In the anime world, Neon Genesis Evangelion (NGE) goes by many names: a masterpiece, a classic, a piece of trash, and overrated, among others. These are things that fans and critics alike also use to describe the series as a whole. It’s one of those either you love it or hate it series. But like many other anime that aired in the 90s, NGE is much more of a philosophical, less chaotic piece than its more present counterparts. In other words, it’s not meant to be entertaining. This anime, if I could describe it in one word is all about understanding.
Famously, NGE has also been called as a series that deconstructs the mecha (giant robots) genre. During its prime, NGE was loved and hated. But for this piece, I’m going to talk about the hate for its characters—some of which are mirrors of our own imperfections. Hideko Anno wrote NGE while he was suffering from depression and that reflects in the overall tone and subsequent downfall in the anime’s characters. He created flawed archetypes. Instead of heroes, he gave us flawed characters.
Instead of giving us a main character that would pilot an EVA (the robot), save the world, get the girl and all other nice things, he gave us Shinji Ikari—the very archetype of a deconstructed shounen character. Examples of a typical shounen hero include Naruto, Goku and Ichigo—characters that faced difficulties but are able to rise from them all and eventually, save the world. Fans identify with these heroes because it’s related to wishful thinking—a hero we can all look up to. NGE is an example of a fictional work that “provide concrete metaphors for human emotional states in ways that may have more impact than would a realistic portrayal” (Napier, 2007).
Shinji Ikari is messed up. His mother died when he was very young, his father abandoned him, only to summon him again and force him to pilot an EVA—to save the world. Yes, in their first meeting after so long, his father forced him to get in that thing and pilot it even if he has no experience at all. Shinji refused at first. He was then, told to leave since he doesn’t have any other use. Of course, he eventually piloted the EVA and defeated the enemy but at the expense of losing control and having a mental breakdown when the EVA itself went in berserk mode.
And this is an ongoing struggle that Shinji faces in the series. He pilots the EVA despite the fact that he doesn’t want to—eventually becoming like a robot and following commands, repeating them over and over like a mantra and sometimes his failure to save the day takes a toll on him that he quits, only to come back again.
Some hated Shinji for that, for coming back again and for failing to just man up. They want to quit being such a sissy. But they fail to understand that piloting the EVA gives him a purpose. By doing so, his father recognizes him because he has some “use“. But at the same time, imagine what kind burden 14-year-old boy has to carry, alone, betrayed and already suffering from mental stress from all that. Always being told to get it together but no one to help him to do. Shinji doesn’t have the will to live nor does he have any reason to. But by being an EVA pilot, he has that reason. And the fact that we cannot understand that, means that we don’t understand him. Shinji wants to be understood but he is misunderstood even by us.
Shinji’s mind further deteriorates, intensified by the death of Kaworu Nagisa by his own hands. Why? Because Kaworu is the only person who told Shinji that he accepts him and loves him for who he is. And this to Shinji, who has never been loved finally felt that he is worth loving. Only for that happiness to go away as he had to kill Kaworu (whose tagline is “I may have been born to meet [Shinji]“). In the end, he laments how it should have been Kaworu who lived—brave, angelic and kind Kaworu compared to broken Shinji. He once again feels that there is no purpose in life. He pushes people away because he feels that he is not worth loving and that he fears rejection or being left behind again—also called Hedgehog’s dilemma.
So that’s our main character. Not a hero. He cannot save his friends, the world much less himself. Unlike typical heroes that can overcome the odds—Shinji is a reflection of a real human being with flaws, one that he cannot just miraculously overcome because of willpower. Even his repeated tagline in the series, “I mustn’t run away” reflects his inner struggles. He is someone who wants to be understood just like how we, in general want to. He is the embodiment of the imperfections that we do not like, hence, why we prefer to choose heroes that can save the world especially in a fictional world.
Asuka Langley Soryu is another misunderstood character. I read in a forum about why people hated NGE and most included Asuka as one of the reasons (and the other Shinji being a sissy basically). Yes, Asuka is a egocentric and narcissistic character. She always wants to be the best—everything should be about her. She bullies Shinji all the time and hates Rei. But why?
Asuka’s childhood has been filled with always having to try hard. Like Shinji, she wanted to be recognized by her mother. Her mother became mentally ill after participating in an experiment causing her to believe that a doll is Asuka. As such, she started to refuse the real Asuka and only referred to her as “the girl over there.” She eventually committed suicide and Asuka is the one who have found the body. This is why Asuka tries so hard. She was about to tell her mother that she has been chosen to pilot the EVA (and finally not just been seen as “the girl over there”) when she found her dead. She felt betrayed once again.
To Asuka, her pride is important. Her independence and her desire to be a “grown up” (her tagline in the series is “I can live by my own”) is important. Practically because her pride as an EVA pilot is her life, like Shinji, it’s what gives her reason—it’s what makes her valued, recognized and something that cannot betray her. She had to be strong for herself as she is all alone because her father remarried sometime after her mother died. Like Shinji, Asuka is all alone and also suffers from Hedgehog’s dilemma.
This is also the reason why Asuka hates Shinji (or acts like she does) because Shinji is so similar to her. But compared to her, Shinji is weak and Asuka is strong—in Asuka’s eyes. The very reason why Asuka hates Shinji for his weakness is the very reflection of the people that hate these characters for her imperfections, mirroring another aspect of us in the series. The hatred for Asuka stems from the lack of understanding on why she is the way she is.
This is also why Asuka hates Rei. Rei Ayanami (a kuudere trope while Asuka is a tsundere) is also an EVA pilot who is basically like a living child solider, at least the very embodiment of one. She follows orders with no question, shows no fear and more importantly, is much more recognized by Shinji’s father than Shinji himself. Asuka hates Rei because Rei doesn’t have to try too hard. She is recognized, she is strong—things that Asuka have to fight for to get.
Compared to her counterparts, Rei is the closest one to show us a hero-type character (even if it’s a rather soulless one, relatively speaking in NGE universe)—the one we can admire and love because of her more emotionless character who doesn’t show fear, goes out in the battlefield and manages to save the day without having a breakdown. Hence, reflecting another aspect of ourselves. But all these in the expense of losing herself and not knowing who she is. Her tagline in the series is “I am me” and finding what it means to be human—feel emotions and make friends.
Misato Katsuragi seems like the only adult that can be trusted in the whole series. But that’s not to say that she’s perfect. Misato has an Electra complex. Like Shinji and Asuka who sees piloting the EVA as their purpose/reason to live, Misato uses sex to feel loved and valued. Because sex is just physical to her but no one can ever undress her internal pains—another case of Hedgehog’s dilemma.
Because her father died in saving her, she carries this burden all her life—he should have lived and she shouldn’t have, much like how Shinji felt towards Kaworu’s death. In order to fill in that void and take away that guilt, she chose a man similar to her father, Kaji Ryoji. In the end, she is just running away from all of it.
As such, she clings on to people especially the male characters in the show like Kaji and Shinji—hoping to save her from herself. Yet, despite it all, she acts tough, commands the EVA pilots well but deep inside she is just as broken as its pilots. She fears Shinji will resent her if he finds out about her true self and she denies that that is who she is. This reflects us—wearing masks to hide our wounds, how we fear if people sees the weakness in us and how we too, as people, hope for others to fix us, to save us from ourselves when it becomes to much. Misato is a trusted adult but once again, her imperfections mirrors our own.
Finally, NGE as a whole also reflects how adults fail us, how parents failed in raising their children would eventually damage them in their later life. Yes, NGE creates child soldiers such as Shinji, Asuka, Rei and to an extent, Misato. It is the adults’ mistake that these children (they’re 14-years-old but the anime refers to them as children) are left to fix. They have to carry the burden in saving the world and defeating Angels (the villains in the series). When in fact, these very children cannot even fix her own personal issues, how could they fix the world’s?
They always say how cruel it is that they have to use Shinji, Asuka and Rei but in the end, they always conclude it with “We don’t a have choice.” It is because of the adults that the NGE’s world is what it is, because of their mistakes that caused these impacts (not going to explain because that’s a lot of complex background). And in the end, these very adults like Shinji’s father, Asuka’s mother failed to understand their own children who as they grow up, only want to be understood.
Hence, the need for the much criticized episodes 25 and 26. It was the way it was because of budget issues, yes. But the way it was presented and the way it was received by the public mirrors us. Episodes 25 and 26 acts as an insight into these damaged character’s minds, revealing their flaws, their inner secrets, their fears and their pain—which they try so hard to hide and fix and run away from during the series. Ultimately, these episodes allows us to understand their characters more. But the way it was received reflected just how misunderstood they are.
Q: Do you like the anime you make?
Anno: Like… well, I like some, but hate others.
Q: What parts don’t you like?
Anno: The parts where I see myself … [later, to interviewers] I’m often told that those who don’t like themselves set high expectations for themselves, but I think people who say that don’t really understand how painful it is.
I believe that Anno’s own contempt with the otaku culture reflects that too—they misunderstood him, they dictate him on how the series should’ve gone based on what they want even receiving death threats after the final two episodes aired. They hate his characters because they are flawed, they hate the last two episodes because it wasn’t some action-packed conclusion. And in the end, they misunderstood him too. We hate these episodes because it was philosophical, it was too much but more importantly, because it was real. It strips these characters, bares them at their darkness, portrays them at their extreme and shows it to us. We don’t like it because we are the same.
Anno himself, hates the part of the anime that sees himself in. The high expectations he mentioned seems fitting to the expectations set by the characters in the film (to be heroes) only to be misunderstood. We don’t like opening ourselves raw, looking at our own darkness because it’s not nice, it’s uncomfortable and it’s scary. But it’s us. Doing these to Shinji, Asuka, Rei and Misato is mirroring our own imperfections.
Neon Genesis Evangelion, call it what you want. Love it, hate it. Appreciate its symbolism or not. But it deserves to be called a masterpiece not because it entertained us. But because it’s one of the rare anime anime that really shows us who we truly are as people even in a fictional work. As one interviewee describes it, “[it has] the complexity of the characters and them finding their own identities as people” (Napier, 2007), just as we are.
Still think anime is still just for kids? Maybe that’s because you haven’t seen what makes anime not just for kids.
*For the purpose of not spoiling too much that I already have, I’ve chosen to focus on the NGE anime and not on (or any mention of) the End of Evangelion or the Death & Rebirth films.