Complicating the ‘Message’ of Evangelion: Instrumentality and You
People are highly reductive about the final ‘message’ of
Neon Genesis Evangelion. This might be a symptom of how the relative confusion of the show sits alongside parts that are clearly brilliant: they want to reduce it to some sort of takeaway point
that it’s all building towards because they’re either scared that it’s so good
that it justifies what looks like chaos if you pay enough attention- this is
the truth- or they’re so overwhelmed and frustrated that they want to believe
that it’s not actually that great, and that it’s ultimately making a basic point.
This ‘basic point’ in question is to do with Instrumentality. The moral dichotomy
that people think is being set up is:
Either live with everyone in perfect theoretical harmony
where no one has any differences and everyone fills each other’s flaws and
there can be nothing but total understanding and happiness i.e. Instrumentality
Choose individuality and accept that the best course of
action is to be kind to one another, even though everyone has the choice to be
So they think that it’s just about the hedgehog’s dilemma,
that AT fields are just a metaphor for the barriers we put up against one
another and that all the personal issues in the show, all the parental and
sexual stuff, can be reduced to “Come on guys, just be nice to each other”.
This is obviously wrong.
This understanding emerges because lots of people don’t want
to challenge themselves or to let a TV show be complicated. Evangelion became a
meme, and people always assume that once a piece of art becomes a meme it must
be in some way hollow or adolescent. However, to paraphrase Bloom:
“A diminished Evangelion is a critic’s creation”
That is, if you can find it in the show, it’s there and it’s
real, and there’s no reason to theorise about how the show isn’t as complex or
as good as it appears. Most people are bad critics though, and they tend to
think they are smart for having realised a universal message. In fact,
universal messages are such a prerequisite of common art that I think one
possible definition of art would be that it has a universality to it.
So saying that the instrumentality-problem (the dichotomy
mentioned above) is a universal problem, and ‘solving’ the show in that way, is
symptomatic of reductive criticism, which is most people’s first mode of
criticism. What about an expansive criticism of Evangelion? What would that
Well, firstly, suggesting instrumentality as a potential end
all solution ignores what happens in the show. Instrumentality is actually
Seele’s final plan, which a lot of people overlook, and it’s a partisan effort
to either lock all the members into Eva 06 and become like one of the first ancestral
race, or to just eliminate humanity and return to liquid. Gendo’s version of
instrumentality is either a very specific one where it’s just him and Yui, or one
where he becomes a God alongside Yui in some sense. Seele here is clearly evil, and Gendo is endorsing hyper-solipsism.
Shinji is solipsistic in his worst moments, the moments when he doesn’t care
about saving people by piloting Eva, when he just cares about his own emotions,
and as we see from 3.33 Gendo is willing to trash the world, trash Nerv, and
live out his life as the king of a broken castle just to get Yui back, because
as soon as that happens nothing else matters, only his own stream of
We should learn a lot about the nature of instrumentality from
its actual presentation and how it is suggested as a thought experiment when
contrasted with the other big questions of the show. One of these begins in the
clip show with Rei, and it is “Who is the real me”: is it the me that I
perceive, the me that is real, or the several mes that exist within the minds
of other people? There’s a Rei that Shinji knows, a Rei that Asuka knows, a Rei
that Gendo knows- so when Instrumentality occurs, which of these enter the LCL?
The transition might be traumatic because Anno is putting in the characters
with the “real” versions of the other characters, not just the ones that they
know. In fact, we get a glimpse of this happening when Shinji does his Instrumentality
trial period and gets sucked into 01 after the Zeruel fight. He’s able to meet
other people in there, so presumably he has full versions of them in his head.
I think Anno is offering us a full vision of solipsism: that instrumentality
with an individual focus is a hell of self-punishment, that every human being
can be their own universe.
Episode 25, when Instrumentality does occur, is accordingly
pretty dark. Anno is certainly not playing the trope of “instrumentality is a tempting
paradise which you must resist”: it’s a kind of torment. Maybe it was only
going to be a torment for the first few days, before everyone’s differences
became resolved once they’d yelled at Shinji enough. But what I’m seeing is
that the “hell of other people” in the universe of solipsism isn’t actually
much different to “other people” in the universe of instrumentality. It seems
less like people are so far inside each other that they understand each other
perfectly, and more like those people can’t now run away because they’re with
each other in the LCL. They have no choice but to be berated until their
differences are resolved.
Evangelion is really a show about parenthood, in large part,
and I think it’s a show about parenthood because that’s the best way to show
that some people just do prefer
people to other people. Shinji cares about Gendo’s approval even though he’s a
dick because that’s his father, Yui is attached to Shinji even from within the
Eva, Shinji is attached to Rei because she’s his mother, Misato loves Kaji
because she’s reminded of her father- there’s also the Ritsuko/Dr.Akagi angle,
and the fact that to pilot an Eva you basically have to have your mother’s soul
in it. It would be fine if we could return to an instrumentality state where
there are no differentials, where everyone is equal to everyone, but I feel
that this option is weighed against the idea that human interaction is made
complex because parents always mean more, because you can’t just reduce human
relations to “let’s all be nice to one another”. There’s a lot of beration
because, for instance, Gendo refuses to care for Shinji like he cares for Rei,
and it’s hard to see how the LCL might fix that.
My point is not that we should think that instrumentality is
good before we realise it is evil, my point is that Anno is showing that
instrumentality is bad by demonstrating what humans are really like, which
leads us to his central point: a unique, stunning note that is struck by the
show and which, as I see it, appears in no other piece of literature, film or
music that I know of:
What motivates you is what you hate in other people
There’s a lot of talk about morals and messages in literature,
but I don’t think anyone ever really learns from those things, they just enjoy
them, but I feel like the above point is actually carried out so fully and so
subversively that it really elevates Evangelion to being quite a great piece of
art, it actually comes to form such an apocalyptic, nihilistic view of human
interaction that it stays with me beyond the credits rolling. Let me explain.
One of the main questions that is repeated in the long,
introspective segments is “Why do you Pilot Eva”. In Episode 25 we cycle
through the three pilots, while within instrumentality, and everyone else in
the LCL with them ask them a series of reductio
ad absurdum questions about their reasons for doing stuff. This question
arises more than would seem normal compared to other questions, and that’s
because Anno wants us to realise that we only do things because of other
Shinji does it because he wants people to like him, or
because his father tells him to, or because he’s just plain pressured into it.
Rei does it because Gendo won’t let her die (basically)
Asuka does it because she can’t get security from other
people since her mother died, so she just wants to be the best instead
This is all very dark, especially for a sequence of
children, but it shows you that all these moments are driven forward by the difficult
and troubled relations we have with others. The solipsistic, even suicidal
route is to decide that none of it matters and to let the angels win, the more
motivated route is to do something about it, but this often ends up with strangling
Asuka on a beach, because you can’t skip the stage where you have to test if
others care about you. You need WILL to keep on going: those who want to leave
the LCL, who have the will to live, can choose to, which is the shows most
explicit example of the importance of self-will. In Episode 24 Misato tells
Shinji that Kaworu died because he had no will to live, and that Shinji did
nothing wrong: at this point, after Kaji and Kaworu’s deaths, both characters
are so far into their own developments and the full tragic understanding that I
can’t help but feel that the conversation ranks somewhere on the scale of great
literature. Is Misato only talking like that because she has moved into a space
of detachment? Or does what she say have a significance for instrumentality?
The thing about Will is that it becomes her organisation’s
name (Wille) in 3.33, because at that point they’re only staying alive because
they can. For all they know they’re the last humans anyway. They could give up
their will, but this would just be the solipsism of the LCL, it would be a
regression into death.
There are many telling lines and dialogue exchanges in NGE
because it’s the greatest show of all time: but I just want to bring your
attention to quite a remarkable one in episode 25, where Shinji laments that
Instrumentality is “a world where everything’s already set”, to which Misato
responds, correcting him:
“It’s a world where
you make the decisions.”
In a world where there’s no-one to push against, where there
are no qualities left to hate in anyone, Shinji initially can’t tell the
difference between a world which he chooses and a world which he does not,
because he has lived for so long, like all other humans, only existing and only
having a will, a will to choose or to push forward or to motivate oneself,
because of what he hates about others. Left to his own devices, he chooses a
world around him which he hates because that’s the life he knows. There is no
conception of a full life with instrumentality because there is no life without
other people. There is no life without the will: Misato is proven right. The
great issue of psychology in Evangelion is that you can reduce this hate-motivation
to absurdity easily with the question “why pilot Eva”: the balance can be upset
so, so easily within real people, and that brings us back to realising the
original allure of instrumentality to both evil and good characters.
What we basically end up with is “expansive” criticism
because we’ve started with instrumentality, a show concept, and widened it up
in order to realise that to solve the emotional and relational problems of NGE
characters is to theorise about the complexity of the human personality itself:
the idea that things maybe could be simple, if it wasn’t that loving others is
tough, that Misato’s love for Kaji could be real but it’s always muddied and
made complex by her feelings for her father and her imposed feelings of
impurity. If you look to the instrumentality-dichotomy as a solution then you
miss the real fireworks, which is the astonishing psychological depth and reality
of the characters and their cyclical, convincing problems.
I could write about Evangelion forever because it’s not like
other shows: it’s not an “arc”, it doesn’t have character “arcs” or plotted character
“development”- moreover, since when did that become a thing? How boring. It’s
in the word itself: you can plot an arc on a graph. You can predict the
development of Walter White and of Louie on Louie.
Those are my other two favourite shows, but for the most part they’re either
abstract stories in self-contained episodes or they’re parabolic stories where
deep down, you know exactly what’s going to happen, and their efforts to be
unpredictable ring hollow and meta-theatrical, not true-to-life. Evangelion is
way ahead of those because, to me, it feels like one big crescendo: Anno gets
so much out of turning up the heat on his big ideas by demonstrating how those
questions come to matter for his characters in actual scenarios which show the
tragedy of human interaction, and he weaves a Blake-esque web of symbolism and
resonance (parenthood, religion, Gods, consciousness) which (and this is quite
unique) actually feels like it matters beyond figuring it out in order to
figure out the puzzle for its own sake.
I think this show is popular amongst losers not because
Shinji is so alone, but because of that quite nerdy, but quite powerful and
intelligent property in some rare, well-crafted pieces of art: the Will to
Negation, the great drive towards total personal destruction, the fear of
staring down the straight line, the crescendo-destruction where instead of
arcing over, everything in the plot seems to resonate at a higher and higher
frequency, like in Hamlet, until some remarkable, inexhaustibly meditatable
condition is reached and the story leaves us. I can’t explain that any more
than that: losers like it because of the Will to Negation, and I know that that
dot is joined, but I can’t join that dot for you, I just know it to be true in
the lives of people. The ‘message’ is a fullness, not an aphorism, and the
fullness means more to people who are more broken than others, but I don’t know
I feel like I could write endless posts about Evangelion, I
feel like it’s inexhaustible to meditation. I don’t think analysis of it either
begins or ends with “be nice to others” as a message, I think that it’s the
product of a artist-director who, for certain stretches of the show, was way up
at the height of his powers, and was showing what he thought about what life is
like at a very intense pitch.
Of all elements of storytelling, dialogue should be the one of greatest facility as humans talk all the time, too much really, but it is not easy. In fact, it is one of the most difficult elements to master if not uniquely talented.
Face to face conversations do not simply depend on words. Body language plays an important role in conveying ideas and sentiment. It happens simultaneously and is picked up by many subconsciously. Writing body language to accompany dialogue is not easy and tends to disrupt the flow of information and break attention. The second reason dialogue can be difficult is trying to write how humans speak in verisimilitude. This includes inflection, idiom, wandering off topic, etc…
Do now fret, there are simple solutions. Easy to learn too.
1) Dialogue should reflect how humans converse in that people don’t tell the whole truth. I had a hard time not just blabbing out the whole, honest truth between interlocuters at first. We all hide and limit what we say for progressive or defensive purposes. Characters have agency and motives in the mimetic realm of fiction; therefore, each conversation should parallel the internal wants and needs of the interlocuter. That means defensive lying is fine and encouraged if it is important to the story. Also, if it is an intimate scene of revelation where the whole truth is warranted, then do so.
For the most part though, we never tell the whole truth when we speak and we tend to use “go to” phrases as a means to transition from one topic to another with the utmost efficient deflection. The most prominent lie that most humans tell is a response to the question “How are you?” And what is that? “Fine.” This is done because we know most people don’t really want to know how we are actually doing and we don’t want to tell them. It is a pleasantry and an acknowledgement but it allows for a continued interaction that grows organically instead of blurting out statement that reveals truth and frontloads in such as a way bring the conversation to a screeching halt. Then, there is no way to further delivery of information in discrete units.
See. Not so hard.
2) Each character should have their own unique way of speaking or turning a phrase though it should vary depending on circumstance and context. Sure you can give them catchphrases or speak in grandiloquent manner but that’s dull and no one adheres to strict rules locution all the time. No character who has a gun to their head is going to rattle off Proust quotes or use complex vocabulary. Unless they are a supervillain, but then all bets are off because they are insane.
You can give them a lisp or stutter and try to manifest through phonetic means, but don’t unless it is absolutely a defining element of the character and even then it can backfire. For example, I created a character who never used contractions. Not once did he utter can’t or won’t until the very end after he went through a profound existential change. Why? The character was insecure. He gave himself more time to reply to question and slowed down interactions. After he became more confident, he uttered contractions at the end. An editor who reviewed the manuscript told me the dialogue was stilted and unnatural for the character. My reply was ‘That’s the point’ and it was based on a real person who spoke that way. The editor did not care about that. Only that readers would dislike the character because of the way he spoke. That book was not published by that house. This does not mean you cannot give a character a very stylized manner of discourse. Words reflect the internal condition of the interlocuter and the condition they inhabit at the time.
What can you do otherwise?
3) Each person/character has a limited vocabulary and uses certain words all the time. Be consistent with the usage. Some people/characters speak in short sentences. Basically, vary the way all the characters speak. If all the characters speak the same way, with the same interests, then you have written nothing but the way you probably speak or think. Serve the story and not your ego. A reader should be able to have a very good guess to which character spoke a line if isolated from the context of the narrative.
4) Simple. Simple. Simple. No exposition. No explaining the world around them and current situation. That should be done with setting, plot, and the causal incidents/conflicts depicted by the narrative. For example, no character when in the heat of battle should say “The enemy hates us for our freedoms and has taken up arms. They fire with the intent to kill us and rule our land.” That sort of stuff should be redundant at that point and the dialogue should reveal the plot unfolding or the character. This can be done in very specific situations. I refer to what screenwriters call “The pope in the pool” type of exposition of dialogue.
To reiterate, dialogue should reveal the character or the plot or both as Vonnegut said.
5) People don’t have the attention span for reading long monologues. Keep away. Distribute information in units that will be absorbed or run the risk of readers glazing over.
There is obviously more to constructing dialogue but I will leave you with a simple observation from reading too many psychology texts.
6) People who are confident and in a dominant position almost never use “I” in conversation to underlings. Those in an insecure status or lower position, use “I” frequently to reinforce to the dominant interlocuter that they indeed have accomplished acts and have potency by using this constant self-referral.
And also always remember, first drafts are crap. You have future drafts to refine execution.