Is Evangelion a Deconstruction? And, What Does That Really Mean?

Updated on June 15, 2020
RachaelLefler profile image

I've studied anime, manga, and Japan for over a decade. My favorite anime/manga are sci-fi and seinen (mature).

What is a Deconstruction? Why Are They Important?

Deconstruction started as a form of analysis aimed at breaking down philosophical "constructs" or concepts that were often paired terms, with one being assumed to be derivative and lesser than the other. Deconstruction can be many things, but is mainly a philosophical movement aimed at critiquing hierarchies and categories once taken for granted. To deconstruct is to attack the assumptions underlying something. A deconstructive reading of a text is looking at it in terms of conflicts between contrary meanings and opposed ideas. For example, you could see Brave New World as embodying the conflict between the desire, on one hand, for individual freedom and pleasure seeking, and the deeper need people have for permanent, meaningful, attached relationships.

To say that a work is a deconstruction, is to say that it contains a critique, either of itself (self parody), or of certain aspects of its medium and genre. When people refer to Neon Genesis Evangelion as a deconstruction, what they mean is that it seems to be a criticism of many anime tropes, and that it contains a criticism of the giant robot anime genre in particular. Neon Genesis Evangelion criticizes the way themes like youth, war, masculinity, and technology are handled in more optimistic shows. The show challenges cultural assumptions about fighting and heroism, and can perhaps be read as a criticism aimed at Japan itself. Or specifically, Japan during its period of nationalistic zeal during World War Two, and people who embody that nationalistic fervor today.

Other shows you might consider a deconstruction include:

  • Puella Magi Madoka Magica, for the Magical Girl genre.
  • Bojack Horseman, which criticizes American films and TV shows, especially formulaic, happy sitcoms. It's also an attack on the unpleasant stuff that often goes on behind the scenes in Hollywood.
  • Rick & Morty, which criticizes a lot of science fiction tropes, like superhero teams, and franchises like Mad Max and The Purge.
  • Fight Club is a deconstruction of popular culture's ideas about masculinity.

Something being a deconstruction, or containing self-criticism, doesn't make it good, though. A lot of bad films these days seem to think that calling out (called "lamp shading" on TV Tropes) their bad tropes in the movie makes the bad tropes excusable, and then they don't have to make substantial changes. For example, when a character whines about how impractical her overly sexualized outfit is, but then wears it for the whole movie, and fights in it. Deadpool is funny with the self-aware meta-commentary humor, but they can also run it into the ground with overuse.

How Evangelion is a Deconstruction

Deconstruction is like criticism itself - not all of it is fair, not all of it is on the nose, not all of it is entertaining. What stands out about some works is that their criticisms of their genre are both accurate and entertaining. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an example of such a work, that manages to pull the viewer in emotionally, while offering insightful commentary. And the commentary isn't just aimed at anime or just at fighting robot anime. Evangelion contains criticism of many aspects of society, and criticism of human nature itself. It questions the fundamental assumptions underlying most literature: that humans are heroic, and humanity deserves to be saved by a hero, that a hero (usually a young man) will always rise up in a time of greatest need.

Neon Genesis Evangelion is an anti-anime anime.

It criticizes and analyzes common tropes from many different anime genres, drawing inspiration from mech, sci-fi, war anime, harem, romance, and even yaoi. Everything that is assumed, that "goes without being said" in other anime, is challenged by Evangelion. It's all one long "the reason you suck" speech directed at the audience, at anime fans, and even at all of humanity. Shinji has all the flaws associated with a stereotypical "otaku": He loses himself in fantasy, preferring fantasy to reality, gets caught up in his own victimhood and angst, and is afraid to act, not able to handle the requirements or expectations people have of a hero. He also often quits as a pilot, trying to pin responsibility onto someone else. He only goes back to piloting when he realizes that no one else can do what he does to save humanity.

Many people probably miss this aspect of Evangelion, that it's not endorsing Shinji's decisions and behavior. It's just showing a more realistic version of a teenage boy mecha pilot. Not that people missing this critique in the narrative are just uneducated rubes who don't know what a deconstruction is. But people have an "optimism bias". Whenever something or someone feels like it might be making an uncomfortable declaration, people tend to ignore or minimize it. This minimizes the discomfort brought on by being challenged.

Depressed people tend to see things without this bias, so depressed people tend to get more out of Neon Genesis Evangelion. They can understand that it's about the inherent cruelty and meaninglessness of life. They won't hate it, like more optimistic people would, for not forcing a happy ending. Fans like it and celebrate it because it doesn't do what so many other works of fiction do. We like seeing an anime that resonates with our own experiences, since so many minimize the struggles or darker aspects of human existence. Because, well, most cartoons are made to sell toys.

Explaining that to people who have never gone through a real psychological struggle in their lives is difficult. That's why I think that while Evangelion is extremely healing and cathartic for some people, it's not for everybody. Not in the sense that something more fun, like Cowboy Bebop, is.

So, while being deconstructive does not in and of itself make Evangelion good, more to the point is that it's a particularly good deconstruction. Not all deconstructions are good, because not all criticism or commentary on a genre is worth listening to. A good deconstruction-heavy work is like an old, sage mentor figure, pointing art in the right new direction, leading the way to progress. Some people resist change. Some people don't want to hear unpleasant truths about things they like.

But hey, don't shoot the messenger.

Sources of Information on Deconstruction

Major Anime Tropes Deconstructed in 'Evangelion'

Trope
Underlying Assumption
How it Works in Evangelion
The typical anime protagonist
A teenage boy is in a perfect emotional state to save the world! Teenage boys are not only cool, but they make up for their lack of experience with fiery passion and committment to self improvement!
Uh... Shinji.
The tsundere
If a girl is mean to a boy, it's because she likes him! Duh!
Asuka actually has many psychological issues, mostly to do with having been traumatized by her mother's insanity and suicide. Most of her problems have nothing to do with Shinji, subverting the assumption that all female emotional distress has to do with the protagonist's dick.
The dandere/shy girl
If a girl is shy, the right amount of love from the protagonist will help her come out of her shell!
Rei is a different kind of trauma victim, and like Asuka, is more about dealing with her own shit than other love interests in anime, who often are written just to be satellites and wish fulfilment fantasy trophies for the audience-insert protagonist.
The hot teacher
Going with the wish fulfilment fantasy theme, the hot teacher exists to fulfil the fantasy of the audience, who experience her vicariously through the protagonist, whom she will always pounce on.
Shinji is often disgusted by Misato, and wishes she would act more appropriately for her age at times. He also is embarassed and sometimes angry about her teasing him, when typically, anime protagonists are not bothered or uncomfortable when older women make advances on them.
The hot scientist
Tits in a lab coat. They usually don't do much actual science, they exist for fan service, often as the daughter of, or assistant to, the "actual" scientist, who is male.
Ritsuko is hot and a scientist. But the twist is she's the daughter of a female scientist, and both women work really hard and are vital to their organization. Yui Ikari was also a scientist. These three characters, Naoko, Yui, and Ritsuko, are shown to have complicated feelings, and their emotional inner world is a central part of the drama of the show. It breaks down the assumption that women in STEM are just there to be unserious eye candy. It also de-glamorizes science by showing scientists as complex, flawed individuals.
The "bad guys"
Anime has its share of unsubtle, mustache-twirling villains.
Evangelion breaks down the "us vs. them" and "good vs. evil" mindset of many other anime, through things it reveals later in the show about Angels and humanity. It also deconstructs this through the characters Rei and Kaworu, who are not entirely human, and yet are better "people" and more compassionate than many of the humans in the show.
The power of friendship & teamwork
Anime protagonists often solve their problems by teamwork.
Humans need to cooperate to win, but Evangelion shows how difficult this is, and how sometimes it's just impossible.
The happy ending
The hero will almost always save the day and get the girl, until another villain comes along in the next story arc!
Evangelion is about human error and human failure. It's also about the human weakness we have of dealing with unknowns. The enemy is not only more powerful than us, but they are incomprehensible to us. This is a theme also found in Lovecraftian literature.

Deconstruction-Heavy Anime Similar to Evangelion

These days, since the popularity of Neon Genesis Evangelion and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, a lot of anime exists on a spectrum of deconstructive to lacking self-reflection. So many anime are experimenting with darker themes, serious tones, and genre criticism. Some do this better than others.

If you're like me and you like your anime dark, angsty, edgy, bizarre, and navel gazey, here are my top recommendations (besides the obvious of Evangelion and Madoka).

  • Kill La Kill. It's a little hard to get into, and it can be hard at times to see what's meta-criticism and what's a naked use of shounen tropes (pun intended). But this show is a blast to re-watch. It doesn't bog you down with despair and sadness, but it's not as unflinchingly cheerful as other shows either. Its criticism is aimed at fashion, anime costuming, the Absurdly Powerful Student Council trope, various shounen tropes, and magical girl transformations. But if you pay attention, you'll also notice subtle political commentary and how the author criticizes Japanese nationalism, jingoism, aristocracy/wealth inequality, and fascism.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist. Mostly, it's anime's take on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, wondering how far should science go in its quest to give humans immortality and unlimited power. It centers around the theme of "equivalent exchange", which grounds its magic system in more reality, by making it similar to how physics and chemistry work in the real world.
  • Bokurano and Shadow Star Narutaru. Both are really fucked up, and not for the weak of heart, and both are made by the same manga author. I recommend the manga for Narutaru at least, because the anime was dropped for it before the end of the story. They both deal with the theme of children dealing with war and mass destruction. They're kind of like Evangelion's evil cousins. Be afraid.
  • Goblin Slayer. This is a deconstruction of the fantasy RPG genre, and the isekai or "other world" anime genre, that often takes place in fantasy RPG style worlds. Also not for the squeamish, as I discussed in my review of the show.
  • Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. As well as the original Ghost in the Shell movie, this one is a great franchise if you're interested in anime that explore the relationship between humans and technology. The story tackles many philosophical, social, and emotional problems that might be raised by technology within our lifetimes. This is definitely the one for fans of hard sci-fi.
  • The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Uses time travel and out of sequence storytelling to convey a sense of mindfuck that's hard to get anywhere else. It starts with a character wishing the world was less mundane, but be careful what you wish for.
  • Princess Mononoke. This is probably the darkest and scariest of Ghibli films, but the gruesome imagery makes the message of the movie hit home in an amazing way. It also has a sympathetic villain, who feels very realistic and human-like.
  • Satoshi Kon movies (Paprika, Tokyo Godfather, Millenium Actress, and Perfect Blue) These are mature, complex movies that take aim at various aspects of society, while also being richly detailed and highly entertaining. Most of his films involve a mind screw, or several.

There's more but I'd definitely start with the above, see what you like best, and then work through further recommendations of related works from My Anime List.


Other Evangelion Articles by Rachael Lefler:

© 2019 Rachael Lefler

Comments

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  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    7 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Pretty cool. We do deconstruction in my home. I don't really get it.

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