Mamerto Adan is a feature writer back in college for a school paper. Science is one of his many interests, and his favorite topic.
Before the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, mecha anime was just mecha anime. Stories stayed in the realm of giant robots. However, the plots thickened when the real robot genre was introduced. A bit of science fiction was added to the genre and the stories gained a certain level of realism. The genre would evolve in the mid 90s thanks to a guy named Hideaki Anno. His poorly budgeted Neon Genesis Evangelion was set to conquer the world and would join the big mecha names. The success is owed to the intriguing storyline, twisted protagonists, and unique mecha designs. The ending might be twisted, something I consider a major flaw given Anno’s depression and limited budget. But then again, that didn't stop the series from crashing its way into the hearts of fanboys everywhere.
And those mystical themes and symbolism…
We are introduced to a plot device that no anime director and manga had ever imagined at that time; the use of religious symbolism as themes. Imagery and iconography from Christianity, Kabbalah, Gnosticism, and Islam serve as inspirations. We see crosses bursting out while crucifix-shaped figures dominate the closing landscape of the End of Evangelion. Names of angels are used and supercomputers are christened after the three Magi. It was worrying at first as it might trigger the nerves of major religions around the world. As a young Catholic during that time, I thought it wouldn't take long until the series was censored.
But 20 years have passed and the franchise is still going strong. The major religions seemed to completely ignore it. I was wondering why and I tried to re-watch the original series. With a little knowledge on theology and Catholic doctrine, I did some research myself. And I think I know the answer why.
What Counts as Blasphemy
Let’s dig into the boring stuff first, at least for some. You may skip this section if you don’t feel like reading it. First, we need to understand that disrespecting one’s religion is serious stuff. Religion is a personal thing. Nowadays, it is on par with offenses like racism. I’m not sure how other sects classify what blasphemy is. With the little knowledge I have, I found this on the religious site CatholicCulture.org:
“Speaking against God in a contemptuous, scornful, or abusive manner. Included under blasphemy are offenses committed by thought, word, or action. Serious contemptuous ridicule of the saints, sacred objects, or of persons consecrated to God is also blasphemous because God is indirectly attacked.”
There Is Nothing That Ridiculed Religion in the Evangelion Series
The NGE series is merely a tale of an emotionally unstable teen forced into a cockpit of an organic mecha, Nothing more, nothing less. We saw a lot of duels between Angels and EVA units, some suggestive scenes, humour, and drama.
And that’s it.
Throughout the series we never saw scenes of religion being mocked. We get Shinji doing his emo stuff but nothing vilifying beliefs here. Sure there religious symbols being played with; we will get to that in a moment. However, story-wise, NGE is just another mecha anime. If you want to know what’s offensive, just see a Charlie Hebdo cartoon. Try reading Dan Brown’s work also. They made major religions and historians go nuts.
Symbols Are Just for Aesthetics
Fans will argue how the symbols convey a deeper meaning. Is it a question of the role of religion in one’s life? Some might wonder if the show was one big parable of a miserable and troubled soul. Or maybe Anno is creating a new religion or an attempt to understand man’s role in life. Is this a God against science dilemma?
These are just fan speculations however. As intriguing as it might sound, the truth is far less mystifying.
The creators of the anime themselves admitted that the symbols are there because they look cool. They want something that will distinguish their giant robots from the rest, so they turned to Christianity, an uncommon religion in Japan. Yes, those crosses and other symbols are there for pure decoration. They have no deeper function than aesthetics and themes.
The Symbols Are Misused
As was mentioned earlier, Christianity is not a big thing in Japan. It is a religion that few understand. The creators of NGE are no exception. It is clear that even with little knowledge of Christianity and Judaism, they are trying their best to make sense of those religious symbols. They got it wrong most of the time though. Did they know that Lilith was actually a demon, not the mother of humanity? And the Angels, however violent they are, are actually protective entities.
As what the creators said, they never imagined the series would be shown in the US and Europe. If they did, they would have changed the theme. Yet the symbolism is so badly misrepresented that it triggered no religious nerves as they could just mean anything.
The Crucifix Shown May Represent Any Crucified Man
Christ is not the only person to be crucified. Crucifixion is a common form of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. It is an excruciating, humiliating, and brutal death reserved for slaves and enemies of states. One such example is the mass crucifixion of 6000 of Spartacus’ followers. To be hanged on the cross might not represent something holy, but just a mean of execution. When I saw Lilith nailed to a cross, I just thought NERV was just restraining her. Other people familiar with crucifixion probably saw it that way.
It Made Christianity Look Good
There is nothing Christian in the NGE series. And going back to how blasphemy was defined, it must include ridicule and disrespect. But NGE seemed to make these symbols look good instead. So good that other anime and mangakas followed.
Do note that after NGE came out, other anime began adopting angelic and religious motifs. Even the Gundams seemed to be jumping onto the bandwagon. Ever notice the angel names, iconography, and motifs in SEED and 00? But for me, seeing a large blazing cross bursting out from a slain Angel in NGE is a fitting homage to the religion that fascinated its creators.
As a Conclusion...
As a clueless high school kid back then, I thought that NGE would soon provoke the nerves of major religions one day. And the fact that it didn’t happen made me realize that I knew little of the series itself and my own religion. I’m still a Catholic now and a mecha geek as well. But then again, what’s the point of getting triggered by an animated robot that doesn’t exist.
HughSmith on September 22, 2018:
Uh, Lilith is taken from Kabbalah as first wife of Adam. Basically the creator wasn't just using Christianity but also Judaism from works of Kabbalah as well as Islam. If you combine and condense all three Abraham religions, he's used them all in a way to debase organized religion as a whole. Remember paganism and shinto? outside of the "they are evil" thing the big three preach, are related to nature and stuff. Japanese having shinto and Buddhism, can very much see the big three from objective pov and in a way, show us why the way the big three control the world are twisted and evil in the sense. Seems to me the guy had read a lot, and knew exactly what he was doing. The concept of one God, Adam and Eve and all that is basically derided here.