The “Emo” Japanese Game: Neon Genesis Evangelion (Part 2)

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Warning: SPOILERIFIC Stuff ahead. Yes, I will warn you even for a nearly two-decades old anime series.

Shinji Ikari

The best place to start in the search for Buddhism is Neon Genesis Evangelion’s protagonist, Shinji Ikari. Shinji is the son of scientist Gendo Ikari, chief engineer and director of the project used to create the machines known as “Evangelions”. Gendo utilizes these giant robots to defend earth from invaders, called “angels”, that threaten to destroy mankind – or at least Gendo tells his son this narrative about reality. Invariably, due to Shinji’s relation to Gendo, our young protagonist gets drawn into the conflict as the pilot of Evangelion 01 (the purple one). An escort from NERV, the organization responsible for the defense effort, is sent to find Shinji; Gendo left him in the custody of his school teacher years before to work on his research.

Gendo was never much of a father to Shinji – as expected, his son still harbor mingling feelings of both regret and hatred. When finally told of his purpose in visiting NERV headquarters, he initially reject the unwarranted obligation of piloting the giant robot (not much of a kid, I guess). Even he knows that his purpose constitutes nothing more than functional utility to his father; however, when an angel attacks, Shinji literally has no choice but to do as his father asks. This decision will lead Shinji Ikari through twenty-six episodes, a journey of the ups and downs of life. However, in Shinji’s case, his journey becomes a continual downward spiral of suffering for both himself and those around him. Not only does he face the constant threat of death, but the eventual mental breakdown of his fellow compatriots in this war – people with whom he develops relationships.

During his time at NERV, continually fighting the foreign menace, Shinji resides in the home of Major Misato Kutsuragi, a female officer in NERV who has made her way up the ranks. In addition, he meets other Evangelion pilots including Ayanami Rei, a girl his age who resembles his mother to an uncanny degree and does not talk often, and Asuka Langley Soryu, a red-haired firebrand from Germany who eventually develops a love-hate relationship with Shinji. Throughout the series, Shinji Ikari demonstrates his key flaw – he cannot form meaningful relationships with others.

The director of the series, Hideaki Anno, integrated the ideas of Anton Schopenhauer in his characterization of Shinji. Specifically, Shinji experiences the problem which Schopenhauer called the Hedgehog’s Dilemma, an analogy of what one could call the problem inherent with human intimacy. According to this description, during cold weather hedgehogs huddle together for warmth; however, their sharp quills make getting close to other hedgehogs a painful experience. Thus, at a point, they must stay away from each other even though they all desire to be close to each other . In the same way, humans can cause harm to one another despite good will; human relationships harm by their very nature, and thus moderation should be employed when in any human relation. As Schopenhauer himself says in Parerga and Paralipomena:

A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter; but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse, is the code of politeness and fine manners; and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied; but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself.

Or just look at pictures! Yay pictures!


This particular train of thought is used to justify Shinji’s particular position – he has enough “internal warmth” to stay away from other people. Because of his father, he not only lacks the social skills to form healthy friendships but cannot open himself up to others. Surrounded by people who, in reality, want to know him better, Shinji’s past experience cannot allow him to accept that people like him just for who he is. Kazuya Tsurumaki, an art director and production assistant on the project characterized Shinji’s relationships in specific scenes:

…for instance, when Misato talks to Shinji but doesn’t enter his room. Even in episode 3, they are having a casual morning conversation, but are not looking at each other. Like they looking [sic] through a slightly opened door, but not connecting. This is the same between Shinji and Rei, and between Shinji and his father. It’s no wonder there was a lot of distant, awkward communication.

He fears the unknown, and fears taking risk. Eventually, his solace becomes the Evangelion that he pilots. Certainly, his skills with the machine are remarkable, but he believes this remains his only worthwhile trait. In fact, he associates himself with the Evangelion to the degree that his mind transforms into a prison. Shinji’s perceives that people like and respect him solely because he pilots the Evangelion; without this supposed trump card, Shinji finds, in his own perception, that he is worth little else.

The audience discovers Buddhism in Shinji’s prison of the mind. He represents the veil of the mind; not only is he preoccupied with the workings of the transient world, but he associates his being with that of an object in this world. This attachment makes Shinji unable to realize that, in fact, he is propagating not only his own suffering, but that of others – the first of the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha. Shinji’s upbringing certainly did not the cause for this behavior – after all, a person can decide how to act regardless of circumstance – but Shinji takes the easy way out and propagates this suffering by his refusal to form meaningful contact.

However, this is not to be Shinji’s destiny. As the series progresses towards its apocalyptic conclusion with the destruction of the last angel, the audience learns that Shinji, all along, would become the world’s savior – but not in the way we imagine. He will bring about the a new existence and decide its fate, and this emerges clearly after the destruction of the Angels. NERV’s use of the Evangelions reveals itself as something far more sinister – to propagate the evolution of humanity by the defeat of the seventeen Angels. When this occurs, humanity will coalesce into a single essence. This particular concept, where all of humanity becomes one collective consciousness, is referred to throughout the series as the Human Instrumentality Project.

To understand what this means, we need a description of Carl Jung’s theory of collective unconscious. Jung describes this view as instincts that direct a person to carry out actions solely from necessity due to universal experiences within the society in which a person resides. In context of Buddhism, we can see the Human Instrumentality Project  as a coming-of-age for humanity, a form of enlightenment. Humanity, as a race of flawed and incomplete creatures, cannot reach salvation unless they gain truthful perception of their circumstances. In addition, they must become part of one another through the process of relationships and social interactions. This brings to mind the Mahayana Buddhist, with their ideas of universal salvation (basically, no being in the cycle of samsara, or rebirth, will be left behind.

However, Hideaki Anno changes the concept in this anime to not only be a universal enlightenment, but a scientific one as well with the inclusion of evolution. Circumstances presents Shinji with an integral decision – will he choose to wallow in his self-pity, unable to disassociate himself from his attachments, or will he bravely rip the veil from his eyes and enable humanity to evolve and complete themselves? Shinji, for whatever reason, remains the one conscious person left to decide how the new reality will be reborn after its untimely end. Shinji continues to question his self-worth. In his desire to be liked and wanted, he only propagates the craving that, in the Second Noble Truth of the Buddha, causes suffering because of its focus on the transient and impermanent. Shinji refuses to embrace what Buddhists might call “self-love”; a prominent concept in Theravada Buddhism, it is believed that a person can only help others, or love, when they have fixed their own problems.

There is a cessation to Shinji’s suffering, no doubt, and it comes in the willingness to accept the human condition and work for the greater good. The Human Instrumentality Project will cease suffering by erasing the boundaries that exist between individuals and forcing a unity of souls – the fact that there is a cessation of suffering is known as the Third Noble Truth. If there is no self, than there can be no area for personal desires to linger and the ego disappears. The series ends with Shinji’s acceptance of “self-love”, leaving the viewer to draw their own conclusion as to the construction of the new reality.

Neon Genesis Evangelion does not explicitly state the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, and for all intents and purposes, the Fourth (that following the Eight-Fold Path will bring a cessation of suffering) does not appear, but Buddhism exists as very much a part of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s world. In fact, the concepts that form the basis of all Buddhist thought have been woven into the story as its heart and soul. As much as religious and scientific notions may appear within the world of the Evangelions, Buddhism emerges as the center of events that take place. Thus, Neon Genesis Evangelion demonstrates to us a prime example of Buddhism’s syncretistic nature.

That is Neon Genesis Evangelion’s version of life and Buddhism, one that resonated with a Japanese audience and continues to do so today.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.