Asiascape Ops 6 - Japanese Science Fiction in Converging Media
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Carl Li, Mari Nakamura, and Martin Roth
Japanese Science Fiction in Converging Media: Alienation and Neon Genesis Evangelion
Japanese popular culture, represented primarily by manga and anime, has over the last couple of decades increasingly gained popularity both within and be-yond Japan. Based on the assumption that this is partly due to their distinct
qualities as media of political expression, this article aims to identify and discuss some of these expressions. Focusing on the SF franchise Neon Genesis Evange-lion (hereafter EVANGELION), often regarded as a landmark in the history of
Japanese animation, it will trace the recurring concept of alienation through the extremely popular anime (1995), the manga (19952012), and the videogame Neon Genesis Evangelion 2 (2003), thus offering an insight into their commonali-
ties as well as their differences.
Alienation is a central concept in modern social and political theory, as well as in sociology and psychology, and refers to the condition of
separation or estrangement. 1 For Karl Marx, who developed the most influ-ential accounts of alienation in modern social and political theory, alienation is a central critique to modern capitalism. Analyzing the situation of wageworkers in the historical context of modern society, Marx observes that alienation occurs
for them in four interrelated senses in capitalist society: alienation from the very product they produce, from the act of production, from their fellow workers, and from their species-being.2 Marx sees species-being as the
unique human attribute which distinguishes human life from that of the animals, where ones alienation from their species-being in a modern capitalist society is focused through the class structure and the proletariat experience.3 Thus for
Marx, overcoming alienation requires a change in material conditions for a his-torically specific class of the proletariat by way of their revolutionary activities.
While Marx developed his idea of alienation from his wider socio-logical discussion on the political economy of capitalism, later scholars study
more individual and psychological aspects of alienation in a wider social con-text. Among them, American sociologist Melvin Seeman identifies five alterna-tive meanings as components of alienation: powerlessness, meaninglessness,
normlessness, isolation, and self-estrangement.4 Powerlessness is the sense that one cannot influence socio-political events in which one interacts. Meaningless
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ness is a feeling that is experienced when it is unclear what one ought to believe.5 Normlessness is a feeling which comes from believing that socially unapproved
means are required to achieve important goals.6 Isolation is a quality of estrangement from the goals and beliefs which are highly valued in the society. Self-estrangement is a feeling that an individual cannot find self-rewarding
activities that engage him. Seemans account opens up further investigations on various forms of alienation found in the relation between humans and machine, and
among different social groups in modern societies.
With both Marx and Seeman, the notion of alienation in social and political theory appears to have a
negative connotation, as if it is something to be over-come. Yet, in another strand, the field of science fictional (SF) literature, the idea of alienation or estrangement is rather positive. Literary critic Darko Suvin notably de-
fines SF as the literature of cognitive estrangement, deriving this concept from German dramatist Bertolt Brechts concept of verfremdungseffekt (in English,
alienation-effect or estrangement-effect).7 Suvin and other advocates of this view such as Fredric Jameson argue that the power of SF literature lies in its potential
to detach its worlds from the everyday life of the reader, thereby facilitating estrangement that may lead to reflec-tions on the present. Here, alienation and estrangement
are essentially political, aiming to reveal that what is as-sumed to be eternal or natural is merely historical and, therefore, subject to change. 8
The concept of alienation is a central theo-
retical concept across different disciplines with both negative and positive connotations. The following analy-ses aim to trace the alienation found in EVANGELION
through different works and media, closely paying atten-tion in each case to the politics revealed through its ex-pression and employment.
Overview of the EVANGELION Franchise:
Airing from 1995 to 1996 on Japanese television, the
anime Neon Genesis Evangelion is arguably the most suc-cessful and most known part of the franchise. Set fifteen years after a catastrophe known as Second Impact has
wiped out the majority of the worlds population, the story shows humanity under attack from enigmatic, oth-erworldly creatures known as Angels (in Japanese shito,
or disciples), who seek to initiate a new and final cata-clysm, or Third Impact. In response, mankind sets up a final defense in the form of Evangelions or EVAs, bio-mechanical giants which possess abilities similar to the
Angels. Under the command of the paramilitary organi-zation NERV, the EVAs are piloted by the Children, 14-year-olds with a special affinity for them. EVANGELION
is not only a post-apocalyptic environment but also a pre-apocalyptic one; according to director Anno Hideaki, it is A world with few children left to lead it into the future.9
Drawing inspiration from works which feature themes of mistrust, uncontrollable power, and human
extinction such as the 1972 manga Devilman (
, Debiruman) and the 1981 anime Space Runaway Ideon
(, Densetsu kyjin ideon),10 possibly the most innovative and influential aspect of Neon Gene-sis Evangelion is the positioning of its characters in its
science fictional setting. Where previous titles of a simi-lar vein would showcase heroes with unbreakable wills or protagonists reluctant to fight but determined to end
conflict, Children are defined by the degree to which their deep psychological and emotional traumas over-whelm their lives. The protagonist Ikari Shinji constantly
questions the worth of his existence, while his fellow
Children Ayanami Rei and Sory Asuka Langley doubt the authenticity of emotions and exhibit a strong fear of inferiority, respectively. These problems of mistrust and emotional isolation extend to the rest of the characters
as well, further swallowing the problems of the many (saving humanity) within the problems of the individual.
The original anime ran for 26 episodes, was followed shortly after by a series of theatrical films in
1997, and has since then reached far into other media. Many video games have been made based on EVANGE-LION in part or in whole, ranging from strip poker cli-
ents to strategy simulations to pachinko machines. Simi-larly, a number of Evangelion manga have been created, including alternate spin-offs which place the characters
into occult mysteries and other settings far removed from the original. The more recent Rebuild of Evangelion (, Wevangeriwon shinge-
kijban) films, beginning in 2007 and set to conclude in 2013, even act as a heavily altered re-imagining of the
original. With many titles imitating, drawing inspiration from, and responding to its various themes, characters, artistic elements, and even marketing both directly and
indirectly,11 EVANGELION has shaped Japanese anima-tion profoundly both in terms of lasting and global popu-larity among young fans, as well as in the novelty of its
expression, a milestone in Japanese popular culture.
Of these different versions of EVANGELION, we will be looking at three titles in particular because of
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their proximity in both content and intent. The first is the original television series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. The second is the manga by Sadamoto Yoshiyuki, also titled
Neon Genesis Evangelion, which was published from 1995 to 2012 and closely adapts the t