Book Review | Neon Genesis Evangelion by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
This review is on the manga version of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series and, as such, will contain spoilers for the entirety of the anime, manga, and movie versions of the series. However, it will differ from the anime and movies.
Trigger Warning: There will be discussions of sexual assault, inappropriate relationships with minors, and mental health as it appears in the manga series.
Neon Genesis Evangelion takes place in the (at the time) alternate future of 2015, fifteen years after a cataclysmic event known as the Second Impact. Tokyo-3, a retractable city, has replaced Tokyo, where NERV HQ is located to combat the Angels, giant inhuman creatures who target NERV HQ.
The series follows fourteen-year-old Shinji Ikari, primary pilot of Eva Unit-01, often referred to as the third child and son of NERV Commander Gendo Ikari. The Eva, or Evangelion, are manufactured organic creatures, often referred to as “humans” with the power and scale of God. Due to their armored exteriors, they resemble mechas but are composed of flesh, similar to traditional humans.
Children pilot the Eva, typically children with unfortunate familial situations. When connected to the Eva units, the children act as the nervous system and, as such, feel any damage sustained by the Eva unit during battle, though to varying degrees.
While the creation of the Eva is seemingly for the sole purpose of combating the Angels, the underlying goal is for the Eva to cause the Third Impact and, as such, move humanity forward toward its next evolution. The tech-based religious cult SEELE pushes this agenda from behind the scenes. They hope that the next evolution of humankind will combine everyone into a single being – one without pain, without the ability to wage war and one that will finally create everlasting peace for humanity. They base this belief on the Dead Sea Scrolls and call it Human Instrumentality.
However, Gendo has his own plan for the Eva with the mysterious child Rei Ayanami – the first child and primary pilot for Unit-00 and secondary pilot for Unit-01. Much like the Eva, Rei is an artificially made human crafted in the image of Yui Ikari, Gendo’s dead wife, and Shinji’s mother. Gendo hopes to cause the Third Impact and, as a result, Human Instrumentality, but instead uses it to reunite with his dead wife.
While these agendas are at war with each other, Shinji and the other child pilots are put into an impossible position of being children, saviors of humanity, and tools of the adults around them.
The imagery is impressive – and I don’t mean the art, though that in itself is charming and nostalgic. The religious imagery gives a wealth of context and subcontext to explore and discuss time and time again. The religious imagery alone is part of why this series has withstood the test of time and is still referenced in anime and manga today.
However, something that I think is even more withstanding to time is Shinji Ikari. Memes of Shinji have made the rounds on social media time and time again, which are a good laugh, of course, and reveal something unique to the series main character. At least I find, Shinji represents the scared, weak, lost, misunderstood, and abused child in a lot of people.
Shinji is surrounded by adult figures, adults who should nurture and care for him, the most impactful adult being his father. However, as the series goes on, it is clear to the reader and Shinji that the love he receives from the adults can only be measured by his worth to them.
His father abandoned him years before the beginning of the story, and he only contacts Shinji again because he wants him to pilot the Eva.
Misato Kitsuragi, probably the second most crucial adult figure in Shinji’s life, shows him affection and even going so far as to sexually assault him to coerce him to pilot the Eva.
Then there are the brief moments where Shinji recalls his time with his aunt and uncle on his mother’s side, who raised him in place of his father. They often secretly discussed how much of a burden he was and how he was becoming a strange boy, much like his father, who neither of them liked. Shinji ends up hearing them and feels he must hide himself and his wants so that they won’t abandon him as his father did.
Shinji was unable to be a child. He was forced to be a tool for the adults who were too overcome and wrapped up in their own lives and agendas to see that Shinji needed them. Shinji needed love and acceptance but could only get it when he played into what the unreliable adults wanted. As a result, Shinji retreats inward, unable to see a future for himself because what he wants and needs has always played second fiddle to what his aunt and uncle want (a child that wasn’t Gendo Ikari’s child), what Misato wants (him to pilot the Eva without complaint), and what his father wants (Third Impact and the resurrection of his wife).
What these adults don’t realize is that they initiate the Third Impact in forcing Shinji to fit the mold they want him to. As a result, they could have inadvertently caused SEELE’s view of Human Instrumentality to occur as Shinji is the one who Rei/Lilith chooses to create humanity’s next evolution. Initially, Shinji is willing to go along with SEELE’s view of humanity as he is tired of the abuse and pain he has experienced. However, the relationships he built with his peers – children who have suffered under the regime of the adults around them much like himself – draw him away from that conclusion. The children are the ones to save Earth, not the adults.
Ultimately, despite all its flaws, Shinji finds that humanity and its individuality are worth saving and maintaining and asks Lilith/Rei to bring humanity back to what it was like before the Second Impact and for that to be humanity’s next evolution.
This layering of religious imagery on top of the relationships between adults and children is lovely. Humanity is the child of God and is presumably under his power. However, Shinji, Rei, Asuka, their classmates, and even the Eva are all children of man. They are forced to live under the regime of adults who conduct themselves as if they are God and wish to form the world in whatever image they want without considering what the children may want for themselves. Ironically, their need to control ends up putting all of the control in the hands of the child, Shinji and allows him to form the world into whatever he wants, and this is where Shinji finally gets to consider what he wants. The world has been on his shoulders from the beginning, and yet, when it all finally comes to a head, and it’s up to him to determine the future for humanity, he is free.
Finally, he gets to decide what he wants.
I find that any iteration of Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGA) is the most impactful in hard times when the world’s weight does feel like it’s on your shoulders, similar to Shinji. It’s a good reminder that we live in a chaotic world where everyone has their own agenda, and they will do their best to force you into a mold that best works for the world they wish to live in. Still, ultimately we as individuals are the only ones that can determine what life we want to lead. It’s rather empowering in the end, despite having to trudge through so much pain and anguish to get there, but perhaps that in itself is a representation of the human condition.
The sexual assault and the sexualization of the female characters somewhat undermine the larger messages at play. However, I do think the intent was to mock and parody the often lighthearted sexual portrayal of female minors in anime and manga and expose the trauma inappropriate relationships between children and adults can have on the minors involved. Still, I don’t feel it fit as well in the work and instead felt more like it was just another excuse to sexualize children.
I wish the series had been longer, so maybe those moments could have been more carefully explored so they didn’t feel as shoehorned in as they were. However, it did show how the adults were completely incapable of differentiating the children from adults and, as such, put the weight of the world on their shoulders without considering the children’s well-being. Still, those moments were so short and so far, and few between I found myself uncomfortable when: Shinji saw Rei naked and freaked out, as most male protagonists do in anime/manga; when Asuka tries to prove her womanhood to Kaji where he makes a feeble attempt to dissuade her; the fact that Gendo created a child from the image of his dead wife and even mimicked sexual acts when attempting to fuse with her to start the Third Impact; and finally when Misato kisses Shinji and makes an odd promise of more adult affection when he returns after piloting the Eva one last time.
I know some will say that this should be acceptable because it exposes the adults and how they are unreliable. It shows how deplorable they are, even if they are the “heroes” of humanity. Even so, I wish it had been done with as much care and time as some of the other issues brought up in the story.
It also doesn’t help that the merchandise of the characters plays into the anime/manga standard of fetishizing and sexualizing female minors despite the fact they are minors. Many people will probably say they are just cartoon characters, so it doesn’t matter, but they represent minors and are created so people of that age group could connect to them. I find it uncomfortable and deplorable to have a boy-identifying child connecting with Shinji and being okay with an adult woman offering him sexual favors to do something for her. Similarly, having a girl-identifying child connect to Asuka and feel she has to “prove her womanhood” to an adult man that she likes makes me physically ill.
Again, I understand this is supposed to show how adult expectations and beliefs are placed on children by adults who are incapable of recognizing they are children. Still, again, I feel like these moments were just not framed or handled in a way that would make them less offensive and more of a message on how problematic these situations are. Instead, they are treated as good or positive moments, particularly Misato and Shinji’s moment, which plays into the idea that young boys should be thankful for these kinds of interactions and can’t possibly be assaulted by an adult woman.
And the argument then might be that it wasn’t made for that age bracket, which isn’t wrong. It is listed as teen plus on Viz Media‘s website, which I assume means it isn’t meant for fourteen-year-olds, but I also feel like this shouldn’t be something we normalize in older teens or even adults. We, meaning adults, are the ones who should protect children, unlike what the adults in NGA have done to Shinji, Asuka, Rei, etc. So being okay with how the sexual assault and fetishizing of these representations of minors have been handled is not okay.
I can recognize the importance of this work on anime/manga and discuss what good it has done while also talking about the negative and its failings. Those two ideas can exist at the same time.
This manga was well-executed overall. I enjoyed it, and I probably will reread it as I feel there is still more I can dig into and discover even after this analysis. However, if you were to ask me if I would recommend it to anyone reading this review, I would have to say no. There are too many things, I feel, that could be damaging and triggering to those working on their mental health or who may have experienced some of the abuse in this manga that is then trivialized for me to recommend it generally.
If none of that bothers you, then I’d say read it. It is a hallmark of anime/manga and is worth reading for the historical aspect. Also, you might be surprised to find how many references from anime/manga you love that have come from any iteration of NGA.
If you have read the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga, let me know what you think about it in the comments below. I am interested to see your interpretations of it.