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Anime as Literature: "Neon Genesis Evangelion" (1995)

I critique anime, games, movies, books, and more, getting to deeper levels of analysis and thought than many other critics on the web.


Is Anime Literature?

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of English (4th Edition), the second definition of "literature" is, "Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value"(Source). That is the definition of "literature" I'm interested in using when we talk about anime as literature. By the first definition, "The body of written works of a language, period, or culture", all anime is literature, since all anime is storytelling, or perhaps no anime is literature, save for those based on novels, because it is not in the form of the written word.

When people talk about "anime as literature", we're primarily talking about the second definition, which has to do with "literature" as stories that have creative or artistic value. Now, then the question of what anime can be called "literature" becomes a judgment about what does and does not have creative or artistic value.

That question is impossible to answer definitively because what is valuable in this sense is very subjective. What we can say objectively is that all works of great literature tend to have certain characteristics we can point to, so if we find them in a work of anime, we can say that anime is probably great literature or "true" art. The kind of thing people might study in school someday.

What are these characteristics?

  • Timelessness. A work of great literature transcends the fleeting, temporary nature of popularity, becoming a treasure for generations.
  • It speaks to something about human nature/the human condition, which is the primary reason for this timelessness.
  • It touches on important political, religious, philosophical, or social themes. For example, Great Expectations says a lot about gender, marriage/romantic relationships, and social class. The Scarlet Letter is about human sexuality in a repressive, shame-based society. To Kill a Mockingbird is about racial tensions and injustice. Etc.
  • It captures a certain psychological depth that many stories that are more about entertainment and spectacle do not.
  • It questions the reader and challenges society in a way that stories made for pure entertainment value do not. The conflict of the main character usually alludes to some larger problem in society that the author is asking us to reflect upon.

That's why some books are taught in schools and other books, even if they're best sellers, are unlikely to be. Literature does more than simply gives us a pretty movie to imagine in our heads. Literature is about man as a "storytelling ape", about how we use narrative to make meaning out of our lives. It lets us connect with people who may be very distant from us in time, place, and culture. It's about what is shared by all of humanity, rather than what separates us.


How is "Neon Genesis Evangelion" Literature?

Neon Genesis Evangelion accomplishes the above traits associated with classical literature. It is not storytelling simply for the sake of entertainment, but to make a point. It makes statements about humanity, love, religious messages, and suffering. Being a post-modern work of literature, however, means that while Evangelion clearly intends to send a message, the specific message or intention of the work is subjective and heavily dependent on the audience's interpretation. For example, it's unclear if Misato and Kaji have a healthy relationship or not. It depends on what we, as subjective viewers with our own differing opinions about morality, choose to define as a "healthy" relationship. A lot of the fun of Evangelion is that it can be used to stimulate thought, discussion, or even argument, about a diverse variety of topics and issues. For example, Rei Ayanami is a clone, and later in the series, Ritsuko reveals all these backup bodies of possible Reis that Nerv owns. She then kills them all, thinking that even though they have human-like bodies and even minds, they do not possess souls. This sparks debate over not just the bioethics of human cloning, but also about whether humans have a 'soul' that is distinct from the mind and body, which is an age-old philosophical and religious question.

Evangelion definitely possesses the traits of classic literature in:

  • Questioning the viewer's assumptions, values, and those of society.
  • Having heavy themes the story references symbolically.
  • Acting as a springboard for serious psychological and philosophical discussion.
  • Speaking profound truths about, and asking questions about, human nature.

Only time will tell if it can meet the requirement of "timelessness". But I have reason to believe that it will.


What About Rebuild?

Rebuild is a series of movies that act as a sequel to Evangelion and take place in an alternate timeline. These movies are sunnier and happier. While they still have brutally violent images in certain scenes, the overall tone and feeling of the movies is completely different.

The prevailing mood in Evangelion was frustration and despair. The prevailing mood in Rebuild is curiosity. Shinji wakes up after a lot of time has passed, and everything he once knew about the world has changed. He wants to probe into not only what happened to Nerv while he was in a coma, but his own past, an all of Nerv's secrets. Rebuild presents itself as an intellectual puzzle, or like a challenge in a video game. It's up to the audience to put the pieces together and interpret what's happening.

But what's missing here is the angst and despair. No longer are characters tearing each other apart. It's no longer about the "hedgehog's dilemma", or all the characters having a simultaneous need for the approval of others and problem forming meaningful and healthy relationships. That difficulty was the heart of the original show, and it's missing in Rebuild. Characters don't lie to or suspect each other. They may fight or disagree, but they don't get as vicious. And Shinji doesn't constantly try to escape his problems, instead he is doing more to face them.

To some people, that's a good thing. I mean, Shinji in the original show was annoying to many people. People generally want entertainment that makes them feel better, not worse. Evangelion didn't care about being entertaining, because it was concerned with being literature. It was expressing themes and ideas using symbolism. But Rebuild is not symbolic. It's a concrete, literal story, with symbolic references conspicuously missing.

I think they did that to change the Evangelion brand. High art is simply not as accessible to as many people. Original Evangelion had funding issues. Perhaps that's why they wanted to make it into a commercially viable product. Keep in mind that anime isn't cheap to make, and that the studios support themselves more through merchandise sales than through sales of the anime itself. So, Rebuild was a high-budget cash grab designed to sell toys to people who have no interest in exploring existentialism, psychoanalysis, Gnosticism, etc.

Since the DSM reads like my biography, I like Evangelion for the rich inner psychological space it creates. And I don't care for Rebuild because those movies don't offer this depth for me. But, Rebuild delivers entertainment. I should set my preferences aside and be willing to admit that Rebuild has strengths and original Evangelion has weaknesses.

If you're interested in more of what I have to say about Rebuild of Evangelion, I wrote about it here.


Reading Other Anime As Literature

When you understand the contrast between Rebuild as entertainment and Evangelion as literature, you might wonder what other anime might be considered literature by the aforementioned criteria? Well it's not easy to define any given anime as one or the other. Few are purely literature, designed for intellectuals, and few are purely entertainment, designed to appeal to the masses. Most fall somewhere in between. For example, Revolutionary Girl Utena certainly has a lot to say about gender norms, and adolescent psychology, but it also entertains the viewer with its action, romance, and mystery.

I think of entertainment and literature as opposite ends of a spectrum. Most works are not fully one or fully the other, but have elements of both. You could say that about most novels too. All anime are stories with the same building blocks of any story; character, plots, and setting. Then you have the tropes specific to anime, many of them visual, since anime is primarily a visual medium of storytelling.

Here's a handy guide to what exactly I mean by this continuum of literature vs. entertainment:


For a small group of intellectuals.

For a wide audience that includes everyone, and a range of intellectual abilities.

Heavy with themes and symbolic references. For example, references to Faust in ''Puella Magi Madoka Magica"

The story is its own thing, and doesn't make many references or contain symbols and allegories.

The Viewers Are Geniuses

The Viewers Are Morons

Exists mainly for the personal self-expression of the creator.

Exists primarily to make money or attract fans to a franchise.

Is likely to contain controversial or shocking material.

Tries not to be shocking or offensive, because they don't want to lose money.

Questions social norms, values, customs, etc.

Never really challenges the status quo of society.

Questions or speaks about human nature.


Closing Thoughts

With that in mind, what other anime are possible contenders for the title of "literature"? As in, high art, the kind of thing we should be talking about in schools?

Here are some examples I can think of, but a case could be made for a lot of anime to be considered literature.

Kill La Kill: Themes include gender, social rules and taboos surrounding clothing and nudity, and the interplay between sex and violence.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica: Deals with themes concerning the human soul, the nature of choices, good and evil, free will and determinism, femininity and surrounding cultural expectations, whether time is cyclical or linear, and a bunch of stuff I've previously written about.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Handles many religious themes, tackling skepticism and the problem of evil. One important theme is the moral responsibility of scientists.

These are a few that come to mind when I think of anime as literature. What titles do you think could act as a stimulation for intellectual discussion? Let me know!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rachael Lefler


Rachael Lefler (author) from Illinois on March 28, 2018:

Yeah, there's I guess literature for all of humanity, and then there's literature that tells the stories of particular groups or communities.

Fred from SoCal on March 28, 2018:

Here's a thought for you. Sometimes an anime can accidentally tackle a real social phenomenon. In the case of Kimi no Todoke, they've touched on the issue of the high functioning autist. (Such a person used to be said to have Asperger's but that has gone out of fashion.) An anime like this can have a powerful reaction in one who recognizes it because it offers an "ideal" resolution to the protagonist's dilemma. Simply meet people who aren't turned off by her inability to read social cues. I have a few minor thoughts on it. Perhaps not great literature but possibly useful literature.