One of the ways in which Evangelion stands out, is that while its premise is about piloting giant mecha to save the world from giant monsters, like almost every other mecha anime, nobody actually hangs around to save the world from giant monsters as an end in itself, unlike almost every other mecha anime.
In Evangelion, every single character has his or her own twisted, selfish goals, and saving the world just happens to be the means to that end. While scores of people die in burning fires and crumbling buildings, everyone at NERV is stuck in their own private games. We have megalomaniacs, loads of mum and dad issues, but no climactic motivational speeches to rally everyone around a common cause, and not a single ‘normal’ character to shine through like a golden beacon to help us hold on to our sanity. If NERV is humanity’s last hope, god help us all.
This is perhaps why the show has such a polarised reaction. Unless we know, right off the bat, that we’re watching a show about moral bankruptcy – which Evangelion, masquerading as a generic mecha anime in its first few episodes, certainly doesn’t tell us – we don’t like watching shows about moral bankruptcy. The shounen formula dictate that if you’re gonna try to save the world, you gotta do it for the right reasons. Do it because you wanna save your friends, your family, or because killing innocent human beings is just plain wrong. Your protagonists could struggle with broken childhoods, self-doubt, moral dilemmas, a thirst for revenge, but by the time you reach the climax, either you save the world for the right reasons or you don’t do it at all.
Why does altruism matter so much in fiction? To answer that, we need to ask ourselves why altruism even matters at all. Religious people may attribute it to the divine, while not-so-religious people may say that it makes evolutionary sense; regardless of the reason, it’s quite clear that we do have the capacity to empathise with others, and this capacity causes us to feel happy when they feel happy, and pained when they feel pained. Besides, anyone who wasn’t born as supreme overlord of the human race stands to benefit from the kindness of others. Altruism isn’t a zero-sum game; the recipient of an act of altruism often gains more than the benefactor loses. In that sense, even if from a purely self-interested perspective, altruism matters.
Thus, from educational institutes to human rights organisations, we strive a inculcate altruism as the norm in human relations. When we witness exceptional acts of altruism, it makes us proud of our collective humanity.
That said, while altruism is easy to admire and benefit from, it’s difficult to live by. Altruism, by definition, comes at the cost of some sort of perceived benefit to the self. Clearly, it takes more effort to act out of altruism than it does to act out of direct self-interest, or no one would need any convincing; instead of advertisements asking us to donate to the poor, we’d have advertisements telling us to stop donating so much money and think about ourselves for a change.
That’s not all. To further add to the scepticism, a person’s capacity to act altruistically often depends just as much on circumstance as it does on character. When I read about Bill Gates’ philanthropy, I can’t help but think, ‘no shit, I too would gladly donate half my fortune if I was swimming in more money than I could ever spend’. Yet, when we praise these people for their altruism, we imply that they possess a kind of extraordinary virtue that normal people do not. Apparently, character can now be bought. For those who value altruism and aspire to act altruistically, but can’t afford to pay off their housing and tuition fees, this can lead to frustration and disillusionment.
That’s where fiction comes in. Fiction is an equalising force. Fiction allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of a character who has the opportunity to overcome the odds through sheer courage and moral tenacity, or to sacrifice himself/herself for the sake of a loved one, in a setting where the mind-boggling politics and moral ambiguities of the real world can’t weigh us down. As we empathise with these struggles and internalise the pain, they become beliefs that matters to us and our moral identities, and we feel like we stand for something. We are filled with hope.
Hope is a good thing. It’s easy to become so disillusioned with the real world that we give up on kindness and altruism altogether. That would suck. Life is harsh, but it still has its moments. It’d be a lot worse if we collectively decided that morality was a thing of the past, and that we’d only act in self-interest from now on.
However, mass media has commodified altruism by barraging us with far too many stories of altruism in too many cheap forms, that we have started to lose touch with what it means to be an altruistic person in the real world. Altruism in fiction, typically, has no regard for the fact that most of us are unexceptional individuals, with limited power and ability. We aren’t superheroes, and we don’t have secret talents that can grab the world’s attention in a matter of minutes. Doing good in real life is never as convenient or romantic as in fiction.
Moreover, empathising with a work of fiction doesn’t really allow us to understand what it means to be willing to make sacrifices to defend our beliefs. Firstly, these sacrifices almost always pay off, because everyone loves a happy ending. There is no such certainty in the real world. Secondly, even if the sacrifices do not pay off, the protagonists’ realities are not our realities. The choices they make won’t haunt us for the rest of our lives; they stop mattering to us the moment we move on to something else.
This widens the gap between our beliefs about altruism and the ways in which we act on them. We may rally behind Naruto, Ai Tanabe, or Lelouch in full support of their altruistic decisions, but these beliefs neither demand nor readily translate into action in our own lives. We continue to believe that altruism needs to be spectacular, and it needs to make a world of a difference to count. We continue to believe that altruism is something that we, as ordinary people, have no access to. We may even start to express cynicism towards those who try to do good in their everyday lives, in whatever small, unimpressive ways they can, since these acts invariably fall short of the kind of heroism we have come to expect.
This does not bode well for altruism. Altruistic beliefs are not ends in themselves. Without action, they exist in a vacuum. They will not do anything to improve the lives of those who need our kindness most. A world without altruism is less dishonest, and arguably less dangerous, than a world that only pretends to have it.
Evangelion is perhaps our much-needed panacea. A protest against the commodification of altruism, Evangelion is an experiment to see what happens when a show repeatedly refuses to give us the catharsis that we desire. Shinji Ikari, the character whom we expect to man up like any other shounen protagonist, and whom we are prepared to empathise with to get our daily dose of altruistic belief, winds up being the most pathetic character we’ve ever seen.
It is tragic, but deliberate, that this would be the case. That’s because Shinji is not your generic shounen protagonist. Shinji is us. Shinji is the boy who would readily empathise with Naruto, the boy who was led to believe that acting altruistically would be easy if the situation demanded it, and had to find out the hard way that society taught him about altruism in meaningless platitudes. Without being driven by extremely powerful, selfish motivations, Shinji simply can’t fight on the same level as everyone else.
Evangelion is a commentary on escapism and wish fulfilment in otaku culture, with plenty of relevance to the rest of the developed world. It is a litmus test that beseeches us to earnestly reflect upon ourselves. Can you see yourself in Shinji? If you can’t, is it because you’re truly different from him, or is it because you can’t bring yourself to admit to the similarities?
If you’re willing to learn from Evangelion, good for you. Hopefully, it doesn’t just stop at the level of belief.
This is part 1 in a series on Evangelion and altruism. The 2nd part is Evangelion and Altruism in Self-Interest.