The TV That Made Me: Neon Genesis Evangelion
“Bro,” I greeted my brother, who was probably sitting in front of an impossibly intricate and clever spaceship design simulator when I walked into his room. To give you a sense of the scene, I had chewed my nails down to tiny stubs, but still insisted on painting on the shape I thought they should be on the exposed skin in black; my hair, greasy, my skin, flaky, my clothes, unmentionable.
“You see this Neon Genesis thing?” I asked him, referring to the show that he had recommended to me in the last few days: I was fourteen, desperately unslick, and my older brother seemed to have parlayed his way in to some kind of coolness that I was trying to plagiarize by aggressively getting into everything he liked.
“Do they ever explain the Angel things?”
“Or the robots?”
“Sort of. Not a lot.”
And I wandered out his room and decided to just drop that weird anime that I was trying to get into. I was four episodes in, and nothing seemed to have really happened and, well, if nothing was going to be explained, why should I sitck it out? I went back to stealing my brother’s Yellowcard CDs and hoping I could synthesize some semblance of coolness from that. (I couldn’t).
It would be a few years until I returned to Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideko Anno’s legendary and iconic 1990s anime, but this time I was coming in prepared. I knew I was going to get existentialism, angst, bullshit, meandering, and I wanted that straight into my veins. I had just started listening to The Black Parade and I suddenly had a Lot of Feelings that I needed to project on to any bit of pop culture that came my way. My nails had grown back, I had discovered dry shampoo and moisturiser. I was ready.
And this time, I found myself a show that spoke to me in a way nothing else had before. Or has since, if I’m being honest.
It’s very hard to explain what Neon Genesis Evangelion is about. Set in a Tokyo following a near-apocalyptic event that has wiped out most of the human race, and left those remaining to fight mysterious creatures called Angels with giant robots called Evas. And when I put it like that, it probably sounds like a dozen other animes you’ve already seen – throw in a fourteen-year-old angsty leading man, and it’s a dead ringer for at least three I can name off the top of my head. And yet.
The thing that hooked me into NGE was its unapologetic angst. Anno famously wrote the series in the depths of a profound depression, and man, does it fucking show. When I came to this show for the first time, really came to it, it was right as I was beginning to realize that the things I was feeling were not just teenage angst but actually, you know, mental illness. I was dealing with a serious self-harm problem, added to a tasty pile of depression, questioning my sexuality, and a sexual dysfunction that had me convinced nobody would ever want me even if I could decide who I actually wanted to fuck, and Neon Genesis Evangelion seemed to understand that. More than that: it told me there was something profound to be found in the midst of all that madness.
Every single character in Neon Genesis is the textbook definition of a mental illness or six, and watching these characters, at that time in my life, was revelatory. I don’t want to talk too much about the details of the show here (because the story unfolds so gorgeously and is beyond worth watching yourself if you haven’t already), but I just suckered myself on to some of the characters in NGE and never let go. In Asuka, I saw the side of myself that hungered for success and adulation, even against my own well-being; in Misato, I found the aggressive self-destruction wrapped in professional success. I saw deep characters with heavy problems that often weighed them down, who were still finding purpose in their lives, connection in the suffering.
In the depths of a bad place, as I’m sure many of you know, finding any lifeline is a gift, and Neon Genesis, for me, was that lifeline. It didn’t cure me, but it did show me that other people had felt the things I did and found them valuable enough to commit to story. My experiences didn’t seem as hopeless as they once did – still pretty fucking bad, at the time, of course – because someone had taken all their pain and turned it into something that spoke so deeply to other people in the same place. It made me believe, just enough, that maybe I could parlay what I was going through into something worthwhile. And that was enough.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is a deeply odd show, an often inpenetrable one, but it’s one that holds a special place in my heart. I frequently watch the show all the way through, and every time I find something in it – that lifeline, like I did before, the promise that there is something worthwhile in all the hard stuff. And I know that can of attitude isn’t useful to everyone dealing with mental illness or self-destruction, but for me, it was enough to pull me out of the worst. And, years later, I can firmly say that in the process it put me on to one of the best shows of the twentieth century.
That’s it for the second part of The TV That Made Me series and you can find the last part here. Please tune in if you enjoyed this and want to read the rest! And, of course, let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter what media made you. Books, TV, movies – what changed your life, and why?
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(header image courtesy of Youtube)