The Very, Very, Very Confusing End of 'Neon Genesis Evangelion,' Explained
This post contains major spoilers for the original Neon Genesis Evangelion series.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is on Netflix! That's great! Now there's a whole new generation of anime fans to be awed, emotionally destroyed, and generally perplexed by one of the most influential series ever made. Evangelion starts off as a pretty straightforward, fun mecha anime about giant robots piloted by 14-year-olds fighting off huge beasts that appear out of nowhere to ravage humanity… and then it becomes something else entirely.
About halfway through the season (episode 16, to be precise), Evangelion starts to become less of a shoot-em-up, robots-versus-monsters series and more of an enigmatic character study. Everyone's faults -- like Asuka's fragile self-confidence and traumatic childhood, Rei's crippling lack of ego, and Shinji's belief that he doesn't matter unless he's piloting Unit-01, along with an Oedipus complex -- come to the fore and dominate the rest of the series until the last two episodes, when everything gets really, really weird.
In Episode 24, Kaworu Nagisa waltzes late into the series, posing as the fifth EVA pilot, and quickly befriends Shinji, only to be revealed as the Seventeenth Angel, here to initiate the Third Impact. He travels down to Terminal Dogma to unite himself with what he believes is Adam, the progenitor of all the angels Shinji and co. has been fighting, only to discover that the being NERV has nailed to a cross down there is actually Lilith, the source of humanity. (In Evangelion, neither can exist at the same time; one species can thrive on earth at a time.) After Shinji, piloting Unit-01, defeats Unit-02, which Kaworu was using to defend himself, Kaworu requests that Shinji kill him. He does.
Kaworu's death seems to be the beginning of Human Instrumentality, which is the mysterious "project" that the faceless members of SEELE have been whispering about the entire time in dark rooms with Gendo Ikari, Shinji's father. The beginning of Episode 25 picks up where the previous one left off, but we don't meet Shinji in his EVA. Rather, he's sitting in a chair in a dark room being tormented by voices that appear as writing onscreen, and by images of the people that he knows, forcing him to examine his own motivations. This is the point of the series where things get very esoteric and weird. The animation style goes from what we've seen all season to rudimentary line drawings, acid-trip visuals, and back.
To understand what's going on, it's important to know what Human Instrumentality actually is. SEELE's (which, for the record, is the German word for "soul") big secret plan was to bring about Human Instrumentality, or the merging of all human souls into one entity, through creating the Third Impact. (The First Impact, happening 4 billion years ago, was the first time the two Seeds of Life, Adam and Lillith, collided; the Second Impact in 2000 in the South Pole was the result of the "Contact Experiment" that killed Shinji's mother, Yui, and Misato's father.) Human Instrumentality is an artificially forced evolution of mankind, which would destroy the barriers between everyone's souls (everyone has a small AT Field that keeps us separated from one another) and fuse them all together, effectively ending the world as humans know it. Gendo worked with SEELE to bring about Instrumentality, but only because he wanted to be reunited with his love, Yui (whose soul is trapped inside EVA Unit-01). It's somewhat understood that the process of Human Instrumentality is occurring during Episodes 25 and 26, but, since it's from the characters' perspectives, you can't actually see the forest for the trees. (In the sequel film End of Evangelion, you see Human Instrumentality actually happening, in all its horrible glory.)
In Episode 25, Shinji, Asuka, and Rei are all brutally psychoanalyzed. Shinji is interrogated about his reasons for piloting Unit-01. He responds it's simply because that's what everyone told him to do; it's what gives him value. Asuka is told that the EVA she has deemed useless is only useless because of her own failure, and that she only pilots Unit-02 (where her deceased mother's soul is locked up) for herself. Rei -- who is a clone made up of a chunk of Yui's soul and remains and, presumably, some of Lilith's DNA as the eventual vessel for her soul in Instrumentality -- is unable to fathom a sense of self separate from who she is in reference to everyone around her.
Misato is examined as well: She acts out because of anger and frustration toward her parents (hopefully you've noticed this is a theme by now) and is confused about what she feels for Shinji as a 29-year-old woman. Asuka reverts back to a child, afraid that her suicidal mother will leave her. Shinji realizes that he created an isolated, empty world for himself where no one can hurt him anymore.
Episode 26 begins, and Instrumentality rockets toward its conclusion. Misato, as a projection of Shinji's perception of Misato, tells Shinji that it's not being unwanted that he fears, but failure, like all humans. Human minds are closed off from one another, but, paradoxically, we still need friendship and validation from others in order to survive. At this point, Instrumentality sounds pretty nice, especially given how miserable everyone is.
But then, Shinji's mantra from as far back as Episode 1 returns, and he decides that he "mustn't run away," and discovers that his self-hatred and belief that he is worthless are things that only he himself has created (despite the fact that for his entire life he has had the world's worst dad, which would certainly mess with anyone's head), and it's his job to understand and love himself in spite of his past tendencies.
Throughout all this, the animation style shifts to pencil sketches in a white void, and, at one point, Shinji is shown what his life might be like as a domestic high school comedy where Rei is the new girl in school, Asuka is his childhood friend, Misato is his teacher, and his mother is still alive. Alternate forms of his life exist, which must mean that there is a world in which Shinji doesn't have to be an EVA pilot if he doesn't want to. He decides that he wants to be himself after all, rejecting Instrumentality to the joy of all his friends, who, in the series' weirdest scene, which also happens to be its final one, stand in a circle and congratulate him.
During its original run, the finale alienated a lot of Evangelion's fans, who were nonplussed at the bizarre, postmodern clip show that makes up most of the final two episodes. It's a far cry from a theme as straightforward as "Get in the robot, Shinji!!!" of Episode 1. Some who worked on the show cite production issues and budget cuts, which forced the animation studio to rely on cheaper options to finish out the season. Plus, creator Hideaki Anno himself apparently hadn't decided how he was going to end the show until the last minute. He tried out a few alternate or complementary endings later, first with the film Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth, which adds some more context to the details of the Human Instrumentality Project, plus the introduction of the terrifying Mass Production EVAs (notably, all its dummy plugs are branded "KAWORU," implying that Kaworu, too, was one of many clones harvested for his soul to pilot EVAs). Then came End of Evangelion, a sweeping, depressing alternate finale that shows what physically happens to the planet when Human Instrumentality occurs.
It's widely known that the arc of Neon Genesis Evangelion follows the progression of Anno's own four-year depression he sunk into in the early '90s. It's also known that halfway through working on the series, Anno got really into psychology, and the character work in the back half of the series reflects his own growing interests in psychoanalysis. (This has kinda always been the case: In Gunbuster, Anno's 1988 directorial debut, he created a character named "Jung Freud.") Evangelion is a frightening, violent, and brutally sad series, whose end, while insanely unexpected, is quite uplifting, above it all -- just not in the gung-ho friendship-and-love way that traditional mecha anime series usually are. Instead, Anno shows us how the possibility of love -- self-love and love from others -- is achievable. Shinji, crippled with doubt and fear and self-hatred, opts for life as an individual amongst the rest of humanity with an Absolute Terror Field around our hearts, choosing the possibility of happiness rather than giving up on himself.