My body is a cage that keeps me
From dancing with the one I love
But my mind holds the key
- My Body is a Cage, The Arcade Fire
Talking about the soul is tricky. Elusive. Our bodies are containment units for whatever it is going on inside of us. Not our guts and gears, but that thing inside us all that makes us, well, us. But what is it that separates things. A show like Neon Genesis Evangelion makes the case that what separates us is terror; but, not just any terror, it is an ‘Absolute Terror’. The AT Field, or “Absolute Terror Field”, is a type of force field that not only keeps us together, but separates our self from each other.
The AT field is a fascinating aspect of Neon Genesis Evangelion. It’s a souls force that not only protects the person/angel but also keeps the body together. Not that the body would just become a puddle without it, but there is some real world implications to the fact that there are several forces at working helping to constitute our body (as well as making sure it stays in the shape it is.) This is in part due to the idea that in real world physics two things never touch. Basically, every physical thing has an electromagnetic flow around it, and this wave basically allows matter from touching and glombing into one giant unsubstantial matter blob.
But, the clever spin Hideaki Anno and team do with this philosophy/science is to ground it in one of the most relatable characters in anime: Shinji Ikari. Now, while Unit 01 is special, it is the fact that Shinji is so emotionally stunted that any reader can find entrance into this world via him. But what impedes Shinji emotionally and intellectually isn’t his fear, it’s the fact that he is so accepting of the futility of any relationship. This is expressed by Ritsko, when talking with Misato about Shinji, in her explanation of the ‘hedgehog’s dilemma.’
Anyone and everyone has been hurt by someone they loved. It’s not a sad fact as much as just a aspect of getting close to others. A fact that Shinji carries, alone, throughout the entire series. Shinji is just as much a hedgehog as the rest of us. For those that don’t know, the hedgehog’s dilemma is the idea that when hedgehogs and porcupines try to get close to one another they invariably poke each other with their quills. The same is applicable to humans, just our barbs are emotional and invisible. A plight that is far worse because it is hidden, like an AT Field.
See, Shinji is a great Adam for the show because he really expresses the fear many of us have at the horrors of relationships. Be they romantic or platonic, the terror is still the same. What if they hurt me? What if I hurt them? Is there a reward for surpassing this pain? And really, this is only answerable by each individual, but Evangelion establishes that base line, we all have something in common though. The ability to hurt and be hurt.
How does this apply to A.T. Fields. The term A.T. Field, as pointed out above stands for ‘Absolute Terror Field.’ Read those words again. Absolute. Terror. Field. We aren’t talking about a small fear of spiders, or how my heart races while taking off in an airplane. This is an ‘absolute terror’ meaning it encompasses totally. What does it mean for an entire person to be held together by terror? It means a lot of suffering, perhaps even needlessly so, but that is the hedgehog’s dilemma. To hurt or be hurt.
Now, this can seem terribly futile and hopeless. After all, if we are composed of terror, and it is that terror basically holding us together, how can anyone hope to be close to anyone else. After all, according to Evangelion we are just terrified. But, it’s when Unit 01 goes berserk during episode 2 that we see AT Fields can be destroyed by someone with an equally, or more, powerful field than the angels. What this means is that AT Fields can be destroyed or displaced. Now, clearly the Eva units use this to kill the angels and protect humanity. But, the angels are not the only thing putting humanity in danger. Seele (the powerful, secret organization running NERV) has been putting a plan in motion from the start called ‘The Human Instrumentality Program.’ Basically, Seele wants to issue an anti-A.T. Field that will destroy every persons A.T. Field, thus reducing them to a giant primordial soup then constituted back into a single doll / eva. This way no one will suffer the fear and terror of individuality. Everyone would be constituted into one giant being.
All of this furthers the idea that Hideaki Anno views the body as a cage, and he has transformed this into a plot point for Evangelion. It’s a beautiful, strange sentiment that isn’t original, but how it is used is elegant to say the least. Because ultimately the ability to grow, change, or stay perfectly still – as Shinji does a lot, is up to us. While our bodies might be cages, our minds are free to travel beyond the realms of our body. We can grow, adapt, and change. And that is an ability that could transcend terror.