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Character Discussion: Shinji Ikari
Whether people like Neon Genesis Evangelion or not, Shinji Ikari is not really usually anyone's favorite thing about the show. Here's a brief rundown of what kind of character Shinji is:
- Before the show starts, he's living alone, completely separated from his father. His mother died when he was a small child.
- He gets picked up by Misato when the first Angel attacks, and taken to Nerv, where his father Gendo explains that he was brought there because Shinji has to pilot the giant robot called Eva Unit 01 to destroy the Angel and save humanity and specifically Rei (the other pilot they have, who is too injured from previous test incidents to pilot it).
- His battles usually don't go well. He succeeds once because the Eva goes berserk, once because he himself goes Axe Crazy just as his power is running out, and other times, he's helped by Rei or Asuka. He never becomes a great pilot, even if he has some successful battles. Most of his fighting is very panicked and instinctive, he often ignores Misato's orders and does what feels right to him at the time, which sometimes has disastrous consequences.
- He hates his father, and resents him for abandoning him and only contacting Shinji when he needed to use him. He may also suspect that his father is to blame for his mother's death, but he never says this outright.
- He has a lot of trouble relating to others. Ritsuko talks about the "hedgehog's dilemma" as the basis for his inability to get close to others. However, I think she was just talking kind of circumspectly about herself, because she didn't even know Shinji at this point really.
- He's not exactly a hit with the ladies. Misato's messy lifestyle repulses him, while his classmates think he's lucky to be living with her. Asuka does nothing but bully him pretty much, and Rei is very cold and distant. So, any desire he might have for any of them is thwarted by the difficulty of relating to them directly, by the difficulties posed by their personalities.
- He's characterized by running away or panicking. In the first episode, we see him use the mantra, "I mustn't run away", to talk himself out of his usual instinct, which is to flee the situation. He later runs away from Nerv, and has a habit of panicking on the battlefield, especially when something unexpected happens (which frequently does). In daily life, he also prefers to avoid confrontation, hating to say anything that might cause offense, so he rarely states a strong opinion on a matter two people disagree on. Even early on, people comment on his tendency to just go with what he's told, because he's characterized by a lot of anxiety around not being liked. Out of all the pilots, he is the most reluctant, wanting to avoid the fighting.
So we can see here that we don't have a typical teenage boy hero character. Usually, boys in anime are aching for adventure or to prove that they can be the best at something, like Ash Ketchum, Naruto, Luffy, or Natsu. They tend to leap head-first into action and dangerous situations without thinking, and dumb luck and plot armor usually keep them unharmed. Not so with Shinji. Is he hated so much simply because he does not live up to this typical expectation for young male characters?
To Be a Man
It does seem like it has to do with a lot of the American traditional emphasis on characters who exude masculinity. We make characters like Mad Max, the Terminator, and basically any Samuel L. Jackson character, and love this badass alpha male archetype in his various forms. The cowboy that was once the icon of our cinematic past still lives, he just wears a different outfit.
But Shinji defies cultural expectations of masculinity, on either side of the Pacific. He is even visually emasculated at various times, like in the "toothpick" incident and when he puts on a feminine-looking plug suit because Asuka forces him to. He's often abused verbally and physically assaulted by girls; he gets slapped by Rei and kicked in the face by Asuka, for example.
He's also passive. He does not have a lot of his own agency; he either has to do things he hates doing (piloting the Eva and fighting the Angels), or humanity will die. Even when he's doing well for brief moments, he's being told what to do by women (Misato and Ritsuko). This is very much in contrast with the shounen or mech anime protagonist we usually see, who is eager to fight for his own sake, and who protects women, rather than taking orders from them.
"The cowboy that was once the icon of our cinematic past still lives, he just wears a different outfit. But Shinji defies cultural expectations of masculinity, on either side of the Pacific. "
What's to Like About Shinji?
So, what's likeable about a kid who is emotional, whiny, self-defeating, a coward, and a yes-man with no fighting spirit to speak of?
Well, Shinji does have redeeming qualities. He was never intended to be that perfect action hero character, but I would argue that it would be unrealistic to make him become, or expect him to be, that kind of person, given his life circumstances.
What are these redeeming qualities?
- Kindness. Shinji does not want to attack the Angels, because he doesn't know for a fact that they're evil, because they don't directly communicate with humans at first. He shows kindness to Rei, which is why he doesn't leave Nerv and leave his father immediately in the first episode. Ultimately, his kindness is his tragic flaw.
- Questioning. Shinji in the beginning just goes along with what other people want, certainly, because it's harder not to. But, he does the most outright questioning of his orders and of Nerv. Rei passively accepts even the bad things Nerv does to her. Asuka is so naturally combative and interested in being seen as a superior pilot that she doesn't question Nerv very much either (except for when things are embarrassing or inconvenient for her personally). Shinji is the one who tries to buck the system more often, the one who more often directly ignores orders and follows what he thinks is right. And in a world where Nerv is up to some shady shit, I would be like that too.
- Actually having feelings. Is it that realistic for a character to go through what Shinji went through as a child and 14 year-old without being "emo"? Why is it considered wrong, both in-universe and in fans' reactions to Shinji, for a boy to have emotions? Other characters suppress their negative emotions, but Shinji tends to wear his on his sleeve. I don't think that makes him a worse character for it. It takes a different kind of courage to be emotionally open.
So, Shinji isn't Superman. He's not going to find a brilliant way to save the day and get the girl(s). He's much more like a real human being with real human emotions. And that's why, while he's not my favorite character in the show, I really don't think Shinji Ikari deserves so much of the hate he gets.