In Defence of ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’s Shinji Ikari

Shinji Ikari © Gainax

It would be an understatement to call Neon Genesis Evangelion controversial. Since its original run in 1995, just about every element of the series — from the summation defying plot, to the cryptic writing, to the still dangling narrative threads, to the various endings — has been subject to scrutiny and debate comparable to Star Wars or Harry Potter. This is to be expected of any piece of media that is so culturally prevalent that it still generates a heavy stream of spin-off manga, film remakes, merchandise, and even a bullet train some twenty plus years on from the airing of the final episode. Ubiquity is the breeding ground of controversy, and few things are quite so ubiquitous (both in homeland Japan and among anime-fans abroad) and as naturally controversial as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Imagine the reaction to the final episode of Game of Thrones, double it, and extend it over 20-plus years and you’re about in the right ballpark.

However, if there is one element of the series that is more divisive than any other, it would be its protagonist: Shinji Ikari. This is a character who most fans deridingly call a “whiny brat” or “emo loser” but can also take first place on IGN’s ranking of anime protagonists beating out the likes of Astro Boy, Spike Spiegel, and Goku. These polar reactions are borne out of the fact that Shinji, for better or worse, is one of the most psychologically complex characters in pop culture history. He’s a fourteen-year-old boy who, on top of dealing with the general maelstrom of adolescence, is also (poorly) coping with his mother’s death and subsequent abandonment by his father. This has caused him to become emotionally dependent on the validation of others to a point where he is willing to endure the physical and psychological trauma of piloting an Evangelion — the giant robots after which the series is named — because he thinks people (read: his father) want him to. And that’s only scratching the surface.

Shinji in one of the famous “psychology scenes” © Gainax

His character hinges on the paradigm of wanting to do what others want — in this case, that is piloting an Evangelion — because Shinji and they perceive it to be the right thing to do. However, this action hurts him so profusely that all logical thoughts beg him not to do it. No illusion is ever made as to how taxing it is to pilot an Evangelion. The syncing process neurologically links the pilot to their units, so whenever the Evangelion is damaged the pilot feels corresponding pain. To pilot an Evangelion is to undergo prolonged trauma, so it is no wonder that Shinji spends so much of the series not wanting to get inside the Evangelion, and yet, for the sense that not getting in the robot makes, the distaste that so many people have for Shinji finds its roots in that exact paradigm. It is frustrating to watch Shinji shy away from heroism when everything we’ve learned about narrative structures, especially heightened genre narratives like Neon Genesis Evangelion, says that he should become the archetypical protagonist and rise to the occasion in a suitably heroic fashion.

The now infamous “get in the fucking robot” meme was born out of this exact frustration. Throughout the entirety of Neon Genesis Evangelion Shinji expresses his dislike of piloting the Evangelion, going so far as to run away on multiple occasions. The very first time Shinji is asked to pilot an Evangelion, in episode one “Angel Attack”, it takes the insistence of everyone around him to get him to do it. His father looks down on him from above while Misato and Ritsuko cage him in on either side verbally bullying him. They even bring out a physically hurt Rei, all in the effort to get him to do the one thing he least wants to do. When he finally does agree to pilot the Evangelion, it is not a moment of triumph for Shinji, but rather defeat. “Fine, I’ll do it”, he concedes. It’s about as far from heroic as a scene can feel.

Shinji (center) trapped between Ritsuko (left) and Misato (right) © Gainax

Time and again, Shinji is asked to get in the Evangelion. Each time he initially refuses only to come around and reluctantly agree when he is reminded that people care about him when he is piloting. Shinji himself notes this in the first episode, saying that he knew his father only got in contact because he needed something from him. Difficult relationships with parents are not anomalous to anime. What is anomalous is that Shinji pilots the Evangelion even though doing so reminds him that his father doesn’t actually care about him. Shinji pilots to get closer to his father — even though it hurts him, physically and emotionally. That Shinji only pilots for others, and not out of a sense of duty or self-worth, is a character flaw in the technical sense, but it shouldn’t be seen as a flaw in a critical sense. While Shinji’s difficult relationship with piloting the Evangelion is the root of many people’s frustration with Neon Genesis Evangelion, it is also what makes the series so distinct.

One thing that should be noted about Neon Genesis Evangelion is that under all the arthouse aesthetics, science-fantasy storytelling, and pseudo-religious overtones the series is actually built on a fairly straightforward premise: What if the character always had to face the consequences of their actions and the reality of their circumstances?

One of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s many brutal fights © Gainax

Several shows since have adopted this “reality of consequences” storytelling style, the most recent and famous example being HBO’s Game of Thrones. However, even Game of Thrones struggled to follow through on that concept fully (see: the mess that was season 8). Neon Genesis Evangelion meanwhile remains a masterclass in narrative consequentialism, baking the conceit seamlessly into the fabric of the show. Battle-damage from fights can sideline an Evangelion for episodes to follow and a character’s mental-state is always in jeopardy. In episode twelve, “She said, ‘Don’t make others suffer for your personal hatred”, Shinji and his fellow pilots battle a massive skyborne angel. When the angel is defeated it explodes into a fountain of blood, which spews throughout Tokyo-3, destroying huge portions of the city. The blood is then being cleaned up for episodes to follow; Tokyo-3 is never fully rebuilt. It’s a neat piece of continuity and worldbuilding, yes, but it’s also a lingering reminder that it is impossible for the characters to avoid the reality of their actions.

Even the opening theme song, Yoko Takahashi’s iconic “Cruel Angel Thesis”, plays with the idea of reality. “Young boy, like a cruel angel, Live up to be a legend…” opens the song, which is by all ostensible measures about Shinji. It’s a promise to the audience, that the series will track his heroes’ journey, and certainly, the show does that. However, it does so in a way that grapples with our notions of what it means to be the protagonist of an anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion. The series explores how anyone who willingly put themselves in such a dangerous and destructive position must be a fundamentally broken human being. It is a heroes’ journey, but the reality is dissonant with the fantasy that we expect.

The most explicit example of inescapable reality, however, is in the aforementioned climactic scene from the first episode. Shinji doesn’t want to get in the robot, but the consequences of not getting in are severe. The injured Rei will have to pilot in his place. She will almost certainly die doing so. Rei’s death will allow the angel to attack Tokyo-3 freely, meaning a lot more people will die. Most importantly of all, if Shinji doesn’t pilot the robot then his father, whom he yearns to connect with, will want nothing to do with him. “If you’re going to do it, do it now. If not then leave”, says Gendo, making it clear to Shinji just how disposable he is to everyone outside the cockpit of an Evangelion.

Even then Shinji can only muster the will to pilot the Evangelion by repeating the mantra “I must not run away” in his head. Those five-words, or six-syllables if you prefer, encapsulate the thematic core of Neon Genesis Evangelion. They are the crux of everything that makes the show the singularity that it is. You cannot escape your problems forever, eventually, you must face them.

Even when reunited, Shinji and Gendo are still separated © Gainax

This, of course, is not easy for Shinji. If it was, he would just get in the robot, no questions asked. Instead, he spends copious amounts of the show running: from piloting, from feelings, and every other tangible and figurative threat that can exist. He’s supposed to be the heroic protagonist, but he behaves in a way that is meek to a degree that borders on despicable. In short, Shinji ruins the escapist fiction that is heroism. He is our surrogate character, and we have to face the fact that in a situation like this we would almost certainly run as well. We don’t hate Shinji because we find his cowardice unrelatable, but because we find it too relatable. Just like piloting brings out the uncomfortable truth that Shinji is disposable, Shinji brings out the uncomfortable truth that we aren’t like the heroes we idolize. Megumi Hayashibara — the Japanese voice actress for the character Rei Ayanami — had this to say about Shinji:

Look at Shinji. Why does he continue to fight as an Eva pilot? The story keeps changing. He said it’s because everyone tells him to. Because only he can do it. Because it has to be done to save humanity. Selfless and lofty sentiments for sure, and he believed those reasons to be genuine. Wrong; he wanted his father to approve of him. To say he was a good boy. How selfish of him, really, to be a human being.”

To look at Shinji is to look in an uncomfortably honest mirror. It is not hard to draw a parallel between the way Shinji listens to his cassette player to drown out his thoughts or loneliness and worthlessness and the way we engage with media like Neon Genesis Evangelion to escape the reality of our own lives. I’ll be the first to admit that when I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion at the age of thirteen, just one year younger than Shinji, it was in an attempt to ignore how unhappy and directionless I felt at school and uncomfortable I felt in my own skin (puberty anyone?).

Shinji listening to his cassette player © Gainax

Creator Hideaki Anno has gone on record saying that Neon Genesis Evangelion began as a rejection of the tropes of otaku’s; the show would go on to become a meditation and examination on his own depression — but for the purpose of this piece we’re focusing on the initial metatext. For those not in the know, otaku is a Japanese term to describe young people, usually men, who are obsessed with computers or particular aspects of pop culture to the detriment of their social skills. Anno particularly disliked the popularity of works like Neon Genesis Evangelion and other self-insert escapist hero narratives among this culture as he felt it allowed them an easy escape from reality. When he described Shinji as someone who “shrinks from human contact” he may as well have been describing the kind of people who flock to shows just like Neon Genesis Evangelion.

The fourth episode, “Hedgehog’s Dilemma”, is where Shinji is most explicitly an otaku surrogate. Shinji has just become confident in piloting the Evangelion, and that confidence led to him behaving recklessly in battle. He’s initially flippant about the danger he put himself in, saying that he’ll continue to pilot because no one else can. Misato cuts in to tell Shinji that whatever hero fantasy he has constructed is false, that he is replaceable. Shinji’s fragile sense of self-worth shatters. He is reminded that he is not necessary to anyone, and while it’s easy for him to construct his identity around an artifice like piloting the Evangelion it also guarantees that no one will care about him on a level beyond transactional. As long as he actively tries to please people, they will treat him like an object. Rather than face that reality he runs away. It’s a damning portrait, and when Shinji later says the following about himself, “I’m a coward! I’m dishonest! I’m sneaky! And a wimp!”, it’s easy to agree.

Shinji runs away © Gainax

All this begs the question: if we find Shinji so loathsome if we don’t like that we see our worst qualities in him if we hate watching him be so indecisive about getting in the damn robot, then why do we to watch a series about him? Anno presents one answer in episode fifteen, “Those Women Longed for the Touch of Other’s Lips, and Thus Invited Their Kisses”, Auska walks in on Shinji playing the Cello. She applauds, and then the following exchange occurs:

Shinji: I started studying [the cello] because my teacher told me to. I could have quit at any time.

Auska: So why didn’t you?

Shinji: Because no one told me to stop.

There is truth in this of course. Who among us hasn’t subjected themselves to at least one irresponsible late-night Netflix binge, not because we wanted to ruin our sleep for the coming days, but because we couldn’t be bothered to stop? But to stay with a series through twenty-six episodes when we dislike the protagonist that much seems unreasonable. Rather it is symptomatic of the real reason we continue watching a series about a character that we “hate”.

Shinji on why he plays the Cello © Gainax

The real reason we continue watching Neon Genesis Evangelion is the same reason Shinji keeps getting back in the Evangelion even though it hurts him. He doesn’t like it, but eventually, he might find a way to, and then that pain might turn into joy. Similarly, we wait to see if Shinji can find that joy because if he does, he might become the protagonist we want him to be. Then our awful qualities that he represents would be redeemed and we can feel just a bit more comfortable with ourselves.

Of course, none of that is easy. It would be less painful perhaps to never get in the robot, to just turn off the show. This idea is called the Hedgehog’s Dilemma (yes, like the title of that episode). The Hedgehog’s Dilemma, in as few words as possible, is the idea that emotionally humans are like hedgehogs on a winter’s night. If we get too close to each other we’ll hurt each other with our pricks, but if we get too far away, we’ll freeze to death. So, we have to find a distance where the pain is manageable, and we can still be warm. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is the thematic spine of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s narrative. It is the source of its distinct visual style; characters rarely occupy the frame together, or if they do the blocking looks uncomfortable and awkward. The Hedgehog’s Dilemma is the reason Shinji keeps getting back in the robot — because being close to his father, even if it hurts, is better than not being close at all.

Evangelion’s uncomfortable character framing © Gainax

I think it is worth noting that despite how much time Shinji spends not wanting to get in the robot, he always does, and always on his terms. In episode one, when he is faced with getting in the robot for the first time, it is not the external pressure of everyone around him that ultimately makes him decide to pilot. Rather it is when Rei is knocked to the floor and begins to visibly bleed. Shinji sees her pain and elects to take her place. On paper, it sounds heroic, but as we know, the reality is anything but. He always pilots from a place of compassion. It’s his way of trying to get close to others without getting pricked. This doesn’t mitigate his pain, nor does any of this negate his selfish motives. Rather it paints Shinji as a character of psychological complexity, the kind we claim to desire in fiction, and it starts him on the journey to one day accept himself. And if he accepts himself, he can maybe start healing.

And so, Shinji keeps getting in the Evangelion. And we keep watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. Shinji finds it difficult; we find Shinji’s difficulty frustrating. He doesn’t love it, but he’s trying to find a way to be at peace with it. Many of us don’t love Shinji, but I think we should try to find a way to be at peace with him. Shinji represents the side of ourselves that we don’t want to reconcile with. However, if there is one thing Neon Genesis Evangelion — an incredibly oblique show — is clear about then it is this:

We should not run away from what we see of ourselves in Shinji because it’s there no matter what and hating Shinji for that will neither remove nor resolve it. Instead, we should face it, forgive Shinji of his weaknesses, and get in the robot.

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