The fallible and the other Japanese ends of the world
In Neon Genesis Evangelion we never actually arrive at the knowable. The entire series runs on a series of unknowables that are never revealed, rather their strangeness becomes a force. The plot is perturbed by amongst other things polymorphic balls, crucified aliens, masked invaders, the series enemies are never quite knowable, they refuse to speak, and the plot line we get from them is so incomprehensible it may as well be surrealism. The feel genuinely alien. In Shingeki no Kyojin, settlers in a medieval village are facing inexplicable giants, when their science team comes back defeated, the tone is grim. A woman hysterically grand at them asking about her son, they hand her a solemn bloody cloth which she unwraps to reveal an arm, she immediately screams did he did defending their country, to which the sergeant replies of course before breaking down to admit, they don’t understand the titans, and they have been sacrificing men in vain. The Titans then proceed to tear down the walls.
The Japanese have consistently set up apocalypses of the inscrutable. The characters face a world alien from what we know, and are incapable of comprehending it. Powers far stronger than mankind make strangely realistic whims which often destroy huge swathes of human culture. In American the world is ending films we often find the protagonist with an exact idea of what is coming: a virus, an alien invasion, a zombie, or simply environmental collapse. Eva and SNK are unique in their use of the other as a apocalyptic device and it is peculiarly Japanese see a foreign invading culture that is not a mirror of ourselves. In Independence Day, for example, we discover the aliens have never discovered sustainable strategies for maintaing life on earth, hence they are like us: parasites who might have to leave home. In World War Z the enemies are Zombies, which as Sam Raimi famously once wrote: “they’re us!”. The apocalypse in Hollywood cinema is always familiar, it is never cultural, and it is often mundane. The reason the world ends it seems is to prove the masculinity of the hero, it’s a chance for a few brace men to mine an asteroid in faster, a fighter jet to take on an alien armada, or a Doctor to fend off the last vestiges of humanity from annihilation. A cure is always at hand or at least a rock to break a Zombie’s skull. What sets the Japanese apart is that they aren’t afraid to be humbled by the end of the world.
The scientists in Neon Genesis Evangelion never discover what makes the angels tick. They never figure out where they come from or why. Like the researchers in Shingeki no Kyojin, they are at a loss. Like the poor mother devoured by Titans in Shingeki no Kyojin, we feel as if the Eva pilots can sincerely fail, and they do. These films don’t see the apocalypse as predictable, neither is it empowering, the stories here disempower their characters to infantilism and then build them back up again. The apocalypse renders the world unlivable, but not by knowable forces, but rather by the whims of an alien culture. In this sense Evangelion can be seen as a post-colonial narrative, an undertow of colonial holocaust the author happened to unearth in Japanese culture, Hiroshima as coke machine and American inquest. However for it’s American fans Eva works as a metaphor for trauma, for all the bruises we acquire at the hand of others.
Shingeki no Kyojin is hardly the first Japanese work to introduce a new innovation on horror, the ring of course found demons in our video tapes and electronics. However, it is one of the few to realize how much pop culture needs disempowerment. Towards the end of his life J.G. Ballard predicted malls based on attrition and the worst of our needs. In Japan at least the stations seem to have already received the message, and we are being fed the anti-hope we require, the exact destructive fantasies the id needs to remake itself, just as the resident of Eva and Shingeki no Kyojin must remake their worlds too.