What do you do to escape?
Escapism is an interesting word when you consider it. We all use it so casually to refer to our chosen media but at its roots it identifies activities, media consumption included, as an alternative. Anime can be an escape from something; our personal responsibilities like homework or a job, a diversion from inner reflection, a means to breathe when social obligations or unfulfilled relationships feel paralyzing. We can escape into fantasy worlds that fashion us a cool, capable hero or a school life full of humor and meaningful friendships. For a mere 25 minutes we can leave disappointment by the wayside in hopes of being recharged by the words and actions of our animated heroes. For those looking to anime as something beyond entertainment, for those looking to anime to escape into a hopeful world—this essay isn't for you, though you may understand it better than most.
The idea of the "end of days" is usually a concept saved for the ultimate consequence if the villain wins. The scrappy party, the strong-headed protagonist, namely the "good guys" want to prevent this event by any means necessary. The destruction of life as we know it is the ultimate Bad End. To whit I say, "but have you seen the news?" As a particularly plugged-in journalist with too much access to the never ending horror show that is humanity on planet Earth, I wouldn't mind cutting the cord when it all gets to be way too much. It's possible that I, like many others soaking in the constant real world tragedies unfolding in front of us, are suffering from compassion fatigue. My search for temporary relief has found me enamored with the idea that at some point this suffering will end and nature will retake our remnants. I've found solace in the end and catharsis in fictional depictions of its destruction.
If this sounds completely far out, I ask that you reconsider for a minute that a multitude of stories, anime included, have hinged their climax on this exact emotion. (Or maybe the rest of you were sad instead of satisfied and I'm a giant weirdo). These aren't the stories that start in a post-apocalyptic world (usually) where humans are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to eke out an existence with a smile on their face. These aren't the "everything's ok when we try hard enough" stories. These are the "thank god it's over" stories, the being washed over with relief stories, the you can rest now stories. This is End of Evangelion, The Adolescence of Utena, and Girls' Last Tour. This essay is for all of us who look to retreat into the end of everything. Get in the car, loser, we're escaping into the apocalypse.
I was sitting at the dining room table with my husband. My toddler was 10 feet away crashing plastic toy cars into each other on the carpet. Dinner had winded down and I was thinking about a show I'd finished a couple of months ago. I watch more anime than Matt but over the last two decades I've developed a keen sense for his media preferences. Girls' Last Tour isn't in his wheelhouse but I needed to talk about it. I turned to him, feeling secure that he'd at least entertain whatever melancholy-fueled rant I was about to release upon him.
"Girls' Last Tour is about making futility comfortable. The efforts of man are meaningless and hard work and dedication are not a currency that buys success. In any other anime, Ishii's airplane would have soared past the horizon, inspiring our heroines to hold on to hope. Instead it crashes in a blaze. She doesn't even get the solace of death for her attempt. She lives knowing her dream has failed."
"That's horribly depressing," he said.
"Yes, but it's real."
Our heroes, perhaps while smarter, braver, and stronger than us, they're all failures too. Is the point of life to succeed, to struggle? Ishii and the cartographer Chito and Yūri encounter before her seem at peace after losing their respective "purpose." It's as if there really is no point at all to humanity's inventions and curious monuments. Value is a human emotional concept that can be abandoned on a whim.
Ishii defines hopelessness as stagnation but she's unaware of the burden of maintaining hope until it's gone before her eyes. Her "place to go" rendered unachievable she's washed over with relief. She tried, it failed, she can finally let herself pursue something else be it another plane, another home, or nothing at all.
The theme of "value" and "hope" as a human construct is revisited again and again throughout Girls' Last Tour. Arguably, Chito's most valued possessions are the books she lugs around during their travels, but even her beloved stories are gone in an instant. Her only trusted companion, someone who cannot read or understand the value Chito places on the books, uses them to feed their campfire. There's no retrieving them and all that's left is Chito accepting the loss. Initially, it's horrifying the way Yūri disregards what's important to Chito but just like the cartographer and the scientist, there's a sense that accepting the futility of all of it brings peace.
There's much to be said about the gravitas of Shinji Ikari's internal and external suffering. The external suffering is a side-effect of plot contrivance (he's the boy hero of a mecha anime) but the internal suffering is what's real and meant to resonate with viewers.He's a kid from a broken home, the offspring of a manipulative, cold, and psychologically abusive father. The adults around him are just as twisted up as he is with the added bonus of authority. He has not ever had anything resembling a positive adult role model. He hates his circumstances, he hates the adults that continue to perpetuate he and the other kids' suffering, but most importantly Shinji hates himself. He hates his burgeoning sexual feelings that will propel him into the world of adults and further complicate his relationships. He hates that he can't "just get in the damn robot."
Shinji is hopeless, angry, and unfulfilled. He's a tool for adult's selfishness continually careening away from anything resembling self-actualization. Now, he does achieve this in the original television series' final two episodes. He manages to exit the television series after confronting himself and his weaknesses to heal. Fans at the time weren't too happy with the episodes' minimalism. So, Anno made End of Evangelion and the entire thing is a furious middle finger, walking back the sense of serenity Shinji gained in lieu of more suffering, anger, and destruction of the human race as we know it.
I wonder if Anno felt a sense of vengeful satisfaction as he sent all the adults into the arms of their loved ones only to be liquefied into a primordial pool. There's a sense of dark irony to it. Shinji (and Asuka and Rei) all agonize about their respective loneliness. The issue is presented as the "hedgehog's dilemma" where a hedgehog (i.e. a human) desires closeness but due to its very nature as a hedgehog that is impossible to obtain without hurting oneself and others. There's no honest relationship without chaffing one another. Unless you remove humanity's physicality all together. Instrumentality does exactly that. It nullifies the pain by sacrificing the very concept of the individual.
There is no longer a "you" or "I," everyone is connected perfectly as a never-ending ocean of blood.
Of course, upon seeing what his wish has wrought, Shinji becomes angry with himself again. Asuka, having survived the event, is the only living human left to judge Shinji's decision. He tries to kill her and leave himself as the last sad sack on this planet but he fails at that, too. Asuka, maybe commenting on Shinji, her own circumstances, feelings, or environment ends the film with the famous line, "Kimochi warui."
What Shinji's extraordinary circumstances shows the rest of us non-mecha pilots battling self-loathing is that he doesn't really want this perfectly connected world at all. Of course, he has to truly see it for himself to realize that imperfect relationships are better than this hellscape. Instrumentality isn't complete, after all, but I'm not getting a strong "hope for the future vibe" from this shot.
The End of Evangelion is akin to riding out a wave of self-hatred. It barrels forward at an immeasurable pace focused entirely on destruction: everyone and everything responsible for making me feel this way must be leveled to the ground, myself included. When it's over, all that's left is the wreckage and silence. There's exhaustion but also calm. Everything is fresh again.
God, it's all finally over.
The Adolescence of Utena is a distillation of Kunihiko Ikuhara's key themes on identity, gender, social roles, and breaking out of cycles of abuse. It also involves the heroine's literal transformation into supercharged pink car to drive her love interest out of fairytale purgatory into a barren wasteland. Their ride to freedom includes a chase by a castle on wheels that they decimate in pursuit of their goal. Sometimes the end is also a beginning, as the old adage goes.
The only way to end the suffering is to dismantle its confines entirely. Instrumentality destroyed the individual for the sake of a homogenous group. In The Adolescence of Utena, Anthy and Utena destroy the system that demands their obedience to the group in favor of their individual truth—and in that find hope.
The world Anthy and Utena escape into is no more welcoming than post-Instrumentality or the abandoned steel labyrinth of Girls' Last Tour. There are no immediate signs of life, or color, or warmth. There may be a sun somewhere behind the taupe clouds blotting out the sky. There is no foreseeable destination and in that no predetermined outcome for Anthy or Utena. They are free to live, die, and define themselves in the emptiness.
One important thing differentiates The Adolescence of Utena's story from the narratives of End of Evangelion and Girls' Last Tour is hope. Whereas Shinji resigns to the stillness and finality of the end and the people Chito and Yūri meet find relief in unloading their expectations of success, Utena and Anthy only resonate joy. For them, the apocalypse is an escape because it means the system that perpetuated their suffering has ended but it isn't the end. It's the opportunity to rebuild a castle of their own making, something built of more substantial substance than rose petals and scarecrows.
There is more than one way to reach catharsis in these apocalypse stories. Sometimes it's merely the acknowledgement that personal despair is not unique and finding solace in its transience. An apocalypse might be an escape from the anxieties, responsibilities, expectations, and trauma carried by a character like Shinji. An apocalypse might be an opportunity to reevaluate purpose now that societal structures have broken down.
Or an apocalypse might just be a revolution, a harkening call for the abolition of conformists, power structures, and jackboots. The End Times becomes Once Upon a Time and destruction begets relief.
I first began drafting this piece on May 29, 2019 and added to it over the course of a week before getting sidetracked by some life event or personal obligation. It's conception was, of course, without the knowledge of where the world would be two years later or how my personal environment would change. It was conceptualized due my own intimate feelings while navigating Major Depressive Disorder and how it influences my perception of art; anime included. When I revisited it a year later, the words still resonated with me deeply even if its title had become all too on the nose. The question then became whether to publish it at all — admittedly an argument I have with myself whenever I lay out any kind of vulnerability in prose. Suffice to say, I held on to it for another year.
In the past I've satiated my need to feel, relate, and write by submitting my more raw essays to other sites. When I wanted to contextualize my appreciation of Chise in The Ancient Magus' Bride to my depression and an abusive relationship, I submitted it to Anime Feminist. When I wanted to discuss my own experience with grooming within the anime community, I submitted the story to Lauren Orsini's Anime Origin Story interview project. Suffice to say that often times my writings feel intimate and thus not suited for a place as big and far-reaching as Anime News Network, but I've begun to wonder if that is simply a misjudgment on my behalf to relegate unpleasant experiences to tucked away places in hopes of maintaining a palatable veneer at large.
If you'd like to see more personal essays from writers relating their experiences to anime, please let me know if the comments. If you'd like to write one, reach out at [email protected]