Neon Genesis Evangelion and Nietzsche

I recently finished watching the twenty-six episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and felt moved to record some of my impressions, particularly due to the striking nature of its conclusion.

The title in this regard is a little deceptive, since NGE does not draw solely from Nietzsche, but from Existentialism in general, with recognizable elements from Sartre, Kierkegaard, and of course Nietzsche. The philosophical elements of the anime come to the fore in a blatant fashion in the concluding two episodes, when all pretext of action or drama are dropped and a psychological/philosophical analysis of the main characters ensues in a series of probing questions into the nature of the self and existence. Which is not to say that these concluding moments of the anime series are isolated from the preceding episodes, rather, the plot and character development had been building up to this dramatic, yet almost anti-climatic, moment of character self-actualization.

Yet, it is in these last moments, when all elements of plot are stripped away, and the viewer is brought into the depths of the characters troubled psychology, that the ideological underpinnings are cast in their starkest light. The concluding moment, when the protagonist achieves his self-realization through an act of will, practically screams Nietzschian concepts of will to power and ubermensch. This powerful drive to individuality is placed in sharp contrast to the almost completely subsumed sense of self that the protagonist displays earlier on.

It was a very interesting story, but one thing that causes me to appreciate Cowboy Bebop more is that much of NGE’s drama is dependent on the almost debilitating psychological problems the primary characters display. They all seem to display signs of mental illness and from this is derived the plot tensions that move the story forward. Not that I think the story is a failure because of this, but because of this there can be moments where the viewer can struggle to relate to the characters, and this can distract from the story. In addition to this, one can almost understand the conclusion of the story’s prescription of Nietzschian self-actualization as a necessary counter-balance to the opposite extreme that is displayed in the characters up to that point. However, I think it can also be misleading, because the debilitating nature of the mental illnesses being displayed almost calls for this potent counter-measure, but at the same time can just as easily throw the character (and any person who thinks they can see themselves in these characters) into the opposite extreme of promoting the self at the expense of those interpersonal connections that provide it with an environment in which it can exist.

I do think this kind of unrestrained egoism is just as bad, and debilitating, as the parasitic dependence upon others it opposes. Human nature is only complete, and fully realized, when a balance is found between the two, between individuality and community so that the two are harmonized and brought into agreement with one another. It is a confused, and immature, perspective that tries to draw the needs and goals of these two into contradiction. This is not to say that conflict cannot be found between them. But it is the goal, the conclusion of human strivings, to find this balance and bring the two into harmony. It may not even be an attainable goal, but at the very least, the highest in human kind is found in the struggle to bring these two into unity and to resolve the discord.

I guess this is why I am reserved toward NGE. It is a tale of the struggle to discover ourselves and to shake off the shackles of dependency, but because of the extremes being displayed, there can be little in the way of discovering this balance, and so the viewer is left with what I believe is an incomplete picture of the realities of the human condition.

4 thoughts on “Neon Genesis Evangelion and Nietzsche

  1. Isn’t NGE about that you can only [truly] love others and accept their affection if you like and accept yourself? So in that sense, I feel like the two are automatically connected, which is also expressed in the series, and it didn’t seem to me that they were promoted as exclusive.

    [The fact that Shinji is congratulated at the end by the people he likes and who care for him shows, imho, that he is now capable of entering a true and more healthy relationship with them as well – and that would not contradict with independency and valuing yourself per se.]

    P.S. I have never read Nietzsche, so I can’t comment on possible connections or hints or whatnot. So just drawing from the series’ conclusion.

  2. Thank you Yuri. It hadn’t occured to me to interpret the concluding scene in the manner you did, but it does make sense, even if it isn’t entirely clear (at least to me). Perhaps I simply need to watch it again to understand better.

    As for Nietzschean comparisons, I don’t know if this should be understood as a criticism or not. I am currently re-assessing my view of him as well. But he definitely, along with other existentialists, was an influence in the making of NGE.

    Edit: Oh, and I would definitely recommend Nietzsche, especially Thus Spoke Zarathustra. It is one of the best pieces of philosophical writing I’ve read. I say this because I believe philosophy ought to be combined with art, reason with beauty, and Nietzsche does this marvelously in TSZ. It should be entertaining and challenging at the same time, especially if you appreciate poetry.

  3. I don’t think the problems of the characters in NGE are so extreme you can’t relate to them. I think most people have experience with difficult relationships, communication, rejection, the expectation of others, being burdened by morals, in such a way that they find it compromising their ability to make the right choices. In NGE it’s all more extreme because it’s post-apocalyptic with our heros fighting for the continuation of mankind and such, so we have our protagonist masturbating over a comatized girl. Throughout the entire series there isn’t anything shown about healthy relationships, NGE doesn’t say that it isn’t possible, but there just isn’t anything visible on screen of it, except maybe Shinji and his mom in flashbacks.

    As for NGE being Nietzschean, I dunno. The Will To Power I guess is to be seen very literally in the Human Instrumentality Project. I’m not sure about Shinji, though, I should watch EoE again for that.

  4. The beginning I think also is very Kantian. Everybody expected Shinji to pilot the EVA, nobody praised him for it, and when he was hesitant about it everybody thought ill of him. So Kantianism here can be seen as a burden.

    However someone else on the internet says that at the beginning of NGE Shinji isn’t acting out of Kantianism but acting only for praise of others, to satisfy his own emotions and simply because of society’s expectations, instead of acting out of Kant’s self-legislative free will that will otherwise compell you to pilot EVA.

    Nietzsche I think very much disliked Kant.

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