Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we look at the baffling ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Hideaki Anno’s anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the greatest animated works of all time. It also has one of the most bizarre and baffling endings of all time. While the allure of the show comes from images of giant robots fighting monsters, it is more than just spectacle, and its ending makes sure the audience knows that.
Anno wants to create something deeper than just mindless violence. Instead, he creates complex lore for the series that reduces humanity to nothing but ants and displays the inevitability of death at the hands of a higher power. He deals with themes of religion, isolation, and what it means to be a human. In short, the series is absolutely soul-crushing.
Neon Genesis Evangelion has served as the inspiration for future anime series, such as the Gundam series and Gurren Lagan. But there is more to Neon Genesis Evangelion than the original show. It has spawned a franchise of films that retell the series and, importantly, rewrite the ending.
For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be focusing on the original ending of the 1995 series. It is considered the most perplexing and was completely unexpected, as the last two episodes become obscure examinations of the human mind rather than the expected epic battle for humanity. However, it feels almost appropriate in the show’s trajectory and slow transition into psychoanalysis.
The series begins in Toyko-3 after a cataclysmic event called Second Impact. Two million people were killed, polar ice caps melted, and scientists confirmed the existence of both Adam and Lilith, the two original angels created by a progenitor race. Adam and Lilith are seeds of life, extraterrestrial beings responsible for angels and humans, respectively.
First Impact occurred billions of years ago when Lilith crashed to Earth. Adam was already here, poised to create the race of angels. It is disastrous for two seeds of life to be on the same planet, so only one can prevail. Both beings were equipped with an extraterrestrial weapon called the spear of Longinus, and Adam’s spear activated and essentially sedated him. This left Lilith to populate Earth and bring about humans, or Lillin as they are sometimes called.
Now, after an apocalyptic event, humanity is facing another doom: monsters called Angels, which are the children of Adam. These angels are not the winged humans often depicted in religious works; instead, Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s angels are monstrous forms whose goal is to reclaim Earth and destroy humanity.
To fight these powerful beings, the mysterious organization NERV creates giant mechs, or robots, called Evas that can only be piloted by teenagers. Shinji Ikari is one of the select few who can meld his nervous system with his Eva Unit-01. Using this bond between child and machine, Shinji and the other pilots are able to commandeer the Evas and throw themselves in battle with extraterrestrial forces.
Yet as these teenagers believe their sacrifices are helping save humanity, they are in fact being manipulated by NERV and Seele (the German word for soul), another secret government organization. The leaders of Seele use children to bring about Third Impact and human instrumentality.
Human instrumentality is a crucial concept to understanding Neon Genesis Evangelion and its ending. Seele wishes to bring about this event as the next step in human evolution, which involves forcing all human souls to come together and create one amorphous being. Here, humans can fill the holes in each other’s hearts and minds, which is a seeming cure for loneliness and insecurity. In this form, humans can become closer to God.
While there is no obvious marker of the beginning of human instrumentality, it can be argued that it begins at the end of Episode 24, with Episodes 25 and 26 illustrating Shinji’s own assimilation in the amalgamation of humanity and subsequent rejection of the process.
Episode 24 culminates in the murder of the seventeenth and final angel, Kaworu Nagisa, at the hands of Shinji. Dwarfed in the hand of Shinji’s Eva, Kowuro asks for death as a final act of freedom, declaring that he no longer wishes to destroy humanity; he instead wants it to survive.
While the destruction of the final angel would seem to be what saves humanity, it instead kickstarts the doom planned by Seele. It is not explicitly shown how or why, but with the strange events of the following episode, it can be deduced that the human instrumentality project has begun.
The death of Kaworu is dramatic, epic in size, and feels as if everyone is teetering on the precipice of disaster. But Anno subverts these expectations with the final two episodes, which are sparsely animated and rather subdued, fueled only by dialogue.
Both episodes completely change in tone and aesthetics as no mechs are shown and there is no dramatic reveal about what human instrumentality looks like. Instead, Anno chooses a much more introspective look at the apocalypse and what goes through someone’s mind as they dissolve into one massive form.
In Episode 25, Shinji is shown sitting in a dark room with his head in his hands. Here he contemplates who he is and how truly lonely he feels. Around him, characters question him about life, as well as try to parse their own experiences and traumas.
These intermingled moments of realization illustrate how everyone is slowly coming together, melding hearts and minds. They all finally know each other, their deepest fears, their worst memories, and their strongest anxieties. In coming together, they will somehow fill the holes in each other’s hearts. Everything is laid bare as they are slowly becoming one.
Then comes Episode 26, where human instrumentality is almost complete and Shinji is still trying to understand his purpose outside of being an Eva pilot. He contemplates his place in the world, and despite his ennui, he ultimately realizes he wants to remain his own person. He refuses to be assimilated into a formless being and instead grasps onto his humanity. Shinji has discovered his worth. With his rejection of instrumentality comes perhaps the most baffling moment of the series: his friends and family stand around him, clapping, and saying, “Congratulations.”
While anticlimactic, it illustrates that this series is not about fighting monsters, but about reconciling what it means to exist. Life comes with pain, loneliness, and sadness, but it is better than feeling nothing at all. Shinji is being congratulated for recognizing his own emotions and seeing them as what makes him, him.
This ending understandably angered fans. Anno’s original ending shifts from spectacle to psychoanalysis. Gainax, the studio that created Neon Genesis Evangelion, is known for its financial struggles, so a lack of resources was partially blamed for the strange and incomplete series finale. All of the money had been spent in the rising action, with nothing left for the climax. But it wasn’t just financial struggles that plagued the production. Anno had no idea how he wanted to end the series.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was born from Anno’s four-year depression, so he grappled with how to encapsulate not only the end of the world but a seeming “end” to mental illness. He struggled with this ending and wound up rewriting it several times in films such as The End of Evangelion, which explicitly shows what happens during instrumentality, and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth, which further explains Seele’s plan. But, as there is no end to mental illness, for Anno, there is no true ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion.
The original ending of the show illustrates that despite the suffering of existence, it is better than feeling nothing at all. There is no true cure for loneliness or self-hatred or any of the negative emotions that come with being human.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show ultimately about acknowledging depression and loneliness and realizing that even the smallest life has a purpose. No higher power or secret organization can truly control a person’s fate; it is crucial that people instead hold on to their own experiences to remain aware of who they are.