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The Anti-Escapism Themes of "Neon Genesis Evangelion"

Mamerto Adan is an engineer by profession but a writer by night. He's interested in science, history, and martial arts.

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I see the Evangelion series as a grumpy and cynical old man who tells us bits of wisdom in a blunt way. The Evangelion series can seem like just a bunch of incomprehensible sketches pasted together in a rather bleak backdrop. However, if we can get pass those depressing scenes, we might uncover some important lessons that will help us fight our own giant monsters. Yes, a boy doing something obscene before an unconscious girl might make you question this series. But once we dig deeper and realize why Shinji was doing that, we then start to see ourselves in that messed up boy. At that point we would start learning to decode the hidden meanings and lessons in the Neon Genesis Evangelion series.

One of the hidden issues we'll discuss here is escapism.

Yes, as preteens, we are guilty of doing it. But even as we get older, we can’t stop doing it. We can use escapism as a coping mechanism or as a necessity for our survival. Some people believe that the Evangelion series is a proponent of escapism. But by digging deeper, we can see that it is not.

Watch out for spoilers ahead.

Shinji, facing his problem.

Shinji, facing his problem.

Get In the F***ing Robot Shinji!

This is just my take on the pilot episode of the original NGE, specifically the scene that generated memes.

Hideaki Anno, the director of the series, has a stormy relationship with otaku culture. Those die-hard fans simply want to dwell in their fantasy world and escape the harsh reality of life. But NGE was no ordinary anime. In fact, it is a deconstruction of what we know about traditional Japanese animation.

And it seems that Anno made that clear when his rather vile character Gendo Ikari forced his son to do the dirty work of fighting a rampaging Sachiel. In the very first episode, Anno is voicing out his opinions against escapism.

Now, Shinji had seen a lot of misfortunes in his life, and he kept seeing more of it thanks to his dad’s neglect. His mom’s disappearance never made things any better, and he ended up scarred. And the last thing he wanted was to hear his good for nothing dad order him to do things he wasn’t trained to do. Even worse, he was ordered to risk his own neck. Naturally, Shinji would choose to reject the order, but he had a change of heart upon seeing what his escape attempt could do.

They would have made an injured Rei Ayanami pilot the mecha instead of him.

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Shinji had no choice but to stand his ground and face the challenge presented to him. He had to man up. Attempting to escape would result in bigger consequences, like the possible demise of the injured Rei or destruction of the whole city! The problem wouldn't go away, it would only worsen. Sure, it was never his decision, but that’s life. After all, we are always facing a lot of everyday demons we never asked for. It is better to slay them before they get out of hand. At least Shinji got to live with a smoking hot chick for his troubles.

Shinji being Shinji.

Shinji being Shinji.

Shinji’s Other Escape Attempt

Nevertheless, Shinji did attempt to run away and give up his duties as a pilot in a later episode. It was simply too much for him, and an argument with Misato added to his problems. After drifting around, he ended up meeting Kensuke, but he was ebetually retrieved by some agents. The troubled Shinji then made it clear that he didn't want to be an EVA pilot anymore. Toji then asked Shinji to hit him, to show how sorry he was on what he did. But as Shinji was about to be taken away, he tells Toji and Kensuke that he himself deserved a good beating for being weak and a coward.

This episode highlights Shinji’s tendency to run away. But his stressful duties of being an EVA pilot wasn’t the only reason he wanted to flee. He was afraid of developing relationships with others, and Misato realized that the reason Shinji stayed with her was because he needed a family.

But his meeting with Toji and Kensuke seemed to put him to his senses. For the first time, we have two people that accepted him for what he was, and he realized his worth. Shinji then went back to Misato and told her he was home.

In this episode, we saw Shinji wandering around, as if he were looking for somewhere to belong, or for a hiding place he could escape to. But his search resulted in nothing. His problems persisted even after he ran away, and they were only resolved once he learned to deal with them. He ran away because he had enough, but his running never solved anything. He ran away because he was afraid to be in a relationship. But drifting around never fixed his problems. He only found solutions by interacting with people.

This is all Misato did.

This is all Misato did.

How Others Ran Away

The notion that running away never solves any problems could be found throughout the show. Remember a broken Asuka in that filthy bath tub? Did she solve anything by running away and swimming in that dirty water? Some adults are also shown to have their own forms of escape that were not exactly helpful. In real life, people will turn to alcohol to soften the harshness of life. But this only gives a false sense of relief. Misato never realized this, and her dependence on alcohol never really helped her cope with Kaji’s loss. In fact, too much beer almost made her touch the hapless Shinji!

Anno also seems to bring out his messages in cryptic ways.

Shinji killing Kaworu was Anno’s way of telling us how we must accept the real and flawed world over an idealized but fake one. Kaworu was the idealized form of Shinji, yet he was not a real human. Having a true but flawed human like Shinji destroy the idealized but fake version seems to symbolize the rejection of escapism. Maybe it’s Anno’s way of saying that we must get back to reality.

It began, only to end.

It began, only to end.

Rejecting Instrumentality

Finally, we have the Instrumentality, the ultimate expression of escapism. For an alienated character like Shinji, Instrumentality may seem like a utopia. Everyone transformed into goo and merged into one entity. However, Shinji realized that Instrumentality only resulted in a lonely existence, and what made him happy was his connections with people. His interactions with Toji and Kensuke gave him the reason to stop wandering away and face his role as a pilot. The happiness of being with people made his pain more manageable. This caused him to reject Instrumentality and face the world after it.

Overall

So, what does the Evangelion series tell us about escapism? It never solves your problems, and at some point, it will make things worse. Escapism has more harm than benefits. You can lose connections with people and miss out on your purpose in life. So the next time you are thinking of running away, just tell yourself to get in the freaking robot to slay the problems around you.

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