I was in sixth grade when I first heard about “the greatest anime of all time,” an epic of teen angst and robot-on-monster violence called “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”
I can’t remember the name of the kid who told me about it — only that he was a grade older and I very much wanted his approval. I do remember the details that sold me on the show, which first aired on Japanese TV from 1995 to 1996 and would later grow to a worldwide phenomenon with six films, the last of which drops on Amazon August 13.
“NGE” was about kids around our age who piloted giant, semi-biological mechs (“Evas”) through a rebuilt Tokyo. The Evas fought to defend humanity from “Angels,” mammoth monsters of hazy origins. The three main teenage pilots were awash in sexual tension, overwhelmed with Simone Biles-level pressure and surrounded by Christian imagery with the odd gnostic dash of Hebrew. Yeah, Hebrew. As the name implies, the series had more than a passing interest in religion, but as a kid who didn’t go to Hebrew school, I was least interested in that part.
My mother said I could buy the box set if I behaved in school. One day she was satisfied and I walked into an FYE — that music and record store that legend holds can still be found in certain malls. I found the ebony brick that bound together the discs of this holy work and made my purchase. I also bought the two supplemental pieces, the films “Death & Rebirth,” basically a feature-length recap of the series, and its more definitive counterpart, “The End of Evangelion.”
If the show itself was the bible for understanding the direction Japanese animation was taking, “End of Eva” was the Kabbalah for the show itself, quite literally expounding on the source text’s esoteric underpinnings and the mystery animating its events.
In fact, one of the main images of Kabbalah, the Tree of Life, which diagrams emanations of God and the pathways available for humans to interact with them, is a visual motif in the show. It’s seen in the opening credits and, pivotally, in the most confusing part of the entire saga.
ANSWERS IN KABBALAH?
It’s a clear day, but it’s seen carnage. Under a blue sky one Eva has already been deactivated. Smirking, winged “Mass Production” Evas descended on it like vultures and ripped it to sinews. The pilot, Asuka, is injured and stuck. In a pause in the action, Unit-01, the purple Eva piloted by series protagonist Shinji Ikari, appears, spectral wings of light emerging from its body. Shinji sees the remains of the massacre and screams, dark clouds suddenly encircling him.
This is where “End of Evangelion” pauses, offering a mid-film credit roll before picking up directly afterward. Shinji’s primal yell summons an alien artifact called the Lance of Longinus. The Eva’s wings form a cross and the Mass Production Evas lift it to the sky, crucifying it. They then form the sefirot of the Tree of Life. What happens next is a montage of Shinji’s memories and imagined interactions with others followed by an acid trip of balletic mass butchery. (NSFW link here.)
People burst into a Tang-like substance when they are approached by false images of those they love. Neon green crosses sprout from Earth as robots with smiling, female faces impale themselves. Stigmata references abound. It’s all part of the secret endgame: “Human Instrumentality,” an attempt to combine all human life into a “perfect single life form.”
As you can probably tell by now, the show, and in particular this film, is often mystifying; some fans maintain it can only be understood through the mysticism hinted at throughout.
On Reddit, and message boards before it, users have long been unpacking the series’ use of the Tree of Life, its invocation of the “Chamber of Guf,” and how Unit-01 — which, it bears repeating, is a 75-meter purple cyborg with a horn — was a conduit to the Ein Sof, God’s pure, endless essence. Some point to “classified information” found in an Eva video game mentioning the “Path to Adam Kadmon,” Kabbalah’s primordial man, for answers.
Below is the most exhaustive visual breakdown I could find, from a user who found Eva via Kabbalah.
“Evangelion is actually an extremely straightforward story about an esoteric religious tradition called Kabbalah and its view of reality as Seder Hishtalshelus (a ‘chainlike descent of worlds’),” one Reddit user posted. The instrument for achieving these other worlds is the formation of the Tree of Life, which will create a lower level of reality in “a process that inevitably repeats itself to infinity.”
Eva’s stories repeat, so this theory is attractive to some, but not everyone’s sold on it.
Aaron Clark, aka the Eva Monkey, who runs a popular website for fans of the show, told me in an email that there are certain pockets of the fandom who dismiss any of the series’ ostensibly religious “lore” out of hand. (I can confirm this — when I posted about this article in a Facebook group devoted to Eva memes, I received this reply.)
This rejection likely stems from a comment made by the assistant director of the series, Kazuya Tsurumaki, who said that any Christian symbols existed primarily to “look cool” and “mysterious” to a Japanese audience.
In 1997, when an interviewer told Hideaki Anno, the now 61-year-old creator of Eva, who is not Christian or Jewish, that he believed the show was “based on Kabbalistic thought,” the director laughed and said, “That was quite a misconception.”
Still, there are many who insist that there’s too much meaning in this imagery — nevermind the mentions of the Dead Sea Scrolls, names of Angels taken from apocrypha and the central place in the show’s mythology of panspermic progenitors of life on Earth called Adam and Lilith — for its presence to be simply a nod to the exotic.
ADAM, EVE AND EVA
“Our job is never to say what Anno intended,” said Austin Carpentieri, an adjunct instructor of English at SUNY New Paltz, who wrote his master’s thesis on Eva’s connection to gnosticism. “He may not have intended any of this, but the fact remains that it’s there. And I think it’s pretty glaringly there.”
In his paper, Carpentieri notes how the show subverts the Christian paradigm of self-sacrifice, but claims it also bucks the Kabbalistic notion that divine unity is something to strive for.
“I think that it definitely wants to affirm this idea of a spiritual existence, of a larger existence, of something beyond the self,” Carpentieri said. At the same time, “it kind of undoes the idea that this one, true universal self is attainable.”
In the final minutes of “End of Evangelion,” after Shinji has an existential crisis in the cockpit of his Eva (which contains the soul of his dead mother; don’t ask), he finds himself joined at the waist with his colleague Rei (essentially a clone of his mother — there are Oedipal implications).
“This is a world where we’re all one,” Rei tells him, “the world you wished for.”
Rei is positioned on top of Shinji, in a way that suggests both the mythical first woman Lilith’s desired position in sex with Adam, and Kabbalah’s longed-for union of the masculine and feminine. But Shinji decides to restore the physical barriers between himself and her. He rejects Human Instrumentality, opting for a world of boundaries after a lifetime of craving intimacy.
Shinji’s choice finds him on a beach, on top of another female pilot, Asuka. They appear to be the only people left in the world. The scenario is clearly Edenic. Rei, who earlier fused with the creature codenamed Lilith, for the spurned first wife of Adam and, in Eva mythos, the mother of all humanity, is dead. Rei-Lilith’s split, severed head is in the distance: Asuka is Eve to Shinji’s Adam. The work of repopulating the world is before them.
The basic Eden stuff I got as a kid. But this new Eden only explains so much.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SEFIROT
About 10 years ago, Fabio Bartoli, an Italian author who’s written several books on anime, went to the Center for Jewish Studies in Rome, determined to refute the popular idea that the “End of Evangelion” was a film without any clear answers.
He didn’t know anything about Judaism, but he remembered seeing the Tree of Life in the opening credits. Armed with that image, he read Arthur Green’s “These Are the Words: A Vocabulary of Jewish Spiritual Life” and “The Power of Kabbalah” by Yehuda Berg and concluded that the “mysteries” of the ending only remain mysterious when divorced from the show’s main concept: the recomposition of the Tree of Life, which itself dovetails with psychology.
“My theory is that everything that happens in ‘Evangelion’ happens in Shinji’s head,” Bartoli said. “The idea of Kabbalah is that we human beings are born to reflect God’s light, so the more you develop yourself, the more light you reflect. The Kabbalah is an instruction book for human development.”
In “End of Evangelion,” Shinji is clearly doing that work, and his path is literally diagramed by the superimposed Tree of Life, Bartoli argues in his paper, “Neon Genesis Evangelion e la Kabbalah.” Bartoli’s not alone in thinking this. Some have even spelled out how the sefirot on the tree correspond to characters from the series.
When Anno dismissed Kabbalah’s influence, Bartoli said the director was likely being a “troll.”
“Why put a Tree of Life in the opening?” Bartoli asked. “It’s not a universal symbol that everybody knows.”
It turns out that there may be another explanation, and it comes back to the psychology Bartoli finds so interesting.
The 1999 cultural compendium “Japan Edge,” noted much of the show’s religious imagery did not “come not through religion per se but from the psychological theories of C.G. Jung, who considered the Kabbalah a valuable set of symbols with which to understand the human psyche.”
In interviews, Anno said he had an interest in psychology, if not Jung specifically. But he also indicated his reading on the subject only began once production on the series was well underway. Still, this is the clearest link to his schooling in Kabbalistic symbols that I could find from the famously press-shy creator.
As a deeply psychological series, which places near as much emphasis on city-leveling battles as the trauma of neglected children and the hedgehog’s dilemma, the Jung connection tracks, if not perfectly. But it seems unlikely that he came to Kabbalah, arcane even to many Jews, through the traditional texts.
“There’s no way that Anno would be able to pick up the Zohar,” said Michael Weiss, a fan of “Evangelion” and rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla. “I don’t think anyone would do that — they’re gonna look for the pictures, they’re gonna look for the images, they’re going to get the ideas that seem kind of interesting that they can kind of twist to their own story.”
While Weiss recognized the theme of spiritual unity as something baked into both Eva and Kabbalah, he thinks the connection is largely incidental, and not very deep or free of hiccups, noting an instance in the show when the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, is rendered backwards.
WHAT IF IT’S ALL B.S.?
“My friends and I have a joke that the Bible is an Eva reference,” said Noa, 22, from Rehovot, Israel, a fan of the show active in the world of anime cons and cosplay.
It’s a fond response to a show whose Jewish understanding is at times shoddy, but has attracted its own cultish following. Part of being an Eva follower, at least if you’re a native Hebrew speaker, is finding where it screws up.
“I have a friend who is Orthodox and his family believes in Kabbalah, and we actually went over the names of the Angels and he was pretty amused how out-there they were,” Noa told me over Facebook messenger.
Some of the names are real, some unrecognizable — or even unpronounceable in Hebrew. (Granted, the names themselves are translated from Japanese pronunciations and some of them appear to come from other faith traditions.)
Noa, who just finished mandatory service in the IDF, definitely does see echoes of Jewish stories in Anno’s lore, with Shinji and Asuka as Adam and Eve and the ongoing ebb of creation, with Lilith retooled from the demoness of legend. And even if some of the Angel names seem invented, the designs, with their multitude of eyeballs or brain-breaking geometry, track with biblical descriptions. Thematically in “End of Evangelion” Noa sees a strain of thought she recognizes in some views of Judaism.
“In some Jewish belief if the world keeps doing evil, God can and will erase us and start history from square one, in recreating the world,” Noa said. “You can see instrumentality as just that in a way.”
Much of the show’s biblical trappings are “B.S.,” Noa and others contend, claiming that the work itself is more the documented result of Anno’s depression after a professional setback than a commentary on world religion. In many ways, this revered work is “slapped together.” But that doesn’t diminish it.
“Masterpieces are not judged by their accuracy,” Noa said. “It’s really like looking at an art piece and feeling like you see the soul of the artist and where it touches your soul and others by being presented — even if there’s zero sense in kids piloting giant military weaponry to fight space angels.”
EVA IS DEAD, LONG LIVE EVA
I’m inclined to agree that Anno is not a secret Kabbalist so much as an intellectually curious person, one who had his struggles and doubts about the direction of his industry and bled it all out on animation cels, along with some images he found compelling and unfamiliar. I think he might know more about Kabbalah than I do, which is to say not much. (Director Anno couldn’t be reached for comment, but has long maintained that Eva is “like a puzzle” that invites viewers to find their own answers.)
But even as we doubt the depth and intentionality of the show’s Jewish inspiration, it continues to inspire on its own. The popular anime “Full Metal Alchemist” may well draw its own use of Kabbalistic imagery from Eva’s success. Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” films would likely not exist without the series. And just this year, musician Lara Rix-Martin, aka Meemo Comma has melded Kabbalistic texts and synth music into an album celebrating the show.
“Judaism is filled with many tales and teachings that prevail in science fiction to this day — whether consciously or not,” Rix-Martin wrote in the liner notes. “Sci-Fi is the genre best equipped to explore the immensity and challenges of human experience. Something that Judaism has also been attempting for over three thousand years.”
Those challenges continue, even if Eva is, at long last, closing its book of life.
What’s Kabbalah doing in ‘Evangelion?’