Symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion: Religion and War

Updated on April 21, 2018

Introduction

Most people have noticed things like crosses and Christian and Jewish references in the names of the angels. Does this mean that the real bad guy in Neon Genesis Evangelion is the Judeo-Christian God? Is this secretly a blasphemous show about hating God and wanting to free humanity from His influence? I offer my alternative explanation for these things below. The creators, including director Hideaki Anno, claim there are no intentional symbols in the show. But, most fans want to call bullshit. Here is a list of some things fans have suggested refer to things outside themselves in Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The Angels

Each of the "Angels" in Evangelion has a religious significance to their name. I know this from a talk I heard on the subject at Anime Midwest, but I'm unable to find that information online easily. But basically, each of the Angel's names has a meaning associated with the form the Angel takes, from Jewish, Christian, or even Islamic mythology. Some of this mythology is obscure, but take my word for it, the references are there. This list is a good start for all the "el" names. For one, angels usually have names ending in the suffix "el" which means "of God", since Angels are messengers of God.

I think the choice of obscure angel names over more well-known ones like Raphael, Michael, and Gabriel, may have been to obscure the symbolism, or to make it less offensive to Christians, but I'm not sure. However, having the Angels be monstrous and inhuman in appearance is actually exactly correct in terms of how angels are described in Biblical texts. In fact, the first reaction all human characters in Biblical stories respond to angels with is fear.

SEELE, Instrumentality, and the Biblical End of the World

You don't have to be a Biblical scholar to note the many similarities between the Christian end of the world, as described in the Book of the Revelation, and many of the elements of Evangelion. Mainly, Lilith.

Lilith seems like the lamb in the Book of Revelation, which is described as having seven eyes and seven horns, and looking as if it has been slain. This is usually seen as a metaphor for Jesus. In Evangelion, Lilith is a white blob-like figure that has been crucified, that drips blood from its missing lower body. Lilith's face, a triangle with seven eyes, is part of the symbol of SEELE. The other part of this symbol is the serpent and apple, a reference to the Biblical story of the origin and fall of man in Genesis. SEELE's goal, human instrumentality, is an attempt to return mankind to a primitive, ego-less state, to recreate the original innocence lost when man was tempted to sin by the serpent.

Rei and Kaworu

Source

In the show, "Adam" and "Lilith" refer not just to the extra-Biblical fable about Adam's first wife becoming the world's first succubus, or female demon. They're physical entities captured by Nerv and hidden by the organization for the purposes of scientific inquiry into the origins of the Angels. The Angels are trying to attack Nerv headquarters to get to "Lilith", a huge, white creature bound via crucifix in the basement of Nerv's laboratories.

The "forbidden union of Adam and Lilith" is said to be the thing that will mean victory for the Angels and the destruction of man.

"Adam" is in a frozen embryonic form held captive by Nerv, and is the basis of the Angel's DNA. During the film End of Evangelion, Gendo Ikari has Adam fused into his hand (my WWII theory connects this with Gendo being like Stalin, who often hid his right hand from view). He sticks that hand into Rei Ayanami's body to initiate Third Impact. This counts as contact with Lilith because, in addition to being a clone of Gendo's dead wife Yui, Rei has DNA from Lilith. Rei, rejects Gendo's control, but inevitably does fuse with Adam. This forms a healed, restored version of both Adam and Lilith together, a god-like being. This being takes the form of both Rei and Kaworu, alternately.

Adam therefore must have some connection to Kaworu Nagisa, an Angel who appears in human form to infiltrate Nerv.

Kaworu and Rei, with their visual similarities, seem like they're destined to become the new "Adam and Eve" of a new creation. This makes sense given that the title Neon Genesis Evangelion can basically be translated as "The Good News/ Gospel of a New Creation".

In End of Evangelion, it is Asuka and Shinji who appear as a new Adam and Eve. However, this may be Shinji's imagination, because Asuka is dead at this point. Third Impact was... complicated.

But what I think is interesting here is Rei and Kaworu - they don't like each other when they meet. It could be a jealousy thing over Shinji. But it d makes more sense if you understand that Rei has Lilith's DNA and Kaworu might have Adam's. They are each other's forbidden fruit. Head canon!

Crosses and Other Religious References

Crosses show up a lot in Evangelion. Misato's necklace is an equal-armed cross. Cross-shaped explosions are the result of the N2 mines, which the military uses (usually unsuccessfully) as a defense against various angels. These explosions are like a nuclear blast, but without nuclear fallout resulting from them. (Keep that in mind for later.)

Another religious symbol in the show is the fig leaf symbol of Nerv. The fig leaf represents the leaves Adam and Eve covered themselves with in Genesis, when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge and learned that being naked was a sin and was shameful. Similarly, Nerv covers up humanity's shameful secrets that are buried in its laboratories, and protects this hidden shame by building and using the Eva units.

The Magi system is the computer system Nerv uses to monitor the Eva units and coordinate their activities. The Magi system contains chunks of its creator, Naoko Akagi's brain. The three parts of it are said to be Naoko as a woman, as a scientist, and as a mother (to her daughter Ritsuko, the chief scientist of Nerv). This can be a reflection on the Christian concept of the Trinity, three aspects of God in one. The name refers to the wise men (the actual number of men is unspecified), mystics from the East, who brought Jesus three gifts at the site of his birth, and were among the first people to know who he would become. Similarly, the Magi system is the source of vital knowledge in the world of Evangelion.

The "Lance of Longinus" is a real relic in Catholicism. The story goes that Longinus was a Roman soldier at the time of Christ who pierced Jesus with his lance/spear in the chest. Thus, if someone could find the lance, it would be a very holy relic, because it would have the blood of Jesus on it. Longinus is said to have converted to Christianity after the crucifixion, making him a saint.

The word "Nerv" is German for "nerve", the word "Seele" is German for "soul", and the precursor to "Nerv" in the manga is "Gehirn" which is German for "brain". (Not a religious reference, probably more philosophical, but still interesting.)

Is the Show Really About Japan in World War Two?

When I started to re-watch the original series, I noticed a LOT of imagery and plot elements that relate to Japan during World War Two. I may make this into its own hub, later, but basically:

  • Misato's Chinese-style dress and earrings when she picks up Shinji in the first episode. A statement about the way Japan was attacking China at the time?
  • Planes are shown whenever there's an angel attack.
  • Misato only has beer in the fridge, and I was thinking this might be because at the time of World War Two, most foods were heavily rationed, but beer would have been one of few things still relatively cheap (sake was not, because of rice rations).
  • Katsuragi, Akagi, Fuyutsuki, Ayanami, Sohryu, and Langley are all names of warships used during WWII. Asuka's mother's last name, Zeppelin, is the name of a German warship that was conceptualized but never built.
  • The name "Ikari" means anchor, and "Kaji" means rudder, which go with this nautical theme.
  • Rei is a clone, and it's well known now that human experiments now regarded as unethical, and now illegal in Japan, were being done by the military.
  • Asuka is German, Germany being the main ally of Japan during the war. Other than British Mari in Rebuild, she is the only foreign character in the show.
  • Many of the conditions of the world they live in resemble those of Japan during the war. This includes secrecy, restrictions, the public being told lies in the media, and in one episode, a nationwide blackout is caused by the Evangelion's needs for power. Budget issues are also a big reason for Nerv's failures, just like they were for the Japanese government, which was overextending itself with the conquest of Korea and other Asian territories.
  • Teenage boys were expected to be junior soldiers in the Japanese military... starting at age 14.
  • Perpetual summer. Many key events of the war happened during the summer, including Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrender.
  • The enemy being "angels", and the above-mentioned symbols like crosses, might just be a reference to the fact that America is a Judeo-Christian culture and the fact that the primary means of winning the war for us was through aerial bombing. We also consider ourselves to be "angels" in a moral sense too, even when we create massive destruction. Similarly, the angels, especially the most human angel Kaworu, see their side as the good side.
  • Humanity loses the war, but doesn't completely die, it just changes form. Similarly, even though the loss for Japan was horrifying at the time, and probably felt like the end of the world for them, life continues in both cases.
  • At first, the angels look completely alien, but by the end of the series, their similarities with humans are revealed. I imagine that must be how the Japanese saw the Americans during the war, but after the war, we became their allies and helped them rebuild.

Conclusion

While the creators of the show deny it, there are many fans who noticed the numerous (largely Christian, albeit almost all obscure and apocryphal) religious references in the show Neon Genesis Evangelion. Personally, I think that these can be united with my theory that the show is above all, about Japan during World War Two. I mean, it's almost a way of adding a layer of mysticism to the story of the war. The imagery of Revelation combined with the imagery of World War Two being used simultaneously give the audience a picture of the war from Japan's perspective. It captures the feelings of the war in a way that the history book version of events doesn't, and I think that that might be the true purpose of Evangelion. If it was, it explains the vague backpedaling when Western critics and fans noticed the above Judeo-Christian symbolism in the show.

What's your theory? Let me know in the comments!

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