I have talked about Neon Genesis Evangelion quite a bit in past blog posts (heck, who hasn’t talked about Neon Genesis Evangelion?). In particular, I wanted to talk a bit more about Evangelion’s infamous and controversial ending.
As everybody already knows, the last two episodes in the original broadcast of the televised Evangelion series were a deconstruction of the story that had led up to that point and by extension the giant robot genre of anime instead of the more traditional
climax conclusion fans were expecting. Personally, I’ve been a little conflicted about the show’s ending myself. On one end, I think it was a daring, creative, and brilliant way to get inside of Shinji’s head and see him overcome his personal demons. And when he finally did at the end of that final episode, I was moved. However, I have mentioned in the past that I take issue with its cynical and misanthropic outlook on how to overcome depression. “You have to believe in and care about yourself because everybody else in this bloody goddamn world is too self-interested and adrift within their own issues to believe or really care about you!! P.S. Everyone in your life that can love you unconditionally WILL DIE!!!!11!!!111!!!”
I finally came to understand why Evangelion’s outlook is so brutally individualistic. Instead of looking at the ending as a helping hand in overcoming depression or a statement about the way the world really is, I personalized it less and reassessed it as a deconstruction of the giant robot genre, in particular the typical protagonists of that genre.
One of the most common story types you’ll come across in literature, film, and serials is “the chosen one” trope. This trope places one character at the very center of its universe, usually according to destiny, some prophecy, some ancient book, or some other McGuffin the story creates to justify itself. As noted above, Anakin Skywalker was supposed to be “the chosen one” in the Star Wars universe, but it ended up being his son Luke. Link from the Legend of Zelda games is another example of “the chosen one”. Harry Potter, as “The Boy Who Lived”, is yet another example. The very title Avatar: The Last Airbender very directly describes Aang’s status as “the chosen one” in that particular series. It doesn’t always have to be something as grandiose or pretentious as something like destiny either in order for someone to be “the chosen one”. Vash the Stampede in Trigun is the chosen one because the major bounty on his head attracts conflict. Kenshin Himura in Rurouni Kenshin is the chosen one because the legend of his bloody past as Battosai the Manslayer still lives on in the minds of many. Ranma Saotome in Ranma 1/2 is the chosen one because he’s somehow engaged to marry every girl he meets. Goku in the various Dragon Ball series is the chosen one simply because he’s the strongest person around. Everybody knows how these stories go; the conflicts arise because of the character’s status as the chosen one, any supporting characters are nothing more than just that, and the fate of the world usually rests on whether the character can overcome whatever his conflict is, whether it’s defeating his enemy or simply learning to believe in himself. “The chosen one” trope is particularly common in the giant robot genre. Think about the roles of Amuro Ray in Mobile Suit Gundam, Shiro Amada in The 08th MS Team, Kou Uraki in Gundam 0083, Domon Kasshu in G Gundam, Simon in Gurren Lagann…
Getting back to Evangelion, one of the many tropes it completely deconstructs is “the chosen one” trope. Shinji Ikari was just a nobody 14-year-old kid when out of the blue, some mysterious woman drives up next to him and tells him that he is the only one that can pilot some giant robot in order to fight these giant monsters that threaten the world. One thing that is interesting about Shinji in his role as the chosen one is his adjustment period to it. Unlike the average “chosen one”, Shinji isn’t naturally brave or adventurous nor did he have illusions of grandeur or large aspirations. It takes him time to adjust to no one giving a damn about him to fighting to save the world. Realistically, it’s understandable that a kid with as much psychological baggage as Shinji wouldn’t acclimatize into the dashing hero role the first moment he got into his Eva’s cockpit. After some time, Shinji gets a hang of using his Eva and he becomes quite proficient in fighting in it. His growing skills garner him more praise among NERV, which makes him feel good about himself. He grows to quite like his role as the chosen one. Usually in these stories when the conflict begins to reach its boiling point, that is the moment when the chosen one rises up to the occasion and exceeds what he thought his peak potential was to save the day. Whatever support he gets from others is all in the service of him. When Evangelion reaches this boiling point, all of the support Shinji had been getting disappears. Everybody who made him feel like the man was too caught up dealing with their own issues to care about making him feel good. On top of that, his own father replaced him as an Eva pilot with a manufactured dummy unit. Shinji based his own identity around piloting his Eva, so when that got taken away he didn’t know what to do with himself. Hence, why he was constantly asking why nobody would help him or care about him in the final episodes. Despite being “the chosen one”, Shinji had to (re)learn the hard way that he is not at the center of everybody’s universe and his identity as a person has to come from within himself, not bestowed on him by some ancient screed or lucky circumstance.
To further critique the idea of “the chosen one”, something that got on my nerves when I watched Dragonball Z is how reliant everybody always was for Goku to swoop in and save the day. This is a show with an ensemble of such wonderfully colorful and unique characters, so I found it a little bit annoying that almost all of their roles eventually got reduced to simply sitting around and talking about Goku. Especially Krillin! Krillin’s treatment over the course of the various Dragon Ball series has become a punchline among fans. Not only did he die the most over the course of the series, all of his deaths were nothing more than as Goku’s sacrificial lamb, whether it’s to create the major conflict of the next saga or to push Goku to go Super Saiyan for the first time.
The only person in Dragonball Z that actually calls out Goku’s selfishness is Chi-Chi, and the show simply laughs her off as just the nagging shrew wife. No, she’s just trying to be a good mother! Or how about Yu Yu Hakusho and all the things Keiko did for Yusuke? Everything she did was in the service of Yusuke, be it getting on his case about school, protecting his dead body from burning in a fire, reviving him, and covering him for his mother and teachers when he’s in the Spirit World. Doesn’t Keiko have her own issues to worry about? Has Yusuke ever taken those in consideration? Has he ever considered how much Keiko worries about him coming out of his cases alive or witnessing him at brink of death over and over, especially considering she had to live that nightmare once already? Or how about Yusuke’s mother? I know she was a negligent alcoholic, but it didn’t mean she didn’t care about him. Yusuke saw how clearly shaken up she was when he died. Isn’t it strange that he kept her in the dark about everything once he was revived? Isn’t it even stranger that her presence was completely removed from the show after a while? In Evangelion, these little oversights of the “supporting” characters comes back to bite Shinji. As his stock as a Eva pilot rises in NERV, he fails to pay attention to Asuka’s emotional unraveling. Does he ever try to really get to know Rei? Did he ever express appreciation for everything Misato did for him or ask how she was holding up? As a result, none of those characters are emotionally available to Shinji when he hits rock bottom.
Thinking about it, I suppose one of the reasons why fans initially reacted to Evangelion’s finale so negatively is because another common characteristic of “the chosen one” character types is that they often serve as audience surrogates. Within the typical formula of these types of stories, this surrogate becomes a power fantasy for the audience. So the first time a person that is used to this formula watched Evangelion, they didn’t get what they expect. Shinji doesn’t destroy the big, scary, main antagonist. He doesn’t get the girl at the end. His only “glory” is self-affirmation, not any external power or prestige. By deconstructing “the chosen one” character type, Hideaki Anno was also critiquing the fans that base their identities on these fictional characters. And I suppose their response to this ending ended up proving his point, even though I can see how this could hit a sensitive spot if you were the type of person Anno was directly talking to.