In a past life, I was big into anime. My favorite series is Neon Genesis Evangelion, the first series I ever followed from beginning to end. I wrote a twenty page paper on the series in college.
Evangelion is, at face value, the story of a young man and two young women who pilot giant robots to fend against alien invasion of post-then-pre-apocalyptic Tokyo. The robots are standard for popular 1990s anime; the series is essentially about the growth and devolution and psychology of the three young pilots, and of the series’ peripheral characters.
Evangelion culminates in a feature-length film, End of Evangelion. For the purposes of this post, I won’t give much other background on the series, although I certainly encourage anyone reading this to read up further elsewhere, because Evangelion is definitely worth diving into if you’ve ever appreciated Catcher In the Rye, Pink Floyd, adolescence, pop psychology, anime, animation, or weirdness generally.
What follows here is an explanation of a snapshot from the series’ climax — an explanation of why, to me, it’s a perfect example of storytelling, character development, and the culmination of tension:
The scene: Shinji Ikari, a traumatized kid pilot who mopes and agonizes throughout the series, dreams that he and his roommate-slash-fellow pilot-slash-recurring crush, Asuka, are in their apartment, and that Asuka is crying at the kitchen table.
Shinji: I want to help you, Asuka, and I want to stay with you.
Asuka: Then don’t do anything. Don’t come near me. All you ever do is hurt me.
Shinji: Asuka, help me. You’re the only one that can help me!
Asuka stands; Shinji gasps and backs away from her as she paces toward him.
Asuka: Anyone will do. You don’t care who it is! You’re afraid of Misato, you’re afraid of the First Child! You’re afraid of your mother and father! So now you come running to me because that’s the easiest way to keep from getting hurt.
Shinji: I need you to help me!
Asuka: You never even loved yourself! You’re all you have, and you never even learned to like yourself!
Asuka shoves Shinji; Shinji trips, falls backward to the wood tile floor, knocking a full pot of coffee from the counter.
Shinji: Help me. Somebody please help me.
Shinji stands, leans against the edge of the table; he grabs a chair, swings it over his head.
Shinji: Help me. Help me. Somebody help me! Don’t leave me alone! Don’t abandon me! Please don’t kill me!
Shinji throws the chair to the floor in front of Asuka; he looks down, sobbing.
Shinji sobs; he looks up, grunts as he lunges for Asuka’s throat, lifts her off the ground as he strangles her; Asuka’s body is lifeless.
First, I recommend watching this scene over reading it; I haven’t linked to it here because I cannot find a YouTube version with the English voice track. I also recommend, well, watching the entire series before watching this scene, not so much for the sake of spoilers as for context, and for the fact that the series really is a slow burn, buildup, and devolution to these ninety seconds of the finale.
The thing about Evangelion is, the first five episodes of the series are nothing like the last five episodes of the series. It’s a neat trick, really; Hideaki Anno morphs his fanboy show about robots and action and awesome mythology into a show about violence, fear, isolation, resentment, penetration, and the soul. The show’s primary and secondary cast all function as ciphers for Anno’s exploration of these concepts, but Shinji, the protagonist, is of course the most intensely scrutinized. He is also, helpfully, the most insecure with himself. He is a character defined by anxiety, self-hatred, and alienation from other people, whereas Asuka is his antithesis, if still equally insecure; she’s brash, arrogant, narcissistic, and more so defined by her alienation of other people.
Shinji is not unlikable in the same sense that anti-heroes are generally “unlikable”, with their rough edges and their allure-in-spite-of; he’s unlikable in that even teenage boys who share his angst(s) will likely find him grating somewhere around the sixth episode of the series. He’s impossible to love/like, and you never really care about him as a character himself because all of his compelling character traits serve to annoy you; you’re exclusively invested in his relation to other characters:
- the familial tension between him and his father,
- the quasi-familial tension between him and Misato,
- the romantic tension between him and Asuka,
- the intersecting psycho-emotional implosion of Shinji and Asuka,
- his retreat from his father and from Misato, and
- his general, persistent interest in Rei Ayanami.
This climax works in part because Asuka effectively channels all of our frustration with Shinji Ikari to his face — even frustrations that we never knew we had.
When I was a kid watching this series, I knew that I hated Shinji Ikari because he whines too much, and because he is a coward, but it was tougher to realize that I hated him because, despite his desperate interest in other people’s lives and behavior, he’s a self-centered vouyeur with no sense of other peoples’ suffering. Shinji witnesses the emotional collapse of both of his roommates, Asuka and Misato, yet all of his concerns pivot back to obsession over his own self-worth.
It’s compelling that Asuka, of all the series’ characters, unleashes on Shinji in this moment. Asuka is an asshole, but she owns that she’s an asshole, and she owns that that’s her reputation. She resents that Shinji has convinced himself that he’s very different from her in this way, and that he is a victim, and that other people have abandoned him when, really, he just hates himself.
The film is significantly more visually striking than the television series (production budget constraints), and I’ve always loved that, of all the scenes in the film, this scene is the most vivid; it’s one of the few moments in Evangelion where the lighting and colors are bright, the lines of animation are sharp, the background music is impressively subtle, and the physical confrontation is of a realistic scale (in that it doesn’t involve angels or robots).
This scene marks the end of a bizarre, extended dream sequence that involves sex, public transit, shouting, and watermelons, and sand castles. The rest of the film is like this, kinda, and the series overall is an onslaught of trauma and noise. So when this very crisp, contained scene inserts itself into the climax of the film, you shut up, and you realize that something significant and striking is about to happen. And then Shinji chokes Asuka. And then he annihilates mankind.
Really, though, I think the scene is effective because Hideaki Anno knew who his audience was. Shinji Ikari is a character built for angsty teenage boys who would be watching an anime series about robots and Sigmund Freud to overlay themselves onto. Anno knew that his audience largely consisted of teenagers who thought of Holden Caulfield as a good guy rather than as an ADD sociopath. So it’s impressive that Anno ripped into Shinji’s character core without insulting or alienating his audience.
You never even loved yourself! You’re all you have, and you never even learned to like yourself!
I remember that line hit my chest-plate when I first watched this scene at sixteen-years-old; I internalized it. I wasn’t out to turn the film into a dramatic point of self-reflection, but there was so much truth in Asuka clarifying all of the qualities that make Shinji such a shitty human being and so damn annoying. I recognized so much of my then-adolescent self in Shinji, and I really couldn’t articulate my frustrations with him until that scene. It put words in my mouth. Catcher In the Rye never did that to/for me.
Asuka is a bitch, truly, but nothing she says here is particularly mean-spirited (for once), and Asuka’s been through hell by this point in the series (mental rape, a coma, graphic sexual assault, revisiting her mother’s suicide, a pierced cornea, puberty), so you’re that much more inclined to take her side, even if you empathize with all of Shinji’s anxieties surrounding his father, the women in his life, and his, uh, job.
Also, by this point in the series, you’re pretty fucking sick of Shinji Ikari, even if you empathize with all of his anxieties. Insomuch as you’ve connected with those anxieties in your own adolescence, (present or past) Anno has, over the course of several hours that culminate with this film, demonstrated to you just how grating those anxieties are to everyone around you.
The moral of Anno’s story is: you can be Shinji Ikari, or you can be happy. You can be Holden Caulfield, or you can grow up. Then, and only then, will people have sex with you.
I don’t mean to suggest that this is the greatest film scene of all time, especially considering that I haven’t even seen an impressive fraction of all films ever produced, but this is my personal favorite. It’s the kind of scene that happens when a writer knows their audience, when a writer loves their audience enough to challenge their egos and insecurities, and when a writer is also smart enough to antagonize effectively. No small feat; it only took Hideaki Anno the entire course of a television series to pull it off.