He is a petite, 14-year-old introvert who wants nothing more than a simple, quiet life and to reconnect with his estranged father. But destiny plays a joke on him, throwing him onto the front lines of brutal battles, fighting monstrous enemies over and over again. Confused and traumatized, he tries to run away. But when he realizes he cannot escape from his fate as a child warrior, he fights on.
That’s the trajectory of Shinji Ikari, the protagonist of Hideaki Anno’s 1995 sci-fi anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion, which began streaming on Netflix in June. The show revolves around his physical and psychological struggles as he accepts his father’s request to pilot Evangelion Unit 01, a powerful giant cyborg designed to fight the beings known as Angels. Ikari initially fights to win the approval of his father, the head of a secret military organization. Eventually he accepts his fate as the only one who can stop the Human Instrumentality Project, which aims to merge all human souls into one entity.
To most people, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a terrific anime series. But to many Hong Kong protesters, its themes—idealistic children uniting to fight against evil and corrupt adults—speak far more deeply. The influence of the series, and of other anime classics, has appeared in protest art, tactics, and discussions on online forums.
“We are all Shinji,” said San, a 27-year-old Hong Kong manga fan, who has been actively taking part in the protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill that have been gripping Hong Kong since the beginning of June. Six months on, the protests have taken on an existential tinge, as a struggle to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms and distinct identity from being dissolved by Beijing. This week, the city was stunned by a daylong battle between police and students of the Chinese University of Hong Kong trying to prevent police from entering.
“We are as confused as Shinji. We can’t help asking, why me? What should I do? How can we fight the almighty enemy?” said San. “We feel that we are the chosen ones, with the responsibilities of fighting for freedom resting on our shoulders.”
The Hong Kong protests have seen a flourishing of protest art, online and offline, referencing the aesthetics of Japanese anime. Digital posters and videos have borrowed the unique typography, music, and even editing style of Evangelion. One of the most notable examples is the cover of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily’s special September supplement on the Hong Kong protests, whose font and layout resembled the title sequences of Evangelion.
Online groups have shared videos re-capping news events in the style of Evangelion promo videos, such as the one below describing an incident on July 21 when white-clad thugs attacked civilians in a train station.
The influence of Evangelion even showed up in a video from CGTN, the overseas arm of China’s state-run broadcaster, which compared Hong Kong protesters to the Islamic militant group ISIS.
Protesters also reference the series One Piece, an adaptation of the manga of the same name by Eiichiro Oda, which follows the adventures of a young man and his gang of misfits who remain loyal to one another during their search for a mythical treasure. The theme of unity connects with a popular protest slogan—“Do not sever ties, no snitching, no blaming”—calling on people not to allow divisions between radical front-line fighters and those who favor peaceful demonstrations to take hold.
A 25-year-old mainland Chinese student currently studying in Japan, who asked to be identified only as Kobayashi, said he decided to join the Hong Kong protests, participating in the frontlines on June 30 and July 1. “We share the same ideals and we share the same enemy,” he explained. Since he can’t always be on the front lines, he has also been helping with protest publicity materials in Japanese as part of the movement’s international outreach.
“What is happening in Hong Kong mirrors the main narratives running through many Japanese anime and manga titles,” said Kobayashi, adding that Hong Kong protesters are bringing these utopian ideals to life.
TV and film producer Peter Tsi, who was the first in Hong Kong to acquire the TV rights to Evangelion in the 1990s, said young people born after 1997 have been shaped by Japanese pop culture, with shows that air in Japan often coming here a few years later.
“Young people are nurtured by Japanese anime and manga, not [Hong Kong broadcaster]TVB dramas, Harry Potter, or even Disney cartoons,” he said. “The core values of these titles are about upholding one’s ideals, resistance to authorities, and unity. Adults portrayed in these shows are often hypocritical, corrupted, and selfish like Shinji’s father.”
At times, protesters have appeared to be acting out moments from the shows. San recalled a protest he attended on Aug. 7 following the arrest of a student leader for purchasing laser pens—which have been directed at police headquarters and other buildings during protests. The protest turned into a laser show, with protesters singing and dancing to “Let’s Fight,” the Cantonese version of the theme song from the anime Digimon, which is about a group of chosen children fighting to save the digital world.
On Oct. 5, when Hong Kong’s face-mask ban took effect, a black-clad protester was seen driving an excavator (link in Chinese) after reportedly reading a user manual online. Many in popular protest forum LIHKG compared (link in Chinese) the act to a moment in the 1979 sci-fi anime classic series Mobile Suit Gundam, when a character reads a manual in order to pilot a robot and defend his home. In a recent show in the same series, Iron-Blooded Orphans, which aired in Hong Kong after the the pro-democracy protests of 2014, Mars has become a colony of Earth, and the children living on Mars are considered “human garbage.”
“These children living on Mars are not free. They are exploited by the colonial Earth government,” said San. “We feel that this is an accurate allegory of the situation of Hong Kong today.”