Break the World’s Shell! Panel Notes

Here, have some notes from my panel on the apocalypse genre in anime. And yes, this did partially come out of research I was doing for Near-Apocalypse of ’09.

Also, this was COMPLETELY unplanned… but this is my 666th published post on this blog. Cute.

What is the Apocalypse genre?

  • Apocalypse comes from Greek word meaning “pulling back of a veil, revelation, especially divine.” But because the most famous apocalypse is the Book of Revelation, in English the older and more common meaning of the word is “great catastrophe, end of the world.”
  • In religious studies and study of ancient literature, “apocalypse literature” refers to this kind of divine revelation or vision. However, in modern works the term refers to the end-of-the-world narratives that evolved from those stories, so we’ll be using a different definition.
  • For purposes of this panel, a story in which a catastrophe, which might be natural, human, alien, or divine in origin, destroys the prevailing social structure on a setting-wide scale. Said setting could be as small as a single school or multiple universes; what matters is that the entire world of the story is endangered.
  • Distinct from POST-apocalypse in that, in post-apocalyptic works, the social structure has already been destroyed or is destroyed at the beginning, and we focus on remnants struggling to survive or build civilization anew. Example: Fist of the North Star.
  • Also distinct from Disaster genre, which contains a similar cataclysm but shows how the prevailing order SURVIVES. Example: Paranoia Agent, in which the apocalyptic events at the series climax resolve without significantly altering the social order–the same structures and lifestyles go on.
  • Of course a story can have elements of more than one. Gurren Lagann, for example, is post-apocalyptic for its first half, a disaster in the next quarter (the endangered social structure in question is the new human/Beastman cooperative civilization), and an apocalypse in the final quarter (the endangered social structure is anti-Spiral hegemony).

Origins of the Genre

  • Oldest known catastrophe tale: Utnapishtim. (Epic of Gilgamesh, ~2100-1200 BCE). The gods decided humanity was too noisy and should be destroyed with a flood. Utnapishtim was warned, built an ark, preserved all life.
  • Atlantis (Plato’s Critias, 360 BCE, an incomplete dialogue about two contrasted ancient cities, Atlantis and Athens. Athens is organized according to the design Plato laid out in his Republic, Atlantis a more traditional Hellenistic city-state. Both were originally righteous, but Atlantis became corrupt and conquered much of Europe and North Africa but was defeated by an alliance led by Athens. Later the gods punished Atlantis for its corruption by sinking it into the sea with an earthquake. Notable for Good vs. Evil and moral dimension, fact that it’s part of a political, utopian argument.)
  • Book of Daniel (the Bible, ~165 BCE). At time of writing, Jews were oppressed under rule of the Seleucids, a Hellenistic power centered in Syria. Tells the story of Daniel, a cultural hero who lived centuries prior when Jews were oppressed by Babylon. He makes many prophecies about a coming great battle when God will destroy wickedness and cleanse the Earth. Appeal for an oppressed people obvious, especially given the infamous image of a “statue with feet of clay,” said in the text to represent a succession of empires that have risen and fallen. Soon after, Persians conquer Babylon and free the Jews. The intent is clear: Just as Babylon fell, so too will the Seleucids. The current order will be destroyed, violently, and a better one will rise. Dozens of books with a similar concept–a divine revelation, usually involving massive destruction, that describes the fall of some past or future order and replacement with a better world, mostly by Jews at first but then also popular among early Christians. Peak outputs coincide with Seleucid rule (~200-100 BCE) and aftermath of failed Jewish rebellion against Rome in 70 CE. Which brings us to…
  • Revelation (the Bible, ~90 CE). At time of writing, Christians are a multitude of distinct sects with very different beliefs. Two of the major conflicts are whether you have to be Jewish in order to be Christian, and whether and how much to participate in the Roman state religion. While there was not, despite legend, significant oppression of Christians in general in this time period, those who refused to participate in Roman civic society and state religion were punished, because it was legally mandatory. Based on the text, John appears likely to have been a Jewish Christian who opposed engaging in Roman society. As in Daniel, “Babylon” appears as a stand in for the hegemonic state of the writer’s time–the Seleucids for Daniel, the Romans for John. In the end, the wrath of God will destroy the oppressive state that the heroic faithful resisted, and a “new heaven and new Earth” will rise.

Apocalypse as Revolution

  • What we see evolving is the notion of an apocalyptic catastrophe as a political event, the overthrow of a corrupt and hated system.
  • By end of first century, this is cemented in Western culture as an expression of anger and hope, predicting (usually heavily shrouded in metaphor and code) the destruction of the present, corrupt, oppressive world so that a new and better world can be built.

Nineteenth/Twentieth Century

  • War of the Worlds (HG Wells, 1897): Martians invade the Earth, piloting giant mecha across Britain as they smash the largest, most powerful empire in human history with ease. However, the Martians have underdeveloped immune systems compared to us, and all get sick and die. While this may appear to be a simple Catastrophe in that civilization as Wells knew it appears to be restored in the end, the power structure of Britain is destroyed by the end of part one, and until they get sick the Martians rule Britain and hunt humans with impunity. Note also Wells’ statement in chapter 1 that what the Martians do to Britain is no different than what the imperialist European powers did to the peoples they conquered, specifically noting the genocide of the peoples of Tasmania. He was also a socialist, staunch opponent of racism, and opponent of both eugenics and Social Darwinism, popular ideas in his time–if he were on Tumblr today he’d get angry anonymous asks calling him a social justice warrior every day. So what we have here is in many ways still an apocalypse, still the angry, “see how you like it” destruction of an oppressive state in a great catastrophe.
  • Demian (Hermann Hesse, : Story of Emil, a boy torn between social demands to be “good” and his own “bad” desires, drawn to charismatic older boy Demian (if there’s not yaoi of this, there should be), who teaches him that it’s impossible for an individual to be their own best selves because of all the rules and constraints society lays down–people shouldn’t do whatever they feel like, but they should be free to be the best version of themselves. The only way for this to be possible is for some great cataclysm to upend society and shatter all the old ways and rules–and so comes World War I.
  • Demian is important because it ties a civilization-wide apocalypse with personal revolution, with the choice to upend the power structures in one’s own life and build a better self. Also in being a case where the apocalypse is welcomed and worked toward and regarded thoroughly as a good thing, a rebirth rather than a death.
  • What does this have to do with anime? Egg speech, Utena. The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.

Akira (1988)

  • All about power, particularly anxious power.
  • Begin with demonstrations of how broken this society is, and its problems are ours: every available surface covered with ads, police brutality against protestors, terrorist bombings, biker gang warfare
  • Everyone is trying to express their power over someone because they are afraid of having power wielded over them. The colonel is afraid of losing his job. Tetsuo is afraid of being dependent on Kaneda’s protection. The Clowns try to rape Kaori because they’re afraid of Kaneda’s gang. Terrorists bomb because they’re afraid of the power the state wields, cops shoot protestors because they’re afraid of the state being destabilized.
  • People WANT apocalypse, the leader of Kei’s organization wants to tear civilization down to be free, the Akira cultists want to destroy civilization because they feel betrayed by modernity and progress, the Colonel wants to destroy the corrupt hedonistic city because he misses the hopefulness and camaraderie of rebuilding.

NGE (1995-6)

  • Definitely an example of the apocalypse as personal revolution.
  • Destruction of the world ultimately serves as a backdrop, happening offstage in the final two episodes while we focus on how this enables Shinji to overcome the fears that rule his life and step toward becoming his own best self.
  • Specifically, it is about learning to recognize the neo-Stoic or cognitive-behavioral concept that our attitudes and thoughts determine our emotional responses, and by choosing to change his habitual thinking patterns, he can see the best in the world rather than the worst.
  • Congratulations! Like Demian, the apocalypse is ultimately a metaphor for the cataclysmic transformation of a single soul. Shinji’s entire world is eucatastrophically transformed because the way he looks at it is fundamentally changed.

RGU (1997)

  • Interesting because the apocalypse is talked about constantly, but is it actually shown?
  • Yes. The final duel is depicted as a crisis that grips the entire school–which is the entire universe of Utena–to the point that for the first time in the series, the entire student council gathers at once. And it does destroy the prevailing power structure of the school–Anthy is the means by which Akio dominates Ohtori, and her departure destroys his ability to do that.
  • It is a personal transformation for many characters, primarily Anthy and Utena–Utena learns to be less judgmental, more empathetic, and to replace her toxic savior complex with helping; Anthy learns to trust, that she is lovable, and that she can walk away from dependency on her abuser and still survive.
  • There is an element of social revolution too, however, as much of the power structure they seek to overthrow echoes the patriarchal and heterosexist structures of our own society, and there are subtle implications in the final scenes that Utena has radically reshaped life in Ohtori.
  • Also about rebelling against narrative structures that constrain our lives, in this case the Princess/Witch or Madonna/Whore complex that says a girl must either be a weak, ineffectual, passive figure who exists solely to nurture and support males, or a corrupt and corrupting figure that manipulates and destroys men. Anthy is both and Utena is neither, and together they ultimately transcend this divide and demonstrate that they are people, at which point they graduate out of the story, leaving it in ruins behind them.

Saikano (2002)
  • Teens Shuji and Chise start dating and experience the trials and tribulations of first love, complicated by the fact that a massive world war is in the process of wiping out humanity just offscreen and Chise, partway through the first episode, is converted by the military, without her consent or knowledge, into an unstoppable living weapons system.
  • Shuji and Chise are both depicted as rape victims. Chise is traumatized by the government violation of her body and as a result is plagued by intense guilt even though she has little to no control over what she does in her “weapon state,” disassociates to the point of frequent blackouts and occasional manifestations of the “weapon” side of her as an alternate personality, and revulsion at her own body. Shuji was sexually abused in middle school by his track coach, and is emotionally withdrawn, easily upset by anything “weird” or out of the ordinary, heavily implied to have sexual disfunction or at least a strong fear of sex, and disassociates more subtly, becoming easily distracted whenever the situation becomes emotionally intense. Both suffer from serious self-esteem issues, a pronounced tendency to self-blame, and a belief that they inevitably hurt anyone close to them. All of these traits in both characters are common symptoms in survivors of sexual abuse.
  • Throughout, the war serves as a metaphor for their relationship issues stemming from their sexual abuse. The military constantly taking Chise away so that she can serve in their war, for example, play the role of an abusive or controlling father who refuses to let his daughter see her bofriend in a more traditional teen romance. Their guilt and anxiety frequently take external form in the war; for example, when Shuji’s abuser returns and manipulates him into cheating, the war intensifies and Chise is called away to the front. When Chise cheats with Tetsu, an earthquake strikes their town.
  • The apocalypse ensues when Chise and Shuji finally break through their anxieties and issues to make love. The entire world is destroyed, but the two of them are able to live on together in happiness. A clear case, in other words, of the apocalypse serving as the destruction of an oppressive reality; as in NGE, it is a purely psychological reality comprised of anxiety and trauma, and destroyed in order to build a new reality within which happiness and love are possible.

Madoka Magica (2011)

  • Begins with the apocalyptic destruction of the city by Walpurgisnacht, ends with destruction of the universe and replacement with a new, slightly less awful one
  • Very much a social revolution rather than personal growth–Madoka does grow as a person, but ultimately sacrifices herself to reform the world.
  • The social structure she upsets is another version of Princess/Witch–in this case, the realization that being the perfect little princess is impossible, and no matter what a woman does, she will eventually become the Witch.
  • Madoka destroys the concept of the Witch, but by becoming pure essence of Magical Girl herself, making this a flawed and incomplete revolution–hence Rebellion, but that hasn’t had wide release yet.


  • Epic of Gilgamesh, Unknown
  • Critias, Plato
  • Daniel, Unknown
  • Revelation, John (probably not that John, or that one either)
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
  • Demian, Hermann Hesse
  • Akira (1988 film)
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-6)
  • Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)
  • Saikano (2002)
  • Madoka Magica (2011)


  • John Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature
  • L. Michael White, From Jesus to Christianity
  • Glenn Yeffeth, ed, War of the Worlds: Fresh Perspectives on the H.G. Wells Classic
  • Martin Kitchen, Europe Between the Wars
  • Susan Napier, “Akira: Revenge of the Abjected” in Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Gillian Butler, Melanie Fennel, and Ann Hackmann, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Anxiety Disorders
  • Kate Millet, Sexual Politics
  • Jed A. Blue, The Very Soil: An Unauthorized Critical Study of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (coming 2015)

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