Cancer, Crocodiles, and the Apocalypse: The Beauty of Life and Death in 'The End of Evangelion'
Updated: Mar 24
This editorial was written for an assignment in October 2020, and includes major spoilers of Hideaki Anno's Neon Genesis Evangelion and The End of Evangelion, as well as an analysis of and references to Audre Lorde's The Cancer Journals and Val Plumwood's "Being Prey." Proceed with caution. All works referenced are cited at the bottom of this page.
How does one begin to understand the meaning of death? The very idea is one that many find haunting, always looming in the background as we make our way through our lives on Earth, eerily inching closer with every passing moment. Because of the great unknowns that accompany it, death is often seen as a fluid and controversial subject, possessing different meanings depending on culture, society, religion, and other factors. Regardless of how we choose to interpret it, it is something that is guaranteed to happen, dissimilar to most things in this world. While that existential terror can be horrifying to think about, creator and director Hideaki Anno uses his 1997 film, The End of Evangelion, to hypothesize that death should not be something to fear, but rather something to celebrate. As authors Audre Lorde and Val Plumwood, each writing about the human necessity of survival, support: it is not about evaluating what we lose with death or being near death, but instead, recognizing what we gain. Once we can understand the naturality of our physical transcendence, we can be more prepared for its inevitability.
After heavy fan outrage to the unsatisfying finale of the television series Neon Genesis Evangelion in 1995, due to the show’s small budget and production issues, Anno returned to conclude his series for good in 1997 with The End of Evangelion, a theatrical film divided into two 45 minute ‘redos’ of episodes 25 and 26. By the time episode 26, entitled “I'll Give My True Love To You,” begins, the humans have already lost. An event called ‘The Third Impact,’ Evangelion's terminology of describing the final human apocalypse, has arrived, courtesy of the Japanese government’s invasion of the protagonist organization NERV’s facilities and elimination of everything inside, people and objects. What ensues is an apocalypse film lacking any hope of survival, focused more on showing the meaninglessness of our physical demise rather than seeking to relay the age-old adage of ‘humans overcoming hardships,’ like many other acclaimed films in the sub-genre. Using intricate visuals, monologues, and character studies, The End of Evangelion looks into what human death can bring instead of assessing what it can take away.
It’s hard to even acknowledge or understand these concepts until we go through a significant event, one that alters the way we see both ourselves and life as a whole. For Australian feminist Val Plumwood, this event occurred within “Kakadu’s paperbark wetlands” (Plumwood 1), where she faced a horrifying crocodile attack, navigating the gray area between physical life and death for an incredibly long time before finding help and eventually surviving. While the author then goes on to provide insight on the fragility and trans-dimensionality of the human race, emphasizing the idea of "narrative continuity" (7), Plumwood notes that it is only because of her experiences in Kakadu that her mind was even opened to these ideas. “The gift of gratitude came from the searing flash of near-death knowledge, a glimpse ‘from the outside’ of the alien, incomprehensible world in which the narrative of self has ended” (Plumwood 5). As Plumwood suggests, it is only when one is at the edge of their physical life that they can truly understand and figure out their own personal meanings, and what that means for themselves and the people around them. In her memoir The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde builds on this idea through the lens of her facing her breast cancer diagnosis, and the “choices” (56), “desires” (66), and fears that came with it. “The acceptance of death as a fact, rather than the desire to die, can empower my energies with a forcefulness and vigor not always possible when one eye is out unconsciously for eternity” (Lorde 23). Ironically, she suggests, the closer we are to our death, the more we understand about our life.
This key idea is part of what drives The End of Evangelion, particularly in how the events of the Third Impact actually play out on screen. A synthy pop-song, “Komm, Süsser Tod” (which translates from German to “Come, Sweet Death”) is played over grotesque and sometimes terrifying visuals of the human race witnessing the end of the line. As characters reach the end of their physical lives before exploding into an amber-colored liquid, dubbed LCL, there isn’t a “bright light” beckoning them. Rather, manifestations of their loved ones appear, reaching out to grab them and usher them into the next phase of existence. By humanizing the final moments of our physical existence, Anno is able to make the heavy scenes centered around the world’s demise comforting, and oddly bittersweet. Contrary to popular and even pious belief, Anno suggests that death is not as much about our physical bodies “leaving” this world as it is our mental states “rejoining” others in the next realm.
The idea of gains that arise from loss is one that Lorde explores in The Cancer Journals, using the idea of “choices” (56) and “desires” (66) to describe how she sees and battles her diagnosis, both during it and after. Eventually, Lorde reconciles that breast cancer and the loss of her body is not something to be ashamed about, but something that gave her a much more complex, nuanced, and important understanding of life. “As I slowly began to feel more equal to processing and examining the different parts of this experience, I also began to feel that in the process of losing a breast I had become a more whole person” (Lorde 48). The physical body’s decay does not have to mean, and should not mean, the loss of one’s mental self. Plumwood also uses the lessons she learned from her survival to reach a similar conclusion, exploring the idea of a "narrative continuity" (Plumwood 7) between our physical life and whatever is next. The loss of one’s physical life, she suggests, does not and cannot connote the loss of their mental being.
Through the seven-minute Third Impact montage, The End of Evangelion similarly suggests that there should not be any distinction between death and life. Instead, the two exist to complement each other in a constantly synchronous harmony, making each more powerful and important in the process. Without having death at the end of this line, it would be impossible to enjoy life. Without living life, we would never be able to prepare ourselves for whatever death brings, whether that be the path to another existence or a vast celestial pit of nothingness. As a result of life and death’s natural “narrative continuity” (Plumwood 7), the space between the two should not be seen as miles wide, but rather, a single step away.
While the apocalyptic Third Impact is perhaps the most daunting and terrifying part of the entire episode, it is far from the only concept that The End of Evangelion explores. Lorde’s idea of making “choices” (56), and the individual and collective prices that come with it, also takes on a significant role in Evangelion. After the events of the Third Impact relay on screen, “I'll Give My True Love To You” takes place entirely within the inner psyche of the series’ central character, Shinji Ikari, as he copes with the fate of the world resting in his hands while confronting his deep depression and insecurities at the same time. The only one spared from the events happening in the Third Impact, Shinji is forced to decide if each person deserves to have their own individual autonomous being or if the world would be better if all souls were merged into one, a “world without the inner walls” as Evangelion describes it. It is a tempting offer either way. Would things really be better if everyone completely understood each other but couldn’t exist separately? Given all the ways humans have ruined the world and each other – is the price of all this destruction worth the value of everyone’s different independences?
The answer to both of these questions, and many additional questions on life’s and death’s shared plane, depend significantly on the culture and context that it is looked at in. Evangelion’s idea of a “world without walls” could easily be categorized as a metaphor for Eastern culture’s collectivism, especially in Aboriginal Australian culture explored by Plumwood. Oppositely, the idea of independence, a world “with the inner walls” (The End of Evangelion), can easily be metaphorized as Western individualism. Unsurprisingly, Eastern and Western cultures see death in a very different light. In her greater analysis of "narrative continuity" (Plumwood 7), Plumwood spends a few paragraphs making observations about Aboriginal thoughts on life and death, making an implied comparison to Western culture’s perception. “Aboriginal thinking about death sees animals, plants, and humans sharing a common life force. Their cultural stories often express continuity and fluidity between humans and other life that enables a degree of transcendence of the individual’s death” (Plumwood 7). In Abrahamic religious belief, such as Islam, Christianity, and Judaism; death is often seen on a separate plane than life – evident in the idea of a permanent “Heaven” or “Hell”. In both Evangelion and Aboriginal culture, death is seen as a natural and celebratory continuation of our existential journeys. By not seeing death as a great unknown, or a place where we are judged for all of our actions in this life, we can feel more comfortable with the fact that it is something we will eventually confront, rather than being afraid of what will happen to us once our physical body has no meaning.
Lorde’s experiences are unique because during her fight with cancer, her experiences echo both Western and Eastern thought. Individualism lives through her body's personal fight with cancer, while collectivism exists in her realization that this fight is not only hers. It also includes her family, close friends, and women everywhere. “My fears were the fears of us all” (Lorde 26), she says when describing other women’s influence on her personal battles. Lorde goes further to critique the idea of individualism-driven thought. “We reinforce our own isolation and invisibility from each other, as well as the false complacency of a society which would rather not face the results of its own insanities” (Lorde 53). We often “choose” (56), and perhaps even subconsciously “desire” (66), to close ourselves off to others because we think that no one will understand us, or that no one will accept us. The result of that: a society composed of people pretending to know what they’re doing, too scared to confront the overwhelming aura of loneliness that always lurks beneath the surface. We pretend and reinforce the idea that everything is okay, because at the end of the day, we do not know how to live otherwise.
As someone who also deals with his loneliness by consistently running away from both others and himself, Shinji is also forced to confront these concepts during his evaluation of the human race in “I’ll Give My True Love To You.” As he comes to discover, and just as Lorde suggests, the individual soul can and must exist. But at the same time, and as Plumwood explores, we must be open to understanding others, and understanding things that can be difficult to think about – including both life and death. We must take comfort in the fact that we will never know what death brings, as much as we theorize. Instead, true value lies in each finite experience we go through, and the understanding that it is our relationships to ourselves and to others that keep us going. The power to make our “choices” (Lorde 56), to have our own “desires” (Lorde 66), are what essentially come to define our “narrative” (Plumwood 7), keeping us alive long after we have transcended from this world, even considering whatever may happen next.
In Evangelion, this idea manifests through NERV’s slogan: “God’s In His Heaven, All’s Right With The World” (The End of Evangelion). Taken from Robert Browning’s 1841 play Pippa Passes, the nine words always lurk in the background of both the series and the film, haunting every decision that each character makes and the consequences that come with it. As Evangelion shows, humans are inherently flawed – we will always end up destroying things, destroying each other, and destroying the planet. Just as the film, Plumwood, and Lorde suggest though, the physical Earth itself will always continue to go on, long after we are gone. Nature will regrow, the sun and moon will be in the sky, and the life that is left will continue to progress. In years, there won’t be anything left of us here. But there is always a hope that we will be somewhere, even if it is just us alone in a dark and endless reality. “The door to both the beginning and end of the world is open at last” (The End of Evangelion), one of NERV’s commanders says as the Third Impact begins to commence. When that does happen, in whatever form, hopefully we will be ready to walk through the doorway into our next life, with our “lost” ones by our side and our past experiences to guide us. At that point, it is not about leaving home anymore. It is homecoming.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion. Directed by Hideaki Anno and Kazuya
Tsurumaki, performances by Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi, and Yuko Miyamura, GAINAX, 1997.
Neon Genesis Evangelion. Directed by Hideaki Anno, performances by Megumi Ogata, Megumi Hayashibara, Kotono Mitsuishi, and Yuko Miyamura, GAINAX, 1995.
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