Character (Re)analysis: Shinji Ikari

Sometimes you go back a look at a character you’ve looked at before because you’ve noticed something new about the character. And sometimes you have to go back because the character has changed.

You’ve seen Evangelion 3.0+1.0, right? So you can guess which this one is.

Until recently Shinji Ikari has been one of the most disliked characters in anime, and it’s pretty easy to see why: You look at him in action and it’s easy to conclude that he’s a wuss.

He’s not, by the way. To make the story of the original anime work … you remember how it goes, ending up with what amounts to psychoanalysis … Shinji has to be driven into a psychological fugue.


The way Hideaki Anno did that was to make every decision of Shinji’s painful and/or damaging for him. Right? He gets into the EVA to fight for Rei and gets the crap kicked out of him. He rescues Toji and Kensuke and nearly gets thrown out of NERV. He has to kill Kaworu and is left with literal blood on his hands.

He’s just as messed up emotionally. Gendo pushes him away. Asuka whipsaws him, pulling him close and kicking him away. He and Rei fall for each other and then she dies and is replaced with a new Rei who doesn’t know him. Misato loves him in some way but has to keep him at arms length. Nothing but mixed or negative messages.

To avoid the pain he stops making decisions, stops thinking entirely.

The problem with that, apart from his being disliked as a character, is that structurally it precludes him from being heroic. When the end of the actual story rolls around (in End of Evangelion), it’s left to Rei Ayanami to save the world, because it’s not in Shinji’s character to be able to do that. Not as he’s been beaten down through the story.

Do you see it? He HAS to be passive. He has to be passive because he has learned the hard way, in matters of life and death, that when he chooses to do something, people DIE. And when he chooses to do nothing, people DIE.

So he just stops choosing. He retreats into a fugue state from which he does not emerge until Rei saves the day. It’s Rei who kills Gendo and Rei who recreates the world. He is there not because he is the hero but because he has to witness her doing it; he’s not the protagonist but he IS the main character, and so we see Rei working her miracles through his eyes.

That’s actually really a complex construction for a character and an interesting way to deploy him. I think it’s one of the things that makes the original EVA fascinating, along with Rei’s development of humanity and the various levels at which the show is really about love and not robots.

One of the fundamental decisions of the rebuild was to make Shinji the hero. This can redeem him in the audience’s eyes. Shinji doesn’t have to be a wuss any more.

Heroic Shinji. He sees what’s coming

At the same time, though, he can’t just go out there and be Gene Starwind, you know, a hero hero. Shinji being driven into, and healed from, that psychological fugue is part of what defines the Evangelion story (along with Rei’s development of humanity and the various levels at which the show is really about love and not robots.) (Yeah, that was a cut and paste.)

The transformation of Shinji starts at the end of 2.22 (You can (not) advance.) The plot of 1.11 (You are (not) alone) sticks almost perfectly to the original story line, with abridgments, of course, since it’s only two hours long. At the start of 2.22 we meet Mari Illustrious Makinami when she groin-plants on Shinji’s face, but she doesn’t do a lot in 2.22; the plot starts to diverge in places (there is that trip to the ocean), but the characteristic dynamics of the characters remain more or less the same.

But at the end of the film, when Rei goes out to confront an Angel alone in what amounts to a suicidal sacrifice of herself (a moment that is parallel between original and rebuild), in 2.22 Shinji dives into the Angel and saves Rei. It’s the triumphant climax of 2.22 and it announces, “This time Shinji’s the hero.”

Now we have a problem for 3.33 (You can (not) redo) and 3.0+10.0 (Thrice upon a time): If Shinji’s the hero, he can’t be passive. But the Evangelion story demands that he enter that fugue state. It wouldn’t be Evangelion if he didn’t.

One of the things that bugged me about the rebuild is that the last two films were set fourteen years after the first two, but it turns out that (or something like it) is NECESSARY. Now that Shinji’s the hero not all his decisions can be wrong. After all, he saved Rei, right? So if we can’t drive him off the deep end with the emotional pain of killing all his friends (or watching them die), we can drive him off the deep end by taking away all his friends.

So, BOOM! Time skip.

Rei’s gone. No one know where, but for the others that’s a fourteen-year-old story. For him it happened yesterday.

His classmates, Toji, Hikari, and Kensuke are grown. They’re adults and have adult lives.

Misato Katsuragi and Ritsuko Akagi are still around but they’ve changed: Ritsuko’s got that butch hair and Misato the eyepatch, and now they act like his enemies, and give him an explosive collar to prove it.

See what’s going on? They’re yanking his reality out from under him. Nothing is the way he remembers. Nothing is the way he thinks it’s supposed to be. His whole world is wrong, and again, to him this happens overnight. He closes his eyes one day and opens him the next on a world that’s completely wrong.

He escapes and goes over to the opposition, his father, and Rei Ayanami. Only this isn’t the Rei he knew or the Rei he rescued, either; it’s a new clone, and she’s right back at the start of Rei’s development cycle again. She’s not the girl Shinji loved and rescued.

That’s what they did to him in the rebuild; instead of having all his decisions go wrong as in the original, they took away everyone he could rely on. And at the end of 3.33, he’s where he’s needed to be, in a state of near catatonia. That’s what the Evangelion story calls for.

Welcome to 3.0+1.0.

Now, since Shinji is the hero, he has to be able to make decisions, and that means he has to be jolted out of his fugue state. He goes to the village and is healed by his friends, even Asuka in her own way. That done, now he has to be triggered or incited somehow to drive the plot to a conclusion.

Well, if Shinji’s the hero, then we don’t need Rei any more. In order to save Shinji from ever having to pilot an Eva again, Rei kills herself.

Yeah, when you look at it cold text like that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t need to make sense. It just has to get Shinji off his butt.

So, Rei’s suicide takes her out of the story and triggers Shinji. BOOM. There’s a two-fer that works, and it does work even though it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it flips Shinji’s switch from PASSIVE to ACTIVE, a setting he didn’t have in the original series. Here he comes to save the day (after Mari and Asuka have failed)!

There we go. He has to be ACTIVE to be the hero. But he has to make sense to be Shinji Ikari, a passive character. To flip from passive to active he has to be triggered, and because he loves Rei Ayanami in some way, she is the trigger, both in 2.22 and 3.0+1.0.

And since it would be REALLY creepy for Shinji to have Rei for an actual girlfriend – well, another of the Ayanami series clones for an actual girlfriend – what with her being a clone of his mother and all, to wrap up the love plot he gets Mari for a girlfriend. Seems like a fair deal to me 🙂

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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