Evangelion, alienation, and Japan’s 1990s economic crisis

By: Jeremy Tauber May 15, 20240 Comments
Shinji laying in bed listening to a walkman

Francis Fukuyama suffered more than a few oversights when he first theorized his “end of history.” It was understandable—it was 1989 and the vibe was different. It had been morning in America for almost an entire decade and only a matter of time before the Berlin Wall and communism finally fell to their knees. It’s natural that at such a moment a capitalist ideologue like Fukuyama would wax poetic about history rendering Marxism antiquated; capitalism, as he saw it, had resolved all class conflict in America.

crowds around the Berlin Wall as it's demolished
The fall of the Berlin Wall

It is clear in hindsight that Fukuyama was a little too sunny in his analysis of America. While the global control of capitalism seems here to stay, given it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, the social problems it creates are felt deeply by all in America except the extremely wealthy. However, Fukuyama reserved some of his most blissfully optimistic predictions for his ancestral homeland. Japanese society, as he saw it, had become an economic utopia; the tenth page of Fukuyama’s original ‘89 thesis states that “the very fact that the essential elements of economic and political liberalism have been so successfully grafted onto uniquely Japanese traditions and institutions guarantees their survival in the long run.”

Fukuyama’s optimism about Japan wasn’t without logic. Years of post-war rebuilding led to gradual prosperity, and by the end of the 1980s, Japan had become the world’s second-largest economy. In December of 1989, just a few months after Fukuyama’s thesis was published, the Nikkei index hit a record of nearly 39,000. At last, Nippon was on the verge of becoming the mighty Leviathan of the Pacific once more. 

It would only take a few short years before these lofty predictions hit their snag. Japan’s bubble economy suffered an explosive pop in 1992, resulting in a recession that plagued the nation for years to come. The early signs of misfortune came in waves: the Nikkei index had fallen below 15,000 by the time August had rolled around, corporations were forced to engage in massive lay-offs and hiring freezes, and chaos erupted all over the Japanese government. Bureaucrats and businessmen alike were embroiled in scandal after scandal after scandal after scandal, opening wide a revolving door of an inconsistent 11 prime ministers in 12 years. The Kobe earthquake and Tokyo subway attacks administered a coup de grace on any semblance of optimism, throwing the entire nation into a spiritual crisis. 

a flooded city

In a time so wracked by despair and paranoia, it’s no wonder Neon Genesis Evangelion became the runaway success it did. It is to anime what The Godfather is to Hollywood film—along with revolutionizing its respective medium, Evangelion is a story that captured the nihilistic zeitgeist of a nation and its citizenry. 

The devastating effects of the economy can be seen embedded throughout Evangelion’s environment. Even with all of its technological fantasia, the world of Evangelion is a lost, barren, impoverished landscape. Misato lives in a cramped, cluttered apartment where she guzzles down cheap ramen and beer. Rei’s conditions are even worse, living in a squalid apartment complex that always seems on the verge of collapse. The damaged, cracked roads surrounding the complex bring back unpleasant memories of the Kobe earthquake. Even as the Angels wreck their way through Tokyo-3, there isn’t much effort to reconstruct the city; the very first shot of the series shows parts of the city that are flooded and eternally in a state of decay. This imagery paints a haunting portrait of the real-life Japanese people who watched as they saw their nation sink into a state beyond repair.

Shinji sulking on the subway

Evangelion utilizes a sense of postmodern distrust towards big tech and industry to further its critique of capitalism. Technophobia is nothing new to anime—Akira and Ghost in the Shell famously tackled the same subjects around the same time as Evangelion. Nonetheless, Evangelion’s serialized two cours lend themselves to a trove of unique scenes that reference how the electronics industry drove Japanese consumers to alienation. There’s the obvious scene in the third episode, where Shinji cancels out the other train passengers with his Walkman. 

However, the Eva units stand as the most obvious slams against Japan’s tech industry; far from providing harmonization, these giant mechs and their tendency to malfunction only add to their pilots’ estrangement. Shinji’s overidentification with his piloting duties causes Unit-01 to swallow him whole for 33 days, while Asuka’s Eva fails to save her from SEELE’s avian menaces in The End of Evangelion.

The naked evangelion unit with figures in front in sillouette

However, the most unabashedly political the show gets is with its seventh episode. Here, the technophobia is emphasized through shady dealings between businessmen and politicians, mirroring the perceived corrupt dealings of the real-life Japanese keiretsu, or business conglomerates. Gendo’s conversation with a UN representative references the declining Japanese economy, its military expenditures, and its budgeting. His comment that “The Americans seem to be allergic to unemployment” reads like something that was on the mind of Japanese economists who witnessed the nation’s unemployment rate rise while America was enjoying a gradual fall in theirs. 

Later on we’re introduced to the fictitious Japanese Heavy Chemicals industry, depicted as bourgeois boors whose minds are occupied by profits and yuppified machismo that leads them to make casually misogynistic potshots, comparing the Evas to a “woman in hysterics—unmanageable!”  Their Frankensteinian creation, the AI mech Jet Alone, is advertised as something that will put a dent in the world-ending Angel invasion, only to then be revealed as nothing more than a scheme for the company to compete with NERV. Jet Alone eventually goes berserk, and the company’s failure to control it not only highlights the destructive consequences of capitalist competition, but also the electronics industry’s failure to provide anything useful to the Japanese citizenry. Things come full circle when the episode ends with the implication that Gendo and Ritsuko hijacked Jet Alone’s system in advance, unbeknownst to everybody. To both NERV and the Japanese Heavy Chemicals Industry, the need to engage in and trump over competition is more important than protecting an ailing society.

A young man from behind facing a humanoid kaiju-like angel with many narrow eyes on its torso

The series continues to work on this morally gray scale from there. Virtually everything about NERV and SEELE is kept under wraps—NERV’s headquarters are kept an underground secret from its citizens, and its innermost layers containing Lilith are kept a secret from everyone except Gendo and Ritsuko. Not even the audience gets to know what the Angels are or where they even came from. 

The Angels in turn become the monstrous emissaries of the Lacanian Real, specifically the Real of neoliberal capital—an inevitable eruption of social and economic devastation too horrifying and complex to be understood by the masses but whose effects are always felt. As capitalism continues to foreclose our ability to connect with one another or imagine a different world and demands we accept the “end of history,” to witness the Angels is to experience the cracks in the facade. The YouTuber Pause & Select further illuminates these Lacanian themes and more in his video about Evangelion’s apocalypse. 

Given its ubiquity in the world of dystopian sci-fi, it’s also easy to note an Orwellian undercurrent in the series. After Shinji successfully destroys an Angel in the second episode, Misato watches the report unfold on television and remarks how NERV downplays and flat-out lies acts of mass destruction for its own betterment, which the scholar Laura Montero Plata suggests could be a reference to how the Japanese government mismanaged the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo subway attacks. The Japanese government, here embodied in NERV and SEELE, are depicted in a rather cold and calculated fashion. Gendo and his peers are drawn very sinisterly, with Gendo’s folding of his hands now being the stuff of legends. Japan’s big businesses is on full display here, with a conspiratorial nature that is bereft of any humanity. When Gendo talks to SEELE later on in the series, he’s discussing shady business with cold, black, heartless monoliths that are obviously ripped right out of 2001: A Space Odyssey

Gendo surrounded by a set of monoliths from SEELE

Along with spiritual loss and melancholy, the youth of Japan were thrust into the midst of an employment ice age. The lie of guaranteed lifetime employment forced the youth to succumb to social retreat, resulting in the rise of the hikikomori, as well as NEETs, freeters, and jouhatsu participants. The phenomenon spelled out moral decay for Japan as the youth lost faith in the job market, the government, and the adults who failed to properly guide them through life. Shinji, with his social withdrawal and hesitancy to perform his duties, is a byproduct of the economic recession.

Shinji is not a hikikomori by any means—he goes to school, holds a “part-time job” as an Eva pilot, and doesn’t stay within the safety of his room. He’s even seen walking outside when we first meet him. However, he does demonstrate the symptoms of social withdrawal felt by Japanese youth at the time, as his preference towards dissociation over socialization and camaraderie indicates. The aforementioned scene with Shinji’s Walkman is on a day when Shinji skips class, which Misato notes is becoming a frequent habit; in fact, the psychoanalyst Saito Tamaki noted (specifically) on page 31 of Hikikomori: Adolescence Without Youth that skipping class (fushūgaku) was a tell-tale sign of social withdrawal and the descension into hikikomori-ism.

Misato and Shinji in a room not looking at each other but staring in front

Shinji’s estranged feelings towards his father are also akin to the divide between the older generations who urged their children to participate in society, and the younger generation who refused to see the point. Many of Evangelion’s characters suffer from parental conflict but Shinji’s damaged relationship with his father is the most crucial. With the exception of Misato, all of the adults in his life fail to understand Shinji, and to Gendo especially, Shinji isn’t a son as much as he is a means to an end. All of the pressure from Gendo and NERV agents only adds to Shinji’s withdrawal, making Shinji the perfect audience avatar: a young Japanese kid forced to accept daunting and psychologically-tolling responsibilities because the society that failed him says he must.

The more Shinji is forced to identify with his status as an Eva pilot, the more detached he is from himself and society; he is given no space nor encouragement to become anything else, leaving him increasingly disillusioned but unable to imagine an exit to the system. Shinji’s father, NERV, and capitalism alienates him from his duties, eventually reducing him down to nothing. I think that’s why some find Shinji’s relationship with Rei so interesting. She acts as Shinji’s foil in a way—unlike Shinji, who doesn’t want to pilot the Evangelion despite having nothing else, Rei feels absolutely compelled to pilot the Evangelion for the same reason: she has nothing else. 

Shinji and Rei on platforms facing an abyss

These feelings of worthlessness are at the core of the show, and are why the show resonated with the Japanese youth at the time. It represented their bleak worldview and provided an outlet to channel their anguish and angst. Who were the Japanese youth to trust? The big companies and government? The ones who had failed to keep a stable economy? The ones who sat around while unemployment was on the rise, barred these kids out of a promising future, yet continued to mercilessly scold them for not being productive citizens of society?

Evangelion’s success is not just in its story and many philosophical complexities, but how it spoke to ordinary citizens during a time marked by panic and desolation. Many years later after Japan’s recession, as well as Fukushima, the COVID pandemic, and the recent Noto earthquake, it still does. Here in America, we’ve gone through the horrors of 9/11, the Iraq War, the 2008 Wall Street recession, the rise of authoritarianism, and mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting. So long as societal abandonment and disenfranchisement exist, so too will Evangelion’s staying power.

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