Spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion.
Content Warning: Discussion of trauma and mental illness.
When Neon Genesis Evangelion aired in 1995, it bombarded an unsuspecting audience with existential horrors that drew heavily from Anno Hideaki’s mental health journey. In the process, however, he created characters with real anxieties his audience could empathize and sympathize with at the time. While the anime felt too real for some audiences, it’s only become more uncomfortably relatable in the years since. Fans might have related to Shinji or Asuka when they were kids, only to grow up and find they see themselves in one of the show’s adult characters: Misato Katsuragi.
Evangelion takes place in the year 2015. Misato, 29 at the start of the anime, would have been born in 1986. With this knowledge, both American millennials and the members of Japan’s Lost Generation who came of age following Japan’s economic recession in the ‘90s may joke about how Misato is a millennial stereotype. However, this goes beyond a meme and into a message about processing pain, pressure and grief.
The Stereotype, To The Letter
Most of us know about the stereotypical millennial: an overworked, underpaid adult who is constantly treated like a child by members of previous generations. Due to their economically weak position, they live in inexpensive apartments or at home with their parents. Despite the responsibilities dumped on them and their financial struggles, they are constantly told that, in order to be a real adult, they need to “grow up.” To make matters worse, many of their peers are getting married and starting families, while they’re sitting on the couch eating slices of bread from the bag.
Katsuragi Misato fits that description to the letter. As a lieutenant colonel (and later major) at NERV, Misato is essentially in charge of commanding the Evangelion units on the field and responsible for anything that goes wrong, yet lives in a tiny, dirty apartment assigned to her. She constantly struggles with money. When Shinji and Asuka succeed at killing an Angel together with the power of dance — a strategy Misato organized — she can’t even afford a steak dinner to reward them, instead having to go to an inexpensive ramen shop.
Despite having the responsibility of the world pushed on her and not being paid enough to manage it all, she angsts about not being married when all her friends seem to be, while reenacting the same awkward platonic and romantic tensions from her college years. Despite her responsibilities to NERV and humanity, her friends, coworkers, and even wards treat her like an immature child. This affects even her abilities to communicate with others, and despite being the most protective caregiver they have, she still struggles to connect emotionally to Shinji or Asuka when they need her most. The closest Misato ever becomes to being an effective guardian is with her pet penguin Pen-Pen, who she has to give away at the end of the series.
Millennial Existential Pain
As a girl on her father’s Antarctic base, Misato witnessed Second Impact — an event of Lovecraftian horror that left her traumatized and nonverbal for years. Most people who grew up in the 80s and 90s experienced at least one life-altering catastrophe that left their entire life ruined, often due to the actions of people far older than us. For those in Japan, the economic crash in the 90s left people unable to find jobs well into the modern era, with some investigations reporting that the “Lost Generation” is still struggling to find decent housing or even work. For the youngest millennials, this generational trauma was compounded by the destructive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that ravaged Touhoku in 2011.
For American audiences, a more direct parallel is the Housing Crisis of 2007 and 2008, which itself followed the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. For the British, it is the collective War on Terror, being involved in a conflict they had little to do with, as well as later the older generation voting in favor of Brexit against the will of the younger generation, which put the future of all generations in jeopardy. Collective trauma is a community event for a worldwide generation of modern adults.
It’s uncomfortable watching Misato’s future end up so closely aligned with our own: a world where the older generation left the world far worse off for those who had to inherit it, despite often finding ourselves blamed for the disasters that befell us. Often, articles written by older writers blame millennials for “killing” entire industries.
Misato exists as almost a dark forecast of this. She works as part of a paramilitary organization that defends humanity from giant monsters, conceiving of strategies on how to defeat the Angels and protect any civilians in the way, yet people gossip in the streets and publicly criticize. Even her peers talk down to her. This is despite how, like many other millennials, Misato is over-worked and presumably under-paid, judging by how she lives in a lousy apartment and can barely afford enough to pay for herself, Pen-Pen, and later two adolescent children.
What Neon Genesis Evangelion illustrates is the great emotional strain that such a lifestyle can have on the people living it. Misato does a great service to the world and is not only given no reward but saddled with further responsibility.
Self-Satisfaction in the Face of Adversity
So this elicits the question, if you’re given little reward for your work, talked down to by everyone around you, and are offered no extrinsic motivation for keeping the world stable, how do you find happiness? Neon Genesis Evangelion’s answer is the same one that many millennials came up with: pursue self-satisfaction.
The existential trauma forces Evangelion’s characters to pursue self-satisfaction within themselves. Even if they do not reach their goals, the pursuit still gives their lives meaning. Ikari Shinji starts the series uncertain about why he pilots the Evangelion, and much of the narrative focuses on what motivates him and, later, Asuka. This analysis ultimately becomes a way to analyze how the characters process pain. Misato’s arc follows a similar trajectory.
Throughout the series, Misato struggles, and often fails, to sort out her own pain. She has unresolved issues with her father and her love life, and grapples with how to help both Shinji and Asuka. While Misato is never rewarded for her successes, she is punished for perceived failure. At work, she’s saddled with extra paperwork if the children do not live up to expectations. At home, she can only watch as Shinji and Asuka emotionally break down, helpless to stop it even when she tries because she has no access to resources for her pain or theirs.
Misato is motivated by her almost obsessive anger toward the Angels, with it driving her to ludicrous strategies to beat them. Her father, an obsessive workaholic who emotionally abandoned her and her mother, died protecting Misato from Second Impact. This drive for vengeance prevents her from sorting out her own confused emotions regarding her father, made more complicated by her romantic feelings towards Kaji, a man similar to her father.
Sorting out the mystery behind NERV and the Evangelions seems to give Misato a new sense of purpose. This obsession leads her to uncover NERV’s secret operations. Again, this all-consuming drive prevents her from helping her wards Shinji and Asuka as they deal with their own emotional problems. Misato is consistently consumed by singular drives to the exclusion of other, equally important issues.
Despite hating her father for emotionally abandoning her, Misato essentially follows in his footsteps by doing the same to the people she cares about in her pursuit to protect them. This is not to say she doesn’t care about Shinji or Asuka. She volunteers to keep them under her roof and tries to treat them well. However, because she prioritizes her external goals over her interpersonal goals, she often either puts work before her wards or inadvertently traumatizes Shinji and Asuka. This becomes more prominent as the series goes on, especially during Asuka’s anxiety attacks and Shinji’s increasing isolation.
Misato finds meaning in her life by pursuing her external goals, but she also finds misery in being unable to communicate with those around her. This demonstrates the complicated nature of pursuing self-satisfaction. Sometimes, pursuing one goal means abandoning the other. At its most extreme, Misato becomes complicit in traumatizing the next generation while attempting to sort through her own pain — though perhaps finding that balance perfectly is more than we can ask of one woman struggling in the middle of the apocalypse.
Can There Be Hope?
After protecting the world from the Angels, Misato is helpless to save the world from the older generation, with both SEELE, Gendo Ikari, and the Japanese government converging to eradicate the society Misato preserved. That which she protected ultimately is what turns against her.
Misato, like many real-life millennials, lives a thankless life. Success means no reward. Failure means disaster. While Misato’s arc might offer some cathartic relatability, it also illustrates a painful reality: that the world is designed, as it is in Evangelion, to make even success in the face of adversity feel like a failure. To make matters worse, when failure does come, it might be impossible to stop it.
Ultimately, Misato fails to find self-satisfaction with herself. Misato tries to find external validation through Kaji, but, once Kaji dies, she becomes withdrawn. While in the TV ending she manages to help Shinji directly confront his own issues, thus finding a degree of joy, the End of Evangelion paints a more cynical picture. In that, she fails to stop NERV’s schemes from coming to fruition, fails to save the world from the threat of the Mass Produced Evas, and fails to successfully pull Shinji out of his state of shock before dying. In both cases, she tries to help and support the people in her lives overcome their burdens, addressing that which she had ignored for the latter half of the series.
While Misato’s arc does end disastrously, her self-driven search for the truth helps her deconstruct the system of control that oppressed so many others. While she dies before she can see the benefits of it, still questioning if she did the right thing, Shinji and Asuka — the next generation — manage to survive through the apocalypse, creating a scenario that, while apocalyptic in scale, does set the foundations for a new society that can recover.
Indeed, in the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga, we even see that new society flourish in the wake of Third Impact. We do not know for sure if Misato lives in the post-Instrumentality world, but we do see Shinji carrying her cross in hand, indicating that Misato left the world off better than when she found it. The manga even reinterprets Misato’s death. While in the anime she’s shot in the back and bleeds out before being blown apart, in the manga she blows herself up in a sacrificial move, going out on her own terms.
This idea that the world needs to be rebuilt rather than saved as is, that society is too broken to really be fixed, is a potent one. The system has ultimately created an environment in which few people under thirty-five can succeed or hold power. Millennials have taken to questioning and breaking down the systems older generations created for us to follow. In one sense, Misato is the millennial goal: uncover all the secrets the older people are keeping, expose their sins, then blow them up in an effort along with the Gen Z heroes to make the world better than when we left it.
However, that is not an entirely accurate read of Evangelion. While it’s important to question the systems, as we see with Misato, it’s also important not to lose sight of those around us to the point where we let others around us suffer quietly. Especially not until it becomes too late for us to show them how much we may care for them.
Misato probably could have and should have offered Shinji and Asuka more support. Without adult guidance or affection, Shinji almost destroys the world and Asuka suffers in silence. While the manga, again, shows a more optimistic take on events, the anime is less warm. Even though Misato helped deconstruct the systems that bound her, without anything in its place, the world is left a barren, cold place in the final scene of End of Evangelion.
This is the Millennial Nightmare that Evangelion foreshadowed. We are suffering silently, quietly alone and undervalued, and, while we may find purpose in our personal goals, we risk losing connection with those around us. As a result, Evangelion is both intimately relatable to the audience that grew up with it, as well as a cautionary tale on how not to deal with an awful situation.