Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 15

A still blue sky is pierced by the roar of helicopters as we enter Evangelion’s fifteenth episode. Evangelion loves contrasting the abrasive intrusion of military hardware and the serene beauty of the natural world – but even as it labors over that contrast, it can’t help but loving the military hardware in its own right. Anno seems a lot like Miyazaki in that way; aware of the ugliness implied by his otaku passions, but unable to deny those passions, with both the love and the critique coming through in his work. Though Anno also extends his interrogations to his basic narrative structures, while Miyazaki has seemingly never lost faith in the purity and power of the classic adventure fable.

But this episode is not about that.

Inside the helicopter, Fuyutsuki and Gendo are assessing the damage from the recent orbital angel strikes, as Fuyutsuki grimly points out the “second and third Ashino lakes.” Every scar of Evangelion’s battles is still carved into the landscape of Tokyo 3, amplifying the show’s sense of genuine consequences, and of a war of attrition that we’re not actually winning. It’s easy to lose the sense of scale and awe that giant robots should fundamentally represent; when everything in your story is colossally huge, nothing feels huge. But with the consequences of battle framed as clearly as a new lake or toppled skyscraper, it’s easy to feel their impact – and to understand that the Evangelions themselves are as terrifying as any Angel.

But this episode is not about that.

Elsewhere, out in Osaka, Kaji continues his independent investigations of NERV, SEELE, and the Marduk Institute. From its effective use of saturated lighting to its austere, noir-appropriate layouts, the storyboards of Kaji’s investigation of a warehouse are gorgeous to behold. And that shouldn’t be a surprise, given this episode’s storyboarder: Kiichi Hadame, actually a pen name of the brilliant Junichi Sato. From Princess Tutu to Ojamajo Doremi, Sato stands as one of anime’s greatest directors, meaning storyboarding four episodes of Evangelion is actually one of his lesser accolades. His presence is certainly appreciated though, as his mastery of negative space and environmental storytelling lends a clear sense of anticipation and consequence to a sequence that, ultimately, isn’t actually that consequential.

No episodes of Evangelion are about that, but that itself is a point worth considering, so let’s get into it.

Kaji’s surreptitious meeting here ends up revealing that the Marduk Institute, defined as an “advisory body controlled by the Human Instrumentality Committee to select Eva pilots,” is largely composed of dummy corporations, with its true leadership just circling back to NERV and SEELE. In spite of all the evocative scene-setting, Kaji’s investigations are largely meaningless; it all ultimately just points back towards the villains we’ve already met. But until that becomes clear, the Marduk Institute serves a different and equally crucial tonal purpose: existing as a pleasingly evocative, menacing-sounding title to throw around alongside this series’ other proper nouns, which collectively evoke the sensation of a mystery much larger than the series’ narrative frame.

One of Evangelion’s great strengths, exhibited here and elsewhere, is that it understands precisely how to evoke the tone of a world drenched in dark secrets and mysteries, even when its actual narrative is more straightforward than this glut of names and symbology would imply. Actually including full explanations of all the phenomena and institutions it gestures towards would be laborious, exposition-heavy, boring, and ultimately dispel the story’s vital mystery. As it turns out, in narrative terms, the implication of secrets and significance can actually be more effective than the existence of secrets, because the only effect you’re really going for here is the audience’s emotional engagement, whereas actually including all these ideas in fact just muddles the narrative.

In actual, narrative terms, the greatest consequence of this sequence is that when Asuka calls Kaji, he’s not there to pick up his phone. And that, at long last, is what this episode is truly about.

All of Evangelion’s principle characters are searching for a home, in one way or another. Shinji is the most obvious; he literally ran away from his father, and has spent the time since grasping for anything that might take the place of the home he was denied. Misato offered him her apartment, and his acceptance of that offer stands as Shinji’s first moment of genuine happiness in the series. Since then, Misato’s apartment has grown to include Asuka as well, the occasional presence of Shinji’s schoolmates, and even Kaji. Though they were brought together through unusual circumstances, Shinji, Asuka, and Misato all clearly value the communal space they’ve created. 

But as much as this makeshift family has helped each other, they cannot truly replace the things each of them have lost, or answer each other’s core emotional needs. Thus Asuka finds herself hanging on the phone line, waiting for an answer from a man who was happy to humor her, but no longer has the time to play with children. Thus Shinji finds himself overwhelmed with melancholy, preoccupied with the oddly motherly Rei as he dreads meeting with his father. And thus Misato is left griping about what dress to wear, as she and Ritsuko discuss yet another friend’s imminent wedding, while the pilots undergo another synchronization exam.

Misato and Ritsuko’s idle conversations here embody one of the many ways Evangelion’s writing eclipses its peers, and creates a sense of solidity and maturity in both its world and its characters. How many anime have you seen that reflect on the specific anxiety of watching all your college friends get married, while you’re still married to your job? Sequences like this, that highlight the mundane realities of its adult characters’ lives, make it clear that Misato and Ritsuko live in our own world, contend with nagging responsibilities like us, and are consequently just as real and just as vulnerable as we are. Rather than upping the stakes and consequences of the scifi action, it is building characters into people with full lives like this that makes us believe in them, and fear for them in turn.

The next scene offers another example of Evangelion’s wondrously grounded character writing, as Shinji confronts Rei in the elevator. Propelled by the urgency of the moment, Shinji actually speaks to her unprompted, announcing that “tomorrow I have to see my father. What should I talk to him about?” Ever since I first watched Evangelion, that question has struck me as so painful, specific, and well-observed. I know that fear – the fear of not having anything but my own failings to discuss, and thus the desperate search for one solitary topic, some common ground to keep things light, and to let the inherent, judgmental tension of the relationship be mitigated by this topical ceasefire.

Rei’s response is equally telling, and seemingly reflective of a change in her personality. After denying she really knows Gendo at all, she further asks, “you’ve been staring at me all afternoon because you wanted to ask me that?” It’s a far more aggressive expression of selfhood from Rei than we’re used to, and pointed in a very different direction. Up until now, she’s only expressed emotion for the sake of Gendo’s reputation, staying emotionally distant even when Shinji outright fell on her naked body. She’s expressed little self-awareness and less curiosity, but here, her attitude seems different – she’s more curious than angry, and clearly becoming more aware of her image among her peers. And when Shinji takes the remarkably forward step of saying that she “wrings out cloth like a mother,” Rei actually blushes, demonstrating not just personal, ego-revealing embarrassment, but also her underlying concern for Shinji’s impression of her.

Completing our emotional check-in with the main trio, the next scene begins with a truly perfect moment, as Asuka and Pen-Pen lounge around watching soap operas together. Asking to borrow Misato’s lavender perform for an upcoming date, Asuka is rebuffed through the harsh but frustratingly accurate, “no way, it’s not for kids.” As always, Asuka is a kid playing at premature adulthood, who expresses her real desires through every possible method except genuinely acknowledging them. 

Approaching a date she doesn’t really want to be on, she storms around the common room in her underwear, loudly complaining that Shinji won’t come outside his room – as clear an invitation as someone like Asuka is capable of making. “If he doesn’t want to see his father, he should just say so. I don’t understand the Japanese,” she remarks, entirely missing the irony of someone like her, who communicates entirely through body language and vague acts of emotional punishment, complaining about someone else sublimating their emotions.

At Shinji’s door, speaking to his familiar, unmoving back, Misato offers a final word of advice. “Nothing will change unless you take that first step. But after that, you’ll realize you have to keep walking forward.” It’s not comforting advice, but it’s true – though in this case, as Asuka and Misato loudly discuss their fun, exciting plans through the doorway, it’s not Shinji who will have to put that lesson in practice.

The next day, all three head off on their various adventures: Shinji to visit his mother’s grave with Gendo, Asuka on her date with some boy from school, and Misato to her friend’s wedding. That wedding is cut into discordant, fragmentary snippets of merriment, emphasizing Misato’s emotional distance from the proceedings; it passes as a haze of superficial joy, only sliding into focus upon Kaji’s arrival. As Ritsuko riffs on Misato and Kaji’s extremely married behavior, it’s clear that they too are playing at adulthood, or perhaps trying to avoid playing at it. Their jobs reserve no room for domestic security, and neither of them seem to really want that, but in a nostalgic setting like this, old habits tend to reemerge.

In contrast, Shinji lacks the luxury of even a play-acted family to look back on, with no memories of his mother, and no happy memories of his father. Nothing is left of his mother at all, in fact – just an anonymous marker, among thousands of other anonymous markers, presumably the uncountable victims of the Second Impact. The stark rush of wind and staccato tempo of partial closeups emphasize the emptiness of this experience, the vast hollow space where Shinji’s family should be – or even just the signifiers of a family, now that his family is gone. But there is just this marker, and this field, and this cold stranger beside him.

“Man survives by forgetting his memories, but there are some things a man should never forget. Yui taught me about the irreplaceable things. I come here to confirm that.” It’s the greatest unloading of emotional honesty we’ve seen from Gendo, and it’s of course aimed at his most essential truth: his absolute, unerring love of Yui. Pursuing that love has forced him to strip away everything else, to “survive by forgetting” the rest of his humanity, but it has also refined him into a pure instrument. But while Gendo’s love may be strong, it is also deeply selfish; when his son asks for pictures of his mother, Gendo replies that “I keep everything in my heart. That is enough for now.” Even his own son does not get to share in his love of Yui.

Gendo is not a kind man, but in his defense, he is also not a strong man – and weakness can make us do terrible things. After curtly announcing that “It’s time. I’m going now,” his turn away from Shinji reveals a softening of his expression. For a moment, we see Shinji himself – that fear and anxiousness they share, making him just as terrified of reaching out to his son. And seeing Rei in the landing craft, Shinji is possessed not by jealousy, but courage – he calls out, telling Gendo that “I’m glad I got to speak with you today.” Even Gendo is not brave enough for a statement like that; he offers just a neutral “I see,” and flees into the sky.

That “I see” is more than enough for Shinji, though. He met with his father, and they didn’t fight! Gendo actually said some stuff about Yui, and Shinji even responded to him! It’s almost like they have a relationship! Emotionally invigorated for the first time in far too long, Shinji actually breaks out his old cello, and starts playing some songs. Self-expression like music is frequently one of the first things to lose its glamor when you’re consumed in depression; here, we see that process in reverse, as Shinji’s generally sullen, downcast eyes brim with emotion, expressing both the joy and the sorrow that can only be gained by escaping the perpetual grey haze of depression’s grip.

Other day trips were less successful, as we learn through Asuka’s premature return home. Asuka is actually impressed by Shinji’s musical talent, but as for her date, she found him so boring that she fled while he was in line for the ferris wheel. Asuka has no time for the mundane concerns of school children; as she lounges in the fading sunlight, once again engaging in some aggressive non-verbal flirting, she despairingly announces that Kaji is the “only man” around. Her signals would probably scan for a certain audience, but fly harmlessly over Shinji’s head.

Asuka’s behavior is brutally paralleled in the next scene, as we rejoin Misato, Ritsuko, and Kaji at a bar. After Misato announces she’s heading to the restroom, Kaji replies with “don’t ditch me, now” – accusing Misato of precisely the trick Asuka actually pulled. And in response, Misato sticks out her tongue, demonstrating roughly as much mature composure as Asuka generally affects.

This casual moment embodies Evangelion’s mature approach to character writing. Evangelion understands young adulthood, and is written from a sufficient distance to illustrate the clear parallels between Asuka and Misato’s attempts to assert their identity and maturity, as well as their contrasting views of what adulthood means. While Asuka wishes for tangible signifiers of adulthood like a cool, mature boyfriend, Misato is actively watching her friends get married and shuffled into domestic life, while wondering what she’s doing with her own time. Particularly since she’s spent all this time at NERV, chasing her father’s legacy. Will there ever be room in her life for a man other than her father’s shadow?

Misato isn’t the only one struggling with the idea of herself as an adult. Discussing the weirdness of seeing Misato in heels, Kaji and Ritsuko reflect back on their college years, and on the novelty of finding themselves in this ostensibly “adult-like” situation. Between Misato, Kaji, and Gendo, it’s clear that one of this episode’s core themes is how the idea of “adulthood” is more a fairy tale for the young, than it is a secure, stable reality for their elders. Asuka believes she’ll flourish if she can just rush forward and claim adulthood early, but Gendo is still as much of a child as he ever was, while Misato and Kaji seem dazzled by the superficial signifiers of maturity. Reflecting back on their college years, Kaji levels a critique that could just as easily apply to Misato’s current ‘family’: “that wasn’t really sharing a life. It was just living together, playing house.”

It is a hard thing wanting to hurry and grow up, but it is a harder thing to “grow up” and learn adulthood is a comforting lie we tell to children. While Asuka worries about Misato surging “ahead of her,” Misato is busy puking in an alley, and then desperately asking Kaji if he thinks she’s changed. The abstract glimmer of streetlights sets a perfect tone for their late-night journey; backgrounds bleed into strange and glamorous hues, conveying the brilliant shimmer of heavy drinking, and also the anonymous, disorienting blur of young adulthood. Misato acknowledges that she broke up with Kaji because he reminded her of his father – but years down the line, here she is still working at NERV, no more mature or independent than she pledged herself to be all those years ago.

Out here, drunk to the point of sincerity and brimming with self-loathing, Misato realizes she’s just like Shinji – still running away from a real decision, still doing the same things because no one told her not to, still hesitating with one foot on the brink of genuine change. But at least she has Kaji, even if he’s a strange mix of lover and father-surrogate, to vent all these feelings to. Ultimately, it is only family and a sense of belonging, not the intangible confidence of “adulthood,” that can give these characters the security they desire – but having been variously abandoned or disappointed by their actual families, they retreat from the pain of genuine connection, construct what they believe to be praise-worthy lives out of whatever materials are at hand, and ignore or misuse the people who are right beside them, struggling in just the same way.

So it goes for Asuka, who rather than admit she might actually care about Shinji, or the even more unutterable fact that she’s afraid of being a child forever, asks him if he’d like to kiss, “just as a way to kill time.” More so than the perfect, emotionally heightened moments we see in TV dramas, this is closer to the teenage reality: bored, anxious, lonely kids pushing their bodies together, consumed by hormones and a desire to already be grown. In truth, Shinji and Asuka are nowhere near equipped to handle each other’s emotional baggage – their “foreplay” reflects the messiness of their relationship, as Asuka asks “you don’t want to kiss a girl on the anniversary of your mom’s death?” Their kiss is as clumsy as its leadup; Shinji asphyxiates, while Asuka’s lofty impressions of romance are dismantled so quickly that she’s forced to blame Shinji, unable to admit that she doesn’t feel any different, and certainly doesn’t feel any older.

Her disappointment is only compounded as Kaji arrives at their apartment, depositing Misato and departing with a laugh. Asuka gaily asks him to stay, but then notices the scent of lavender on his coat – Misato’s perfume, the scent of adulthood, that world which they share so gleefully, but deny from her. In a way, Shinji is protected by his unambiguous childishness; while he is content simply reaching out to his father, Asuka and Misato are each desperate for signifiers of maturity and adulthood, and consistently disappointed in their search. Yui taught Gendo about the irreplaceable things, but life is rarely so instructive; we do what we must and accept what we can live with, hoping to find a happier self somewhere along the way.

Episode fifteen’s final scene returns us to Kaji’s investigations, as Misato finds him in the bowels of NERV’s facility, and discovers a great and terrible colossus alongside him. Though Kaji claims this creature is Adam, it’s actually Lilith – but the creature’s title is ultimately irrelevant. This tossed-off scifi hook, relegated to the end of an episode that’s fundamentally about the difficult, self-defeating quest to “reach adulthood,” speaks to Evangelion’s enduring legacy. The show is so good at thriller sleight of hand, and action theatrics, that it was able to trick even stalwartly escapism-oriented media fans into caring about characters and ideas and perfectly honest moments, the bedrock supporting the emotional fulfilment of truly great art. Actually growing up is indeed a fake idea, but I’m glad Evangelion was there to help me, and so many others, grow up as lovers of art.

This article was made possible by reader support. Thank you all for all that you do.

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