Science Fiction Studies


#88 = Volume 29, Part 3 = November 2002

Susan J. Napier

When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality, and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain

“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I want to speak to you not through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. You mustn’t say anything against the Machine.” (Forster 4)

“I am falling. I am fading.” (Serial Experiments Lain)

“I am me!” (Neon Genesis Evangelion)

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee, “and what do you suppose he’s dreaming about?”
Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”
“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed … “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be?”
“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.
“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere. Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!” ...
“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry. (Carroll 81)

In 1909 the British writer E.M. Forster published the short story “The Machine Stops,” a bleak vision of the far future in which what is left of humanity lives below the earth, connected through a world-wide communication system that allows them never to leave their rooms or engage in direct contact with anyone else. All human life is organized by an entity known simply as the “Machine.” At the story’s end the Machine malfunctions and finally stops. Abandoned and helpless, the humans begin to die in a scene that interlaces apocalyptic imagery with an extremely tenuous note of hope—the assertion by Kuno, the narrative’s single rebel character, that the Machine will never be restarted because “Humanity has learned its lesson.” As he speaks, however,

The whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An airship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky. (37)

Forster’s dystopian vision may remind readers of other Western science fiction/dystopian works of the period, in particular Aldous Huxley’s somewhat later Brave New World (1932). As Huxley does, Forster critiques the growing reliance of his contemporaries on technology. But he differs from Huxley in two ways that make “The Machine Stops” a work particularly relevant to contemporary science fiction. The first is in his vision of a world in which technology has rendered direct interpersonal contact unnecessary and, in fact, slightly obscene, and the second is the explicitly apocalyptic dimension that he brings to this state of affairs. The Machine destroys not only human relationships but also, ultimately, the material world, although it does leave a tantalizing glimpse of “untainted sky.” Forster’s work is classic science fiction, serving, as Fredric Jameson puts it, to “defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present” (152), in this case, that of 1909. It is also a remarkably prescient view of a future that we in the twenty-first century are increasingly able to imagine.

In Forster’s view, however, when the machines stop, reality—the untainted sky—emerges. In the two Japanese anime TV series, Shinseiki evangerion (1997, Neon Genesis Evangelion) and Serial Experiments Lain (1998, 1999 in US), that I will be examining in this paper, this is not the case. In these works, reality itself becomes part of the apocalyptic discourse, problematized as a condition that can no longer be counted on to continue to exist, thanks to the advances of technology and its increasing capabilities for both material and spiritual destruction. The two works also pose an insistent question: What happens to human identity in the virtual world? Does it become what Scott Bukatman calls “terminal identity,” a new state in which we find “both the end of the subject and a new subjectivity constructed at the computer screen or television screen” (9)? And does it then go on to become part of what Bukatman refers to as “terminal culture,” a world in which reality and fantasy fuse into techno-surrealism and nothing is ultimately “knowable”?1

The answer to these last two questions seems to be “yes,” at least in terms of the two anime I will be examining, although the originality and imaginative-ness of their approaches might tend to obscure what, to my mind, are their deeply pessimistic visions. The narratives, the characters, and the mise en scène of these works evoke the disturbing postmodern fantasy that Jeffrey Sconce has described in Haunted Media. Sconce suggests that, “where there were once whole human subjects, there are now only fragmented and decentered subjectivities, metaphors of ‘simulation’ and ‘schizophrenia’” and he finds that, “in postmodernism’s fascination with the evacuation of the referent and an ungrounded play of signification and surface, we can see another vision of beings who, like ghosts and psychotics, are no longer anchored in reality but instead wander through a hallucinatory world where the material real is forever lost”(18).

Although Sconce’s point is that we may be exaggerating the uniqueness of this postmodern condition—and indeed Forster’s 1909 text suggests that the interface between self and machine has been a modernist preoccupation as well—it is certainly the case that the two anime I will examine call into question the material world in ways that seem peculiarly specific to this period, at the same time that they show strong traces of Japanese cultural tradition. This paper will explore the ways in which each anime evokes its particular “hallucinatory world,” but before doing so it is necessary to situate the two texts within both anime and Japanese culture.

Undoubtedly related to the experience of atomic bombing in WWII, but also combined with a centuries-old cultural preoccupation with the transience of life, the apocalyptic critique of technology is one that has grown increasingly frequent in recent Japanese sf anime. The trend probably began to develop at least as far back as the 1970s with the immensely popular animated Yamato television and film series concerning the adventures of the spaceship incarnation of the WWII battleship Yamato. (The series was best known in America in its 1979 television incarnation, Star Blazers.) This provided the initial template for an ever-growing mass-culture obsession with end-of-the-world motifs.2 In the Yamato series, however, technology, as long as it was aligned with the power of the human spirit—in this case, the Japanese spirit of yamatodamashi—could still have salvific aspects. This combination reaches its apotheosis (literally) at the end of the film Saraba uchû senkan Yamato (1978, Farewell Yamato) when the stalwart young captain of the Yamato, accompanied by the fetching corpse of his beloved girlfriend and the shades of former Yamato captains, realizes that the only way to save the Earth is to conduct a suicide mission into the heart of the White Comet. The film ends with a single long-held shot of a spreading white radiance, a surprisingly ambiguous finale for a film that was aimed largely at children and adolescents.

This ambiguous vision of humans, technology, and the end of the world has appeared in more complex forms in the years since Yamato. Most spectacularly, the 1988 film masterpiece Akira, directed by Ôtomo Katsuhiro, inaugurated an infinitely darker vision of technology in relation to human identity. Structured around a series of scientific experiments on telepathic children gone horribly wrong, Akira presented an unforgettable vision of a world in which the innocent were grotesquely sacrificed to the vicious machinations of what might be called the military-industrial complex. Far from the cozy mix of genders and generations that the Yamato series presented, the protagonists in Akira were largely alienated male adolescents typified by Tetsuo, its psychokinetically transmogrified antihero who, in the film’s penultimate scene, lays waste to Tokyo in one of the most memorable and grotesque scenes of destruction ever filmed. Akira’s highlighting of telekinesis also brought a note of hallucinatory unreality to some of the film’s most significant scenes, a feature that would be expanded in later anime and was perhaps already presaged in the spectral presences aboard the final voyage of the Yamato.

In anime released in the years since Akira’s debut, its dark vision of hapless humanity in the throes of technology has not only been echoed but intensified. At first this may seem surprising. Japan, along with the United States, is the most technologically advanced country in the world. Unlike the United States, however, as of this writing Japan has endured a twelve-year-long recession that has left a deep mark on contemporary attitudes towards both technology and the future. Although the country continues to produce important technological advances, the dominant attitude towards technology displayed in both its mass-cultural and high-cultural works seems to be ambivalent at best. This is in significant contrast to Western culture, which, as can be seen in American magazines such as Wired or in Canadian Pierre Levy’s recent treatise Cyberculture (2001), still contains strong elements of techno-celebration, especially in relation to the potential of virtual reality as promised by computers and other new media.

Besides the recession, another reason behind Japan’s often problematic attitude toward technology is undoubtedly the 1995 Aum Shinrikyô incident in which followers of a charismatic guru named Asahara Shoko released deadly sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing twelve people and injuring many more. Both the incident and the cult surrounding it seem to have stepped from the pages of a science-fiction thriller. Many of Asahara’s young followers were, at least potentially, part of the Japanese elite, graduates of top schools in science and engineering. Often shy and insecure, they were reported in the press to be devotees of science-fiction anime. Lured into the cult by its potent mix of supernatural imagery—Asahara was said to be capable of levitation, for example—its increasingly strident rejection of the material and materialist world, and its apocalyptic teachings, believers not only manufactured sarin gas but also reportedly worked on developing nuclear weapons.

The shadow of the Aum Shinrikyô incident still looms over contemporary Japanese society on a variety of fronts, contributing to a society-wide sense of malaise. The incident itself can be seen as embodying many of the characteristic elements of contemporary Japanese society’s complex vision of technology, one that recognizes the dangers of technology but remains awestruck by its potential powers. Aum’s mixture of New-Age occult elements and traditional Buddhist and Hindu teachings is also relevant, underlining the fact that technology does not exist in a vacuum but rather interacts with all facets of human existence, including the spiritual.

Consequently, the Japanese ambivalence toward technology goes beyond a simple binary split between technology and its Other(s) to encompass a problematic contemporary vision of human identity vis-à-vis not only technology but also the nature of reality itself. Increasingly in Japanese culture, the real has become something to be played with, questioned, and ultimately mistrusted. In some works, such as Murakami Haruki’s best-selling novel Sekai no owari to haadoboirudo wandaarando (1985, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991) and Anno Hideaki’s Shinseiki Ebuangerion (Neon Genesis Evangelion), characters make conscious decisions to retreat into their own fantasy worlds. In other works such as Serial Experiments Lain or Murakami Ryu’s novel Koin rokkaa beibiizu (1984, Coin Locker Babies, 1995), characters attempt to impose their own, perhaps insane, visions on the outer worlds of reality. Often these explorations of the real contain an explicitly spiritual, even messianic, dimension.

Although I include literary examples, the most significant medium in which these explorations of technology, identity, and reality/unreality are being played out is the animated one, a medium often denigrated by Westerners as fit only for children. Unlike Western popular culture, where expressions of technological ambivalence tend to be mediated through live-action films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Matrix (1999), and Minority Report (2002), Japanese society has welcomed explorations of these complex issues in animated form. The reasons behind this positive reception are varied, but they include the fact that Japan has long had a tradition, through scroll painting and woodblock printing, in which narrative is as much pictorial as literary. This has culminated, in the view of some scholars, in the ubiquitousness of manga, or comic books, as a staple of twentieth-century Japanese mass culture. Anime and manga are strongly linked, since many, if not most, anime are based on manga and both media appeal to adults as well as children.

There are other, perhaps more intriguing, reasons, however, for the synergy between animation and explorations of reality. As I have argued elsewhere, animation is a medium in itself, not simply a genre of live-action cinema.3 As such, it develops and plays by its own generic restrictions and capabilities, the latter of which are uniquely suited for dealing with issues of the real and the simulated. Animation critic Paul Wells calls these the “deep structures” of animation that “integrate and counterpoint form and meaning, and, further, reconcile approach and application as the essence of the art. The generic outcomes of the animated film are imbued in its technical execution” (66). By this I take Wells to mean that the act of animation—a medium that he compares to the fine arts rather than the cinema—foregrounds and affects the characteristics of the text being animated in ways that are conducive to a form of art that is both peculiarly self-reflexive and particularly creative. The “deep structures” which inspire animated visions link with the uncanny and the fantastic to create a unique aesthetic world.

It is for this reason that I would suggest that Japanese animation tends to show particular strength in the genres of fantasy and science fiction. Unlike manga, which cover an enormously wide terrain, from action fare to self-help books and even economic treatises, the fluid instrumentalities of animation delight in highlighting the unreal or the unlikely. The free space of the animated medium—a medium that is never bound by a perceived obligation to represent the real—is ideal for depicting the free spaces of sf and fantasy, genres which have traditionally existed parallel to representations of the real. The overt technology of the animation medium itself highlights in a self-reflexive way the technological basis of the sf genre and the artificiality of fantasy.

I might also suggest that elements of twentieth-century Japanese culture have made its citizens particularly receptive to the idea of problematizing the real. In Topographies of Japanese Modernity, Seiji M. Lippit analyzes the twentieth-century Japanese critic Kobayashi Hideo’s argument that a fundamental feature of Japanese prewar culture was a “pervasive spirit of homelessness and loss” (4). This sense of loss is especially embodied in Kobayashi’s vision of the city of Tokyo, which serves “not as a repository for memories … but only as an ever shifting marker of disassociation from the past.” It makes modern Japan into a society in which both urban and natural landscapes are considered “different versions of phantasmagoria, as spectral images without substances” (4). The notion of “phantasmagoria” is one that functions particularly well in relation to the non-representational world of anime, whose fast pace and constantly transforming imagery continually construct a world that is inherently “without substances.” It should also not be surprising that Tokyo is the favored location for most apocalyptic anime. As the center of contemporary Japan’s trends and currents, it remains in many anime, such as Akira, Lain, and Evangelion, the “unreal city” both of T.S. Eliot’s anomic vision in The Waste Land (1922) and of the virtual-reality visions of postmodernism.

As the uncanny relevance of Eliot’s work suggests, Kobayashi and Lippit’s argument, while apparently concerning early twentieth-century modernity and its links to the modernist movement, is still strikingly appropriate to our contemporary, supposedly “postmodern,” world. Japan is still a society in which what Marilyn Ivy terms “discourses of the vanishing,” echoes of the past, are remarkably prominent. Even though the anime we are examining are set in a future that seems to have lost all traces of Japanese tradition, they are both works which privilege memory—both its loss and its stubborn ability to remain important in a fluctuating world. But in both Lain and Evangelion memory itself ultimately becomes uncertain, a force to be manipulated and even, perhaps, abused.

Lippit goes on to argue that, in many prewar Japanese texts, “modernity is marked by fragmentation and dissolution” (7), elements that commentators find in abundance in our own period. In fact, the speed of fragmentation and loss may be the most unique aspect of the postmodern situation precipitating a pervasive sense of helplessness and fear. For example, in Terminal Identity, Scott Bukatman traces the increasing disembodiment of the subject in the electronic era and analyzes it in terms of social and psychological trauma. As he says, “in both spatial and temporal terms, then, the bodily experience of the human is absented from the new reality, precipitating a legitimate cultural crisis” (106).

In Japan this “cultural crisis” can be seen not only in terms of ambivalent attitudes toward the interface between humans and technology but also in a deeper questioning of what it is to be human in relation to the machine, a machine that increasingly seems to dominate, to construct, and ultimately to interfere with the reality of human nature. This problematization of human identity in the context of technology seems to be leading in increasingly apocalyptic directions, concretely manifested in the Aum incident and made an object of aesthetic and ideological interest in the many anime and manga dealing with world-ending scenarios. These apocalyptic visions, it should be noted, are not limited to the destruction of the material world. Rather, viewers and readers are confronted with stories whose narrative impetus appears to be a growing sense of hopelessness in relation to overwhelming forces that are both exterior and interior. Not surprisingly, a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia pervades these works, ultimately leading to memorable visions not simply of cultural crisis but also of cultural despair.

Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain have much in common. They can readily be described as postmodern in terms of their concern with a notion of identity as fluctuating, their rapid and sometimes incoherent narrative pace, and their refusal of conventional forms of closure. But the two stories have theoretical issues in common as well: an explicit obsession with apocalypse and the question of salvation; an ambivalent celebration of the spectacle; a notion of time in flux; and a shared vision of what Janet Staiger calls “future noir” (100), in which dimly lit, labyrinthine citycapes dominate the mise en scène. Most importantly, they share a complex and problematic attitude toward the real. The two stories also deal with issues that are perhaps culturally specific to Japan: the increasing distrust and alienation between the generations, the complicated role of childhood, and, most significantly, a privileging of the feminine, often in the form of the young girl or shôjo. Typical of more sophisticated anime, they also offer a striking visual style, largely architectonic, in which space, shape, and color play off each other to produce in the viewer a sensation that is disorienting and exhilarating at the same time. This contributes to a pervasive sense of the uncanny that imbues both narratives, linking them with the genres of horror and fantasy. Finally, it should be noted that both anime appeared as television series (although Evangelion also became a feature film). Unlike most American series where each episode usually stands by itself, Japanese television and OVA (“Original Video Animation,” i.e., videos produced for direct sale, bypassing broadcasting and theatrical release) series develop over time, allowing, at their best, for far more intricate plots and an infinitely richer understanding of the psychologies of the major characters.

Anno Hideaki’s television series and film Neon Genesis Evangelion was first shown in 1997. Considered by many scholars to be an anime masterpiece, the series is credited by some critics with singlehandedly reviving the genre from what they saw as its creative doldrums in the early 1990s (Azuma 4). While I would not go quite so far, it is certainly true that Evangelion is one of the most important and groundbreaking anime series ever created. Constructing a mythic universe that is almost Blakean both in its complex and mythic vision and in its dizzying array of Christian and Judaic religious symbols, the series questions the construction of human identity, not only in relation to the technology that the series’ plot and imagery insistently privilege, but also in relation to the nature of reality itself. Providing more riddles than solutions, the series takes the viewer on a journey into both inner and outer reality before ultimately leaving both its characters and its audience floating in a sea of existential uncertainty.

Although it draws upon earlier classic anime such as the Yamato series in terms of the ostensible narrative—alien invaders, in this case known as Angels, are attacking the Earth and only a small group of young people can save it, using impressive giant robots with which they synergize—the narrative’s actual execution completely defamiliarizes this rather hackneyed story line. This is particularly true in the second half of the series, in which the tortured psychology of the main characters and a variety of enigmatic apocalyptic elements begin to intrude into the conventional action-packed plot. But we are given hints even at the beginning of these significant differences. Thus, the opening episode is constructed around all the conventions of the classic “saving the world” narrative, only to undermine them by showing Ikari Shinji, its fourteen-year-old ostensible hero, in a far from heroic light. Set in a post-apocalyptic “Tokyo 3” in 2015, the opening episode introduces the viewers to NERV, the secret underground headquarters run by Ikari Gendô, Shinji’s remote scientist father, and to the giant robots known as EVAs that Shinji and two other fourteen-year-olds, the mysterious Ayanami Rei and the feisty/obnoxious Asuka Langley (both girls), are expected to pilot against the mysterious Angel attacks. In a more conventional anime sf narrative, Shinji would climb into the EVA with gusto and proceed to save the world. In fact, he does pilot the EVA and succeeds in destroying the Angel—who turns out to be the third of seventeen—but only with the greatest reluctance and after a display of temper, fear, and vulnerability that seems less than conventionally heroic.

The rest of the Evangelion series is extremely complex and it would be unfair to the richness of its narrative to attempt to summarize it in a few paragraphs. But it is important to be aware that the narrative is an essentially bifurcated one. On the one hand, it consists of the group’s combat with the Angels, which occurs in approximately every second episode. These are violent, bloody exchanges characterized by an extreme inventiveness in terms of the fascinating abstract forms the Angels take; at the same time, they are guaranteed to satisfy the conventional adolescent male viewer of this kind of sf or mecha (giant robot) anime. The other strand of the narrative is far more complex and provocative, as it becomes increasingly concerned with the problematic mental and emotional states of the main characters, all of whom carry deep psychic wounds and whose psychic turmoil is represented against an increasingly frenzied apocalyptic background in which it becomes clear that the threat from the Angels is matched by the machinations of various humans connected with NERV. Although the scenes of combat are gripping and imaginative for the genre, what makes Evangelion truly groundbreaking are the psychic struggles in which the characters engage. These struggles are both wide-ranging and emotionally draining. They are also presented with surprising psychoanalytical sophistication4 as the characters try to come to grips with their own inner turmoil, their problematic relations with each other, and finally, their relation to more remote forms of Otherness—the gigantic machines that are the EVAs and with which they must synchronize, and the enigmatic Angels who present a riddle that is increasingly depicted in terms of what seems to be a Christian or perhaps Gnostic notion of apocalypse.

Ultimately, Evangelion’s apocalyptic narrative ends with more enigmas than revelations. We never know exactly what the Angels are, although their DNA is said to 99.89% compatible with human DNA. Indeed the final Angel, No. 17, initially appears in human form, disguised as another EVA pilot. This Angel essentially sacrifices him/itself, allowing Shinji in EVA armor to destroy him/it. The victory comes at enormous cost to NERV and to Shinji’s colleagues, however, many of whom die in the battle. Mick Broderick describes these battles as being held during the “apocalyptic interregnum: the time between the penultimate and ultimate battles that decide humanity’s final outcome” (2). But the “final outcome” of the Evangelion series is a far cry from conventional apocalyptic closure. Instead of a cataclysmic struggle, the last two episodes of the series (25 and 26) shift abruptly to a stunningly unexpected form of closure: a vision of Shinji’s inner psychological world that becomes an exploration of the nature of reality itself.

As such, the final episodes are worth examining in some detail. Stripped of the high-tech gadgetry and the colorful visuals that characterize the earlier episodes in the series, these last two episodes take place largely in muted tones in a virtually empty mise-en-scène symbolizing Shinji’s mind. Shinji initially appears alone and seated in a chair in a pool of light, a scene suggestive of a captive’s interrogation. In fact, a form of interrogation proceeds to be carried out as he asks himself—or is asked by an unseen voice—probing psychological questions, the most frequent of which are “What do you fear?” and “Why do you pilot the EVA?”

In both cases the answers are surprising. Typical of the series as a whole, they deconstruct the mecha sf genre, calling into question the more simplistic motivations typical of earlier works such as Yamato. What Shinji fears most turns out to be not the impersonal threat of the Angels but rather the disturbing workings of his own psyche and his dysfunctional family background. Thus, in answer to the question “What do you fear most?” he first answers “myself,” then mentions “others,” and finally admits to fearing “my father.” Even more psychoanalytically significant are his answers about why he pilots the EVA. At first he insists that he does so to “save mankind.” But when that answer is met with the response “Liar,” he shifts to a more complex self-analysis (aided by the accusing voices inside him—often those of his coworkers—who suggest that “You do it for yourself!”). He admits to piloting the EVA because of his own need for the liking and respect of others, and finally acknowledges that he feels “worthless” unless he is joined with the EVA.

Two similar interrogations follow, involving Shinji’s fellow pilots, Asuka Langley and Ayanami Rei. Asuka, the feisty half-Western girl who has a dysfunctional family background equal to or worse than that of Shinji, turns out to be even more needy than Shinji in terms of her relationship with the EVA. Enmeshed in her ruined EVA, which was destroyed in the final assaults, Asuka excoriates the machine as a “worthless piece of junk,” but then immediately goes on to admit that “I’m the junk … I’m worthless. Nobody needs a pilot who can’t control her own EVA.”

Even more provocative are the responses of the enigmatic Ayanami Rei who, it has been revealed, is actually a clone of Shinji’s dead mother created by Ikari Gendô, Shinji’s father. Fittingly, given her essential Otherness vis-à-vis Shinji and Asuka, Rei’s internal interrogation goes beyond the psychoanalytical to verge on the metaphysical. At first she accuses herself of being “an empty shell with a fake soul,” but then her inner voice suggests that she has been formed by her interactions with others and it accuses her of “being frightened that you will cease and disappear from the minds of others.” To this Rei responds chillingly, “I am happy. Because I want to die, I want to despair, I want to return to nothing.”

The overwhelming atmosphere of terror and despair intensifies as the action returns to Shinji. Over a montage of bleak visuals, that include black and white photos of desolate urban motifs such as a riderless bicycle or vacant park benches interspersed with graphic stills of the devastated NERV headquarters in which Shinji’s colleagues are seen as bloodstained bodies, Shinji insists that there is nothing that he can do to change the world and that he is simply a “representative, a signifier.” Just at this despairing point, however, the scene shifts to a vision of blank whiteness in which Shinji appears as a cartoon stick figure while a voice-over intones, “None of this will last forever. Time continues to flow. Your world is in a constant state of flux.” While the words are redolent of Buddhist terminology, the visuals are self-reflexively anime-esque. Shinji is told that the whiteness around him gives him freedom and various elements are gradually added to the blankness—first a line or “floor” that signifies gravity and then other structures to create an animated world.5

In another surprising shift, the scene changes to what we discover is a vision of an alternative animated reality—in this case, what seems to be a kind of high-school sex comedy. A self-assured Shinji “awakens” in a pleasant bedroom to find Asuka shouting at him that he’ll be late for school, a far cry from his alienating existence in Evangelion. Other reversals abound: his father sips at a cup of coffee in a homespun kitchen while his mother—now alive—chides him about being late. At school Asuka and Shinji run into a new girl—Rei—now a hot-tempered anime babe, while Misato, Shinji’s beautiful, tortured mentor in Evangelion, appears as a sexy, placid high-school teacher.

Aware now that he indeed has a world of “freedom” in which what is “real” is “only one of many possibilities,” Shinji, surrounded by his revived colleagues, friends, and family, announces “I am me. I want to be myself. I want to continue living in the world.” At this point everyone claps and each character intones the word “Congratulations!” Evangelion ends with Shinji thanking everyone and the final words, “Congratulations to the children.”

The stunning originality of these final episodes cannot be overstated. While Evangelion’s narrative has clear echoes of Yamato’ssaving-the-Earth-through- technology plots, and its dysfunctional characters resonate with aspects of Akira, most notably the notion of the sacrifice of innocent children. The series deals with these elements in breathtakingly creative ways to create a unique and memorable vision of inner and outer collapse and, perhaps, renewal. It should be noted that many viewers were outraged by the two final episodes. Expecting a more conventional end-of-the-world scenario, fans were baffled and indignant that, instead of outward explosions and satisfying combat, the cataclysmic struggle occurred wholly in the character’s mind. Rumors flew that the “disappointing” ending was due to lack of money on the part of Anno’s parent company Gainax, but it should be noted that the subsequently released film version, Shin seiki Evangelion Gekijô-ban: Air/Magokoro o, kimi ni (1997, The End of Evangelion) more than makes up for the minimalism of the final series episodes by presenting an over-the-top apocalypse so full of awesome catastrophe and bizarre revelations as to seem almost a parody of the apocalyptic genre.

What Anno is doing in the television series, however, is far more groundbreaking and intellectually exciting. Eschewing the extravagant visuals and relentless action associated with the apocalyptic sf genre, Anno instead probes what might be termed the apocalyptic psyche, using simple but dark graphics and photo montages, disturbing voice-overs, and disorienting music—as the final episode opens, Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” swells on the soundtrack. In these last two episodes the machines have literally stopped, and both characters and viewers are left with no recourse but to confront their/our own flawed humanity in all its desperation and insecurities without the technological armor of the typical sf text.

Looking at the series as a whole, however, we can see that the ending, although certainly genre-bending, should not be totally unexpected. Kotani Mari has suggested that Evangelion can in many ways be read as a quest romance in which the hero finds his identity, and this quest is accomplished through far more than combat scenes (99).Thus, if we return to the first episode, we can see that, although it is technically structured around the combat scene between Shinji and the Angel, it is already an exploration of inner psychological worlds.

This is made clear in the first meeting between Shinji and Misato when, through voice-overs, the viewer is given a hint of Misato’s own damaged psyche and her disappointment in Shinji’s seemingly utter lack of emotional affect. There are more subtle signs as well: Shinji and Misato’s descent into the seemingly bottomless depths of NERV headquarters can be read, as critic Endô Tôru suggests, as a descent into the unconscious, metonymically reinforced by the profusion of downward escalators and elevators from which the protagonists emerge into a disorienting maze of long empty corridors and bizarre machinery (84). It is surely no coincidence that, in the first episode, Misato and Shinji enter NERV only to become hopelessly lost, a situation that recurs symbolically and concretely throughout the series until the final episode explicitly displays Shinji as “lost” in his own subconscious. Other hints of unconventionality occur throughout the series in the often dysfunctional relations between the characters and the revelations concerning their unhappy backgrounds. Even before the final episodes, therefore, the viewer is accustomed to being as concerned about the psyches of the characters as about the outcomes of the Angel attacks.

Even the series’ unconventional visual style works to create a disorienting and foreboding atmosphere. William Rout has analyzed Anno’s unusually frequent employment of still images in the series, sometimes accompanied by complete silence, at other times accompanied by voice-over dialogue. By stopping the visual action, these sequences seize and hold the viewer’s attention, forcing him or her out of the mesmerizing flow of fast-paced visual imagery typical of animation, and concentrating the focus on more psychological issues. The fact that these still images particularly proliferate in the final episodes is also crucial. As Routt says, “The series continually uses stills of Shinji and his surroundings to direct attention to his state of mind and to his memories, constantly reminding viewers that what is going on inside his head warrants our attention—and in this way predicting its own psychological denouement” (41).

It should be clear by now that Evangelion is a text that can be read on many levels. On the one hand, as Kotani and other critics point out, it can be seen as a coming-of-age story, expressed through the narrative of a young boy’s growth vis-à-vis others, in particular the patriarchy represented by his father and the feminine presence represented not only by his colleagues but, as Kotani argues, by the EVA itself. The EVA is a clearly maternal entity in whose fluid embrace—it fills with liquid when the pilots enter—Shinji and his copilots can return to the womb. Shinji must also deal with the Angels who, as Kotani suggests, can be seen as the Other that needs to be repudiated in order for the subject to mature (99-101). But, as the near humanness of the Angels suggests, the Other is not so easily repudiated. As the final episodes make clear, the development of Shinji’s identity must be made in relation to others, in particular the miraculously resuscitated group of colleagues who are there to congratulate him at the end when he declares “I am me!”, a moment that suggests that Shinji’s endeavor to develop a cohesive form of subjectivity has been successful.

Or has it? The tale of Shinji’s maturation is a fascinating one but it should be noted that it takes place within an explicitly apocalyptic framework, and it is worth examining Shinji’s role within the context of the apocalyptic narrative. In a conventional apocalyptic narrative we would expect a savior figure to arise. Mick Broderick argues that this is essentially Shinji’s function; he evaluates the final scene in which Shinji declares himself and receives congratulations in the following positive terms:

Not only do viewers witness the individual reborn into a world made new, but the entire human species is remade immortal, liberated from its biological and psychological constraints to embrace a return to Edenic bliss. (6)

Although I find Broderick’s analysis arresting, my own reading suggests that the film’s ending is more complicated and perhaps darker than that of a classic apocalyptic narrative. My reading goes back to the special qualities of the animation medium itself and its self-reflexive ability to highlight its unreality in relation to the “real.” As Routt says of the series’ use of still images, “they signal the overt presence of style: they repeatedly and obviously call attention to the considerable artifice of the series’ narration” (40). This “calling attention” is strikingly obvious in the final episodes of Evangelion, first in the scene where Shinji, shown floating in white emptiness, is told he has the “freedom” to do what he likes to create his own world. This is an obvious reference to the role of the animator himself/herself, who constructs a world from white emptiness every time s/he creates animation. Even more obvious is the startling scene in which Shinji becomes the hero of an alternative anime series, a lighthearted world in which he and his fellow characters are shown as confident and independent.

The highlighting of the animation’s essential unreality can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, if we agree with Broderick’s optimistic view, we can see it as underlining the explicit message that every human has the potential to create his or her own world. On the other hand, given the generally dark portrayal of the human psyche in the series up to this point, it is also possible to suggest that Evangelion’s final apocalyptic vision is an ironic one: even when we think we can control the reality around us, we are actually at its mercy, cartoon characters in the hands of the fates or the animators. The happy ending that we see is one ending but, as the series makes clear, it is only one of many possible endings.

While Evangelion highlights the technology of the animation medium itself to call our notions of reality into question, Serial Experiments Lain presents its viewers with an animated world in which technology, specifically the computer, both creates and deconstructs reality. While the EVA in Evangelion is essentially anthropomorphized, a concrete Other that is, initially at least, a necessary part of the characters’ identities, the “machine” in Lain is invisible, part of a world known as the Wired in which the machine not only supports but literally constructs identity. This premise leads both characters and viewers on a darkly surreal adventure into a virtual house of mirrors where identities shift, disappear, and reformulate and where death and life are refigured to create a disorienting and disquieting vision of a very near future.

Less epic than the sprawling Evangelion, Lain might well be described as a home drama invaded by the surreality of cyberculture. Its eponymous heroine is a quiet junior-high-school girl living an apparently conventional life with parents, an older sister, and a typical group of friends in a world much like our own, only perhaps a little more high-tech. One day, however, a classmate of hers commits suicide. From that point on, Lain and her other classmates start receiving messages on their computers, seemingly from the dead girl, telling them that “she has only given up her body” and that “God is here,” inviting them, or at least Lain, to join her. Around the same time Lain receives a new computer, called a NAVI, and she becomes steadily immersed in its disembodied world. Meanwhile, her classmates insist that they have seen her at a nightclub called “Cyberia,” behaving in a way that is most unlike her typical shy self. Reality and dream intersect when Lain actually starts to visit Cyberia, encountering a strange variety of people who insist they’ve met her before, either at Cyberia or in a world they refer to in English as the Wired, the world of cyberspace.

As Lain increasingly plunges into the world of the Wired, she begins to understand that she and the other Lains she encounters there are very special personages, holding some key to both the real and the cyberworld. At the same time she begins to realize that the Wired is starting to affect the real world. Newscast transmissions are suddenly delayed or pushed forward, leading the media to issue disclaimers as to whether the news they are presenting has any relevance. In the sky above Tokyo an immense image of a girl (Lain?) appears, to the consternation of the public. A friend, Arisu (“Alice”?), insists that Lain has spread vicious rumors about her in the Wired. Even more disturbingly Lain is presented with a frightening series of questions—“Who are you?”; “Are your parents real?”; “Is your sister?”; “When are your parents’ birthdays?”—none of which she can answer.

The motif of interrogation is similar to Evangelion. But unlike Shinji, who ultimately finds both the questions and the answers in himself, Lain initially discovers that her interrogator is the “God” of the Wired, a strange, vaguely Christ-like white male with tangled black hair who tells her that “To die is merely to abandon the flesh … I don’t need a body.” Lain begins to question her own existence at the same time as she defensively asserts, “I’m real! I’m living!” On her return home, however, Lain discovers a house empty except for her father, who appears only to tell her, “It’s goodbye, Miss Lain.” Lain begs him not to leave her alone, but he tells her that, “You’re not alone if you connect to the Wired.” More confrontations with “God” ensue; he teasingly suggests that Lain herself may be a god and that in any case she is “software” and doesn’t need a body. In the last episodes of the series, Lain and Arisu confront “God,” pointing out that he doesn’t need a body, either. He thereupon metamorphoses into a hideous monster before disappearing. Free but all alone, Lain discovers she has the power to erase the memory of the rumors about Arisu from her friends’ minds and ultimately realizes that she must erase herself as well. In the last scene her father suddenly reappears; he tells her that she doesn’t need to wear her bear suit anymore and that she “loves everybody,” and he offers to make her some tea.

This brief summary can only begin to suggest the imaginative complexity of Lain. The series brilliantly captures some of industrialized humanity’s most fundamental concerns at the turn of the twenty-first century, most notably our sense of a disconnect between body and subjectivity thanks to the omnipresent power of electronic media. As Bukatman argues, the invisibility of electronic technologies “makes them less susceptible to representation and thus comprehension at the same time as the technological contours of existence becomes more difficult to ignore” (2). Lain, through its foregrounding of the world of the Wired in relation to a young girl who is described as “software,” manages to make the invisible visible in a peculiarly disturbing way. Lain’s fragmented subjectivity, embodied in the multiple Lains acting out inside the Wired, her withdrawn, almost autistic personality, and her lack of origins, make her the perfect representative of the world of the Wired, a world in which the whole notion of reality or truth is constantly called into question.

Even the opening credits of the series are full of elements that trouble our understanding of the nature of reality. Each episode begins with a blank screen and a disembodied voice intoning in English, “Present Day! Present Time!” followed by a sinister spurt of laughter. The scene shifts to a shot of Lain walking alone in a bear costume through crowded neon-lit urban streets in which the “Don’t Walk” sign seems constantly to be flashing. All the while a singer intones in English the refrain “I am falling, I am fading.”

The words “Present Day! Present Time!” seem to be ironically suggestive. Of course the viewer knows that this is a defamiliarization of our present, but the laughing voice hints that it is we who may be mistaken—is Lain the present? Or is our reality the present? Lain’s bear suit, which she dons throughout the series, attests to her own desire to escape reality, in this case by wearing a costume suggestive of a stuffed animal, an omnipresent signifier of cute shôjo (young girl) culture in contemporary Japan. The ubiquitous neon signage, often glimpsed through rain, highlights the importance of electronic media, once again making the “invisible” visible. The series also contains an almost obsessive number of still shots of telephone power lines, conveying not only the omnipresence of technology but of the communications media in particular, and implicitly hinting at our inability to communicate in any satisfactory way. Finally, the haunting opening theme music addresses Lain’s fate and our own unease that we too may “fade” into the Wired.

The final episode of Lain seems to suggest exactly that and is worth analyzing in more detail. On the one hand, Lain seems to triumph against the false god of the Wired by catching him in his own logical conundrum—if bodies are not necessary, then why should he need one? This can be seen as an assertion of the importance of the material world, indeed of the body, since without a body,“God” does indeed disappear (fades), but Lain herself is hardly better off. Reconfiguring the real world—or what is presented as the real world—that her entrance into the Wired has clearly damaged, Lain is forced to erase her own identity. Her parents now have only one child, her elder sister, and only her friend Arisu has a vague uneasy memory of a girl she once knew named Lain. Lain is told—and this is meant to be a comfort—that “If you don’t remember something it never happened … you just need to rewrite the record.”6

The erasure of memory is seen here ironically as comforting, a way to rewrite an unhappy history—much as Japanese textbooks have erased certain episodes of the Pacific War—but underneath the irony is a tragedy of a child’s non-existence. The ubiquitous still shots of a nude Lain in fetal position surrounded by computer wires and components suggest her total takeover by the machine. Of course if Lain is only “software,” then it doesn’t matter whether she ever existed. This may be the reason why her father tells her that she needn’t wear the bear suit anymore, a cute signifier of contemporary Japanese girlhood. The “machine” (program) of the Wired has finally stopped for her and she is now liberated to take tea in an imaginary space, without any pretence of reality at all.

Mention of tea may evoke memories of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, since Japanese viewers are also familiar with Alice’s Aventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Indeed, in many ways Lain can be seen as a retelling or even a reversal of the Alice stories. Like Alice, Lain—and Shinji as well to a lesser extent—descends into a world in which nothing is what it seems andin which identity constantly fluctuates. As with Alice, she has godlike powers since she is the “software” who creates her own world, the Wired, just as Alice dreams up Wonderland and Looking Glass Country. Also like Alice, she ultimately confronts the reigning deity within her made-up world and triumphs over it. Here we have a reversal, however. In Alice’s case she recognizes the Red Queen’s and the others’ true forms as simply “a pack of cards,” (trite, material objects) while Lain recognizes that it is the immaterial that is the Achilles’ heel of her enemy, since without a body, he simply disappears.

Both Lain and Shinji are desperately concerned about their own incipient immateriality, the fact that their subjectivity is verging on “terminal identity” due to their dependence on the machine. Lain fears to be left alone in the world of the Wired but knows that she has nowhere else to go, while Shinji fears that without the EVA he is nothing. The fact that these are children makes their vulnerability particularly disturbing, suggesting extra-textual aspects of a social malaise in which young people seem less and less connected, not only with other people but also with themselves.7 In many ways the emotionally empty Lain seems spiritually linked with Ayanami Rei who, while a clone of Shinji’s mother, is visually presented as a young girl who wants only to “return to nothing.” The fact that Lain begins with the suicide of a young girl is even more disturbing, suggesting “terminal identity” in its most concrete form. In today’s Japanese anime, in contrast to the elderly ghosts who haunt the Yamato, it is the children—the future—who seem to have become “phantasmagoria,” unhappy ghosts or stick figures lingering on the edges of consciousness.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who may be considered a a nineteenth-century form of shôjo, is also afraid of losing her identity, as her tearful insistence that “I am real” attests. As it turns out, however, she has no need to worry. Alice is the dreamer and the Red King is simply a figment of her dream, although she is astute enough to wonder, on waking, whose dream/reality it really is. After all, “he was a part of my dream of course but then I was a part of his dream too” (Carroll 310). For Alice, this is an amusing conundrum. For the children in Evangelion and Lain, bound to a world in which technology rather than the human imagination increasingly seems to dominate, the question is one with terrifying implications.

Carroll’s nineteenth-century text privileges the imagination. Forster’s modernist work highlights the need for “real” human intercourse unmediated by technology. The two late twentieth-century anime works suggest that the imagination, the real, and technology are bound together in increasingly complex ways, and they hint that reality may ultimately be simply a creation of the mind. While this is a powerful, even liberating notion, it is also one that, for many of these narratives at least, can lead to alienation and despair. At the turn of the twenty-first century, when the machines stop, can the human imagination transcend the ruins and create a new reality no longer tied to technology? Both Evangelion and Lain explore this question but, given the enigmatic quality of their conclusions, it is hard to say whether the answers they offer are positive or negative.

                1. Baudrillard’s description of the contemporary condition as “[n]o more subject, no more focal point, no more center or periphery: pure flexion or circular inflexion” (29) is particularly appropriate here.
                2. It should be noted that a strong awareness of the transience and unpredictability of life has been rooted in Japanese culture for centuries and is exemplified in its lyric tradition. See my Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, 193-197.
                3 See my Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke, 236.
                4. In the final episode, Anno is clearly referencing Freud and perhaps Lacan as the unseen voice inside Shinji’s head explains to him that he creates his personality first through disassociating with the mother and then through distinguishing himself from others.
                5. Christopher Bolton points to some other examples of this “textual apocalypse” that are visual rather than psychological, such as the “repeated shots of an empty sound stage or movie studio that suggest a final striking of the set,” hinting that the series is “collapsing in on itself” as the animation “rewrites and redraws its own reality in the final scenes” (Bolton, email communication, 8/5/02).
                6. The issue of memory is implicitly suggested in her father’s final comments to Lain, in which he suggests that, besides tea, he might also bring “madeleines,” an obvious reference to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (1913-27). While in Proust’s work the flavor of the madeleine cake invites the narrator back into his childhood memories, in Lain they simply underline the absence of a past that can be remembered. I am indebted to David Mankins for reminding me of this reference.
                7. It should of course be noted that not all anime present such pessimistic visions of youth. For a fascinatingly different approach to the same themes of identity and apocalypse, see Kunihiko Ikuhara’s 1997 series and film Shôjo kakumei Utena (Revolutionary Girl Utena) in which the young heroine of the series triumphantly asserts her identity and ends up actually becoming the machine, in this case a flashy car that serves as a literal vehicle for empowerment. The important difference here is that Utena, like Alice, is a fantasy, deconstructing such clichés as the fairy-tale prince to tell a romance of feminine liberation. It would appear that, at the present time at least, the sf genre in Japan is less able to imagine technology and human identity in an optimistic light.

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