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Constructing the Self

An analysis of Neon Genesis Evangelion
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Neon Genesis Evangelion is an animated Japanese television series, which aired between 1995 and 1996. A work deep in philosophical meaning and complex thoughts on human psychology, Evangelion has provided a source of investigation and discussion for both anime fans and serious scholars. In the writing below, I attempt to provide an analytically-oriented viewpoint on the series, in order to understand the psychology behind the series as well as to find its place in the context of both its director and its nation of origin.

It also deals with another series by the same director, Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo, but based on the Google searches which lead to this page, no one seems really interested in that...

This paper was written during the spring semester of 2001, for a course on Japanese Animation taught by Prof. Susan Napier. Read it. Learn it. Don't laugh.

Constructing the Self

Views of Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo

Charles Duan
Japanese Literature 135
May 1, 2001

Anno Hideaki is a paradoxical character. In 1994 he began directing an anime series which would prove to become a groundbreaking masterwork in the medium, the psychological and philosophical drama Neon Genesis Evangelion. Considered by many to be one of the greatest series ever created, Evangelion explores the darker sides of the human psyche and even draws into question fundamental ideas of existence. Yet within five years of this complex creation he changed gears completely, beginning work on an upbeat high-school shojo romantic comedy series, Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo (His and Her Circumstances, abbreviated Kare Kano). Differing in nearly every way from his previous animated work, Anno created a series about two perfect high school students, as opposed to the three mentally disturbed fourteen-year-olds from Evangelion, who live a simple normal life, not having to battle mind-invading monsters bent on destroying the world. One immediately wonders if there is even remotely any connection between the two, or if Anno simply had no idea what he was doing.

It is true that it is no easy task to resolve common themes between these two shows, which seem on so many levels to be completely different. Yet a deeper consideration of the themes proves much more revealing with regard to the common underlying philosophical structures beneath them. When we consider these themes, especially those concerning the nature of mankind and his relation to society, we can understand how Anno was able to create consistent meaning between two radically different series. And by considering these two series in the context of humanist psychology, with which Anno was probably familiar, we can illuminate these themes so that we may see them more clearly.

To begin, consider this simple premise: there exist two forms of identity of self, the "real" identity which is inherently present in the self, and the "constructed" identity which is made from "non-natural" human observations and interpretations of a person made by both that person and by others. This should not be too hard to understand; if I want to write poetry but everyone tells me that I am good at mathematics, then my real identity wants me to be a poet while my constructed identity dictates that I should be a mathematician. This idea of the real versus constructed identity is a simple corollary to Lacan's realms of the Real and the Symbolic. I will explain these two concepts in more detail later, but for now the crucial difference between the Real and the Symbolic can be summarized, according to Lacan, in the concept of Lack: whereas there is no lack in the realm of the Real (i.e. everything you want is present), the Symbolic is characterized by lack, since symbols are only necessary when there is a lack of the actual (for example, if I use the word "apple" it is because I lack a physical apple to present).[1] And these concepts of Real and Symbolic can translate into the ideas of identity as Real and Constructed: the real identity is created from the real person, where there is no lack of understanding of the self; the constructed identity is built up out of symbolic representations of that person.

Anno takes this premise of the real and constructed identities and looks at which of these two identities we humans choose to follow, investigates why we choose to follow that identity, and then argues for what he believes we should follow. In both Kare Kano and Evangelion, Anno's common theme can be shown to be his study of the factors which cause the characters of those series to choose to live through the constructed self rather than the real one, and the ways in which they finally break free of these restrictive factors. He does so by exploring the characters' self-discovery of these restricting factors, hoping that we, as the audience, may discover the same factors in ourselves and free ourselves in the same ways.

In this paper, I will look at those factors restricting the real identity that Anno identifies, in the logical sequence of deconstruction of such factors presented by him. It is probably noteworthy, though, that such a progression is much more cleanly and logically done in Evangelion; after all, Anno was restricted himself by having to follow a prewritten manga when directing Kare Kano. In order to identify the degree to which Kare Kano reflected Anno's own thoughts, I made my own comparisons of the anime and manga; these comparisons have revealed that Anno overwhelmingly followed the direction of the original work, but still expanded on certain areas in greater depth, areas which I will point out throughout the course of this paper. Nevertheless, highly similar themes of human identity crop up in both series, indicating that such a study of Anno's psychological analysis of his characters in either series is indeed valid and worthwhile.

Perhaps the simplest reason for living through the constructed identity would simply be that other people tell us to do so-and this is the first reason that Anno presents in both series. Such a theme is easily identified in Kare Kano simply by considering the family of the main character, Arima Soichiro, a character whom Anno emphasizes significantly more than the original manga artist. Arima's parents had stolen from the family fortune and ran away during Arima's childhood; because of that most of Arima's extended family is unwilling to accept him as anything more than "a guest in the Arima family."[2] In order to repay the one uncle and aunt who remained to raise him, Arima feels obligated to be the perfect student, so that he may maintain the honor of his new parents.[3] In this way Arima is living not his own life, but a life constructed-constructed by the extended family which cannot accept his potential true nature, constructed implicitly by his foster parents who want to see their risky investment become worthwhile. It is possible to argue that Arima is constructing this perfect student identity himself, that is, he chose himself to take on such a persona. But even if this were true, the fact of the matter is that such a persona is constructed rather than inherently real. Even though Arima may have created such an identity on his own, such an identity is not his real one but rather one made up from human observations and interpretations.

More complex psychological theory will become necessary in analyzing our other series, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and in particular its focal character, Ikari Shinji. Right from the start of the series it is evident as to who is the oppressive master, as to who is controlling-creating-Shinji's identity: it is his father, Ikari Gendo, who forces his son to take on the identity of the Eva pilot.[4] Shinji's reaction to his father, though, is quite paradoxical: although it is evident from just the first episode that Shinji abhors and does not respect his father,[5] one wonders why, in the twelfth episode, Shinji actually says that he "pilot[s] Eva just to hear my father say those words [of praise]"-he apparently wants his father's approval.[6] How can we explain Shinji's desire for praise from a man he so clearly hates?

A Freudian analysis of Shinji, especially in the context of the Oedipal complex, provides a partial answer, both to this paradoxical relationship with father and to the overriding question of why he chooses the constructed image of self. It is not an unreasonable analysis to make, since there is clear evidence that Anno was heavily influenced by Freud-one episode of Evangelion is entitled "The Oral Stage,"[7] making a clear reference to the earliest stage of child development in Freudian theory. The area on which Evangelion focuses, however, is not the first but rather the third stage, in which all three of the Eva pilots find themselves, and the problems that come with it, particularly the Oedipal complex. In the Oedipal complex the son fears the father, since the father holds the power of castration, preventing the son of fulfilling his mother's desire.[8] This power held by the father could provide an explanation as to why Shinji hates his father. However, as A.Y.L. points out, because of the castration fear the son wants to please his father in some way, even regardless of this hatred. This not only provides an explanation as to why Shinji desires approval from his father, but more importantly links back to the original message of constructed identity: because the son wants the father's approval, the father has the power to decide what he wants the son to be like-the father has power to create the son's identity. In Shinji's case, this power is manifested in his becoming an Eva pilot at his father's request-Shinji's father has become the creator of Shinji's purpose in life, and thus he has become the creator of Shinji's identity.

Freudian theory, however, fails in one respect: Shinji has no mother, and thus should experience an irresolution of the Oedipal complex. In this case, Lacanian theory serves better, as it focuses equally on the father-figure without so much requiring the intermediary mother. Lacan's father represents the governing center of the Symbolic order. And what is this "Symbolic order" of which Lacan speaks? The Symbolic order is the stage of development in which a child learns to represent existing, real objects with symbols, such as words and language. According to Lacan, the father, who is the center of the Symbolic order, controls the meanings of these symbols, and thus creates identities for those symbols. This Center, or father, thus creates the identities of those symbols by defining their purposes and giving them meaning.[9] Shinji's father, then, is the literal form of the Lacanian father, and, just as the identities of symbols are created by the Center, Shinji's identity is created and controlled by his father. In fact, this dynamic of control is even reflected in the literal plot of Evangelion itself, in Shinji's working for the organization controlled by his father. Shinji becomes nothing more than a tool working for his father-in fact, Gendo explicitly says so in the first episode[10]-and thus his purpose and his identity are defined by the owner of that tool. Just as Lacan's father determines the identity of symbols, Ikari Gendo determines the identity of his son.

Anno continues to explore the building blocks that make up the symbolic identity, and realizes that these blocks are often not made by other people, as was originally hypothesized above, but rather are made by oneself, based on what that individual thinks others would like. I think that you think that it's cool to be good at math, so I study hard to become a math expert. My identity is shaped by what I think you and others want. This forms the second step of Anno's analysis of the nature of our identity: his characters realize that their false identities are not forced on by others, but are rather self-imposed to please others. The most obvious implication of this is the potential for pretension. Such pretension becomes the focus of the female lead character in Kare Kano, Miyazawa Yukino, who has spent the first fourteen years of her life essentially putting on a show of being the perfect student. Why does she do so? This question is answered in the first episode of the series, which begins with the simple words, "What do others think of me?" and then goes on to show how Miyazawa, because of her desire to be praised by others, structures her life around what she thinks would impress others, so that they will think highly of her. In one humorous scene, we see her posing in front of a mirror, practicing various personality poses which she later uses in public.[11] What others think of her becomes her driving force in life, and, in effect, it defines her identity. Miyazawa's appearance as the perfect student is a constructed identity, a persona built out of what she sees as the symbolic perfect student. And she chooses to accept this identity over the real because of the praise she receives from others-in effect, Anno is hypothesizing that we choose the constructed identity because we believe that others are more willing to accept it.

Soryu Asuka Langley, the third pilot to appear in Evangelion, exhibits a similar desire to be lauded by others, and similarly constructs an identity, the identity of being an Eva pilot, around that desire.[12] And to a degree so does Shinji, but his case, as expected, is more complex. For Shinji, piloting the Eva is more an obligation than a source of pride; he performs his job mainly so that he won't see others being hurt. Yet Shinji's reasons go beyond merely a sense of obligation; he is, in fact, afraid that his existence has no meaning beyond piloting the Eva.[13] This is not simply a pathetic lament. As J.S. points out, Shinji, in the beginning of the series, really has no identity of his own, possibly because of his unresolved Oedipal complex forcing him to remain stuck in the third stage of Freudian development, thus hindering his formation of identity. And without a real identity of his own, Shinji's only identity, as the Eva pilot, is one which is constructed by his desire to please others-his desire to please the people of Tokyo 3, his desire to please his surrogate mother-figure Misato, his desire to please his father.

This analysis of Shinji having no real identity works well until about the middle of the series, when Shinji gradually resolves his developmental problems and is actually able to develop an identity of his own. K.G. notes that Shinji's Eva contains the soul of his mother, and A.Y.L. interprets this, combined with the implied symbolism of Shinji's entry plug penetrating the Eva (i.e., his mother), to the interpretation that Shinji resolves his Oedipal complex and thus begins to develop his own identity. Yet Shinji refuses this real identity and instead chooses to hide behind a persona he creates, a persona of cowardliness. What is this real identity, and why does Shinji still choose a constructed identity-even a socially unacceptable one-over this newfound real one? The answer to this will lead us to Anno's final revelation about identity, and his possible solution to breaking free of the constructed identity and embracing the real.

This final revelation is the realization that the true reason behind choosing the constructed identity over the real is the fear of the real identity itself. In Miyazawa's case this is simple: she knows, as we know, that her true nature is a sweatshirt-clad slob whose favorite Sunday-afternoon activity is sleeping in front of the television; there is no question that she would fear revealing this to the public; she fears enough having revealed it to only one person in the second episode.[14] Arima is somewhat more complex, but still relatively easy to understand: he fears that his real identity is like that of his original father.[15] What is interesting to note at this point is that it is this fear, rather than Arima's oppressive family, which becomes the focal reason for Arima's desire to be the perfect student, as both he and the audience discover: he has been constructing an identity for himself so that he can mask out the potentially disastrous identity which is real. In both cases, we find that the real reason behind choosing the constructed image is to mask the possibly terrible true nature of the self.

In order to see how this fear of the true nature of the self connects to Evangelion, we must first understand the true nature of the main character, Shinji, who, as I mentioned earlier, really doesn't have an identity until halfway through the series. But what is this identity? Possibly it is best seen through consideration of where Shinji tries to hide this nature through cowardliness. Three scenes come to mind immediately: first Shinji's refusal to destroy an Eva possessed by an Angel but containing a human being inside;[16] second Shinji's indecision when faced with destroying the last Angel, Kaoru;[17] third Shinji's reverting to what almost seemed a premature crybaby state in End of Evangelion.[18] Aside from Shinji's weak appearance in these three scenes, they are all connected in a much more important way: in all three ways Shinji was empowered, given the potential to become not a created identity but a creator (or destroyer) of others' identities. In fact, in End of Evangelion, Shinji achieves the power to judge all of mankind in his control of the Third Impact.[19] In essence, Shinji has found his true nature, and it is an identity of power. Shinji has found the power to destroy the father he hates so much; moreover, Shinji has found the potential to create a world of perfection, a world where all people are united and there is no pain. Freud would say that Shinji has become the father. Lacan would say that Shinji has found the Center which controls all, that Shinji has become the Phallus.[20]

For Shinji, as it probably would be for many of us, becoming the Phallus, the center of all power and of all symbolic order, can be a scary thing. As much as Lacan stresses that everyone wants to become the Phallus, he explicitly states that such a state would be impossible to achieve, by its very nature of being the center of symbolic structure.[21] Unfortunately, not only does Shinji achieve this impossible identity, but he also arrives at it, as J.S. observed, without any identity other than those created through symbols-an identity born not of the Real, but constructed by the Symbolic, by the Phallus itself. And most prominent in this constructed identity is Shinji's idea that he is obligated to save the people of the world, an idea drawn both from his father's demand that he pilot the Eva and his own desire to be accepted by others by piloting the Eva. Yet what is he to do with this power that seems now to demand that he destroy first individuals and then possibly mankind, in the Third Impact?

Shinji reacts against this real identity he has found for himself in the most powerful way he can, turning himself into a total coward. Thus he himself constructs the final and most powerful self-identity to protect against this growing power. This "shield identity," in fact, is so strong that it is even physically manifested in both his Eva and his AT Field. After all, the AT Field represents the boundary between one's soul and the outside world-a force field constructed to conceal the real identity from outsiders.[22] And the Eva, according to interpretations by K.G. and A.Y.L., represents Shinji's mother, and possibly his desire to revert back to his mother's womb, so that his true nature may be protected. Although it is true that both the Eva and the AT Field were present from the very beginning of the series, it is only toward the end, where Shinji begins to learn of his powerful true nature, that both the Eva and the AT Field become less objects of attack and more mechanisms of defense, protecting Shinji from the invading Angels.[23] What is most crucial, though, is not the manifestation of this final constructed identity but rather the fact that it was actually created by the individual for that individual, and not imposed by someone else or produced to gain someone else's acceptance.

For it is the realization that we ourselves are truly the creators of our own constructed identities that allows for the potential to break them down. Miyazawa is able to confront her desire for praise and break it down, allowing her to become a silly but happy person who is able to live her life to her own content.[24] Arima realizes that he is not his father, and thus he reveals his true self without becoming a terrible person.[25] Shinji finally accepts his position of power and, rather than cowering away from it, uses it to "save" humanity from the Third Impact.[26] How did these characters all manage to break down their masks of constructed identity?

Perhaps most important, at least to Anno, is the recognition of freedom of choice within the real identity. All three characters mentioned above feared what their real identities could turn out to be, but consequently all three failed to recognize that such an identity is not static. The true Miyazawa was definitely not the perfectly controlled personality of her constructed identity, but nor was it the total slob. As she develops in the series, not once do we see her wearing the red sweats she tried to hide, showing that that which she feared to be her real identity is in fact controllable by her.[27] Shinji fears using his power because it will cause pain in others; in the end it is those powers which save humanity from its final destruction.[28] It is these characters' recognition that accepting the real identity doesn't lead to a single, predetermined fate that allows them to accept this identity.

A final point to consider is how all this relates to us, the audience. Clearly Anno makes limited direct reference to his viewers, and one may wonder if he had his viewers in mind at all. S.J.H., however, in her study of self-perception in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, comes to the conclusion that what the characters learn about themselves the audience can learn about itself as well. This proves to be a highly valuable analysis in our case as well, for what more is Anno depicting than his characters' self-discoveries about identity? And through the appropriate analogy, Anno hopes that we may discover our own masks of constructed identity, find our reasons for creating them, and thus release ourselves from those masks.

One may wonder where, from his own life and culture, Anno came up with his motivation to write on such themes. Certainly there can be parallels drawn between Anno's own experiences and the concepts of identity which he presents. According to Professor Susan Napier, Anno had been going through a period of depression during his directing of Evangelion, and much of the anime reflects his sorting out of the conflicts within his personality, stemming from his work and the work of Gainax Studios, his parent organization, being considered the "ugly duckling" of animation in Japan. Toward the end of the concluding movie to the series, Anno reflects on his experience of art imitating life, in a short dialog which reads, "Where is my dream? It is the continuation of reality. Where is reality? It is at the end of your dream."[29] According to Gold, this reflects Anno's views of his creating Evangelion in particular and animation in general, in that his creation, or his dream, is merely an extension of his own life, but his life must continue after his work is finished. Anno, in later interviews, explains this in terms of his writing of Evangelion:

You need to like this sort of thing [animation] a certain amount to be able to do it. And once you've given it up, you'll be OK....[When will you be okay?] The instant you wake up to reality again. When you realize that enjoyment alone won't see you through.[30]
As nice as it was for Anno to be able to escape reality through his animation, he realized that it was no substitute for reality. Evangelion had become the dream, it had become Anno's own constructed identity; but eventually reality had to win out over fantasy.

Anno's choice of themes is even more logical when one considers that themes of real and constructed identity can even be connected to recent Japanese history. Toward the close of the twentieth century Japan had achieved a monumental financial record, leading, as Professor Napier observed, even Western nations looked upon the land of the rising sun as the potential financial leader in coming years. But the reasons behind Japan's financial success could all be traced back to dramatic changes in Japanese society ranging back to the Meiji era, when Japan rushed to westernize its culture and government-in effect, Japan had constructed a new identity for itself.[31] During the 1990s many people in Japan were realizing that this new identity was effectively killing off their nation's heritage and national identity-the constructed identity was overshadowing the real. Animators such as Miyazaki and Takahata looked back nostalgically at traditional Japan in their respective films Princess Mononoke and Only Yesterday.[32] Anno merely would have been taking this loss of national identity to a higher, more personal level, the level of individual, psychological identity.

But Anno is not pessimistic. He does not fear that these constructed identities will unrelentingly and inevitably overcome the real. His portrayal of characters who can discover their own flaws reflects his belief in our abilities to discover our own flaws; his portrayal of characters who repair these flaws reflects his belief that we can repair them as well. If he believed that mankind could not overcome its problems of identity, then he would have no reason to explore these problems and resolve them in his works. On the contrary, Anno hopes that we may learn from his works, and gain a greater understanding of, if not resolve completely, this paradox of human identity.

Works Cited

This paper was not a work of written sources so much as it was a work of oral ones. The bulk of the ideas presented are not the result of reading but of discussion; they are not cited in footnotes but in direct references within the text. Listed here, in no particular order, are the people to whom I am most deeply indebted, for having lent their knowledge and expertise to my writing. Names have been initialized for privacy.


  1. "Jacques Lacan," internet, http://www.colorado.edu/English/ENGL2012Klages/lacan.shtml, accessed 3 May 2001.
  2. Anno Hideaki, Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo, episodes 3, 18.
  3. Kare Kano, episode 3.
  4. Anno Hideaki, Neon Genesis Evangelion, episode 1.
  5. Evangelion, episode 1.
  6. Evangelion, episode 12.
  7. Evangelion, episode 20.
  8. A.Y.L., personal discussions.
  9. "Jacques Lacan."
  10. Evangelion, episode 1.
  11. Kare Kano, episode 1.
  12. Evangelion, episode 12.
  13. Evangelion, episode 25.
  14. Kare Kano, episode 1.
  15. Kare Kano, episode 3.
  16. Evangelion, episode 18.
  17. Evangelion, episode 24.
  18. End of Evangelion part 1.
  19. End of Evangelion part 2.
  20. "Jacques Lacan."
  21. "Jacques Lacan."
  22. Evangelion, episode 24.
  23. Evangelion, throughout.
  24. Kare Kano, throughout.
  25. Kare Kano, episode 3.
  26. End of Evangelion.
  27. Kare Kano, throughout.
  28. End of Evangelion.
  29. End of Evangelion.
  30. Interview with Fujimi High School, part 4, "Please Listen to Me, Mr. Anno!" Mainichi Intermediate-School News 3 Sept 1998.
  31. Prof. Daniel Botsman, Historical Study B-67, lecture 1.
  32. Prof. Susan Napier, Japanese Literature 135, lecture 9.
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