One of the issues that can make discussing dating and self-improvement difficult is just how abstract some of the ideas we talk about can be. It’s one thing to talk about concepts like the difference between internal or external validation or what being charming looks like in practice. That’s why it can be handy to have an example to turn to, an easily accessible reference that can make some of these concepts a little simpler to understand when we see them played out in front of us.
And now that now that Neon Genesis Evangelion is out on Netflix, we’re going to take one of the most cerebral and philosophical and in some cases mindfuckingly weird anime series out there and wring some self-improvement advice out of it and answer some of life’s biggest questions.
And just a head’s up: we’re going to be talking extensively about both the broadcast series – including the series finale – and the movie End of Evangelion, so consider this your massive spoiler warning.
PART 1: GET IN THE FUCKING THERAPIST’S OFFICE, SHINJI
One of the things that draws people into Evangelion is the character of Shinji Ikari. He’s very much the audience’s avatar, their entry point into their participation this world — something that’s fairly standard for most television series, and especially a mecha-action series like Evangelion; in fact, over the course of the first third of the story, the series is an almost prototypical example of the genre. At first it seems like it’s going to be the same story we’ve seen a thousand times before, just standing out by being more visually striking than other, similar entries, with designs, themes and visuals that other shows and movies would blatantly rip off years later.
Also it may be more than 20 years old, but the theme song still slaps.
But it’s the character of Shinji that’s the real draw. Unlike a lot of protagonists in shows like these, he’s… well, he’s kind of a whiny little jerk. He’s pretty much in a constant state of anxiety and self-doubt, always feeling like he’s been tossed head first into a life that’s continually raging out of his control. He’s overwhelmed by his responsibilities, alternately confused and scared of the new status quo he’s found himself in and he finds himself almost desperate for the approval of the adults around him… especially his cold and distant father.
Emotionally, he’s a wreck; he has no self-confidence to speak of, he vacillates between being attracted to, confounded by and frustrated with the women in his life. He constantly feels like they’re teasing and taunting him for no reason and those moments of what seem like sincerity and genuine connection are then met with more mockery.
Half of the time, he wants to run away from his responsibilities and the insanity around him and isolate himself in his own little world, but feels like he has no choice but to come back and deal with it, despite having no goddamn clue what to do.
And despite however hard he works at the one thing that seems to bring his life meaning — the one thing he hopes will gain him the approval of others — it never seems to be enough. Which only increases his constant fear of abandonment.
So hands up if any of that feels familiar to you.
It’s not really surprising that so many people find that Shinji really resonates with them; his inner emotional turmoil mirrors what so much of the audience feels. In fact, part of the genesis1 of Evangelion was creator Hideki Anno’s dealing with his almost crippling depression; the story of Evangelion — and Shinji in particular — is the story of Anno coming to terms with his lifelong struggle with depression, alienation and the feeling that he lacks self-worth. And he put a LOT of himself in the character of Shinji.
In a way, Shinji is the ultimate wish-fulfillment character; because the audience identifies so strongly with Shinji, we want to see him succeed and get everything he wanted because it feels like the audience succeeds along with him.
Just as importantly though, because so many people identify so strongly with him, Shinji represents an opportunity to talk about how to achieve the goals that he and the audience share — the desire to find the happiness, validation, acceptance and love, that Shinji is longing for.
But in a very real way, Shinji — and by extension, the audience who identifies with him — is the author of his and their own misery.
So without getting too deep into the lore, one of the ideas that is presented is the concept of the AT Field. In the show, this is represented by an impenetrable barrier that the Angels manifest that shields them from harm.
As the show progresses, we discover that all living, sentient beings have AT fields… and the AT Fields are the manifestation of our fear of being hurt, which is keeping us isolated from others. This is reflected in one of the recurring themes of the series: Shinji’s isolation and loneliness and the way his unwillingness to connect with others conflicts with his desire to be accepted.
He wants people to validate his existence but by the same token, he can’t bring himself to accept it, and his progression as a character is the continual confrontation with the reality that he can’t rely on his relationships to other people to define him or give him meaning. Part of the pathos of his character is how often the things he craves most are denied or pulled away from him.
But as cruel as it may seem, those moments of loss and denial are indicative of lessons that Shinji — and by extension, the audience — needs to learn. In fact, we regularly see Shinji literally confronting himself in an attempt to come to terms with what needs to change for him to actually be happy and self-actualized.
The problem… is that Shinji represents two very distinct paths that the people who identify with him tend to travel down down.
Between the broadcast series and the film End of Evangelion, we get two different versions of the end — the end of both the narrative and the world. In both versions, NERV has failed, having been betrayed from within from the very start; the apocalypse is upon us and the Instrumentality Project has begun, causing all life on earth to dissolve as everyone functionally reunites into one universal being… essentially Buddhist concept of the dissolution of the self and ascension to Nirvana.
But the two versions of the apocalypse go in very different directions.
Now I’m not going to get into the meta-aspects of why the series ended the way it did or why End of Evangelion was made and whether it’s Anno’s giant middle finger to fandom; that’s not really relevant to our discussion here.
Instead, I want to talk about how, in a very real way, the difference between the ending of the broadcast series and the movie represent the two paths that Shinji — and again, the audience — face. One version serving as a guide… and one as a warning.
PART TWO: CRUEL INCEL’S THESIS
The movie End of Evangelion looks at the darker path for Shinji… one that actually seems more than a little prophetic, all things considered.
One of the constants of fiction is that we’re often willing to overlook the darker or problematic aspects of characters, especially characters we identify with strongly. This is in part because we’re given insight into their thoughts, their feelings and motivations, which tends to cause us to be more understanding, if not sympathetic; we feel like we at least appreciate their reasoning, if not their actions. That, in turn, makes us more inclined to look at their behavior with a certain amount of compassion or even empathy.
But it’s often also because, well… we recognize those sides in ourselves, and we don’t like to acknowledge them.
And in End of Evangelion, both the narrative and the creator are unwilling to overlook or gloss over the less admirable sides of Shinji’s personality — and because the audience identifies with him so strongly, they have to take the journey with him. And it isn’t pleasant. Just as Shinji does, we aren’t just forced to acknowledge our darker, shadow side, we get our faces rubbed in it.
One of the things that the End of Evangelion drives home is just how one-sided Shinji’s desire for connection really is. He desperately craves that relationship, but he isn’t willing to meet people half-way, not in any way that matters. He ultimately wants them to break through his AT field — as it were — and form that connection for him.
Part of the problem is that Shinji is so absorbed in his own world that he rarely stops to consider or even understand the lives of the people around him.
Now this is understandable; part of the reason for his personality being what it is, is that he’s absorbed with his own trauma. And he’s gone through some serious shit, from having seen his mother die in front of him, to being deliberately abandoned and isolated by his father, being dragooned into being a literal child soldier in a cosmic, existential war and dumped into multiple situations — sexual and otherwise — that he’s just not equipped to handle.
But understandable isn’t the same as acceptable, and the fact that he’s dealing with trauma doesn’t excuse his behaviors — behaviors that, in many cases he knows to be wrong.
Like when he masturbates over Asuka’s comatose body.
(Which, incidentally, isn’t the first time he tried to do something to Asuka in her sleep.)
Neither, for that matter, does his suffering from trauma make him unique or special. In fact, pretty much every main character is dealing with major amounts of trauma; Asuka’s mother killed herself in front of her, Misato was at ground zero for Second Impact and had to watch her father die in her arms, Rei is isolated and functionally abused by Gendo and NERV.
The fact that Shinji is dealing with some real shit doesn’t give him a pass, especially when the other characters — who are equally as traumatized — are proving to be more functional and self-actualized than he is.
But the root issue here isn’t Shinji’s fear of connection or self-absorption, it’s his unwillingness to confront it honestly or work to find a solution.
What he wants more than anything else is validation, but he’s never willing to give it to himself; he’s always looking for it from other people. He pilots the EVA-01 specifically because he feels like it will make him valuable to others and that means that they’ll take care of him and never leave him.
He’s the definition of somebody who lives for external validation; he relies on others to give his life worth and meaning. And the problem is that he can’t have it, certainly not for long. Everyone else has to lead their own lives and are dealing with their own drama. Frankly, most folks are clinging on to their own sanity for dear life as it is; they don’t have the capacity to keep other people from drowning. And even the most well-meaning of people can’t be relied on to give his life meaning or live his life for him because lives change, priorities change and people leave… or die.
This living for the regard of others make Shinji an ultimately passive character, and once all of those sources of validation are taken from him, he literally has to be dragged and sexually bribed into doing his job.
This version of Shinji is uncomfortable to watch because, honestly, it’s seeing a version of him where the comforting excuses get scoured away and we’re forced to see him at the ultimate end of his path, where his sense of entitlement and resentment has blinded him both to how others feel, but ALSO why he’s so miserable and lonely.
He treats people like literal objects; he may feel awful about it AFTERWARDS but not enough to stop in the moment. He gets angry that other people won’t just GIVE him what he wants — love and validation. But the issue isn’t that what he wants is unreasonable or that he’s unworthy of it, it’s that he’s demanding it without consideration for others… which reaches its ultimate expression in his sexual assault on Asuka’s comatose body.
And then the world ends and Shinji has to confront his own existence and choices and have his soul laid bare. Shinji has no choice but to answer for his life and the decisions he’s made as the women in his life call him to account. He — and by extension, the audience — is forced to confront all the ways that he and we sexualize and objectify those characters, reducing them to little more than tits and ass even as he begs them for love and understanding or castigates them for not giving him what he wants .
Shinji complains that they betrayed him, only to be told that there was nothing to betray; the only thing they “betrayed” was a one-sided belief he had about them as people and what their responsibilities were to him. He complains that it’s unfair for them to expect him to understand him when none of them will talk to him, only to have the fact that he never TRIED to understand thrown back into his face.
He demands to know why they couldn’t be nice to him and is unable to accept that they HAD been. Instead he launches into a rant that about how they tease and taunt him and mislead him, not realizing that the reason why they seemed to be so confusing and misleading is that they were dealing with their OWN trauma and he never stopped to consider that… because it made HIS life difficult. Even as he switches gears and begs Asuka for her approval, saying that she’s the only one for him, she refuses to leave him this final comforting lie and rips even THAT illusion to shreds; he doesn’t want her, he just wants someone to fill the hole in his life. She just happens to be the closest warm body, the one who he’s the least intimidated by. Meanwhile he’s refused to grow, take responsibility or do the work that’s needed to be someone who can love and BE loved.
It’s at this point that Shinji’s loneliness, selfishness, and need for external validation curdles from understandable teen angst to pure anger and HATE. His misery and fear of being hurt gets turned outward in frustration and rage at the people he feels are denying him what he needs and he lashes out with terrifying violence and — even after being given what he theoretically wanted — he ends up more alone than ever.
Now some will argue that this is unnecessarily harsh, even cruel. But in this path, Shinji repeatedly REJECTS the kinder approach. He refuses to try to understand or to see beyond himself and clings to his belief that he did nothing wrong and was denied the things that he was owed. He projects his AT field even harder, even as he’s being implored to let it down. He’s unwilling to listen to the kinder, softer arguments and, as a result, he gets those excuses scoured away in the harshest terms possible and is left to suffer in his own impotence and misery.
PART 3 – The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
The other path open to Shinji involves not just him coming to terms with his desire to connect with others, but also how to achieve it.
Just as he has his confrontation with himself in the world of the Dirac Sea in episode 16, The Instrumentality Project sees him spend the last two episodes of the broadcast series in a state of unification — seeing not just into the hearts and souls of his friends and loved ones but also confronting his loneliness and fear of abandonment.
However, in this branch, things take a much more hopeful tone.
Just as before, Shinji is confronted with his need for external validation; he only pilots the EVA-01, for example, because feels that it’s the only way he can be of use. He sees this as the only way he can get people to acknowledge him and care for him. Shinji feels like he has to be needed by others in order to have worth.
In reality, however, he’s trying to avoid being hurt. He feels that if people need him, then they will have to accept him; otherwise he risks rejection. And because he doesn’t feel that he has value, he doesn’t believe that other people might accept him for himself.
But what he still doesn’t realize is that other people can’t give him value. The only person who can ultimately give him what he needs is himself. Everything that can be given to him can ultimately be taken away — through time, through change or through death.
However in this version, he’s far more willing to listen, to consider that maybe, just maybe, he’s wrong. That the world he sees where he’s useless is just that: a world of his own creation. And because the world is always changing and evolving, he too can change.
In this branch, because he’s willing to listen, he starts to learn. He learns that perfect freedom comes not just without limits but without anything that lets us orient ourselves and becomes meaningless. But in a world with greater structure, a world where we see and interact with others and learn the boundaries of our sense of self, we learn not just who we are but who we can become.
This culminates in his entering a new and entirely different world — a world where he never became an EVA pilot. And while his life is different in that world — he’s more confident, more secure — he’s still himself. The more self-assured student and the anxious EVA pilot are the same person; he has the potential for both inside himself. He could easily be either of those people… or many many others.
So while his feelings of inadequacy and his fear of rejection are real, they’re ultimately the creations of his own mind, to accept or reject and to shape as he chooses.
Unlike the Shinji in End of Evangelion, THIS Shinji makes a break-through: he may hate himself… but he can learn to love himself. And in doing so, he realizes that he can give himself the validation that he needs, that he can learn to understand himself and accept himself. Not only can he improve and grow and become the person he wishes he could be, but also that he has the right to exist, to take up space in this world. More than that… he wants to live, to grow and change.
And with that revelation: the world around him changes in accordance to his expectations and he finds himself surrounded by all the people who love him — including his parents — who congratulate him for finally making his breakthrough.
For the first time, he realizes he’s not useless, that he doesn’t need other people to justify his existence and — most importantly — that he’s truly NOT alone; the world has simply been waiting for him to realize that and let it in.
Which is what WE need to learn: that the things we assume are our limitations and inadequacies are only real because we choose to believe that they’re real. But by that same token, we can rebuild, we can advance and that we’re not alone… and that we can learn to love ourselves, and, in the process, learn to connect with others honestly, instead of isolating ourselves in our misery, hoping that other people will do the work for us, before it’s too late.
- badumtish [↩]