Evangelion and the Power of Fandom

29 Apr

By: Stephanie Weirich


Right about……now the Otaku internet is being flooded with thoughts on and opinions about Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo. Some will be little more than breathless praise while others will surely be vitriolic rants about plot holes and ruined endings and some will even manage to be objective and thoughtful. In light of the zeitgeist, there’s something else I’d like to talk about, something a tad more personal, more feeling based. A feeling I got as soon as the familiar and colorful flash of Asuka’s fighting in outer space overwhelmed my screen. A feeling of intense and wistful pleasure otherwise known as nostalgia and regardless of how good or bad the film was (which it was an uneven mixture of both in my mind) that feeling was not displaced or even dampened. And that’s something worth talking about.

First, allow me to clarify a thing or two. I fully believe the Evangelion series—including the Rebuild series of films—to be a masterpiece of the anime medium. Are there better shows out there, both from the same time period and from our present time? Most assuredly. However, do those shows provide the same experience that Evangelion does? I would argue not, because Evangelion is a singular series that offers to people a singular and powerful experience. This is made even more remarkable by the fact that it has this enduring power for both the Japanese and the Westerners that have been exposed to it.

When Evangelion was first aired in 1995-1996, it managed to do something that few other anime series managed to do in Japan and that was compel people who had very little interest in the medium to become obsessed with it. These characters, particularly the central figure of Shinji Ikari, connected with the Japanese and the national psyche in a way that still has resounding impact to this day. It is the sole reason the Rebuild series of films exists now. People loved these characters, they loved their struggles, they felt protective of them when things went wrong, they discussed at length what pushed them to keep fighting, the picked apart their psyches and damaged hearts. They felt empathy for these fictional characters. And ten years on, when they decided to make the Rebuild series of films, those feelings still held true for all of those people who grew up with the show, for the people who now shared it with their children, for the people who revisited it regularly, for the people who reserved a soft spot in their hearts for it permanently.


Strangely and beautifully enough the show had the same impact on Western fandom. It is a very rare thing for the anime series that we hold dear to have the same lasting power in Japan. While many older fans view titles such as Cowboy Bebop, Trigun or Outlaw Star as enduring classics, they haven’t had quite the same impact on Japanese audiences. Those titles, I believe, resonate more with Western audiences because there is something distinctly Western about them. There are very intentional foreign influences on them that make them seem much less Japanese and far more relatable and resonant with Western audiences.

This makes the enduring power of Evangelion in both Japan and the West that much more powerful and strange. It’s a distinctly Japanese show with very distinct Japanese themes and messages that managed to hit us at our cores and affect us—Japanese and Westerner—in the same way.

The question then becomes why? Why is Evangelion the show that has had that impact?

I think that for the Japanese, that’s a very simple answer that has everything to do with the central themes and the character’s reactions to them. Shinji is an avatar for the universal experience of male youth in Japan. He is a child who is no longer seen as such. He’s past the age where there’s any coddling or sympathy paid to his plight. He is expected to shoulder fully his encroaching adulthood while given very few adequate tools to do so. He is expected to deny his own will and desires for the sake of a greater good that cares absolutely nothing about him. He is the representative for all Japanese who feel—particularly while young and tentatively maturing into adult Japanese-dom—that they are expected to give up their individuality and gaman suru, or persevere. He is the wide eyed Junior High student who is expected to throw away all childish impulses and stand tall as a true member of Japanese society his very first week out of elementary school. He seeks connections he can’t have, both craving and being terrified of them. He wants to share and hide his emotions. He wants to trust others and run away. Shinji is the very essence of what it means to grow up Japanese.

Also, every parent in Japan has this sweatshirt.

Also, every parent in Japan has this sweatshirt.

Additionally, the Human Instrumentality Project that lies at the heart of NERVs plan is essentially the choice all people within Japan must make—do you retain your individuality as painful as that might be in a society that values the communal over all else, or do you throw it away to maintain the status quo? That is a theme that deeply resonates within Japanese culture regardless of how it’s dressed up in pseudo-philosophy and Judeo Christian symbolism.

For Westerners, I think we also pick up on these themes and empathize with them to a certain extent. But I do believe that there’s something even more powerful for us at play. As I said in the very beginning, that is the pure feeling of nostalgia it invokes.

This is where I’m going to get personal, so bear with me. Evangelion is the first anime series I ever saw. I had an ex-boyfriend that one day brought the boxed set over and made me watch the first 6 episodes in one go. It was a deeply perplexing situation for me. It inspired within me a mixture of emotions that weren’t altogether pleasant. I was angry with the adults in Shinji’s life who forced him to do something he clearly didn’t want to do for very little incentive. I was angry with Shinji for being such a complainer. I wanted to challenge Gendo Ikari to a fistfight. I felt deeply uncomfortable while also being intensely curious about what it would all mean in the end. And I admit, that first time I watched the series as a teenager, I didn’t understand it fully by the time I finished it. But I wanted to. I very much wanted to. More importantly though, I wanted to see more. Evangelion was really the seed that grew into the flower that is my passion for anime and by extension my passion for Japan.

Every time I see him, my hand makes a fist instinctively.

Every time I see him, my hand makes a fist instinctively.

My first year in Japan happened to coincide with the release of Evangelion 2.0: You Can (Not) Advance. My otaku students were loaded up with Evangelion pencil boards, files, stationary, pen cases, stickers, etc. The Lawson’s down the street from my apartment was selling figurines like gangbusters. There was a constant stream of ads on TV and in print imploring you to see it. It was a free for all of Evangelion fandom again. As such, I decided to watch the series again for the first time since my original viewing.

I sat on my horrible and tiny white couch, chain smoking and drinking the occasional beer, riveted to the screen. It all made so much more sense now. I was much more patient with Shinji’s outbursts, with his tears, than I had been the first time. After all, I was teaching students just like him (well, just like him minus the whole piloting your mother and fighting monsters thing) every day. I was becoming increasingly familiar with their frustrations, with their fears of the future, their discontent. I even had a Rei in nearly every class—a student, male or female, who spoke to no one and had no one speak to them. I had teachers that were like Misato, just trying to understand the current emotional state of their students, caught between a desire to coddle them and slap them for their pathetic lack of personal responsibility. Some students had fathers like Gendo, difficult men who worked more than they saw their children, who didn’t show up for even important events like graduation. Again, my feelings about Evangelion were confusing, complex. I felt that bittersweet elation, the pure and unsustainable high that only a new obsession can inspire while also feeling deeply saddened for these characters—and by extension my students and co-workers. I was invested in this show and the impact it had all over again.

Asuka brings all the boys to the yard.

Asuka brings all the boys to the yard.

I can very clearly remember killing time between classes, desperately trying to cool off after teaching in airless classrooms with no air conditioning, combing the internet and looking for fan theories about what it all meant. I remember hours spent jumping from one Wikipedia article to the next. I can remember lunchtime conversations with my students about who their favorite character was and why (for the boys, it was always Asuka. For girls, it was usually Kaworu). I can remember sitting in my apartment, my downstairs freezing from the air conditioner being set to high, the sounds of summer cicadas humming outside my back window while I devoured episodes all over again. I can remember each nervous cigarette I smoked as the events unfolding become more intense, more disturbing. I can remember each blisteringly hot trip to the Lawson’s or Youme Town (the local mall) to buy new figurines. I can remember the heady joy of it all and how it reminded me, if even for a brief moment, what it was like to first become a fan of anime.

I remembered all of this again while watching Evangelion 3.0. While the events unfolded before me, this wave of memories and wistful, bittersweet nostalgia for those heady days—both the heady days of my initial fandom and the even more heady days of my life in Japan—washed over me. For whatever flaws the film has, the experience was not a wasteful or bad one.

Though it was disturbing.

Though it was disturbing.

To put it simply, Evangelion changed my life in irrevocable ways that I am still discovering. It was the first series to expand my world past the narrow confines of my own American adolescence. It made me deeply consider the struggles of kids who were just like me in a completely different country. It made me feel that we weren’t so different after all. And it was one of the first things that made me want to know more about the country that was raising them. It is one of the things that ultimately led me to live in Japan, to have the experiences with the people I met there in the places I saw and will never forget. And it played an integral part in that experience while I was there. This is why it hits me right in my heart now and floods my senses with memories that will never cease to be singular and special for me.

That is the true power of Evangelion and why it will always be a masterpiece regardless of how the Rebuild series turns out. It brings us all back to a singular and joyful time in our lives in a way very few things are capable of; it brings us back to our burgeoning fandom. It connects our personal adolescent and now adult struggles with those same struggles that a group of people are having on the other side of the world. It opens our eyes and makes our world a larger and better place. It connects us all—Western and Japanese—to ourselves and to each other. And for that it will forever be a worthwhile and singular experience that we should be immensely grateful to have.

So thank you Hideaki Anno. Thank you Evangelion. Thank you for changing my life for the better.

Do you have something different to say about Evangelion? Or is there another series that makes you feel the way I feel about Eva? Let me know in the comments!

Kaworu is dying to hear about what you think.

Kaworu is dying to hear about what you think.

7 Responses to “Evangelion and the Power of Fandom”

  1. Artemis April 29, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    While I’m normally all in favour of looking at anime in a subjective manner for the purpose of reviews and such, I wholeheratedly believe that when it comes to Evangelion, people should get personal. As you pointed out, it’s a show that’s become so well known not because it’s the best anime ever made, but because it inspires such passion in its fans – even those fans who don’t particularly like anime as a medium. You hit the nail on the head: that’s precisely why it’s a masterpiece. Personally I didn’t like the Rebuild 3.0 film (for a whole host of reasons that I may write about in the future), but I still value every experience that Evangelion has given me to date.

    • entropypieplate May 3, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

      Thank you! I usually shy away from being too personal or subjective in my reviews, but I realized very quickly that I couldn’t write about Eva without being completely subjective, so why fight it? And that’s one thing I’ve noticed a lot of in regards to the rabid fandom around that series. It’s usually never judged on it’s own merits as a singular piece of art and is instead judged based on the feelings and nostalgia it dredges up. That’s powerful, and infinitely interesting to me. Prior to writing this I power watched all three of the Rebuild series and oh boy did I have issues with the 3rd one (namely, guys, seriously, you know every single problem you have is due to the fact that you couldn’t just tell Shinji what the Hell has been happening while he’s been in a coma for 14 years? You’re really going to just treat him like he should know why his closest friends suddenly hate him? That’s some weak and unfocused writing right there) and yet in spite of that, I’m still looking forward to the fourth film. That has everything to do with my very personal relationship with the series as a whole as opposed to anything that it’s actually doing as a film series.

      As a side note, I would love to read your thoughts on the third film, I think you would be much more reasonable and thoughtful than a lot of people who are writing reviews of it currently.

  2. ninjaboy2501 June 5, 2013 at 12:01 am #

    This article was recently passed on to me and it had an affect that I was not anticipating. I was transported back in time 10 years to when I was in college and had similar conversations with my friends as we worked through this series on VHS. Saying that the series captivated us was a bit of an understatement. While I was no stranger to Anime/Manga at the time I started watching it, I had never encountered a series that handled characterization and themes that seemed so ‘human’ the way that it did. Yes, at times the show as poorly animated. And yeah just like everyone else I wanted to throttle Shinji at times. But I felt like I knew them. Each and every character became more real the longer I spent time with them and when the movies came out (Death & Rebirth/The End) they rocked me to my core. It was the first (and I believe only time) I stopped watching a movie to take a (smoke) break and calm down. Yes, the series and films all have issues and plot holes. But I wouldn’t want them any other way. Great write up. Arigato gozaimasu!

    • entropypieplate June 5, 2013 at 5:09 am #

      Thank you very much for your kind words! I love hearing that other people had similar experiences with their Eva fandom. It’s one of the most remarkable aspects of that series. More than any other show, it’s grown its own community who are all deeply invested in these characters because they grew up with them. We all struggled with them. And we all appreciated the lessons we learned. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quite Evangelion, and I don’t think I ever want to.

  3. Vrai October 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

    Artemis might have hit on it well enough already (and six months ago, at that), but it really is a beautifully moving post for its personal bent. It’s set my thoughts to the more entrenched areas of the fandom versus the newer additions. I tend to find myself a great deal more comfortable, for the very reason that it responds on a gut level. The EvaGeeks forum and the like, while still legitimate in their passion (it’s all done for love, so I would hope) emphasize ‘proving’ the nature of Eva by decoding the science or the true meaning of this or that aspect of Gendo’s plan. And on one level, it’s an understandable urge. Anno did a fascinating amount of worldbuilding that he was ultimately uninterested in, and abandoned it in favor of intense character study. That’s frustrating, if you invested in the former as a viewer. But it also forgets the visceral nature of the show, the themes and the way that we as fans bond to it. Six people can have eight opinions, that sort of thing.
    I think much of the complaints with 3.0 are much the same, laying aside the absolutely true writing weakness of ‘let’s all be jerks to Shinji for no reason he could possibly concieve,’ are that it follows Anno’s pattern of personal over world. Shinji’s our protagonist, so we’re stuck knowing what he knows, and you’d better just let go of knowing what other major characters survived or how. I do wonder if he’ll widen the scope of his narrative for 4.0, with all the threads that need resolved at this point. My apologies if this comment has run overlong.


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