31 May 2010

reading into anime

Many many years ago, there was a sitcom on NBC called “Stark Raving Mad.” For those unfamiliar with the show, it starred a pre-Monk Tony Shalhoub as horror writer Ian Stark and a post-Doogie Neil Patrick Harris as his editor, Henry McNeeley. On one of the episodes, Ian and Henry endeavor to help their friend Maddie pass her english lit class by writing a paper for her based on one of Ian’s books. When the grade comes back a B, Ian is upset by this and confronts the professor about it. The professor proceeds to ramble off on the interpretations of symbols and whatnot in the book, all things that Ian had written in with no real underlying motives. When he tells the professor he never intended to add such weight to the book, the professor tells him he’s wrong, and that there is more to the book than he could have ever known, despite having wrote it. In the end, Ian lashes out, revealing that he had written the paper, and that his own views were the correct ones, and that the professor was reading into things that are not there. The professor, of course, fails Maddie. And more hilarity ensues later.

The reason for this tale is twofold: how much can someone read into symbols and concepts found within media, and do they need to be intentionally inserted to still be valid?

Not long ago, I got into a discussion with some fellow fans about how much of the symbolism found in Neon Genesis Evangelion was really there, and how much of it was just grasping at straws. Despite talking for over 2 hours, and despite the inevitable quoting of Hideaki Anno’s insistence that a lot of the symbolism found in Evangelion was simply put there because it looked cool, we still could not come to a consensus about whether or not the deeper looks into Evangelion were the end result of underlying themes or just a lot of people seeing what they wanted to see.

On the surface, there is a good deal of symbolism inherent within the show, intentional or not. Any series that uses religious terms and religious concepts to explain itself or add flavor to its story and characterizations runs the risk of being analyzed. The reason behind this is because the creators are using real world concepts and symbols that hold meaning for groups in their creations. Those people who have a connection to those symbols, intentional or not, are going to look at how they are portrayed, and see if there are parallels between their use in the media and their use in the sacred-symbolic context. This is going to happen, especially when the symbols and names are taken from a source as well known as Christianity, and used in such a way that they at times mirror themes and ideas presented in the Bible. Coincidence can only go so far when the subject matter is so well known, and so important to some people.

Along the same lines, when you get into a show as popular as Evangelion, there will always spring up around it debate between fans. This is a universal truth not limited to fandom studies, wherever you find something of great importance in any medium, debate and discussion will always come afterwards. Scholarly debates of paradigms and theorems, social scientific debates of culture shock and evolutionary politics, artistic critiques of media, the moment something is created, and even moreso when it “breaks,” there is always open invitation for fans, scholars, debaters, anyone really, to discuss what they see. And since a good deal of debate centers around personal interpretation and emotion, it is also not unlikely that these debates will become heated. (I’ve witnessed fistfights at AAA gatherings, both during and after the lectures, between two fiery anthropologists who disagree. I’ve even taken part in shouting matches over which opinions are “right” and “wrong.” For the record, there are no wrong opinions, as long as you can back them up with rational examples. But that doesn’t stop passionate people from trying.) Exactly how much of this is reaching? Probably a lot of it. Is this a bad thing? Depends on who you ask.

Take the following idea. A lot of qabbalah symbols show up in End of Evangelion. There is even a moment near the end of the first half where Shinji, in full berserk mode, grows a pair of wings on Unit 01, and is taken up into the sky the mass-produced EVA units. For a split second, the units are all arranged in a way that mirrors the Tree of Life, a central concept to the idea of the sephirot, or human ascension. The tree appears in the foreground, and the Human Instrumentality Project, SEELE’s vision of human ascension, commences. A very powerful, visually stunning sequence. Many would look at that and draw the same conclusions I just did- mankind is walking the tree, they are about to ascend. And others would say that it was just a powerful scene from a powerful story, nothing more.

Who, then, is right?

Both sides, because both sides saw the scene and took different things away from it. For those who began to draw parallels from the qabbalah, it was because they recognized something that was familiar to them, and began to make connections to other aspects of the story. To those who saw it as a simple scene with great power to it, it was a pivotal turning point in a compelling story that was amazing to look at. Was the former group reaching in its interpretation? No, because the symbol was there, they saw it, they knew it. Was it intentionally put there to convey the idea of qabbalistic ascendancy?

A better question would be, does it matter?

Regardless of whether or not the image was intentionally put there to convey such a response does not change the fact that it was there, and some people felt said response. If it was a coincidence, then it was a powerful one. If it was intentional, then it served its purpose.

Anime, indeed most media, is full of this concept. Sometimes the symbolism is directly lifted from real world mythologies and systems. Sometimes the symbols are alluded to. And sometimes the ideas behind a symbol or ritual are mirrored and reinterpreted in a new light. Maybe half of this is done with the “sacredness” of the symbol in mind. Admittedly, a good deal of symbolic and mythological ideas are littered across all creative media, because their themes resonate in such a way that they make sense.

Joseph Campbell once insisted that myths are “found”, and that they come from the “mystical region of essential experience.” (Myths of Light). The idea of shared culture and shared symbolism means that, even when used unintentionally, they appeal to a part of us that goes beyond the immediate world, and we can relate to them because they speak to us on another level. As Victor Turner points out frequently, symbols themselves are manmade representations of sacred and mystical concepts, they only have power because we feel they do and assign meaning to them. (A Forest of Symbols). If this is truly the case, then even the unintentional symbol is itself intentional, because the connotations and emotions it invokes are universal to all mankind. So then, again if this is the case, everything is done, at least in part, intentionally, because on a deeper psychological or metaphysical level, our experiences instruct us to see, use and create what we know.

I’d like to close with an idea that just recently came into my mind. It falls under this very idea of reaching. I’ve thrown this around to a few groups in the past few days, and gotten some interesting feedback. Take from it what you will.

In classic Pokemon, before the series became inundated with hundreds of strangely named critters and epic monsters of legend, there were two Pokemon named Mew and MewTwo. Mew was a powerful creature of legend, the first truly legendary Pokemon among many. It was elusive, unique, and sought after for its wisdom, and for its power. A man of few scruples, Giovanni, managed to acquire the DNA of Mew and used it to create a more powerful creature, MewTwo. His motivations were classically human: he wanted power, and he would do anything to get it. He created MewTwo to give him that power. But MewTwo rebelled, destroyed Giovanni’s mansion, and vanished, seeking answers about his creation, and lusting for the very power Giovanni craved. In time, MewTwo would do battle with Mew, their conflict holding the very foundations of life in the balance.

This struggle is indicative of a classic tale from mythology: humanity sees a creature of pure innocence and power, sort of a harbinger of the universe, a force of life, a force of pure consciousness, and covets what it sees. It seeks to capture that power, harness it, bend it to its will, because that is inherently what humanity does. It plays with god, plays with nature, and manages, beyond the scope of possibility, to bring it under heel and strip out the most powerful parts, at the expense of its balancing agents, like compassions, wisdom and mercy. The resulting creation, heralded as a new era in human achievement, rebels, destroys its creators, and goes on a rampage to determine its truth, because it lacks the same balancing agents that are necessary to contain and regulate that power. It takes an encounter with one that does possess those traits to awaken it from its madness and teach it the truth behind the universe.

In this tale, Mew is nature and MewTwo is science. Mew is passive, defensive, and wise. MewTwo is angry, aggressive and destructive. Mew Is peace. MewTwo is war. Mew is love. MewTwo is hate. Mew is the past. MewTwo is the future. Mew is pure, but can be corrupted. MewTwo is corrupted, but capable of being purified. They must do battle. Mew refuses to fight, only defend. MewTwo rages and battles, throwing his onslaught of psychic potential at his enemy. Psychic human anger meets pure human consciousness. And MewTwo stands down, because he realizes his folly. It’s been told before, countless times. And here it is told again.

Am i reaching? Yes, most definitely. Am I reading into something that isn’t there, that only exists in my mind? Probably. Am I showing how a children’s anime mirrors a mythological and philosophical concept that repeats throughout history? I’d like to think that I am.

Am I wrong to do so? I showed you my evidence. Show me yours.


  1. "Coincidence can only go so far when the subject matter is so well known, and so important to some people. "

    But Hideaki Anno openly stated he never thought Westerners would see the show, it was only for Japanese people, and there are virtually no Christians in Japan.

    No, it is not "both", because quite simply...it doesn't matter how you personally interpret the story.

    What matters is the creator's intent.

    For Lord of the Rings, for example, some chose to interpret that it was about the Vietnam War, that Sauron was the military draft, and that pipe weed was marijauna. This wasn't "a legitimate alternate interpretation"...on the level of "was Boromir a good or bad person?"...this was flatly contradicting something the author stated.

    Stop trying to interpret Eva, and start trying to find an explanation; its actually not that difficult of a series to understand.

    Interpretations are meaningless if they were not intended by the creators; the task at hand is, as you do put it at one point, to prove or disprove if the Gainax creators honestly meant the symbols to mean anything. Consistently, they've said they didn't intend anything with them, they were nothing more than a gimmick.

    Now you have to prove or disprove that, by finding alternate statements by Gainax that might contradict this. But at the moment...

    ...well, if you walked into a crowded panel room and made it clear to preface yourself by saying "the Gainax creators have openly stated that the religious symbols weren't meant to have any higher significance to the Japanese audience"...how many people would take that panel seriously?

    By all means, you can draw "connect the dots"; just as I could use Greek Myth and say that "Gendo is sort of like Zeus, and Misato is sort of like Athena"....but that's just jamming a round peg into a square hole. It doesn't prove or disprove that the authors/creators intended anything of the kind.

    Its just hard for some fans to grasp that 1 - the world doesn't revolve around the USA, Gainax never thought people here would watch it, and 2 - blatant religious symbols like crosses seem unusual, unknown, and exotic to Japanese people. You see *in Japan*, these aren't "well known" religious symbols at all.

    By your logic, each individual's personal interpretation of Evangelion is its own, unique version of the show, each with equal claim to being the original.

    There's only one Evangelion, Hideaki Anno's Evangelion.

  2. Heh, I know someone who thinks that while there might be no religious symbols in "Evangelion", there was a underlying reason those symbols created on the show, so maybe we're just having it both ways all this time and not knowing it. In other words, there's no religious meaning to the symbols, but there's a reason they're there. What it is, well, your guess is good as mine a, like what you just wrote; I'll go with "thematic" myself and leave it at that. Love to be proven wrong though.