Shinji Ikari is the hero of Neon Genesis Evangelion. I use the word “hero” loosely, because Shinji doesn’t act like someone you’d depend upon to save the world. He’s one of the child pilots of the robotic Eva-units that have been built to defend the post-apocalyptic city of Tokyo-3 from the monsters known as Angels. In the mecha anime genre the boy saviors of the world are usually confident at the very least, but Shinji doesn’t have these qualities. He isn’t comfortable in his own skin, he has anxiety around others his age, and he has intimacy issues with those who have offered him the breadcrumbs of their affection. His father, Gendo, is the mastermind behind the construction of the Evangelion units and oversees some of the scientific and defense decisions at the military organization NERV. He chose his son to pilot one of these beings—not because he has faith in Shinji, but because he sees it as a larger part of his master plan to push human evolution into its next state. His plan is called the Human Instrumentality Project and it is only spoken of in hushed words by a very elite group of individuals that includes Gendo’s second in command, Kozo Fuyutsuki, the brilliant scientist Ritsuko Akagi and the recently assassinated Ryoji Kaji. Gendo has been pushing his own agenda in the wake of the cataclysmic Second Impact, which saw the near extinction of the human race occur. It’s been fifteen years since that has happened and those in charge think a Third Impact is inevitable. Gendo takes it upon himself to become like God and search for something beyond the survival of the human race, beginning to dabble in science that few can barely understand.
In the year 2000 the Second Impact occurred at a United Nations base in Antarctica, but it happened due to human error and the foolish notion of technological advancement. By tampering with a sleeping Angel and trying to control it those scientists at the UN, one of whom was Gendo Ikari, nearly ended the human race when the resulting event melted the polar ice caps instantaneously. Those humans that are left have been picking up the pieces of this foolish attempt at playing God, but they learned nothing. Angels have been reappearing on Earth after an Eva-unit was made from the remains of the Angel that they awakened back at Antarctica. Some, like Shinji Ikari, see it as divine retribution. Shinji thinks the Angels could be messagers from God, and in these episodes we figure out that he was more correct than he knew at the time.
Gendo Ikari knows he can push Shinji in any direction he needs. He treats his son like a puppet, because parents function as god-like figures for their children. Shinji has been manipulated into doing anything for his father, because Shinji covets the love his dad might possibly bring. He states repeatedly that he hates his father, but he doesn’t want those words to be true. As wicked as our parents might be it is near impossible to untangle ourselves from them completely, and for Shinji Ikari this is his central question of conflict that tortures him on a day to day basis. In these two episodes he faces his greatest question of faith to date, and realizes for the first time in his life what it feels like to be loved. Shinji will feel this brief, fluttering realization of happiness, but everyone else is miserable, and continuing to struggle underneath the weight of trauma and loss.
Shinji’s caretaker and lead military operations officer Misato Katsuragi has locked herself away in her bedroom as of late. There’s a repeated still image of stasis used a few times throughout the twenty-third episode that epitomizes her sense of grief over the recently assassinated Kaji. She had been in a relationship with him for nearly a decade during her twenties. Their coupling ended eventually when work or life or Kaji’s own difficulty in telling Misato that he loved her got in the way. Despite his emotional unavailability he was the only man she really cared for. He felt safe, like a home for a woman who never had one growing up. Usually this still image of Misato hunched over desk is followed by a sketch of a dozen or so empty beer cans littered all over her floor. She listens to Kaji’s final message on an answering machine over and over again. Kaji entrusted Misato with a computer chip that would reveal the truth of the work he was doing for Gendo Ikari, but Misato can’t fight right now. She needs to grieve.
Asuka is doing much worse. When she was initially introduced as a hotshot genius pilot she was over-confident and impeccable at doing exactly what she needed to do in order to push back against the Angels, but now she’s a shell of her former self. In the twenty-second episode of Evangelion Asuka was sent into battle only for the newest Angel to attack her psychologically and in the process unleashed repressed memories she had about her childhood. She’s been in a traumatic loop ever since. Her memories are distorted and repeating themselves in abstract sequences that are underlined by childhood post-traumatic stress brought on by the fact that her mother lost control of her mental faculties and tried to kill Asuka when she was only a few years old. Asuka has been seeing images of dolls hung on a noose in her dreams and sometimes, more viciously, she’s been reliving her own childhood in a nightmare state that plays out like Asuka running to a closed door that gets closer and closer. She only wakes up when she opens the door and sees her mother’s corpse hanging from inside. These are horrifying sequences, but do a wonderful job of underlining trauma through abstract form. Because Asuka has been having nightmares she hasn’t been sleeping as well and the texture of her face has become dirtier. There’s a tiredness behind her eyes that wasn’t there previously. She moved in recently with another girl she goes to school with named Hikari. Seeing Shinji and Misato is just a reminder of all Asuka’s own failures as a pilot and interacting with the two of them causes her own self-hatred to spike. Her moving into another house is a healthy decision, but she can’t help but dwell on her failures. Hikari tries to convince Asuka that she did her best, but Asuka can only weep at hearing something she can’t really believe in. She failed, and because she needed saving she has this thought that she isn’t an adult. She still needs her mom, but her mom killed herself. She has no option but to loop infinitely between moments of self-hatred and trauma until she can prove to herself that she can stand on her own two feet—and right now she can’t.
When an Angel attacks early in the twenty-third episode Asuka is sent into battle to back up the other child pilot, Rei. Gendo is still refusing to send Shinji’s Unit 01 out into battle, because he has some bigger picture plan in store for the robot that we’re not entirely aware of yet as viewers. The Angel is shaped like a halo this time around and completely hoop-like in structure. It doesn’t seem violent at first, but peaceful. When Asuka and Rei are launched into battle it unspools itself and becomes snake-like, curling in the air. Curiously, it isn’t interested in destroying Tokyo-3. It wants to meld itself with another Eva-unit in order to learn about human experiences. Scattered throughout these battles between Evas and Angels there are often cuts back to NERV, as they try to form battle plans, but the scientists like Dr. Ritsuko Akagi will often chime in by saying that the Angels are “trying to learn.” Their attacks evolve episode to episode and in the back half of the series they’ve been relegated to the realm of abstract, philosophical and psychological questions that play out in these elaborate sequences of surrealism. These sequences often end with scientifically unexplainable conclusions, like an Eva-unit becoming aware of the attack and bursting the AT field—or defense shield—of the Angel in an act of protection. It’s almost as if the Eva-units themselves have souls and are cognizant of battle when the child pilots are being psychologically attacked by the Angels. The Angels ultimately just want to get into the heads of these children to learn about the human experience, and this mirrors Evangelion creator Hidaki Anno’s interests in psychology.
When the Angel attempts to merge with Rei the halo takes on an almost ghostly human shape as it drifts through the air. When it penetrates the Eva and begins to fuse with Rei, the young girl exhibits vein-like protrusions, as if her body is boiling from the inside out. This sequence is really intricately animated with great attention to detail in even the tiniest specks of the expanding blubbering mass that’s overtaking Rei’s body. These veins bubble into shapes that appear like flesh and blood organs and Asuka has to do something to stop the attack, but she can’t. Her sync rate, which helps her pilot the Eva so that it mirrors her bodily movements, are so low that she cannot urge her machine to move. She tries so hard, but nothing is happening. An image of Asuka in the cockpit, with her head down, shoving her arms wildly to no effect is heart-breaking. You can almost feel the shame of her own uselessness. If she can’t save herself and if she can’t save Rei then she’s a failure in her eyes and in those of NERV. Asuka is stripped of her duty of piloting her Eva after this episode, and she becomes suicidal as a result. She runs away from home and isn’t found for a full week. When NERV eventually catch up to Asuka, they find her in an abandoned house, naked in a bathtub of filthy water. She’d been there for days. She’d been repeating the phrase “sync rate zero” to herself the entire time.
They have no choice but to send out Shinji to save Rei, but he doesn’t fare much better. When he goes in for the attack, the contact with the ghostly form of this Angel causes Shinji’s body to bubble and deform as well. This is an Angel that fuses with others and in knowing that Rei takes a huge risk. She grabs the Angel and fuses herself with it completely, and in doing so the Angel is away from Shinji. Once she has melded with the Angel she risks it all and self-detonates. She dies in the process, but there’s a short sequence beforehand of her talking to a visualized other version of herself. She finally comes to the realization that she can be a person if she feels emotions. She can be worth saving if she has a soul. She weeps. In episode fourteen Rei Ayanami is haunted by the question, “Who am I? What am I?” and in this episode she has an answer. She’s a person. The emotional catharsis of this scene is overwhelming, turning a character who had been closer to a void or an object into someone who has agency. She chooses to die in this situation, not because it’s her duty to Gendo and NERV, but because she wants to save Shinji. She cared about him and in that one brief moment she cared about herself.
The tears won’t come for Shinji Ikari. He wants to cry for Rei, but his body won’t cooperate. He’s hardening. Misato offers her hand to him for support later at her apartment, but he recoils. He’s afraid of intimacy and touch. He just needs to be left alone. It calls back to previous moments of his own stasis where he’d lay in bed by himself and his only company were his thoughts. Shinji is a deeply introverted person and the form of Evangelion evokes this in two very distinct ways. The first of which is in repeated images of Shinji being by himself and the other is in his need to constantly have headphones on. If he’s listening to music he isn’t alone in his own head and he doesn’t have to be set alight by his own intrusive thoughts. He can just be. People with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are familiar with this coping mechanism. It’s one way the characters on this show handle stress in a realistic manner.
To Shinji’s surprise and in one of the greatest plot reveals in the show, Rei Ayanami survives, but when he greets her at the hospital she appears to have no memory of what she’s done. She mutters to herself that she might be the “third one.” There have been scattered shots in earlier episodes of Gendo Ikari staring at the body of Rei in a test-tube that is hooked up to a larger brain mechanism in the research facility of NERV, but it’s only here when we get confirmation that Rei isn’t human at all. Not in the way Shinji is. She’s a clone or worse, something else. This new Rei carries some emotional baggage and fragments of memories she experienced as past versions of herself. This is introduced through flash edits of moments that have previously happened in the show when she refers to her own death and memory.
When Misato finally gets up the nerve to look into the chip that Kaji left for her she discovers something even more twisted than she could have imagined. The chip leads her to Dr. Ritsuko Akagi. Misato and Ritsuko used to be best friends, but for the longest time Misato has felt like Akagi was hiding information from her and keeping secrets. She was. Ritsuko was working with Gendo on something mysterious and the seed of that mystery leads Misato into the dark, hidden laboratories of NERV’s basement areas. Misato threatens Ritsuko with a gun, demanding she show her everything, but Ritsuko is one step ahead and had phoned Shinji beforehand to meet her in the basement. Ritsuko probably figures Misato won’t kill her in front of Shinji. It’s revealed that Rei is made, rather than born, administered in a lab that’s drawn with the same level of decay as Rei’s boiler room-like apartment she lives in. But this isn’t the secret Misato came for. She was interested in what lays lower. One level below is a graveyard for Evangelion units dumped into a pit that’s shaped like an upside down cross to emphasize the blasphemy of their creation. She calls them abhorrent. Usually in this show when the Angels are defeated they explode and leave a fissure in the sky in the shape of a cross. The corpses of these half-built Eva-units are characterized with the inversion of this image. Ritsuko gets philosophical and states that in the year 2000 man found God and in their admiration tried to make their own. She says attempting to resurrect God has resulted in a divine retribution and in imitating God they built their own people: the Evangelions. She flicks on a light and behind aquarium glass there are misshapen half-built human bodies who all have Rei’s face. Ritsuko is deeply wounded by the work she has done. She knows she’s helped put the human race in the situation they find themselves in, and attempts to fix things by draining the fluid from the tank and extinguishing all these clones of Rei. They dissolve as if burnt by acid, and Ritsuko weeps. No amount of good intentions can change the scientific truth of the world she finds herself in. She has made her bed and now she must lie in it. She’s just like her mother who gave away her own life in the name of science and fell in love with the seductive evolutionary theories of a serpent named Gendo Ikari.
Evangelion will sometimes intentionally distort viewers by introducing scientific lingo and new organizations and figureheads into a series that already has deep roots in theology and mythology. The red-tape and slow discovery of everything that has been covered up is entirely the point of these episodes and scenes that feel like gigantic information dumps. However, while the show is intentionally dishonest about its bureaucratic conspiracy theory plot mechanics, the show is blunt, almost violent, in its emotional intentions. Creator Hidaki Anno was a big fan of film director Kihachi Okamoto, who knew it was honest to say that the edge of a blade was sharp and actions would have consequences. There is rarely ever a sense of triumph in Evangelion, only the complicated resolutions of humanity that leave mental and physical scar-tissue.
Shinji Ikari has suffered a lot throughout the course of this show. He has seen one of his few friends Toji decimated at the hands of his own Evangelion. He has failed to save Asuka on more than one occasion. He has fractured the relationship he has with his father to a point of no return by not doing as he was told. But he’s never struggled as much when faced with the question of destroying the only person he’s ever cared for: someone who turns out to seemingly be a human boy in the shape of an Angel.
According to Gendo Ikari’s recovered Dead Sea Scrolls, which prophesize the end times, there remains only one Angel left. Asuka has been replaced as the pilot of her Eva-unit and NERV is bringing in a new child to take over. Shinji has been wandering around the tide pool that’s left over where the previous version of Rei sacrificed herself in order to save Shinji. He’s moping, brooding over everything he’s lost. Around the same time he says that he doesn’t have any friends anymore the image pulls out and into a wide zoom where another boy can be seen in frame. He’s statuesque, like a gargoyle, draped on the edge of a rock. He’s too perfect. He talks to Shini and it startles him. He’s outgoing, expressive, and comfortable in his own body. Everything that Shinji isn’t. He bears a resemblance to Rei Ayanami if she were a boy. His willingness to talk to Shinji directly about something as inconsequential as music, which is something we know Shinji loves, means the world to him. The animators at GAINAX use a close-up of Shinji to express that he might even have a crush on this boy, because his cheeks flush red. Shinji might just have a friend. This boy’s name is Kaworu Nagisa. He’s the newest pilot for the Eva-units. He’s also the final Angel.
The Angel attacks becoming more abstract had a purpose. When they absorbed Shinji Ikari into a shadow place to investigate his own mind, and when they uncovered traumatic memories for Asuka with beams of light in the form of an attack, they were doing so to learn more about humans. The end result of their research is Kaworu Nagisa. He is perfect at pushing exactly the right buttons to get everything he could ever want. The Angels end goal is to force a Third Impact and exterminate the human race. They can do this by reaching the crucified Angel known as Adam that Gendo Ikari is keeping in the hidden research facilities of NERV. Because the Eva-units are made from the same DNA as Angels, forcing an Eva to have contact with the crucified Angel will achieve the same effect.
Kaworu is a little too perfect in the eyes of Major Misato. She finds him suspicious. His data records have been destroyed and the only information they have on him is that he was born on the day the Second Impact happened. Kaworu’s initial sync rates for the Eva-unit that formerly belonged to Asuka are higher than hers ever were and he seems too breezy and cool about the prospect of flying the Evangelion units. In fact, he acts a lot like Rei. When Kaworu and Rei encounter each other for the first time he even says, “you’re like me,” but we don’t know the full context of this yet. The one person who doesn’t suspect any foul play from Kaworu is Shinji, who has warmed to him almost immediately. Kaworu gives Shinji everything he could possibly ever want. He’s affectionate with him, warm, and he is able to have easy conversations with the young boy. Talking is not something that comes easy for Shinji, but he’s head over heels for Kaworu. When Shinji is seen listening to music again there’s a distinct change in the type of music he’s listening to: It’s the classical music that Kaworu was humming when they first met. When Kaworu showers with Shinji after a long day at NERV Kaworu holds Shinji’s hand, but this time he doesn’t recoil like he did with Misato. He’s comfortable with the intimacy that Kaworu can offer him. Kaworu falls a little bit for Shinji too, despite having his mission and being an Angel. He tells Shinji that he’s delicate, like glass, and that he has regard for Shinji’s heart. He tells Shinji that he loves him. There’s no distance or guidelines in those words. He means them and it is life-changing for Shinji to hear this, because he never has before. It makes it almost impossible for Shinji to kill him later.
It’s almost operatic what follows. The will of a child is torn between the person he loves and the job he has to do. The undue circumstances of cruel tragedy are uncaring and ambivalent. To survive in this world you must have a will to live is what Misato ends up telling Shinji when it’s all said and done, but Shinji can barely grasp what living actually means in a world where he has to kill to survive. If you have to do that to live then dying seems like the nobler option. When Kaworu descends with Asuka’s Eva-unit, Shinji must follow. NERV knows Kaworu is the Angel and they command Shinji to defend the world. They know that if Kaworu reaches the bottom of NERV he could activate their self-destruct measures and kill everyone, and a few know that he could start the Third Impact by touching the crucified Angel. When Kaworu reaches the Angel he doesn’t call it “Adam” but “Lilith, the progenitor of mankind,” and looks at her with great reverence, like a child would a mother. Shinji commands the Eva-unit to grab Kaworu before he can touch Lilith, and Kaworu asks Shinji a question on who deserves to live and who deserves to die. “Only one life form will survive the time of destruction. The human race will perish, but you are not a soul who deserves to die.” Hearing that startles Shinji. How can he kill Kaworu? He’s the one person he loves. He’s the only being who has ever been vulnerable and soft toward Shinji. But how can Shinji let the entire human race perish and let the Angels survive? There’s a still image of the Eva-unit, holding Kaworu in its grip, as operatic music sways gently. This image is unchanging for a full minute. It is meant to emphasize the impossible decision that Shinji has to make. He squeezes tightly and a silhouette of Kaworu’s head slips off-screen. Shinji saved the world, but you could hardly call what happened a victory.