girl, Rei’s enigmatic nature and her connection to Gendo Ikari and the Evas are gradually revealed throughout the series. Her character explores themes of identity and the nature of humanity.

Asuka Langley Soryu: A fiery and confident pilot, Asuka’s outward bravado masks deep-seated insecurities and a fear of inadequacy. Her interactions with Shinji and Rei highlight the complexities of human relationships and the struggle for self-acceptance.

Gendo Ikari: Shinji’s father and the head of NERV, Gendo is a manipulative and enigmatic figure whose ultimate goals are shrouded in secrecy. His cold demeanor and obsessive drive raise questions about the cost of ambition and the nature of sacrifice.

NERV and the Evas: Humanity’s Last Hope

At the heart of the series is NERV, a paramilitary organization tasked with defending Earth from the Angels using the Evangelion units. The Evas themselves are not typical mecha; they are bio-organic beings encased in armor, controlled by the pilots through a neural link. This connection between pilot and Eva adds a layer of psychological complexity to the battles, as the pilots’ mental states directly affect their performance.

Evangelion Units: Each Eva unit is unique, with its own capabilities and quirks. The relationship between the pilot and the Eva is a central element of the series, often reflecting the pilot’s psychological state. This symbiotic bond raises questions about the nature of control and the merging of human and machine.

The Angels: The Angels are mysterious and varied antagonists, each presenting a unique threat. Their origins and motives are gradually unveiled, adding layers of intrigue and philosophical depth to the series. The nature of the Angels and their connection to humanity is a recurring theme that challenges the characters’ understanding of their world.

The Human Instrumentality Project: A Quest for Unity

One of the series’ most enigmatic and pivotal elements is the Human Instrumentality Project, a plan devised by NERV and the secretive organization SEELE. The project’s goal is to bring about a forced evolution of humanity, merging all human souls into a single, unified consciousness. This radical solution to human suffering and isolation raises profound ethical and philosophical questions.

Isolation and Connection: The Human Instrumentality Project reflects the series’ exploration of loneliness and the human desire for connection. The project promises an end to individual suffering by dissolving the barriers between people, but it also poses a fundamental dilemma about the value of individuality and personal identity.

Existential Resolution: The project’s implications are explored in the series’ final episodes and the film End of Evangelion. These concluding chapters present a surreal and introspective journey into the characters’ psyches, ultimately offering a meditation on the nature of existence and the possibility of transcendence.

Controversial Conclusion: The Ending of Evangelion

The original broadcast of Neon Genesis Evangelion ended with episodes 25 and 26, which took a highly abstract and introspective approach to conclude the series. This ending, focused on the internal struggles of the characters, left many plot threads unresolved and divided the fanbase.

In response to the mixed reception, Hideaki Anno and Gainax produced the film End of Evangelion (1997), which provided an alternate and more explicit conclusion to the series. The film combines intense action with deep psychological and philosophical exploration, offering a more definitive resolution to the story while maintaining the series’ characteristic ambiguity and complexity.

The Dual Endings: The existence of two different endings—one introspective and one action-oriented—reflects the series’ dual nature. While the original ending delves deeply into the characters’ inner worlds, End of Evangelion provides a more external resolution to the narrative, blending psychological insight with apocalyptic spectacle.

Fan Reception: Both endings have been subject to extensive analysis and debate within the fan community. The original ending is praised for its bold and innovative approach to storytelling, while End of Evangelion is lauded for its visceral impact and narrative closure. Together, they offer a comprehensive exploration of the series’ themes and characters.

Legacy and Influence: Evangelion’s Enduring Impact

Neon Genesis Evangelion has left an indelible mark on anime and popular culture, influencing countless creators and works across various media. Its innovative approach to storytelling, complex characters, and profound themes have inspired a generation of anime fans and creators.

Cultural Phenomenon: The series’ impact extends beyond anime, with references and homages appearing in films, television shows, video games, and other forms of media. Its influence can be seen in the works of renowned directors and writers who have drawn inspiration from its groundbreaking narrative and visual style.

Merchandising and Spin-offs: Neon Genesis Evangelion has spawned a vast array of merchandise, including figures, apparel, and video games. Numerous spin-offs and adaptations, including manga, novels, and reimagined versions of the story, have expanded the franchise’s reach and continued its legacy.

Critical Acclaim: The series is frequently cited in discussions of the greatest anime of all time, praised for its depth, originality, and enduring relevance. It has won numerous awards and continues to be a subject of academic study and critical analysis.

Rebuild of Evangelion: A New Interpretation

In 2007, Hideaki Anno began a new project titled Rebuild of Evangelion, a series of films that reimagine and retell the original story with updated animation and new plot elements. The Rebuild series offers both a fresh perspective for longtime fans and an accessible entry point for newcomers.

New Narrative Directions: The Rebuild films introduce significant changes to the story and characters, offering new interpretations and expanding on the original themes. These changes reflect Anno’s evolving vision and provide a fresh take on the Evangelion saga.

Technological Advancements: The updated animation and visual effects in the Rebuild films enhance the storytelling and bring the world of Evangelion to life with greater detail and dynamism. These improvements highlight the series’ continued relevance and its ability to adapt to changing times.

Conclusion: The Enduring Legacy of Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion remains a landmark in the world of anime, celebrated for its innovative storytelling, complex characters, and profound exploration of psychological and existential themes. Its impact on popular culture and the anime industry is immeasurable, continuing to inspire and captivate audiences worldwide.

The series’ ability to blend mecha action with deep psychological and philosophical questions sets it apart as a unique and enduring work of art. Whether through the original series, End of Evangelion, or the Rebuild films, Neon Genesis Evangelion invites viewers to embark on a journey of self-discovery, challenging them to confront their own fears, desires, and the search for meaning in an ever-changing world.


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