The Power of Three, Broken: Neon Genesis Evangelion

I’ve written several times about the use of three characters in set roles as a device to create narrative tension or drive plot in a story. There’s the Eternal Triangle: two people vying for the affection of a third, as in Citrus. There’s the Mind, Body, Soul trio we saw in School-Live! (and other places). There’s the Hero, Sidekick, Girlfriend trio we saw in Outlaw Star (and other places). There’s Princess, Protector, Protagonist, as seen in Amagi Brilliant Park.

Then there’s the Father, Mother, Child trio, which occurs, for instance, in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. Now that’s a screwy one, given that Mother and Daughter (Tohru and Kanna) are powerful dragons hundreds of years old and Father is Miss (not Mister) Kobayashi, but that’s just goofing around on the part of the writers. The trio is stable as it stands and it evokes the emotional responses appropriate to it. When Tohru is dying for a sign of affection and Kobayashi pats her on the head… oh, the feels…

But then, Miss Kobayashi is essentially a comedy. What happens if you take Father, Mother, Child and play it for maximal tragic impact?

Oh, baby, have you seen Neon Genesis Evangelion? You haven’t? Read the manga. They, at least, are both available and complete.

The three primary EVA pilots, Shinji, Rei, and Asuka, form a Mind, Body, Soul trio, after a fashion. Rei is cool, intellectualized. Her silences suggest deep thought. Asuka is loud, very physical, always in a dynamic pose. Shinji is emotional to the point he is so conflicted that he cannot continue several times.

But the real trick is what’s going on with these kids on whom the world depends for survival and their parents, the Father, Mother, Child dynamic. Or look at what’s not going on. Or what’s going sideways…

Let’s look at the kids and their parents. Rei Ayanami’s parents…um…oh, wait, she’s a clone. Of course, the original Rei’s “parent” was Yui Ikari but as far as the clones are concerned, “My mother was a test tube, my father was a knife.” (That’s how the clones in Robert Heinlein’s novel Friday described themselves.)

The closest things Rei has to parents are Gendo, the ultimate user-type personality, and Akagi, the cold, objective scientist. Oh, did we mention that the original Akagi’s mother killed the first Rei and then herself, as Akagi watched? No resentment there, folks. Right.

While we’re at it, let’s toss in Akagi’s unrequited love for Gendo, which is exactly the same as her mother’s unrequited love for Gendo…those are Rei’s parent figures. That’s one serious mess. No wonder Rei has difficulty expressing emotions. I don’t think she even thinks of herself as human, at least not at the start.

Asuka’s parents: Her mom was pretty darned screwed up, screwed up enough that they took Asuka away from her and basically gave her to the school. As for pops, well Asuka’s pop was a popsicle: frozen anonymous sperm from the sperm bank. At the school Asuka developed an unhealthy fixation on her teacher, Kaji. With Kaji as a father figure…and boyfriend figure…Oh, man, can you say “Elektra complex”? Asuka is a Freudian delight (because Freud could charge her a zillion marks for analysis). Plus there are the facts that Kaji a) knows better than to mess with a kid and b) is still in love with Misato, so c) Asuka’s love will remain forever unrequited, which d) does her temper no good at all.

So Asuka’s triangle is a father-figure-but-not-really/would-be lover and a psychotic. That’s one serious mess. No wonder Asuka’s a bully and a brat.

Shinji has all kinds of parental issues. His mom is dead so far as he knows. He has just enough memory of her to allow his father to exploit that memory, typically by slipping Rei into Shinji’s head to imitate his mother. (Your cloned sister in your head pretending to be your mother. Think about that one.) Oh, and his mother may have been subsumed into the soul of his EVA (Gendo addresses that EVA as Yui and Shinji meets her – for real, not just a Rei facsimile – in there).

And Gendo, of course, is the coldest of cold fish. Externally, at least, his only interest in Shinji is as an EVA pilot. Anything else would get in the way of saving and/or taking over the world. (I’m still not clear on what Gendo was up to, and SPOILER the secret died with him.)

The closest thing Shinji has to a parental unit is Misato, and Misato is about as unparental as a unit can get…She drinks like a fish, has a penguin for a pet, and has to balance the role of surrogate mother with the role of commanding officer, which she does, at home at least, by acting like some kind of frat brother. (Yes, I picked that gender carefully.) Um, yeah, that’s a mess.

Plus, of course, Misato wants to still be in love with Kaji but can’t because of all the military secrets they have to keep from one another, which does not bother Kaji, apparently, since he has trouble keeping it in his pants when Misato is around (or Akagi, for that matter; in fact, Kaji is quite the player), and, oh, yeah, Asuka also lives with Misato and Shinji, and is right there, too, waiting to explode when Kaji shows affection to Misato. Yes, Shinji’s surrogate mom is one corner of…did you see it?…an Eternal Triangle!

That’s a serious mess. No wonder Shinji is an emotional garbage can.


Gendo (left) and Yui Ikari do the one thing Shinji needed most: talk to their son. Of course, by now they are both disembodied souls…

I think the way the writers have completely trashed the stable Father, Mother, Child triangle is one of the elements that gives Neon Genesis its real emotional power. Everyone in it is searching, somehow, for love and affection that they need but isn’t really there. The tension created by those unfulfilled needs drives them to do all sorts of things.

Shinji is a good example. All he really wants is a family of his own. He was raised by step-parents that were nice enough but distant emotionally. He tries to please Daddy. Nothing doing. He tries to please Mommy. Well, he really can’t, since it’s really Rei, and she can’t really return his affection SPOILER until the end of the story. He tries to please fake Mommy (Misato) but Misato is just as messed up as he is and also has to go back and forth between playing fake Mommy and playing real Boss. It reaches the point where no matter what he does: pilot or not pilot, stay or go, live or die…no matter what he does, he gets nothing. I don’t think it’s an accident that he explores so many different behaviors, I don’t think it’s an accident that he finally gives up and retreats into a fugue state. The only real accident I can think of is him actually deciding to save this screwed up world.

The character trios are tropes, but they are tropes because they work to create narrative tension and good storytelling. You break them at your peril…but if you do break them, you can create genuine power. You can create a classic work of art like Neon Genesis Evangelion. What a beautiful, powerful, glorious, mind-blowing mess it is!

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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