Hideaki Anno is a Japanese animator, born in the budding, industrial city of Ube on May 22, 1960 (1). William Blake was an English poet, born hundreds of miles away from Anno in London on November 1757 (2). Anno is alive and well; Blake is long passed. Divided by space, time, and culture, these men form a strange pair, appearing no less dissimiliar on paper than Shakespeare and Eminem or Mozart and Skrillex. What could a modern, science-fiction animator have in common with a dead, English mystic?
Quite a bit, actually.
As I watched the acclaimed finale to Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion, I found myself drawing parallels between Blake's prophecies and Anno's image of salvation. For those who have not seen Evangelion: The series takes place in a pre-apocalyptic world. Heaven and Earth wrestle as great, monstrous Angels descend on the globe. Piloted by human defenders, huge robots called Evas battle the Angels, doing everything possible to save Man from extinction. Pilots Shinji, Asuka, and Rei are at the forefront of Anno's narrative. While these three try to drive the Angels back, Shinji's father, Gendo, directs the Human Instrumentality Project: a psycho-spiritual experiment that will meld all souls into one and bring Man salvation. Thus, through human eyes, the story presents itself as a race against time: an ultimatum leading to deliverance or destruction.
That, at least, is what the human characters believe.
In his prophecy, "Jerusalem", Blake describes salvation in a way much akin to that
of Instrumentality. As Christ surveys the Earth, he delivers this message to
"Awake! awake O sleeper of the land of shadows, wake! expand!
I am in you and you in me, mutual in love divine...
Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me:
Lo! we are One..." (3)
Blake's vision of the Expanded Man becomes more clear as the prophecy continues. Reflecting on Christ's message, Blake prays that he might "Annihilate the Selfhood" in himself so that, through mutual unity with Heaven and his fellow Man, he can enter Eternity. Anno's Instrumentality is the object of Blake's desire: an Ego death. As Evangelion draws to a close, Angels and Men become one. Instrumetality is realized, and human bodies--physical representations of the Ego--dissolve into a collective ooze. Once lonely and tormented, the souls of Anno's characters can now truly commune with each other. Fraternity and compassion have won them salvation.
The path to Instrumentality in Evangelion, however, is slowed by an unlikely foe: Man himself. Possessing an Ego stifles our desire to abandon it, and it is this Catch-22 that turns Shinji, Gendo, and their friends into self-saboteurs. Blake continues:
"...But the perturbed Man away turns down the valleys dark:
[Saying, We are not One: we are Many, thou most simulative]
Phantom of the over heated brain! shadow of immortality!
Seeking to keep my soul a victim of thy Love" (3)
The Ego's curse is a powerful one. Unable to see himself as anything other than an individual, Man denies his cosmic roots--closing his heart to others and refusing the love that Heaven extends. All the while, he pines for peace, wondering, dumbly, why it is so out of reach.
The self-destructiveness of Anno's characters reveals itself in many ways. As he works toward Instrumentality, Gendo draws his support from Keele, an intelligence director just as desperate to save mankind. Petty differences separate these friends, and bloodshed ensues when Gendo tries to leverage the project for selfish ends. The same sort of alienation can be observed in the general cast. Nearly all of Anno's characters suffer from depression and trauma, but their insular attitudes cut them off from each other. Blind to the healing power of community, most everyone cries "Help Me!", but rarely does anyone say "Let me help."
As for their denial of Heaven, Anno's humans see the Angels as evil, but subtle
characterization refutes this idea. We have established that the metaphysical peace of Instrumentality can only be achieved through physical death. When his vision
is realized, Keele himself concedes that death and birth are one in the same.
Therefore, it is possible to view the Angel raids as masked acts of love. These
beings are not monsters but martyrs. When an Angel dies, its corpse emanates a cross-shaped light. When an Angel attempts to connect with a human, it is fiercely resisted. No better example of this conflict can be found than in Episode 22, when the Angel Arael, heralded by Handel's "Hallelujah," enters the scene. In a terrifying but intimate gest of love, Arael tries to initiate Asuka's Ego death, but Rei thwarts his efforts via crucifixion, killing him with the Spear of Longinus (the relic used to confirm Christ's death) in a symbolic act of dissent (4). In a less obscure show of love, Kaworu, like Christ, descends on Earth in human form, and the strong, emotional bond he forms with Shinji cannot be overlooked. Kaworu is the last Angel to die, and his end, immediately preceding Instrumentality, is a divine revelation. As he mourns his friend, Shinji sees that the hopes of Heaven and Man are one in the same. The rift between their worlds must be bridged.
The story that Blake and Anno tell is illusory. We read "Jerusalem" and see Christ and Man as separate; we watch Evangelion and see Angels and Man as separate. In the end, this image is a deception: a sardonic reflection of Man's own egoism and self-importance. This is not a tale of Heaven against Earth, Man against Man, or Entity against Entity. This is the story of a divided God: one, all-encompassing soul striving to reclaim itself. And though we yearn for that oneness, we are too afraid to embrace it.
The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
I understand that Evangelion, as well as "Jerusalem", are both complex works of art. While I hold the aforesaid interpretations to be true, I know that they are subjective and arguable. Nor do I consider this article to be a complete analysis of Evangelion's themes. Much remains to be said about its religious iconography, sexual symbolism, and relevance to Anno's own life.
3) Bloom, Harold and David V. Erdman. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake: "Jerusalem." Anchor, 1997.