Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Hero Named Shinji

EVA Unit 01Two years ago I watched one of the most well known anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion. I didn’t like it. It was weird. Strangely though, one of my favorite aspects of the show was Shinji Ikari. The kid who couldn’t do anything. Mocked in anime circles world wide, this kid was the only thing that grounded me to the original series.

Shinji is not your typical hero. He is definitely not the typical shōnen style hero. He is known as a coward. He is known for his complete indecisiveness and lack of motivation. He is not a hero by most peoples perspectives. However, I think he is much more like a real life hero, than a fictional and romanticized one. I do not believe Shinji is a coward, he is a compassionate hero.

When Shinji is first taken to NERV in all adaptations, he meets his Father who abandoned him, is asked to pilot a giant synthetic human, and then is faced with a beat up and barely able to stand girl and the first pilot Rei. A little overwhelming. Not to mention, he just witnessed the enemy he has to fight withstand humanities most powerful weapons, while destroying a couple major cities. And yet he still decides to pilot EVA Unit 01. He does it out of compassion for Rei. Everytime he gets in an EVA, he is risking his life. But he isn’t doing it because he wants to. He does it because if he doesn’t someone else will have to and in many cases, no one else can. Is that not a heroic quality?

To often we think of heroes as super people who do amazing things with total resolve and selflessness, but how many people do you know that have total resolve or are selfless all the time? I don’t know any. A hero is a person with character who is motivated help someone with whatever means necessary (often spontaneous and drastic.) Someone who in a moment is selfless in sacrifice and resolved in a difficult task in order to protect someone else.

I am from a culture that values heroics. I am a military brat. Ask anyone who has been in a firefight or has been through the hell called war and they won’t say they fight for their country; they don’t fight for freedom. That may be a piece of it, but they fight for the people next to them. They fight for there families and those that they love. Shinji fights for Misato, Rei, and his friends from school. Shinji is selfless, he just doesn’t know it.

Shinji is always afraid. This does not mean he is a coward. I believe from my own experience that this makes courageous. If a man were to have no fear, he could never be courageous.

“I learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who is not afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

Shinji is filled with fear, yet he conquers it. He stumbles along the way, but so do I. I relate to Shinji, because I have spent most of my life living in fear. Now, that I am going into full-time missions work in Japan, I am terrified. But in my heart,I know that the fear I feel is not worth missing out on this chance to do something I was meant to do, for people I love. I am not Shinji, but I understand in part where he is coming from. I also believe that he is a symbol of what a lot of people in Japan long to be.

Japan is beautiful. People are kind, but fear is every where. Society has so many pressures that we don’t experience here. While living there, I met many people who honestly felt like Shinji does. They felt helpless, they were afraid, but they wanted to do and become something worth while. I believe this is why this concept of heroes is so important in Japan. People want to be rescued. However, a fake hero like Samurai Flamenco would never last. The Japanese want an authentic hero. A real leader. You can see these same ideas in anime like Eden of The East and Gurren Lagann. We have a similar thing in the US. Look at our best selling movies this year, most are of Super Heroes. (Though I tend to prefer The Hunger Games.) For some reason, we crave heroes. But in Japan, people want to be heroes. The only problem is real heroes aren’t born, they are made. Because real heroes have character, and character comes for suffering.

For a heads up, I do like the Evangelion manga and the Rebuilds of Evangelion. I just didn’t like the original series when I first watched it.

4 thoughts on “Neon Genesis Evangelion and the Hero Named Shinji

  1. I’d heard lots about how Shinji was a pathetic, wimpy, and unlikable character before I ever watched Evangelion so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Yet by the time I actually finished Eva, I found myself pretty attached to Shinji and found him to be quite a good character, and at the very least a perfect lead for Eva if not that. Shinji is a character that I found easy to relate to and while it’s easy to see him as weak and cowardly, he was realistic if nothing else and I feel like people who criticize his behavior tend to miss the point and expect more out of him than they should. It’s easy to be spoiled by the powerful, courageous, noble characters in anime and many other fictional tales and there are so many strong personalities that a character like Shinji may not be what a lot of people look for, yet I feel Shinji is an irreplaceable character as far as this series goes and his development was very meaningful in my eyes.

    I’m not quite so sure how much of a hero I would consider Shinji though. The thing about Shinji is that he is afraid because of the obviously deadly circumstances around him and the danger he faces in being an Eva pilot. Of course one would want to reconsider doing this, yet the dilemma of receiving the love and praise from others he has always felt deprived of keeps him in. It’s a selfish yet very, very understandable decision and one that I cannot blame him for. While I would say Shinji is good at heart, I’d say his motivations for being a hero are being viewed as that hero above all else. How one views a hero really depends though so I can’t say anything about that being wrong, it’s all a matter of perspective.

    Of course, this is also coming from a person who only ever watched Evangelion’s TV series and the End of Eva movie. I have absolutely no idea if Shinji’s character and/or development have any significance in the manga or the Rebuild films. If they do, I’d really love to see how his character differs. I do plan on reading the manga fairly soon, but I’ll probably hold off on the Rebuilds until the fourth movie is released and subbed.

  2. I finished Evangelion a couple of weeks ago, and I liked Shinji a lot. Specially at his worst, maybe (which has to be this disgraceful moment with Asakura at the beginning of “End of Evangelion” about which he says “I´m the lowest of the low”). He was going through a lot and is no worse than me, so I find his dilemmas and struggles kinda hopeful. We´re all more or less scarred, and often evil: sin is sin, and if we saw it as it is we´ll find ourselves as quite a cirque du freak, not unlike the Evangelion cast. Those who are scarred as children lack some powerful signs of God which are helpful for the rest of us in our search for God and for hope, but ultimately we all need each other. I liked how honestly Evangelion pointed to this, even if I´m frustrated by how most of the characters were still trapped at the end.

    About the heroic nature of Shinji, his motivations are convoluted at best: he wants to make his father and others love him, hates himself, gets paralyzed in dangerous and frustrating situations, is afraid, loves to ride the EVA, hates the harm he is causing and can get into battle only by going berserk, which is a serious handicap. It´s a whole mess, no wonder given his upbringing. But from time to time, he really tries. And, once in a while, he grows. He (spoilers) defies his father and quits when Gendo tries to make him murder an innocent, even before knowing who the innocent is, saving his classmate´s life: in that moment at least, he is a hero, because defying his father and letting everyone down are two of his worst fears. But I think he is even braver when coming back to help, putting aside everything else. Personally, I was proud of him then. He felt different, interesting and compelling: I can put up with some teenage drama in exchange.

    I liked the rest of the cast, too. That was the stronger point of the whole series: I found them all very human and believable. Everybody, even the minor characters, and even Gendo. I could understand them, and they were very interesting to watch. I liked how things ended for Kaworu, Mrs. Misato and Mr. Kagi -each of them eventually died a hero´s death, coming to a point where they were willing to sacrifice themselves for love of another- and I felt some closure in the case of Ritsuko too, but I have liked the show to explore them from their own perspective, to let them have their say apart from they being manipulated and melted. I found the imaginery of the EVAs and the Angels amazing, too, and I liked the conspiracy plot. I even liked it when Anno started going into uncharted territory by going full Malick, changing art styles and using all the resources he could think of to get inside Shinji.

    If, despite all I have said, I didn´t like the series as a whole is because I don´t think he succeed there. Therapy and psychological analysis are all well and good, but connections are the heart of a story. I really would have wanted Shinji to receive help: he needed it, because he was trapped inside himself. The “therapy ending” of Evangelion, in which he pictures everybody clapping, rang somehow hollow for me (it´s good to conquer some of the self-hatred, but I need a meaningful connection with others to really feel he is a step below), while the End of Evangelion ending, while suggesting what could be a beginning of that, was still too ambiguous and frustrating. He will have to live with having tried (spoilers again) to kill Asakura, presumabily his only remaining meaningful connection, and he still doesn´t have anything to counter that. I can watch a tragedy, but in this case it needn´t be: everything was pointing to Shinji getting better. Second, there was way too much nudity and fanservice. It became seriously irritating, and sometimes it was downright grotesque: a fanservice shot of Asakura, Misato or Rei after watching their horrible backstories is a sad and painful thing. I ended up not liking a story in which I loved the plot, the style, the direction and every character. It was a weird experience, but I think it taught me something interesting about anime.

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