The giant mecha genre is, at its heart, a teen power fantasy. Step into a cockpit and suddenly your body is a hundred times larger, armored and invulnerable. You can fly through space, dodge missiles, and cut starships in half with swords made of diamond-edged light. Nothing can stop you. Neon Genesis Evangelion—Hideaki Anno’s brutal, convoluted 1995 anime in which three teenagers must bond with and pilot the bio-robotic constructs known as Evangelions to prevent humanity’s annihilation— turns this central conceit inside out so violently you’d need an umbrella to keep the spatter off.
In Evangelion, the giant EVA mechs are more like extended nervous systems than suits of armor. The teenagers who pilot them might survive the awful injuries their enemies—bizarre, often fractal or thread-like beings known as “angels”—inflict on the mecha, but the bond between pilot and machine ensures that they feel every mutilation. Arms torn off, skulls pierced by celestial lances, guts shredded by gnarled claws—it’s a fantasy not of unlimited power, but of unlimited vulnerability. Suffering beyond the limitations of the human body.
On the surface the EVAs resemble other giant mecha in series like Mobile Suit Gundam and Voltron—humanoid, brightly colored, covered in armor plating and angular fins. That, however, is where the similarities end. There’s living meat under that metal skins, endless rivers of blood flowing through their veins, and not steely-eyed teen heroes but badly traumatized children huddled in their womb-like “entry plug” cockpits. The natal metaphor extends from amniotic fluid-filled cockpits to the umbilical cables the EVAs need to remain powered while active. Cut off, they can operate for only minutes at a time.
The cockpit—an integral part of the giant mecha genre in which characters are developed and defined through emotional expression and body language—is in Evangelion a place of impotence, peril, and catatonia. The series explores infantile space not just as a place of safety and comfort, but of terror and incomprehension. Children drown, are crushed, and go mad in the bubbling orange haze of their entry plugs. They rip their enemies apart with their own hands-by-proxy, veins bulging and eyes wide with mindless rage.
Late in the series we learn that EVA units 01 and 02 are animated by the souls of their pilots’ deceased mothers. In effect, the children are slipping back into the womb each time they take control of the great machines, regressing to a weaker, more vulnerable state even as they gain access to incredible power. At one point in the original series, the depressed and isolated Shinji is even absorbed by the fluid within his plug, returned to the comforting darkness of pre-birth by his mother’s protective instincts. The machine doesn’t enhance his power or enable him to overcome the limitations of his childish mind and body. Instead, it pulls him farther back, cradling him in the warm nothingness of its womb.
Kick someone long enough and you go from abusing a living being to abusing dead meat. Human frailty precludes many genres of fiction from using ultraviolence as a form of character development, but by housing its protagonists in surrogate bodies capable of sustaining near-endless trauma, Evangelion pushes past this limitation and into stranger, murkier psychological territory. Violence becomes less a way to move the story forward than a metaphor for sustained and compounded trauma. Each new geyser of blood and loop of glistening viscera sublimates the enormous tension crushing the pilots under its weight.
What goes unsaid when Shinji sits alone at empty train stations, playing the same song over and over again on his walkman, is expressed in carnage later. Each time Unit-01 is maimed he convulses and screams in its cockpit, wracked by waves of psychic feedback. Each time he returns home, his reluctance to pilot the EVA again grows greater. His social isolation, his grief over the death of his mother, his brutal neglect and abuse by his father, and the confusion generated by his budding sexuality are all compounded by his repeated experiences of acute distress. It’s as though he’s continually re-confronting his trauma without any real ability to process or absorb it.
With the character of Rei this amplified and echoing violence spills out of the cockpit and into reality. Reconstituted by Shinji’s cold and manipulative father Gendo from the nutrient soup into which his wife Yui dissolved after attempting to make contact with an angel, “Rei” is in fact a line of clones, the second and third of whom are assumed to be a single person by the other pilots. Her EVA, Unit-00, is implied to contain the soul of her first clone, who perished sometime during its construction and activation. Even death can’t end her misery. Each indignity, every painful memory, flows from one body to the next.
The show’s presentation of suffering is heightened, almost melodramatic. Through Rei’s iterative bodies and the massive frames of the EVAs it deals with pain as a static experience, a norm to be endured. Even the show’s mythological source of all human life, the angel Lilith, endures in a state of eternal crucifixion, its blood a lake surrounding it. Anno’s lifelong struggle with clinical depression was an explicit source of inspiration for the series and its follow-up feature film, and its influence is nowhere more visible than in its framing of trauma as unceasing and cumulative, a stark contrast to the linear character arcs and simple conflicts of other giant mecha series.
With its images of crucifixion, torture, and grisly mutilation, Evangelion intentionally invokes the visual language of Christian martyrdom. The series never stoops to portraying violence as redemptive or healing, but it does explore the idea that violence can be transformative, that it changes the people who deal it out, the people who suffer its consequences, and the nature of the world itself. It’s a view of trauma and mental illness that bucks traditional narratives. There’s no tortured genius here, and no liberating escape to health and functionality.
When, at the climax of The End of Evangelion, Rei rejects Gendo’s covetous advances and ascends to godhood, we’re given no indication that this is joyous or empowering for her. What we do know is that she’s stepped outside the realm of recognizable human experience, and that the world reshapes itself to meet her. Even here, though, on the edge of godhood, her body melts and sags, collapses and divides. Her suffering becomes the sole visible event in all of human experience as she literally straddles the Earth.
Transcendent suffering is an old, old idea. From the Crucifixion to the valiant death by torture of William Wallace in Braveheart, Western culture is saturated with the idea that pain leads to enlightenment. Evangelion shares this preoccupation with prolonged misery, but it ascribes no special meaning to its conclusion, or virtue to its victims. Instead it gives the sick and the tormented the dignity of unvarnished portrayal. The experience of endless discomfort, disappointment, and abuse is not just a theme the show dwells on but the driving force of its entire narrative.
When Rei’s vast form collapses into the ocean of LCL, there is no certainty about the future derived from her death—the new world she leaves in her wake is barren and alien, a red sea lapping at burnt black shores. Instead, we’re left the inescapability of her life, the horizon itself blotted out by the sight of her broken body. Everything she endured in secrecy and silence is now painted across the sky, the single greatest spectacle in the planet’s history. Suffering is not divine, Evangelion seems to say, but it is human, and it must be witnessed.