Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of the Super Robot genre

Image of Super Robots

I wrote how Jacques Derrida’s “deconstruction” was later applied to “genre deconstruction.” Since we could choose what we wrote about for my English 244 class, I decided to write on how Evangelion deconstructs the Super Robot Genre. I ended up writing 7 pages so it’s long. If you have the time, read it and let me know what you think. I added the quotes and images to this post.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida is credited with coining the term “deconstruction.” Deconstruction is defined as “a criticism of Platonism, which is defined by the belief that existence is structured in terms of oppositions (separate substances or forms) and that the oppositions are hierarchical, with one side of the opposition being more valuable than the other” (Lawlor). This hierarchy is often observed in the binaries, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, and smart and dumb. In each example, society values one over the other. Generally, we prefer to be rich than poor, diverse societies tend to have a preference for white people over black people. It is common for societies to be patriarchal, given most societies are controlled by men. While everyone can’t be equally intelligent, and most people may not care if they’re the smartest, societies generally have been shown to prefer intelligence.

Derrida was interested in how the meaning of a text could be inferred from what is absent from it as well as what’s present. For example, the word high is defined by its opposite low. Even if “low” isn’t present, its concept is always there. A language that is created by humans, is likely to be embedded with bias. Derrida challenged Western philosophy by examining language, and the philosopher’s obsession with logic and reason. He believed that almost all our ways of thinking suffered from bias, speech is privileged over writing, reason over passion, and words over pictures. He hoped that we could learn to appreciate the value of the underprivileged concept. To successfully deconstruct an idea, we must accept that these ideas are difficult to grasp, and simple answers aren’t always possible. Derrida’s concept of deconstruction aims to seek the hidden meaning in texts by questioning the binaries found within them.

Deconstruction in literature and genre

Deconstruction was later applied to feminism (gender), religion, law, and literature. When deconstructing literature it’s important to examine how words relate to one another and explore their hidden meanings. Often deconstruction is used to break down the genre. First, we need to define a genre. Generally, a genre includes a set of tropes, themes, and characters commonly found in a particular set of works. For example, the horror genre aims to “frighten, scare, or disgust” (Wikipedia). To accomplish this, the genre employs various elements such as imagery, language, and atmosphere to create fear, dread, and revulsion in the reader. Applying deconstruction to literary genres means taking them apart and exploring how the genre functions. Genre is rarely fixed, changing over time as culture shifts and new genres are invented. One way a genre can change is through deconstruction. A genre’s tropes and conventions are given real-world consequences when we deconstruct them.

For example, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire deconstructs the “honor before reason” trope. This trope is illustrated when characters adhere to a code of ethics even at the expense of themselves. In A Song of Ice and Fire, Ned Stark is willing to sacrifice his honor for the good of others. Ned allows his wife, children, and Westeros society to believe he fathered an illegitimate son, rather than reveal that Jon is his nephew. He does so to protect Jon from being killed because he would be the rightful heir to the throne. Multiple tropes must be examined, broken down, and how characters will react if living in a more realistic world is explored. Deconstruction can often be mistaken for merely applying a more cynical view to a genre. While this tends to be the result it’s not the goal or a requirement. Sometimes deconstruction focuses on what’s ignored and explores what’s overlooked. Any work that avoids engaging with politics, gender, race, class, and/or sexuality is considered perfect fodder for deconstruction.

Bandai’s Gundam series

Deconstructing the Super Robot genre

The super robot genre is a science fiction genre of anime and manga. Massive robots take the place of the traditional hero. These “super robots” are often creations of Mad Scientists that develop the mechs in secret. Sometimes the robot is created by the pilot’s father or grandfather. It’s often left unclear how they get funding, parts, and equipment without anyone knowing. The mecha are often piloted by a teenager with no training, who happens to be great at piloting the robot. The mechanics for controlling a super robot are simplified to a joystick or a few buttons. Despite its size and rigid shape, the giant mecha moves with a fluidity that resembles humans. The mecha is generally sentient, responding to the pilot’s emotions or willpower of the pilot. The super robot genre presents the hero and his mecha as the last hope against evil.

This evil is often mysterious alien villains with shallow motivations. Even though combat between the mecha and these aliens results in massive explosions, environmental effects, and destruction, the likely human casualties are ignored. The super robot genre makes the outcome from war seem insignificant, not to mention that defending the world is so simple that a teen could do it. The super robot genre was deconstructed by the Neon Genesis Evangelion series. Evangelion is considered to be one of the greatest anime series ever created. The series has one of the most complex, and sometimes confusing, narratives. Evangelion combines themes in psychoanalysis, specifically social anxiety, and religion. Philosophical themes like individuality, freedom, choice and a specific focus on the philosophies of Soren Kierkegaard are major influences.

Evangelion’s deconstruction of the super robot genre places the previously mentioned elements in a more serious context. The series shares the basic premise of the super robot series, an ordinary high school student pilots a mech designed by his father, to battle aliens without discernible motives. However, it quickly pivots in tone. Evangelion explores the likely consequences of having children pilot these giant war machines. The main character, Shinji Ikari, is summoned by his father, Gendo Ikari, to pilot an Eva (the name for the giant mechs). Gendo’s disregard for his son’s safety is obvious as he pressures Shinji into piloting. Evangelion is exploring the type of parent that would allow their child to become a soldier in the first place.

Gendo abandoned Shinji when he was an infant. This distance results in a cold relationship between father and son. The series explains it takes “several months’ ‘ (“Angel Attack (14:20 – 14:40) for a pilot to sync with Eva. Evangelion is calling attention to the absurdity of allowing a child to not only pilot but to do so without any training. It’s important to note that while Evangelion questions how the super robot genre treats the child pilots it doesn’t stop the children from piloting. Deconstruction is supposed to question the themes, conventions, and tropes, not undo them completely.

Neon Genesis Evangelion – Eva Unit 01

Unlike the typical super robot, Eva’s are referred to as “artificial human” (“Angel Attack (13:36 – 13:45). The Eva’s are organic, making their movements more believable. Like the super robot genre, the Eva’s are sentient, but they are biological beings embedded with the souls of the mothers of the pilots. This explains why the Eva’s are protective of the pilots. In the series, the mechanism for controlling Eva is more complex than most super robot series. The Eva’s are monitored by NERV’s control room. Once inside, the pilot is submerged in a liquid called LCL. This substance will “feed oxygen into the pilot’s bloodstream” (“Angel Attack” (19:25 – 19:35). The mechanics of piloting an Eva is considerably more complicated than what is common for the super robot genre. In the second episode, “Unfamiliar Ceilings,” Shinji encounters one of the alien monsters called Angels. These alien creatures vary in appearance and motives. Most can’t communicate, making it impossible to gain insight into their thoughts.

During this encounter, Shinji is tasked with making Eva walk and finds it difficult. He has no time to regain control and is attacked by the Angel. Shinji is overwhelmed by pain as the synchronization that links him with Eva causes him to share its damage mentally (“Unfamiliar Ceilings” (2:20 – 3:25). Shinji is nearly killed in this battle, which should be expected considering his lack of experience. By deconstructing this trope of the child hero, Evangelion is claiming that it would likely end in disaster. The series further dissects this genre, explaining how Eva would come into being. NERV is established by the United Nation. The U.N. provides NERV with funding, income, and equipment. NERV is a large governing body with security, technicians, and maintenance crews, this is what a more realistic world would require to build and run the Eva’s. In the traditional super robot series, the robot’s creator would make Eva’s by himself, which is implausible. Evangelion shows the true cost (financial, physical, and mental) of fighting for humanity’s survival and it’s a great cost.

Deconstructing genres isn’t exactly like Derrida’s prescriptions for philosophy, but the breaking down of work to determine greater meaning is derived from his views. When we ask “how would this work in the real world,” we are not aiming to delegitimize the genre, but explore what might make the genre more complex. The super robot genre makes a mockery of the trauma of being a child soldier and the destruction society endures during the war. Deconstruction doesn’t aim to destroy a genre but merely take it more seriously, creating a more sophisticated genre, and engaging in possible assumptions the particular work makes.

Work Cited

“Genre Deconstruction / Anime & Manga.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/GenreDeconstruction/AnimeAndManga. Accessed 19 May 2021.

“Themes of Neon Genesis Evangelion.” Wikipedia, 18 Feb. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themes_of_Neon_Genesis_Evangelion.

“Deconstruction.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Deconstruction. Accessed 19 May 2021.

“Anime / Neon Genesis Evangelion.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Anime/NeonGenesisEvangelion. Accessed 19 May 2021.

Wikipedia contributors. “Evangelion (Mecha).” Wikipedia, 14 Apr. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelion_(mecha)#Characteristics.

“NERV | Evangelion | Fandom.” Evangelion, evangelion.fandom.com/wiki/NERV. Accessed 19 May 2021.

“What Is an Angel?” Evangelion, evangelion.fandom.com/wiki/Angel. Accessed 19 May 2021.

Lawlor, Leonard, “Jacques Derrida”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/derrida/&gt;.

“Horror.” Literary Terms, literaryterms.net/horror.

“Super Robot Genre Aka: Super Robot.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SuperRobotGenre?from=Main.SuperRobot. Accessed 19 May 2021.

“Literature / A Game of Thrones.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/AGameOfThrones. Accessed 19 May 2021.

“Angel Attack.” Evangelion, created by Creator Hideaki Anno, season 1, episode 1, TV Tokyo, 1995.

“Unfamiliar Ceilings.” Evangelion, created by Creator Hideaki Anno, season 1, episode 2, TV Tokyo, 1995.

One thought on “Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of the Super Robot genre

  1. A pretty simplistic idea, but I always felt like Evangelion is a bit like a fantasy of wanting to see the ‘world burn’ that is quite common with serious depression. The author struggled with depression a lot, and this futuristic mecha universe is a good way to explore these kind of dark moments.

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