One of the reasons that I moved away from the episode-by-episode format of these reviews was because when I was using the old format, I was missing the forest for the trees. I was getting a series of snapshots – of the plot, characters and themes – but as a result, I was missing the evolution of those same aspects. Most critically, I was missing the characters’ journeys and their personal arcs. In a story like Evangelion, where the characters are so very compelling, that’s a big deal. I felt that at the end of the day, what I wanted to focus on was more the question of how a story develops and unfolds rather than the state of the story at various individual points. For a while I wasn’t really sure how I was going to condense a bunch of episodes into a single review – I’ve done reviews of an entire series, of course, but those rarely dive deep into the details while the episode reviews I usually do probably go into a little too much detail. The good thing about covering a small handful of episodes is that most questions kind of answer themselves and when you tear away that layer of flab in the content, you’re left with what I hope is something much denser and more concise.
Two weeks ago, we covered episodes 1 and 2 of Neon Genesis Evangelion. This week we’ll be covering episodes 3 through 7 and I will be revisiting a lot of the ideas that I touched upon last week – the theme of loneliness, the various psychological issues the characters are struggling with as well as more plot specific questions concerning the setting and how the story is unfolding. More specifically, I want to focus on Shinji’s development as a character and how that development is being created, and the knock-on effects it is having on the other characters and the rest of the story. Ayanami Rei finally gets a proper introduction and we see some sense of familiarity settle into the series after the chaotic opening episodes. By way of introduction, one of the things that struck me as I watched this group of episodes was how Evangelion’s plot is comprised of two interconnected stories. The first is the bigger story concerning the fate of their world and is centred on whether mankind will be able to survive the Angel apocalypse and prevent a Third Impact. The second story is more intimate, but no less important; it is the story of Ikari Shinji overcoming the emotional baggage he has been lugging around with him. In order for both these stories to arrive at satisfying conclusions, it would make logical sense for their outcomes to be interconnected. That means that either the fate of mankind will depend on Shinji coming to terms with his issues or conversely, the state of Shinji’s psyche depending on mankind’s ability to beat the Angels. Given how the latter option runs the risk of extreme redundancy – if mankind loses to the Angels, it doesn’t really matter what Shinji’s emotional response is – I suspect it will be the former. The fate of world will lie on the shoulders of a troubled, depressed teenager who everyone treats like shit. If he does decide to pull the trigger that damns the world – and given the series’ tone so far, that’s far from unlikely – then I can’t say that the world wouldn’t deserve it.
Being Shinji means never catching a break, ever
So, given how pivotal it’s looking like Shinji’s mental state will be to the end of this story, perhaps it would be a good idea to take a look, not just at Shinji himself, but also at what factors affect his mental health. For example, for example his various friendships, whether with the boys from school or with Rei, are strong positives and help him cope. I’m ambivalent about his relationship with Misato, as I mentioned last week, because while she is sort of his family, at the same time, she can also be a major source of stress for him as we saw in episode 4, ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma’. Right now, I’m leaning in favour of putting her in the plus category but really, it’s a conditional plus and I’ll explain why shortly. On the negative side, the two biggest sources of stress in Shinji’s life are clearly his relationship with Gendo and being a pilot and unfortunately, I don’t see either of those going away anytime soon.
There is a pattern emerging after this first handful of episodes. Each encounter Shinji has had in his EVA unit has been an unpleasant one (to put it mildly). After every encounter with an Angel, Shinji is left totally traumatised, and the rest of the cast spends the in-between the Angel attacks trying to put Shinji’s mind back together. So far they have been successful, but the healing leaves scars each time. In fact, they’re more like barely healed wounds – they aren’t bleeding at the moment, but any further psychological strain and Shinji’s mental state will be on the brink of collapse all over again. One day, maybe a dozen episodes or so from now, Shinji isn’t just going to crack; he’s going to shatter and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men won’t be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again. Still, it’s not all gloom and doom. Slowly, but surely, he’s beginning to cope with the immense strains of being a frontline soldier. In the first couple of episodes, we saw him paralyzed with fear but at least now he’s able to enter the EVA without freezing up totally – it’s not a lot of progress given how far he has left to go, but it’s a start. He’s beginning to accept that even though he wouldn’t want to be a pilot in an ideal world, he is going to keep at it because he wants to help and protect those close to him. If the price of having family and friends is being an EVA pilot, Shinji is willing to accept those terms. Perhaps a part xof it is familiarity as well – the fear of piloting an EVA has to subside the more experienced he becomes and even though it might not necessarily become less stressful, at least he is becoming better prepared to deal with that stress.
His acceptance of the duty that has been so cruelly thrust upon him is admirable but I get the feeling that his acceptance of it is equal parts positive and negative. For example, consider the decision to continue that Shinji makes at the end of ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma’. The audience is meant to understand that Shinji continued because he realized that, for the first time in his life, there are people in his life who genuinely care about him and he is continuing on as a pilot, despite how much he hates it, in order to protect them. Yet, from another angle, you can see it as Shinji acting to preserve the only people in his life who care about him. From another angle, you can see it as Shinji continuing because he doesn’t want to let the people he cares about down again – like he feels he did his father. Does it feel like I’m splitting hairs? My point is simply that there is a difference between someone playing to win and someone playing to not lose. In this particular instance, the difference is relevant because will Shinji’s resolve to fight be as strong if he loses his friends or Misato? This is possibility that we have to consider especially since we were just talking about the kind of stressful events that could cause Shinji to crack. Personally, I’m of the opinion that there is a little bit of everything involved in his decision – yes, it was brave decision but at the same time, it was the decision of a lonely, depressed teen who was more terrified of losing all the support and love in his life than he was of being a pilot. More importantly than any of that, it was a decision by Shinji to confront his demons and overcome them.
Now, having said all of that, I feel like have to add in a disclaimer. I do think he’s made progress as a character but that progress is also clearly tenuous and fragile. Even as he forms new relationships, those relationships come with complications and baggage of their own. Take his relationship with Rei, for example. Rei is sweet enough on her own but I can’t help but wonder what Shinji must think of her. How must he feel when he sees her and his father get along so swimmingly after Shinji himself was pretty much discarded by Gendo? Is Shinji jealous? Or instead does he think that he himself should become more like Rei in order to win the approval of his father? I don’t really think he’s jealous – all his interactions with her seem to indicate that he is intimidated and nervous around her more than anything – but I think there is something to be said about him looking up to her. I think he sees in Rei a role model of sorts. Unlike him, she is calm, collected and very competent. She is the child that Gendo always wanted, what Shinji failed to be. Even without the pressures of a fight for survival, that’s enough to give a boy a complex. It seems clear that Rei is an important positive relationship for Shinji because she is someone who understands what it’s like being a pilot and is the person with a situation most similar to his own but at the same time, I think she reminds him of everything he is not or possibility, everything he cannot be.
When I think of Shinji’s psyche, I find it useful to use the metaphor of a hot air balloon. There are certain factors that act as the hot air, pushing Shinji up and keeping him afloat but then there are the sandbags that are dragging him down. I gave a couple of examples above, but let’s dive a little deeper, shall we?
The Hot Air
I talked a little about Shinji’s relationship with Rei above but there’s a fair bit more to say. They didn’t exactly have the smoothest of beginnings – with Rei’s frosty demeanour and their extremely awkward first encounter, it seemed for a second that it was be a tragic cased of missed opportunity. This will be a recurring theme among Shinji’s closer relationships. On a side note, I found it very interesting how their vaguely sexual encounter wasn’t played for laughs like it usually is in these situations. In fact, the whole thing was incredibly uncomfortable and it’s clear that that was the intent – from the pressure of the backward industrial sounds to Shinji dropping all of his mum’s spaghetti, it seems like we were intentionally left waiting for that moment to end. Coming back to Rei though; tt would be a criminal understatement to say that Rei is mysterious – there are so many unanswered questions about her that it would seem like we barely know her at all. However, she and Shinji share a bond as a result of their mission and one positives of that bond is that Shinji has someone to share his experiences with in the future (though, given his personality I wouldn’t be surprised if he elects not to share anything with her at all). Yet, like I mentioned above, there are definitely negatives to their relationship as well. Rei is sort of the opposite of Shinji in that she seems unfeeling and unemotional whereas Shinji is super sensitive and can let the emotions get the better of him. The problem with Shinji is that he needs to be two very different people for the two stories he is involved in. The bigger plot involving the Angels’ attacks needs Shinji to become like Rei – someone who will follow orders without thinking or feeling. However, Shinji’s own personal story, the one that depends on his mental health, needs him to not feel the pressure of becoming like Rei. In some ways, Rei is the most toxic role model there is. It would be one level of unhealthy for Shinji to aspire to be like her when their personalities are already so utterly different but it’s another level entirely in this particularly case, because Rei’s memories and personality have basically been removed from her. As a result, Shinji isn’t just comparing himself to another flawed, real human being – he’s comparing himself to the equivalent of a human robot. The result is that he’s going to end up holding himself to an unrealistic standard and that can’t be good for anyone.
Since this is the first time we’re really introduced to Rei, let’s keep talking about her for a while more. There are a whole bunch of unanswered questions here. Just what is the nature of the relationship between Rei and Gendo? Is she his bastard daughter from another wife? Is Gendo a paedophile? One thing is for sure, Rei is incredibly precious to both generations of Ikari; there was a nice parallel between Gendo and Shinji both using their hands to save Rei. Rei’s interactions with Gendo humanize him; it seems impossible for anything to be able to humanize that cold of a man, but it’s true. When Shinji spied the two of them talking in the launch bay, there both seemed downright chatty, which is not a word that would generally be used to describe either Rei or Gendo. In some ways, it makes sense though. Rei is the ideal soldier for Gendo. She doesn’t ask difficult questions and she just goes where Gendo tells her to go and does what he tells her to do. Beyond that though, why is Rei living in a dump? We see Rei’s apartment and it’s basically one level up from a slum. I know Shinji’s probably living in a better place since he’s sharing with Misato but surely Rei gets paid well enough? Either way, that was another way of establishing the difference between Shinji and Rei – Shinji is looking for a home, a place that feels familiar and lived in and safe but Rei, as seen by her apartment, doesn’t care about any of that. Her house is dirty, filled with old bandages and seems to offer little beyond basic shelter. There is no emotion attached to her house at all.
Shinji’s classmates, Toji and Kensuke
There isn’t really a whole bunch to say about either of these relationships. The arc of the relationship follows a fairly straightforward script – Toji has a particularly poor opinion of Shinji because he thinks that Shinji is revelling in the attention of being an EVA pilot while not being careful enough as a pilot and getting Toji’s younger sister injured as a result. Toji beats Shinji up but then changes his tune when Shinji saves him and Kensuke and then really changes his tune when he sees the nightmarish reality of being an EVA pilot. The most noteworthy moment in their friendship so far has been in ‘Hedgehog’s Dilemma’ (that episode certainly offered a lot, didn’t it) when all the adults around Shinji were trying to bully him back into Unit 01 but it was only his classmates who thanked him for his efforts and offered sincere apologies for how they had treated him in the past. It was a sign that both these kids are more mature than Misato and it’s a shame that they seem to have been relegated to comic relief and ogling Misato.
The Warm Air
Ok, so this section is really just for Misato and Ritsuko. If Misato is the dysfunctional mum then, Ritsuko is the distant aunt. We haven’t really talked about Ritsuko so far, and for good reason, but since it looks like she’ll be around for a while, we’ll get to it today. First however, we tackle the bag of issues that is Misato Katsuragi. We’ve talked about her immaturity last week but I’m realizing that that’s only the start of the issues between her and Shinji. The core of the problem is that the two of them are so very different that it’s borderline impossible for the two of them to understand each other. I blame Misato for this more than Shinji – being as old as she is, I think it’s reasonable to expect more from than the young kid. I was pretty pissed off when she started berating Shinji for shirking his responsibilities especially since it’s so easy to criticize others when you’re not doing anything yourself. However, it does seem like she’s realized the error of her ways and is adapting her approach to Shinji to reflect her new understanding of him.
Even with this improved understanding, I don’t see the future of their relationship as anything but a minefield. It’s impossible for her to be his mother figure at home and his boss at the workplace because those two roles are often in conflict – and that itself is a reflection of the differing directions that the two parts of the story are pulling Shinji that I mentioned above. What’s best for the military might not be what’s best for Shinji as a person and vice versa; so far, Misato has acted in the military’s best interests more than Shinji’s. This particular relationship could do more to damage Shinji than any other, even the sand bags that we’ll talk about in a minute. After episode 7, ‘A Human Work’ it would seems that Shinji has accepted his place in Misato’s ‘family’ but only after he was a little upset when she referred to looking after him as ‘part of her job’. In the best case scenario, as she learns more about him and gets closer to him, she will see him less as military property and a test subject and more as someone to care for and nurture.
In comparison, Ritsuko is pretty much hands off. I don’t think she’s ever had an extended conversation with Shinji, in fact. Yet, in their professional setting, she often acts as the voice of reason and I think Shinji, for whatever reason, has a positive opinion of her. My opinion of her is less shiny. After ‘A Human World’ it seems to me that however intelligent and perceptive Ritsuko is, she is nevertheless a pawn in Gendo’s pocket – at least that’s what I’m assuming after we find out that Gendo sabotaged the Jet Alone project in order to secure funding for himself. The reason I haven’t talked about her more in the past is because honestly, she just seems to be The Science Chick without any other traits that stand out. I guess, to be fair, she does seem to be more human than Gendo even if she doesn’t have the energy and passion of Misato.
The Sand Bags
I spoke, at some length, about Gendo last week so there isn’t a whole lot more to add, honestly. It would be far too easy to underestimate the amount of damage Gendo has inflicted and is continuing to inflict on Shinji. A big part of the baggage that Shinji is carrying around goes back to the abandonment issues that Gendo left him with. Most of the things that are keeping Shinji from being a kickass EVA pilot can be traced back to those issues. You might argue that some amount of it is just his personality and I agree but given how interconnected everything is, it’s hard to say where the influence of the emotional abuse ends and where Shinji’s own meek personality begins. I think what’s more infuriating than seeing Gendo be an asshole to Shinji is watching him be nice to Rei. I don’t have anything against Rei of course, but watching him be nice to her shows that he isn’t just flat out incapable of human emotion but rather that for whatever reason, he doesn’t think Shinji is worth it. It would be one thing is Shinji was old enough (with the emotional maturity that accompanies that age) to recognize that Gendo is just plain toxic and just ignore him but that’s really easier said than done and it’s expecting a lot out of a lonely teenager. The sad thing is that Shinji is not at that stage in life and that’s why Gendo’s presence is so damaging. Every time Shinji gets into the robot, it’s not just to save humanity etc, it’s also about proving to his dad that he’s not totally worthless. What he hasn’t recognized yet is that not only will he never be able to prove that, but that it’s also not worth his time trying to prove it.
Piloting the robot
As terrible as Gendo is, it’s pretty clear that he’s nothing more than an aggravating factor on top of the real issue that causes Shinji the most stress – the actual act of piloting the Evangelion robot. There are just so many stress factors in play any time that Shinji is out on the front lines – beyond the incredible stress of being in mortal danger, there is the additional mental pressure of being pretty much the only one capable of stopping mankind’s destruction. Furthermore, while there is no doubt that Shinji is getting better at piloting it, each time he gets into the cockpit there’s a gamble being made. He could either emerge from that fight more confident in his abilities or he could just crumble lose whatever progress he had managed to make. Thus far, we’ve easily seen more of the latter than the former but that’s because the negatives are emphasized much more. However, look past the dramatic emphasis placed on the negative emotions Shinji experiences (fear, anxiety, pressure, etc) and look at the number of ways that his life outside the robot is improving. You can argue that those improvements are indirect results of his decision to pilot the Evangelion unit. Yet, there’s no denying that Shinji’s experiences so far have left him with some lingering PTSD and not the ‘omg, I’ve so traumatized cos someone called me names’ type of PTSD, but more like the ‘I survived the Battle of the Somme and Auschwitz’ type of PTSD.
Capitalism ruins everything for everyone. Again.
Episode 7, ‘A Human Work’ introduced a new perspective to the series. Previously, I had assumed that mankind was on the brink of extinction and that NERV was an example of humanity putting aside their petty squabbles and coming together for the greater good. However, what ‘A Human Work’ established was that things are surely not as dire as they seem if NERV and other similar agencies feel safe enough to jock around for better funding and prestige. There is something inherently infuriating about watching good technology be held back solely because of people’s petty jealously and greed. While the spokesman for the company making the improved Evangelion robots wasn’t exactly the classiest of individuals, the robots he was peddling did seem to show promising improvements over the current EVA units. Episodes like this convince me more and more that the Angels are manmade. I don’t have any further proof now than I did in the previous write-up but if one of the recurring ideas in the show is how mankind is too greedy and selfish to truly unite, then the idea of them creating weapons that they couldn’t control makes sense. This particular development also brings into question who the ultimate villain of this story is. The Angels aren’t really characters; they’re more like forces of nature than anything else. Yet, if man created the Angels, then perhaps humanity is the villain after all.
In any case, this write-up has dragged on for far too long and I’m already a week and a half behind schedule, so I’ll leave off here and hopefully the next bunch of episodes will be up sooner rather than later.