Character Discussion: Gendo Ikari
Gendo Ikari is a tough nut to crack. Is he a sympathetic character we should pity because he's grieving over the loss of his dead wife? Or, is he a careless, irredeemable jerk whose negligent parenting has made Shinji as fubar in the head as he is? Is his "one true love" Yui, Rei, Naoko, Ritsuko, or none of the above? Is he truly heartless and incapable of love? Does he just see everyone as tools he can use to his own ends? Is he being controlled by SEELE, or is he controlling them? Why does he so deliberately ignore Shinji? I cannot resolve all questions about Gendo Ikari once and for all. But what I can do is present the information about him that is knowable, and let my readers decide for themselves what they want to believe about him. He's a polarizing character among Neon Genesis Evangelion fans, to say the least.
So what can we say for certain about Gendo Ikari?
Gendo Ikari's Life:
Gendo is 48 during the Neon Genesis Evangelion series' main events.
Major events in his life include:
- During college, he met Yui Ikari, whose last name he took when they married. This is also when he met Professor Fuyutsuki.
- Gendo survived Second Impact in Antarctica, which is when Misato's father, Captain Katsuragi, died.
- Shinji was born shortly after the pair got married. At that time, Yui and Gendo worked for Gehirn, which was a parent organization to Nerv.
- Yui Ikari died during a test of Unit 01. After this, Shinji was sent to live with a teacher, and Gendo became very cold and distant to everyone, but especially to Shinji.
- After Yui's death, Gendo had an affair with lady scientist Naoko Akagi, but she commited suicide when Rei (at that time a child) tormented her, saying cruel things like "the old hag is useless", which she said she was repeating from Gendo.
- Later, Gendo was romantically involved with Naoko's daughter Ritsuko, who is also a brilliant scientist. Ritsuko takes up her mother's position at Nerv, working mainly on the computer aspects of the organization. Ritsuko develops an increasingly strong attraction to Gendo, and it's ambiguous whether or not he returns her feelings (more on this later). Ritsuko knows more secrets about Nerv than anyone there, except for Gendo himself.
- He created Rei Ayanami, who contains DNA from Yui Ikari and DNA from the otherworldly being called Lilith. He uses Rei as a pilot, and has many Rei Ayanami clone "backups". But he seems to care for her very deeply, as evidenced by him burning his hands to rescue her during a test malfunction.
- In the movie End of Evangelion, Nerv was invaded by SEELE's forces, and Gendo tried to use Rei to initiate Third Impact by contacting her flesh with his hand, which contains Adam in embryonic form. Rei refused to be used by Gendo, asserting her free will, and chose Shinji instead. This still means Third Impact was initiated, but instead by her chosen union with Shinji, rather than a forced union with Gendo. Uh... you go girl?
- Gendo died in Third Impact. Before dying, he saw Yui, and expressed regret for his actions in life.
Attributes of Gendo Ikari:
Aloofness and Secrecy
His aloofness is marked by his posture, the classic "Gendo hands" pose he does where his hands frequently cover his mouth. His desire to hide his true self is marked by his sunglasses often hiding his eyes, and a beard covering his face, and those hands covering his mouth. He also constantly wears gloves to cover up his burned hands. This symbolizes how he puts on a confident face in order to mask his emotional pain from the past, and also marks his association with the secrecy of Nerv itself. As head of Nerv, his speech and actions are representations of the nature of the organization.
Cares More About Rei Than Shinji
For whatever reason, he's very cold and distant towards Shinji, but acts more like a father figure to Rei. He shows more concern when she is injured, praising her when she does well, etc. He burns his hands to save her once, indicating that he cares for her as more than merely a tool or experiment. In stark contrast, he barely speaks to Shinji, and when he does, it's usually to be very critical and mean. When Shinji runs away, or bad things happen to him, it's Misato who cares for him and worries about him, not Gendo.
He's Constantly Trying to Outfox SEELE
Gendo might seem like a bad father because he is concerned with Nerv as an organization, and about the fate of humanity as a whole. This means he never has time to be a real father to Shinji. This mindset is Japanese collectivism taken to an extreme, where the good of the organization supersedes Shinji's needs for a father. Gendo calls Shinji selfish for complaining.
Gendo's motivations when it comes to what Nerv is trying to accomplish are mysterious. For a while it seems like SEELE wants to destroy the world, and Gendo is stopping them. But it also seems like there's more complexity to it than that. In the End of Evangelion film, he tries to initiate Third Impact on his own terms, rather than letting the method by which Human Instrumentality is reached be dictated by SEELE. Does that mean he gave up on saving humanity, or was it his plan all along? We see everything through Shinji's eyes, and he barely speaks to Shinji, so we don't know about his true intentions when it comes to the Angels, Eva Units, saving the world, Human Instrumentality, and the purpose of Nerv. Some of it is explained, but a lot is left ambiguous and up to the viewer to puzzle out for themselves.
It's unclear from the story if Gendo truly loves anyone. Some suspect that he is a heartless sociopath who uses everyone, treating women like tools to further his personal ambitions. Others say he's a broken man, traumatized and heartbroken by the loss of his one true love, Yui Ikari. Let's examine his relationships:
If someone asked me to choose one person for Gendo to love, assuming he could only love one person, this is my pick. Some may believe he only pretended to love her in order to use her and get a nepotism boost from her father, who was involved with SEELE. Fuyutsuki suspects this when he learns of the pair dating, because Gendo had struck him as the loner/confirmed bachelor type prior to meeting her. But, even Fuyutsuki admits that after a while, the young couple seem to be genuinely in love. Further evidence of this love is seen:
- When Gendo visits Yui's grave in an early episode, it's one of the few times he talks to Shinji at length, but it's about her. This is also one of the only times he talks about something personal to him, instead of making everything about Nerv.
- When Gendo dies, he imagines or hallucinates, or his mind makes real, Yui and Yui alone, indicating that she was the only person he truly loved. Other people have visions of who they love before they die during this scene.
Gendo seems to have an... affection for Rei, which can be fatherly, but an also be construed in a creepier way. Given the nature of this show, perhaps there is something of that nature between him and Rei. It's suspicious that he has no fatherly affection for Shinji, but expends plenty on Rei. Is it simply because Rei complains less and takes orders better? Does Gendo love Rei for Rei, or for her resemblance to Yui? Is he trying to raise her to become a replacement for Yui? Or is he simply trying to raise a daughter who reminds him of Yui? He sees himself in Shinji, and hates himself, therefore he hates Shinji. He idolizes Yui and cherishes her memory, therefore, in his eyes, Rei is a thing to be cherished in much the same way. I don't think he really would fancy Rei Ayanami if she didn't have a genetic connection to Yui. He doesn't care about Asuka that much, for example, so he's not simply a kiddie diddler. Or maybe Asuka just isn't his type?
The interesting thing about this love affair is, it is initiated by Naoko. Gendo doesn't resist, fight, or flee from her, but when she kisses him, he looks reluctant. My belief is that this relationship was one-sided. But, Gendo needed someone there to comfort him at work after the loss of his wife. And Naoko happened to not only work closely with him, but slightly resemble said wife, so I think she was also a kind of substitute. When little Rei says things like "we don't need the old hag anymore", supposedly parroting what Gendo had said to her, perhaps this can be read as "he has me as the better replacement for Yui, so he doesn't need Naoko anymore". It indicates that Gendo never truly loved Naoko. However, some fans speculate that Rei was lying there, to manipulate Naoko to break them up, because she was into Gendo herself, or because she hated Naoko for whatever reason. Maybe having Yui's soul in her, she saw Naoko as a rival on a subconscious level? It does kind of seem like something a possessive "yandere" girlfriend would do to get rid of a love rival. But Rei is a small child when this happens, which casts doubt on that theory, because who knows if children are capable of such malicious lying and manipulation at such an early age. One thing that is interesting is that in End of Evangelion, the Magi system containing Naoko's brain turns on Ritsuko, and Ritsuko says "Caspar betrayed me! Mother, how could you choose your lover over me?" Caspar is supposedly how Naoko thinks "as a woman". Ritsuko was trying to kill Gendo in a jealous rage, and is prevented from doing so by Naoko's brain. This means that Naoko had a persistent love for Gendo, even if it was not necessarily reciprocated.
Gendo's relationship with Ritsuko also seems similarly one-sided, like she has a crush on him that isn't requited. It's complicated. Ritsuko spends her life devoted to her work, and tries to uphold this image of aloof, scientific detachment. But, as I said when I talked about her in her and Misato's character discussion, I really think when she talks about Shinji having a "hedgehog's dilemma" issue that keeps him from getting close to people, she's actually talking about herself. At that point in the show, she's barely said two words to Shinji outside of being a walking Eva Unit 01 instruction manual. She doesn't know Shinji. She's talking about herself, but can't admit to having faults that easily, so she projects those faults onto Shinji. She has problems with living in her mother's shadow, which is why I think she's ruled by a drive to be an accomplished scientist in her own right. But like her mother, she gets the hots for Gendo, and also like her mother, becomes jealous of Rei because of his affection towards her.
This culminates with her going berserk and destroying Nerv's lava lamp filled with Rei clones they've got stashed in the basement, in a mental breakdown that horrifies Shinji and Misato. Then, as I've said, in End of Evangelion, she tries to prevent Gendo from initiating Third Impact using Rei, but is unsuccessful because the Magi system chooses to side with Gendo instead, and Gendo kills her.
What's puzzling to viewers here is when he says "Ritsuko, the truth is..." and then he says something intentionally muted, and then he shoots her, and as she's dying, falling into the LCL, she says, "Liar!". What I think he says is, "I loved you" or "I always loved you" or something like that. In the manga, what he says is clearly that. The question is, does he mean it, and if not, why does he say it? Did he love her for being soft and vulnerable, rather than pushy like her mother? Did he love Naoko more than he ever let on to anyone, and love Ritsuko as a kind of replacement? We'll never know.
All of Gendo's relationships are ambiguous, and all have both the potential to be something and to be nothing. I find it most plausible that he loved Yui the most, becoming a shell of the man he once was when she died. He loved Rei as a substitute for Yui. He was come on to suddenly by Naoko, and went along with her advances for sex, because he was lonely, or because he needed her work. He seemed to have a fatherly affection for Ritsuko, and a certain admiration for her intelligence and character. That's what I think, but you're all free to come up with your own interpretations of these ambiguous moments.
Who do YOU think Gendo loves the most?
Gendo Ikari is a very ambiguous, hard to read character in Neon Genesis Evangelion. It's hard to know what he wants because he shares so little of himself with others, as shown visually by his beard, glasses, gloves, and posture, as well as by the fact that he is often physically distant from everyone else when he speaks to them. Some people see him as evil and irredeemable. I am in the other camp, however, that sees him more as a tragically flawed human being filled with complicated, and often painful, emotions. Much like other characters in the show, he has issues expressing his feelings and relating to others. The morality in this show is far from black and white. Does he do immoral, dangerous, and unethical things for his own personal pleasure, his desire to be above the morality of the common man, or because he is being manipulated by SEELE? Or is it out of such a powerful despair born from his grief about Yui that he just doesn't give a fuck about anyone or anything anymore? Maybe. Who knows. Keep wildly mass guessing!