The post-apocalyptic setting, once a rarity in storytelling, is everywhere now. It has become a normal type of setting for works of fiction to take place in. But as post-apocalyptic has become normal some of the things that used to make it so effective have been abandoned or forgotten. Back before post-apocalyptic settings were popular anyone who wanted to make their story take place in such a setting had to have a very good reason to do, because otherwise there would be no benefit in choosing the setting since it was not popular nor well accepted. Today that’s no longer an issue, and that has some unusual side effects. There are countless zombie apocalypse movies ranging from terrible to pretty damn good that have been well received, and Shingeki no Kyojin and its clones are set in post-apocalyptic worlds. But despite all of this widespread success for the post-apocalyptic setting, in my mind the true meaning of post-apocalyptic is being lost in the volume of works that have latched onto the idea of a post-apocalyptic world without bothering to understand what that scenario truly entails. From here on there will be minor spoilers for the three shows mentioned in the title you have been warned.
No doubt some of you are wondering how anyone could get post-apocalyptic wrong. I mean it just means a story set in a world that has experienced a world shattering cataclysm, what else do you need? The long answer will take the whole post to get finished but the short answer is this, we are using apocalypse as though it were a single unified idea when talking or thinking about it, but post-apocalyptic settings spring from two very separate traditions that we collectively call apocalypse. The first tradition is Judgment Day, the end of all things when God judges the world and destroys it. This kind of apocalypse is the style used in the shows mentioned in the title, in these shows the worlds are either in the process of dying or threatened with death. Meanwhile shows like Shingeki no Kyojin and many zombie apocalypse movies use a different apocalyptic tradition, that of Ragnarok. Since I don’t expect most of my readers to know Norse mythology off the top of their head, I’ll spell out the difference. Ragnarok is the end of the established world order and the death of the Norse gods, however Norse mythology explicitly states that it’s not the end of all life but that new life will spring from the destruction of the world we know. What this means in a practical sense is that stories based in the Ragnarok tradition will be more about hope and fighting for a new, better life while those born from the Judgment Day tradition tend to be about fear, despair and failure. I’m not saying Ragnarok stories can’t be full of darkness, violence or moments of hopelessness, but its overall direction will be about making progress in the face of calamity. By comparison a Judgment Day story can have its light and happy moments but the direction the story goes in will be a downward spiral that ends in calamity or explores the calamity that has already happened. Which brings me to my next major point.
There is a character in Book 5 of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher called Nicodemus. Nicodemus is possessed by a fallen angel and his plan is basically to spread a new Black Death throughout the world. When the hero calls him out for trying to restart the apocalypse Nicodemus says something like this “apocalypse is not a physical event, it’s a state of mind.” And if you look at human history you’ll see it’s true. There is a near universal fear that the world will end found in religious texts and movements and it springs up all the damn time. Some sects of faith boomed specifically because they struck the fear of the apocalypse into the world so well. This is what Judgment Day type stories seem to have mastered if done right, they focus on the psychological aspects of apocalypse. Ragnarok type stories usually don’t do this. This is probably going to sound like I’m contradicting my previous post on how Shingeki no Kyojin understands psychology, but I’m not. In Shingeki no Kyojin the author makes a point to emphasize the psychological aspects of powerlessness, however that emphasis disappears later in the show when Eren gets his powers and Levi kills everything he fights. At this point the story takes on the quality of desperate struggle, fraught with peril for sure, but ultimately a struggle that has some hope of victory. That’s not really the case in the series I mentioned in the title. Before I really dig into those three let’s do a brief comparison to get everyone on the same page.
Odds are you’ve heard of Neon Genesis Evangelion, if you read my post about despair for some reason you’ve now heard of Casshern Sins in case you hadn’t already, but unless you really know your cult hits, odds are you’ve either never heard of Ergo Proxy or know nothing about it if you’ve heard the name. So what do these three shows have in common? They are all science-fiction in genre. All of them involve man and machine in varying ways, in NGE the machines are the huge Evangelion mechas, in Casshern there are a wide variety of machines ranging from androids to larger robots shaped like mecha suits that are usually hostile to humans, and in Ergo Proxy all of the machines are androids who serves as bodyguards and assistants to the humans. All of them take place in a world where some form of calamity has occurred and the fallout of said calamity is central to the story in some way. All three shows share similarly muted colors and gritty environments. All three focus on very dark aspects of psychology and all three have varying degrees of religious symbolism which draws on Christian lore. That last bit in particular firmly lands all three stories into the Judgment Day tradition of post-apocalyptic storytelling. And in my mind the Judgment Day type of apocalypse is the correct kind. It’s not that I think Ragnarok type stories are all bad, I’m a fan of quite a few, however I do think that hope and progress are ideas that do not belong next to the word apocalypse while despair and fear are. In my mind the latter is more appropriate to the word apocalypse, especially taken in the context of how its most frequently understood by most people, while the former is more along the lines of “dire straits” or “hanging by a thread” or something. So now that we’ve properly defined apocalypse, how do these three shows convey it?
Well I already told you, it’s because of the psychology. But since that answer would be lame and unsatisfying let me explain how they tap into the apocalyptic psyche, because that takes a lot more work than just throwing everyone into a world ruined by some great cataclysm. If you read my post on Casshern Sins some of this will no doubt sound familiar to you. In Casshern Sins’ case the world looks like it’s already dead, it’s a barren wasteland full of decrepit ruins and crumbling cities. Moreover the inhabitants are literally falling apart as they fall victim to the Ruin, a strange disease-like force that causes the robots who dominate the world to rust until they break down. This was reflected well in the art too, the colors were lifeless as though the whole show was buried beneath a layer of volcanic ash. Ergo Proxy does a similar thing except better thanks to its more realistic art style, in Ergo Proxy the world looks like a dark grey wasteland but in addition there’s lots of shadows and fog/dust clouds that obscure the barren landscape, making it look not only dead but somewhat foreboding. This is a world that encourages the people of Ergo Proxy to stay locked up in their sheltered cities. On top of all of that, what little life that can be found out in the wastes is either clearly dangerous, very strange or some combination thereof. Ergo Proxy makes its world one part dead, one part imposing and one part eerie which culminates in a world that is haunting and unnerving. Of the three shows I’m comparing I would say that Ergo Proxy has done the best job of creating an atmosphere that taps into the apocalyptic psyche between its visuals and setting details. Neon Genesis Evangelion doesn’t quite convey apocalypse the same way in its art but it does have some amazing shots that convey various psychological effects, such as the frame where we can see a bunch of generals whose faces aren’t in the frame giving commands. However the visuals alone are only part of how these shows convey apocalypse to us.
The characters involved also make a story more apocalyptic. If you look at NGE most of the cast is comprised of people with deep-seated emotional traumas bound together by a twisted web of fucked-up relationships. Dealing with Shinji’s psychological roadblocks at varying points in the series is central to the storytelling but more so than any one character, the impression that jumps out to me is that we are looking at a bunch of damaged and quite possibly broken people trying desperately to maintain an air of normalcy and ultimately failing to do so. In Casshern Sins the story revolves around Casshern, who has lost his memories, and a large populace warped by fatalism. These “people” are not happy nor healthy and there isn’t really a solution to their physical and mental ills, so what little remains of the population is tearing itself apart while the doomed robots vent their rage or turn rabic when the merest hint of hope shines through. Likewise in Ergo Proxy, the human population seems stagnant and largely robotic themselves, they do their assigned tasks and that’s it. With the exception of our leading lady Re-l and the immigrant worker Vincent, who also has amnesia, everyone seems to align themselves with a strict and orderly governance system that has caused human society to freeze in place without progress.
Art and characters are vital parts of conveying apocalypse but the part that really seals the deal for me is the mix of science and religious symbolism. Remember NGE, Casshern Sins and Ergo Proxy are all science fiction stories, so many aspects of their worlds and occurrences have a rational, scientific explanation that the audience can understand so long as we are given some context. But amid all the science there some events in each story which defy rational explanation. In NGE Shinji’s mecha, Evangelion Unit 1, occasionally goes berserk, even though it’s a machine and rage should be foreign to it and it shouldn’t be able to move without the pilot’s or Nerv’s control. Likewise there are scenes where Rei’s “ghost” hovers in Shinji’s sight despite the fact she is either dead or unknown to Shinji at the time her “ghost” appears. In Ergo Proxy you have the Proxies, beings that are neither human nor machine which no one really knows about but are extremely dangerous. There’s also the Cogito Virus, a disease of sorts that afflicts machines and grants them self-awareness, and the most common result of contracting Cogito Virus causes the androids to fall to their knees and pray. There is no scientific explanation for the Cogito Virus nor the different reactions it causes androids to have. And in Casshern Sins while most machines are milling about destroying each other, some have unexplained compulsions like the android who was obsessed with building a bell tower or the one who wanted to paint the entire city he lived in white. There’s even an android who makes it his life’s mission to escort humans to safety despite the long running hostility between man and machine. In the case of these few there isn’t really any kind of logic to their actions, nor is there a clear emotional cause behind their actions as other machines often demonstrate. They are just sort compelled to do what they do and if you think that’s out of place in a scifi world I would agree with you. However it’s not a mistake, the creators of these stories deliberately placed elements which conflicted with the more grounded science of their stories to create a sense of otherworldliness and eeriness. I think youtuber Demolition D+ said it best, in this video he explained that Evangelion had a strong sense of omnipotence, that there was some kind of magic in the world of science. And that this is part of what makes Evangelion feel brooding and unnerving, because the humans of the story have no agency in the face of this godlike entity. Now the post comes full circle, all that Judgment Day versus Rangarok crap which didn’t seem like it was too important or relevant back when I first brought it up comes back to the fore. These stories have a definitive lack of agency among the players, they are made insignificant by the wider world and the forces, natural and supernatural, that govern these worlds. This is what makes them truly apocalyptic, this is what separates them from stories made in the Ragnarok tradition, the presence of something that transcends science, machines and man which makes the characters of the story look small and insignificant by comparison. This is what makes the three shows I’ve been discussing convey apocalypse in both its physical and mental aspects, and it’s something that could never be in a Ragnarok type setting. And this what makes a show truly post-apocalyptic in my mind.
Anyway this is a long post and I haven’t much else to say. If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom, thank you for reading. Hopefully you enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.