Okay, so I wrote this based off of TV Tropes' definition of "deconstruction," which is, since Tropers have no clue what they're talking about, wrong. Let me try to set the record straight. "Deconstruction" is actually a form of literary criticism that is incredibly complex, but let me try to give a horribly simplified version of my (possibly wrong) understanding of it. Deconstruction is a response to Construction, which in terms of literary criticism is a movement about establishing meanings for symbols and ideas. Deconstruction is about undoing everything Construction does. It will say "this is what this work is probably supposed to be about...but here's how it could be about the exact opposite.
In this case, we're talking specifically about genre deconstruction. Surprisingly, I had most of what I said right before. genre deconstruction relies on taking elements or staples of the genre and then using the viewers' expectations against them. Which Evangelion does as well as those other things I mentioned. I have no clue why I came to the conclusion that it didn't, considering that it turns the expectations of mecha tropes against the audience so well that I've seen people argue about whether or not it's actually part of the mecha genre. So I guess take everything that follows with a grain of salt.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is famous for many, many things. The complete budget breakdown, the incomprehensible ending(s), the popularization of the tsundere archetype, the probable creation of the Rei Ayanami archetype, the mindscrews, etc. Perhaps what it’s most famous for, though, is being a deconstruction of mecha (i.e., giant robot) anime. Thinking back on the series, though, I’m not so sure that’s the case.
First of all, I’ll need to define the term “deconstruction” for those unfamiliar with it. A deconstruction is an attempt to break down common tropes or genres to portray them more realistically. Some people think that this means “in a dark way,” and that’s usually the way deconstructions go, but it’s not the case. A deconstruction is not an attempt to make something “darker and edgier,” but an examination of the consequences that we don’t normally think of. That’s what deconstruction is all about: exploring the consequences in order to make you stop and think.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is based very heavily in realism, and it was one of the first mecha shows to be so. I won’t go into the details since they’re long and complicated and not too relevant, but basically, you get the impression that the mecha aren’t just magical robots. They’re actual technology that frequently break down, malfunction, need incredibly strong power sources to succeed at doing much, etc. And then it turns out that they’re kind of more than that as well, but hey, spoilers.
But why don’t I think Evangelion counts as a deconstruction of the mecha genre? Well, let’s look at a few things that I do consider to be deconstructions. Note: this post will contain spoilers for all these stories mentioned.
First, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, an anime I’ve talked about before. Madoka Magica is your generic magical girl story up until a teenage girl gets her head bitten off because she was too distracted by the hope of friendship to focus on her battle. The “Soul Gems” that give the magical girls their power are gems that literally contain their souls (i.e., their bodies will cease to function if they get too far from the gems), and that the cute little animal guide is actually a lifeform trying to protect the universe by harvesting energy—energy produced by driving magical girls into despair so that they become the very witches they battle. Also, the wishes they make to become magical girls? They tend to backfire since they’re selfish wishes in a selfless guise.
All those elements—the importance of friendship, the cute animal mascot, magical talismans, magical powers themselves—are all staples of the magical girl genre. Staples that any fan of magical girl shows will automatically recognize, and that even those with only a passing familiarity with the genre (like myself) probably will. Madoka Magica is a deconstruction because it relies on examining the implications of the tropes we see and recognize so frequently. It is a show that only works as a magical girl show.
Let’s move on to Watchmen, often cited as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time. It takes a look at superheroes—or rather, masked vigilantes taking the law into their own biased hands, or killing hundreds for a greater cause, or being powerful to the point that they just don’t care about humanity. These characters are not superheroes, but either heavily flawed humans playing at being superheroes (usually for selfish reasons) or a superhuman being who doesn’t care enough to be called a “hero.” Again, it only works as a superhero story because we can recognize the hero archetypes being deconstructed.
Finally, take Spec Ops: The Line, a video game that provides you with the absolute brutality and hell of war, as opposed to the games like Modern Warfare that glorify it. Or Digimon Tamers, a show that looks at just how dangerous having a Digimon partner would be, and what sort of impact watching that partner die would have. The latter only works as a comparison to the previous (and later) seasons of Digimon, whereas the former has nothing to deconstruct if the shooter elements are removed.
Basically, all of these stories are stories that only work within their genre (in fact, Spec Ops: the Line has its roots in Apocalypse Now, which has its roots in Heart of Darkness, and from what I understand war/invasion is kind of essential to all three). Madoka Magica deconstructs magical girl anime, Watchmen deconstructs superhero comics, Digimon Tamers deconstructs monster companion anime (its own franchise in particular), and Spec Ops: The Line deconstructs war shooters. Those stories are tailored specifically for those genres, and don’t work in any others.
This is a large part of why I don’t think Evangelion is a mecha deconstruction. All the elements that are absolutely essential to the story? That make the story what it is? They’d work fine in several other genres. To me, the mecha genre is just the framing device of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Yes, the mecha are important to the story, but you could replace the mecha with [something else], adjust everything related to the mecha so that it’s related to [something else], and the story itself would still work pretty much exactly the same way. It’s not a mecha deconstruction—it’s just mecha realism.
However, to say that Evangelion is not a mecha deconstruction does not mean that it does not deconstruct. Evangelion does deconstruct plenty. However, its deconstruction focuses more on character archetypes. Asuka, the tsundere, is brash and abrasive because she seeks validation. Under all her antagonism is a desire to be loved, admired, wanted—and belittles people in an attempt to gain it. Rei is a deconstruction of quiet, submissive girls. She’s almost incapable of showing emotion, and allows others to dictate her life because, as a clone, she believes that she is expendable and that she can be replaced, assuming that her life has no value. Though she’s presented as having a laid-back, fun-loving attitude, there’s a reason Misato is a heavy drinker. And Shinji? Shinji is a normal teenager (quite probably with severe depression) simultaneously seeking affection from his distant father and being forced to put his life at risk to save the world on a regular basis. Evangelion explores just what sort of impact that would have on the psyche.
These deconstructions could be done in other ways, of course. They’re just framed within a realistic mecha show. It’s not the Evangelions or the Angels themselves that drive the show. They’re merely the vessels that provide the drive. They do a good job of that, for sure, and the realistic take on the mecha genre is definitely entertaining, but Evangelion’s deconstruction comes from other sources.
Of course, this doesn’t really add to or detract from NGE’s value. So everything I just wrote is really more of a discussion of semantics and probably ultimately pointless.