The Art of Manipulation: Neon Genesis Evangelion

I don’t think I’m the only one who saw anime differently after watching Neon Genesis Evangelion.

No. That’s wrong. I know for a fact that I’m not the only one. One of my friends has told me exactly that, so there are at least two of us.

Watching the anime of Neon Genesis is a tough problem, since the owners decided to reinvent it from a series into four feature-length films. That worked for me in broad terms, but when in the name of Shinji is that last *bleep* film coming out? I’m waiting…

I watched the original anime on some (probably illegal) Russian site that spammed me with ads for porno sites with each new episode. Good thing I like porno. (Not really.) But you know what it’s like…Do you remember? You’re watching it and you’re going, “Yeah, mechas. I’ve seen this,” and then you’re inside of Shinji’s head and his dad is sending Rei in there to impersonate Shinji’s mom and it’s turned from mecha to psychodrama, and a damned good one at that.

Mind. Blown.

Not to mention that the story told in the anime and the story told in the manga…well, they have similarities but they are also very different stories in terms of plot, and the creators tell us that we are to regard them both as canonical. Between you and I, I smell the desire to sell maximal amounts of tie-in product. But this does not bother me. Here! Take my money! I love it.

Between the original series, the feature-film length reboots, and the manga, I finished the manga last. It’s brilliant and disturbing, and worth the effort. Let’s start with this: Rei and Shinji are both explicitly 14 years old in the story, and they are both nude in the manga. A prosecutor with his head up his butt could bring child porn charges. (The fact that their nudity is asexual and obviously symbolic of their innocence will have to be explained to him in very small words by your defense attorney.)

I find Shinji as a character interesting. To be honest, I find many of the characters interesting. The site on TV tropes pointed out that Neon Genesis includes extensive gender reversal of social roles, starting with the fact that Asuka is the physical one and Shinji the emotional one. Note that their CO, Misato, is also female, as well as the scientist, Akagi. Both often male roles. Just sayin’…

There’s a lot to find interesting in Neon Genesis. I personally find Rei Ayanami absolutely fascinating as a character. Both her voice actors, Japanese and American, agree that they find working with her exhausting because as a character she feels emotions but is unable to express them. What a complex problem for a voice actor!

But the central character is, of course, Shinji. For all the mechas, the EVAs and angels, all the trappings and tropes, all the lipstick and mascara, all the fuss and feathers, this is a show that is character-driven, where the motivations of the characters are what makes everything work in the end. Not just Shinji, either: Asuka has mother issues. So does Akagi. Misato wants to be loved. Kaji serves higher causes. And god only knows what Rei is. Pinocchio, perhaps, the puppet who wants to be human.

If you look at lists of the most hated characters in anime, Gendo Ikari shows up on them routinely. He’s cold, manipulative, emotionless. He may or may not be evil, but he is certainly spectacularly unpleasant. Not the sort of fellow you’d ask over for a beer and some chit-chat. But his presence there points up the power of character in Neon Genesis.

But Shinji shows up on the same lists, too, and I just saw him as number two on 15 Least Interesting Protagonists or something like that, right after Ash Ketchum.

I think that’s entirely unfair. I think he’s hated as a character it’s because he’s a complete wuss, a whiner about how life is unfair, and, as above, that’s not a strong masculine role, not the role the protagonist plays. For me, that’s what makes him interesting as a character. Shinji is a wuss, but I think he comes by it honestly.

Now for this analysis I’ll be looking at the manga. I know both anime and manga are to be considered canon, but the manga contains detail that the films don’t, and THE DAMNED FILM SERIES ISN’T FINISHED! That makes analysis problematic, as is sometimes said.

Now let’s look at Shinji: fourteen years old, raised by an aunt and uncle, he arrives in Tokyo just in time for an Angel attack, to be escorted from the station to NERV by Misato, thrown into an EVA and told to get out there and KILL KILL KILL. (Insert voice of Arlo Guthrie here.)

And that’s how his life goes. He’s told to kill. If he doesn’t, someone dies (see Toji). If he does someone dies (see Kaworu). He reaches out to his father, but Gendo’s having none of that. His guardian is Misato, who is about as unparental as a guardian can be. His cohorts are Rei, who is herself seven kinds of screwed-up, and Asuka, who is an unstable bully. He’s surrounded by plots between NERV and Seele and whatever the heck Kaji’s got going on, plus the internal politics at NERV with his dad and Akagi.

What triggered this piece, though, is what is quite possibly the ultimate betrayal of all the betrayals he’s seen. This is from Issue 82 of the manga. NERV is under attack by the Japanese Defense Forces, sent in (ultimately) by Seele with orders to take no prisoners. NERV people are being gunned down in the corridors. Oh, and outside Asuka and her EVA are holding off a dozen angels.

Misato needs to get Shinji into an EVA whether he wants to or not, so she’s basically dragging him down the corridors of NERV when the JRSDF catches them and they wound her. With a second’s respite behind a locked door, dripping blood all over, she makes one more attempt at manipulating – yes, there is no better word than manipulating – him:

Misato and Shinji

Shingi (left) and Misato. I put Misato into a book I’m working on.

Yup, there it is. Fourteen year old Shinji’s twenty-nine year old guardian just promised to screw his brains out if he does what she wants. What’s worse is that it’s an utterly cynical offer…(SPOILER ALERT) She’s going to be dead by four pages into the next issue, and knows it.

If you didn’t know that Misato dies in the manga, oops. Sorry. (Issue 83 had a lovely cover of her together with her (also dead) lover Kaji on the cover.)

This struck me as being a very powerful scene. Shinji was routinely bullied and ordered around, and some of the stuff Gendo pulls on him, such as using Rei to impersonate Shinji’s mother, is downright evil. But Gendo is supposed to be a nasty fellow. Now Shinji is betrayed by the one person who had always previously tried (sometimes ineffectually) to protect him.

You want to know why Shinji is screwed up? It’s because everyone tries to screw him over. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Except Rei. Thank whoever for Rei.

I think this is one of the reasons Neon Genesis is such a revered classic. Shinji is not a character we’ve seen a lot before; he has to be (essentially) psychologically tortured to do the things we know he needs to do. I don’t think we understand him because I think we all think that if we lived in his world, we’d be like, “YEAH! Put me in that EVA! I’m gonna kick me some angel butt!”

I’m not so sure. They invest a lot of time and energy into turning soldiers into people who can kill if they have to. Shinji doesn’t ever get that, and so he’s stuck with his moral dilemma: he has to kill to protect, but he knows that killing is wrong. NERV doesn’t have time to train or indoctrinate him, and so instead they bully him and intimidate him and manipulate him.

He’s not a wuss. He’s confused. And I don’t blame him. It’s wonderful that, at the end of the manga, it comes down to Shinji, the boy who’s terrified he will lose his humanity, and Rei, the girl trying so hard to find hers. What a pair of unique characters they are, and it’s sad that whatever world they create doesn’t have room for both of them.

That am some damned good writing.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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