This piece features spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion and The End of Evangelion.
June 21st, 2019 was the official Netflix release date for the critically acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion from director Hideaki Anno (Gunbuster). Admittedly, I was quite foolish to rush so quickly into watching this anime without any background knowledge of the property. All I knew was that people hailed it as one of the medium’s best. People waited for years to be able to watch the series again and that no one other than Netflix was able to acquire the rights to it. I thought that I was in for a fun mecha anime.
I could not have been more wrong.
Instead, I stumbled into a piece of art that broke me down. Centering around the characters Shinji Ikari, Asuka Langley, and Rei Ayanami, Evangelion explores the themes of childhood trauma and existentialism. Told through the lens of 14-year-old Shinji, we witness him having to pilot an Eva. Shinji is a lonely kid, and he immediately displays symptoms of depression and anxiety. In Shini, Anno perfectly encapsulates a protagonist who feels like they’re a burden. As a teenager, this is exactly how I felt and I never truly escaped those feelings as I entered adulthood.
When I was in college, I had a difficult time coping with my mental health. I felt disconnected from the world around me and sure, I wasn’t Shinji. I didn’t have to get into an Eva to fight giant monsters. I didn’t have to save all of humanity. But, I felt this crippling need to be the strong one in every relationship I had and that made seeing Shinji continuously having to pilot Eva Unit-1 immensely painful.
Most times, he failed, he felt defeated, and when everything became unbearable and overwhelming, he would run away from his responsibilities. I had the same behavior. I would try to go to class but usually failed to do so. I tried to go to therapy multiple times but never succeeded in seeing anyone for very long. I felt like I was going nowhere and frequently retreated into my dorm room like Shinji escaped. The depiction of mental health issues in Shiji was too difficult to process only because it hit so close to home.
As Neon Genesis Evangelion progresses, we also delve into the mind of Asuka Langley. Asuka is the best Eva pilot there is and as such, her sense of identity is attached to her self-worth and confidence. Initially, I brushed her off as a mean and selfish person – I detested her. She made fun of others, expected them to do whatever she pleased, and thought of herself as an adult. Asuka made sure we knew that she “lived for herself” and no one else. I felt irrationally angry at her character. No other piece of media had elicited such strong feelings from me before and I couldn’t place my finger on it until episode 22.
In this episode, Asuka fights an angel that uncovers more of her inner trauma. Asuka puts up a front of confidence to protect herself from the reality of hardship. Her overconfidence reflects her desire for attention. And all of a sudden, it began to click that Asuka wasn’t a character I hated. I slowly realized that Asuka’s coping mechanism for her mental health issues also mirrored my own in a different way than Shinji did.
While my depression symptoms mimicked Shinji, my coping mechanisms after a depressive episode mirrored Asuka. When I was finally able to consistently see a therapist and be medicated, I developed a sense of over-confidence. It was easy for me to pile on responsibilities because I felt like I had everything under control. I had the energy to function properly. I could attend class without overthinking. I was able to do well enough that I would receive verbal affirmation from professors and other adults in my life. They knew of my struggles and was only trying to help. However, I would internalize those positive words to the point where I would experience intense hurt when I wasn’t living up to them.
At this point in my cyclical depression, I would start to think that my meds weren’t working and I wouldn’t take them. All the good that came from starting them would wear off. I was stuck with no sense of confidence because I placed all of it in how well I was able to bounce back. I would stop taking my meds and then it would start all over again. It was a dreadful cycle. Seeing Asuka breakdown felt like a knife to my chest. I understood her pain so well. It was thoroughly surprising because I had never seen anything in media that reflected both sides of my mental health struggles.
As the story progresses and moves to The End of Evangelion, Asuka dies in a bombastic display of heroism. She shouts that she doesn’t want to die repeatedly. She picks herself and her Eva up and goes into a fight that, realistically, she cannot win. Even though I know this and I know there’s no way she can survive this fight, I’m still distraught at witnessing it. It felt like a little part of me died seeing her preservation and strength not be enough. It made me realize that my trauma and my mental health issues are always going to be with me. Even though it’s incredibly bleak that Asuka wasn’t able to stand a chance against these monsters, her strength and will to live without being tied to her ability to succeed struck a poignant chord in my heart.
I found that Asuka’s character and her journey represented how I’ve been able to keep going into my adulthood. I am no longer a self-loathing Shinji. I’ve found a reason to live for myself without attaching my self-worth to what I offer to anyone else besides myself. Asuka represents that to me. It feels strange to say I identify and resonate so deeply with her and this show. However, Neon Genesis Evangelion and The End of Evangelion brought a lot of unspoken feelings to the surface for me.
When it was all said and done, I cried a lot of tears over this anime. I understand now why so many people hold it near and dear to their hearts. It completely shifted how I interacted with content for the rest of 2019. Neon Genesis Evangelion is a great look into the human condition and mental health. I felt so moved by this anime that it made me more aware of my relationships, my health, and my consumption of media. It taught me vulnerability through media. If it wasn’t for Shinji and Asuka, I may never have been able to receive closure I didn’t realize I needed.