Shinji Ikari Must Die (But Not for the Reason You’re Probably Thinking)

It would seem that the Rebuild of Evangelion is determined to be a mirror reflection of its parent series. Now, I know what you’re saying. ‘An action packed, visually impressive series that builds up traditional expectations only to blindside the audience three quarters of the way through with depression and subversions? I’m not even sure whether you’re describing Evangelion or Rebuild!’ And after a fashion, you’d be right. Like the Mirror verse Spock, it can be pretty hard to differentiate until you hit upon the obvious beard of thematic difference (and isn’t that a muddled simile). As the lead in might suggest, be aware of spoilers for 3.0 and beyond.

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Well, this will be interesting

Let’s take a moment to discuss NGE’s themes, as everyone and their dog has been doing since 1996. The original Evangelion is a story of helplessness and alienation, and a visceral and resonant portrait of adolescent depression. To be fair, the entirety of the cast is depressed and badly in need of therapy, and all therapists were apparently killed immediately following second impact.

But it’s ultimately Shinji’s story, so let’s look at the narrative with him as the focal point. Shinji starts out saddled with a number of issues, not least of which is a serious case of Avoidant Personality Disorder. But surrounded by stimuli and the hope of approval he seems to improve in the short term, leading to the action and romantic comedy-esque adventures of the first half. The depression is never gone, though. Nobody truly talks to Shinji about his issues or tries to help him resolve them. They only try to convince him to move on as if he is a clean slate. But despite the good intentions, that’s not how depression works. You can put it off, sure, kick the can down the road. But it’ll still be there, waiting for the moment when the new emotional walls come down. Shinji is improving like a broken plant tied to a stick – if he doesn’t heal, removing the supports just sends him toppling straight back over.

Meanwhile we, the audience, see monster-of-the-week shenanigans beset by ominous whispers, questions of the true nature of the EVAs and the constantly dwindling population of Tokyo-3. For all the accusations that the tone changes with whiplash speed, or that the trajectory of the story changed with Hideaki Anno’s breakdown, the bones of it are there from the get go (intentionally or not).

As the atmosphere becomes darker Shinji, known for running away only to return when he’s needed most, is further and further removed from the goings on of the world. The dummy plug takes over his actions when Toji is injured; he is precluded from the workings of the conspiracy that Misato is after; and by the time of Kaji’s death, Shinji and the viewer are so removed that the killer’s identity is never revealed at all. There seems to be no meaning, but only a series of random events. It’s frustrating, and many viewers at this point become frustrated and withdrawn from their engagement with the show…much as Shinji begins to try and close himself off from the world. Now, it’s definitely a risky gamble – there’s never a shortage of people ready to critique Eva’s (certainly existent) flaws, or for whom the alienation is too much to bear. I honestly think this is why the show seems to naturally attract and hold onto those who have suffered from depression. The experience is a familiar one to us, whether we consciously realize it or not.

depression

Somebody bring this boy a regime of antidepressants.
And a pint of ice cream.

Eventually, the show snaps from reality entirely, giving us the infamous crayon drawings and badly exposited Existentialism of the last two episodes, followed by Shinji’s supposed revelation. It has all the movements of closure, mouthing the words of what an audience might expect from a happy ending: the hero realizes his flaws, and he overcomes them. It’s what we all  wait for in a story. And yet. The moment is both happy and hollow, two lines of dialogue that should be reassuring but come from nowhere and offer no truth. The ending is Instrumentality, and Shinji rejects it as the audience does. It’s not that we don’t want Shinji to recover. It’s not that he doesn’t want to be happy (even if he think he might not deserve it). But the root problem, the end of the world, is still looming. There’s the unresolved, in the plot and at the core of Shinji’s depression. While that’s true, painting on a happy face is never going to feel satisfying.

That brings us to the completely necessary film. The entirety of End of Evangelion is unflinching. It’s real in a way that the TV ending was not. While the images on screen may be cruel, surreal, or horrifying, they are undoubtedly happening. Yui’s final monologue sums it up pretty well (if bluntly): the world exists, and Shinji (and we) are alive. That makes life worthwhile. That makes going on a worthy thing. Shinji understands that, in the end. For all of life’s pain there is a joy in fighting to understand others. There’s meaning in it. At the last we see Shinji agreeing to live rather than to exist, to face reality as more worthwhile than a comforting lie, even if it’s somewhere as bleak as the sands of a broken earth (or, if you follow the time loop theory, the memory-wiped world of Rebuild).

So, what about the thematic thrust of Rebuild? Prior to 3.0 coming out it was praised up and down the street for being the less ‘angsty’ version of the Eva story, for having characters that more people felt that they could relate to, and for having more 14 year old fanservice. Why the outcry? The story is basically the same, after all, at least to start with. It’s just that our shy protagonist is breaking out of the orbit of his depression at last.

But that’s not really true. This Shinji is just off enough to be slightly uncanny to analyze. He’s much quicker to latch onto the world and the people in it, almost singlemindedly so. While the original Shinji was a withdrawn observer, frightened of people and of the world, the new Shinji has a definite vision of how he wants things to go. There’s something very Gurren Lagann about him that way. And you know what? His single minded desire to make the world into the image of his desires, ignoring how his personal desires might reflect the world at large, is the source of disaster. Even in 3.0 Shinji is looking to escape, taking Kaworu’s words and fixating on the promise of going backwards to a ‘before’ where everything is alright rather than moving forward with what is (mirroring the longstanding trope of fantasy taking place in a romanticized, long gone time). Neither Shinji is capable of facing reality, but for this more active boy, oh-so-often praised for being the more ‘manly’ one, it does much more harm. Put another way – Eva!Shinji hurt himself, closing off from the world until he was all but dead inside. Rebuild!Shinji killed most of the world’s population trying to enact the climax of an action movie.

death

Victim 6,000,000,012 of the “Endless Tragedy Pile-On” school of directing

Where can you possibly go from there? Both stories have a theme of ‘accepting reality’ and ‘trying to understand people, no matter how difficult/painful it is.’ But if Shinji just repeated End of Evangelion again, it would be false (and blood would run in the streets). He would be once more shaping the world in his image, with the only difference being that he was successful this time. End of Eva, for the original Shinji, was about learning to embrace life in all its complexities. These new movies, then, must perform the opposite action. And now we come around to the perhaps inflammatory title of this little piece. For his arc to be complete, Rebuild!Shinji must give his own life.

There’s always been a bit of a martyr complex to Shinji. One gets the impression that part and parcel of his piloting is an unconscious desire to ennoble his suffering (never mind the armchair psychology in episodes 25 and 26). That isn’t healthy, and it’s different from the truly selfless sacrifice I’m proposing. What’s important isn’t that Shinji look back on the others and say ‘I’m doing this for you, so be grateful.’ He has to do it because he decided to, and because he truly understands what must be done.

Much was made of Shinji’s need to ‘decide’ in 2.0, but it went without meaning because it had no context. Shinji isn’t trying to stop the angel, he’s trying to save Rei – a noble goal, but a selfish one when so much more is at stake. In that moment, he doesn’t understand or particularly care what’s happening to him or what effect his actions will have. If Shinji is truly a hero, he can’t reach for the escapist fantasies so often termed ‘heroism’ – a bombastic rescue, the love and adoration of another person, with some vague belief that his own happiness will just make everything else work out (or without care). This is the quiet assumption of many modern narratives, explicitly or not. Following a protagonist so often seems to mean wishing for their happiness, and assuming that their reward is enough. It’s a narrow and childish definition of hero, and however much the audience might wish for it, there’s no place for such selfishness in the message Evangelion is trying to propose.

That’s not to say that 4.0 has to kill everyone and end the world in a final, spiteful attempt to make everything meaningless. It just has to follow its arc, bringing catharsis rather than comfort, with the former acting as a truer feeling in the end. Even escapist fantasy du jour Gurren Lagann, with its poignant and bittersweet finale, understood the importance of consequence. It’s the difference between an outcome that takes into account who the characters are and what has brought them to that point, and having Romeo and Juliet magically escape death because it’s the happy ending the audience is used to getting. There’s nothing wrong with a happy, satisfying outcome either – look at stories like Avatar: the Last Airbender, Tiger & Bunny, or Howl’s Moving Castle. But fit it to your narrative. Don’t twist a story to fit a cage that doesn’t suit it.

My little prediction, then, of how the film might bring itself to a thematic close: Shinji confronts his father, and succeeds in stopping Gendou at the cost of his own life; in his final moments there is a kind of clarity, and Shinji finally stands outside of himself both literally and metaphorically – he sees Rei and Asuka, Misato and Ritsuko, the women who will rebuild earth when he has gone (which would be a nifty way to come back to the thoughtful feminist undercurrent of the original), and is content to know that they will have the strength to start things anew. He has his own visitor in death, the boy who was so very important to him, and who uttered the cryptic line ‘we’ll meet again’ (bonus points for including a visual callback to the Shinji/Rei embrace from 2.0). And here, in this moment, it makes sense. Shinji is no longer alone, and he has achieved the so-called happiness he’d wanted. Even though there will be no one but himself who will know what he did for humanity, no adulation or love to be had, that doesn’t distress him. Shinji, for the first time, understands. And he likes himself.

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And this time, I’ll believe every word of it.

How about you, viewing public? Am I completely round the bend of wishful analysis? Have your own theories on the ending? Feel free to share. That way when Hideaki Anno undercuts every last one of us we can feel bereft together (as we pay for another ticket and communal therapy).

14 comments on “Shinji Ikari Must Die (But Not for the Reason You’re Probably Thinking)

  1. There is no reason to believe that martyrs aren’t escapists. Regardless of whether Shinji gets escape through victory, or escape through death, he will be running away ‘to a better place’ if the events of rebuild 3.33 are kept in mind. That’s not the kind of “make your own happiness” note that the original ended on.

    Shinji shouldn’t die.

    • Vrai says:

      An interesting comment, and true – it would indeed be a different note than the original. But (to my mind, and I admit that it’s conjecture for us all) Rebuild is thematically very different (in some ways, as I mentioned, opposite) work to the original Eva. If it just retreaded the original there’d be no point in its existence as a unique work. After all, if it’s the same, why not just watch Eva again?
      Depending on how 4.0 is delivered, it might indeed make more sense if Shinji survives. But I wasn’t attempting to argue that Shinji ‘escape’ into death (despite my indulgence in wishing for a reunion with Kaworu). Rather, this Shinji needs to understand and accept consequences – he trumped them in 1.0, ignored them in 2.0, and attempted to undo them in 3.0. A conclusion of his arc would be to correctly assess a scenario, know how what is coming will affect his world, and choose the most world-benefitting option. Death was an option I chose simply because I thought it the neatest opposition to End of Eva, and I like the idea of the two works having their uncanny similarities and yet being at heart opposite.
      Not to drown you in a wall of text. Eva’s such a rich minefield of interpretation and feelings that we’ve all got our mindset of how it ‘should’ be, and I thank you very much for sharing yours.

  2. Sean says:

    This is exactly the reading I had after seeing 3.0, one that left me (as these things usually do) baffled at the popular fan anger at it. There’s a line at the end of the movie, where Asuka chastises Shinji for “always thinking of himself,” which I think is a lynchpin to the entire thing.

    It’s such a classic Eva (or Anno or Gainax, if we want to go that far) move to give people what they think they want and have it backfire horribly. The triumphalist all-powerful Shinji that’s been such a fantasy among certain fans for years is there in its ugliest form.

    (Apologies for leaving a comment on a post from a few months ago! I just discovered your blog and am so happy to see it.)

    • Vrai says:

      Feel no need to apologize at all! I’m happy to get comments whenever they come up! It’s such a rare thing, it seems like…
      Anno does like to see us suffer. It’s not that I don’t want Shinji to be happy. I DO, most sincerely and shoutingly (and if Kaworu would come back that would be nice). But I’ve always loved Eva for finding a way around the tired action/sci fi/mass media tropes. We’ll see, huh?
      I’m so glad to hear you’re enjoying the place! I aim to improve peoples’ lives, if only a little, so feel free to browse, comment, or puzzle as you’re compelled.

  3. schumie says:

    I agree that this would be a good ending, but it would have to be VERY clear that it’s not a case of “martyrdom”. As runoverpebble said, the entire point of the previous versions was that Shinji can’t just do one thing, press a special button, and escape or take the easy way out. He has to deal with the world around him, and work really hard, and with others, to make it something he wants.

    I think that having Shinji die, (or more importantly having him choose to sacrifice himself) defeats that message. Afterall, that’s what Kaworu’s role is. Kaworu (I’ll take one of a million different stances on this) is there to show Shinji what can be achieved if he trusts people and takes the time to go through the pain of understanding others, but Kaworu ends up FAILING his own story each time because he sees the only end option as being his own death.

    Obviosuly there’s more to it than that, but I think that Kaworu’s death in each version (and the fact that he chooses it himself and it ends up devastating Shinji each time and initiating “final impact” each time) drives home the message that, for true happiness, you can’t resort to death or self-sacrifice, even if you think it will help others. Shinji has to fight through this, and he has to realize he needs to rely on others, as hard as that seems, while still knowing that he CAN do what he needs to in order to achieve his “happiness”. I guess Yui’s words in EoE really sum up what I mean: “As long as you want to live, everywhere will become Heaven. Isn’t that right? Because you are still alive. The chance to achieve happiness… you can find it anywhere”.

    I wouldn’t be opposed to Shinji dying, but I think they would have to handle it very carefully, to not undo all of the important messages/themes that have been represented so far.

    • Vrai says:

      We’re definitely in agreement that it would have to be done very carefully – you’re quite right, stepping too far one way or the other runs the risk of undercutting the thematic messages. And whether Shinji lives or dies, that’ll still be true.

      I think the point where I might disagree a bit with your assessment (well written and concise it is, let me be clear), is that to my eye Shinji’s past eyes haven’t just been about making the world better but specifically making them ideal for himself (and unlike original Shinji, he’s more the type to try and change the world to his liking rather than run away from it, hence the need for a different ending) – saving Rei is about salvaging the person who was nice to him, pulling the lances is about making people not mad at him any longer. He is doing big, world shaking things from an extremely personal viewpoint (not that you can blame him on some level – he’s only a child!). To me, the idea of a self sacrificing ending (again, handled delicately) would be the answer to that – let’s assume he finds something to live for, really finally wants to stick around, only to find that his death will better everyone else’s lives even as it worsens his own. If he still chooses it, then it’s the first truly selfless thing Rebuild Shinji will have done (note that in this version he doesn’t have to kill Kaworu himself, unlike all the other Shinjis – it’s not a matter of him making a ‘right’ decision or honoring Kaworu’s wishes, as one might interpret the original Eva. That he suffers is undeniable, that it was out of his control even more so – it’s why I also rather like the idea of a final reunion between the two. That, and shipping fondness, anyway).

  4. vekin says:

    Reblogged this on VEKIN's Notebook and commented:
    This is probably one of the most insightful analysis of the psychology and plight of Shinji Ikari, both in NGE series and the Rebuild movies, I have found so far. I haven’t watch the three Rebuild movies yet as I am waiting for the Forth movie to come out before I invest my time, emotion, and energy into analyzing what Hideaki Anno has done. If you know this man and NGE, you’ll know that NOTHING can be taken at face-value, so I want to see the whole thing first before making any conclusion. I’m only sure that it is going to be an emotional and intellectual mind-f like you wouldn’t believe.

    But before the day of the apocalypse comes to pass, let’s get into the head of the infamous protagonist.

  5. ElMariachi says:

    Well, sorry but for me it looks one another case of messianic expectation : for him Shinji should be absolutely selfless in his intentions, or else his actions are “tainted” and thus selfish and ultimately bad.

    See, when you say that Shinji at the end of 2.0 consciously tries to “reshape the world to accommodate to his desires and fantasies”, ignoring the consequences for the world… for me the problem is that he didn’t had any idea of the consequences, or even that there would have consequences besides eventual personal injuries.

    Or also when you says that Shinji going back to fight in 2.0 was ultimately selfish because he did it mainly to save Rei, and not for mankind’s protection. And I want to answer (and sorry for the bad language) “so f*****g what?”
    Seriously why should Shinji be held to a standard of morality and selflessness that not a single human character of the cast meet? Even Misato, the closest to a Big Good the franchise have, flat out told Shinji that her main motivation for joining NERV was to understand better his father and get revenge against the Angels!
    Also can’t it be that Shinji wanted to save Rei simply because he deeply cared for her? You don’t get to fight an super-powerful Angel that curb-stomped even heavily trained Evangelion pilots, get indirectly you arm ripped off, impaled and later go to a plug depth so hight that your skin starts to melt off just for a human hug-pillow! If you do that, it’s because you really cares for that person and are ready to even die to save her, isn’t that a selfless act? (and I recall that just before his infamous “I don’t care about the world” line, he also said “I don’t care what happens to myself”)

    Same thing with the spears in 3.0 : so it turns out that Shinji want to repair the world not only for everyone’s sake, but also for his own so everyone will forgive him and eh won’t be cursed to a miserable life of constant hatred and contempt from everyone, so what? The two objectives aren’t mutually exclusive!

    Asuka’s line that Shinji only thought about himself wasn’t directed toward his intentions, but his tendency to shut himself from everyone when he gets angry and has fixed an objective and course of action in his mind.

    Having Shinji sacrificing himself as a “penance” for his past sins would mean that if something bad happens even that you couldn’t do anything about it, you should just take all the blame and repent for something you couldn’t had foreseen or stopped. It would be like these old folks omitting seppuku to wash a dishonor, and I can accept that.

    Or else if we start the blame game, hen why should Shinji be the only one : Misato cheered on him to follow his wishes and act for himself instead of for the other? To death! Ritsuko is implied to have helped Gendo during part of the first two movies? Repent by blood! Or hell, all of the NERV personnel that never raised an objection for using child soldiers and throw them in horrific battle situations, lets make them repent in death too!

    • I agree with you there… though I’m not going to say much about it. I truly hope there’s romantic closure between Shinji and the real Rei when the final movie comes out. Though I’m afraid to say that Shinji indeed has to sacrifice himself (granted this will have to be a delicate matter) for the greater good so that the world would be restored. But of course I want Shinji and Rei to have one last embrace during Shinji’s last few moments of his life where he tells Rei the feelings he had for her and that no matter what happens from here on out, she will never be alone again for she will know what it’s like to have friends aside from him and that he will always be there in her heart as long as she never forgets him. And with that Shinji dies in Rei’s arms as she let’s out her tears of sorrow as everyone else around her share the same feeling.

  6. darth_fluffy says:

    You know, this way it kinda reminds me of Madoka Magica.

    At the start of the story, Madoka’s just your average 14-year-old girl, quietly drifting along. At the end, she’s ascended to godhood, leaving every trace of the girl named Madoka Kaname behind. She won’t be called a hero- because no one except Homura even knows she ever existed.

    And Homura, whose entire purpose, her driving force, was to shape reality to her own whims to the steady drumbeat of “save the girl save the girl save the girl” (y’know, like Rebuild!Shinji) must give up Madoka, the one thing she’s fought so hard to keep, all for the greater good.

    Homura, you can (not) redo.

  7. I didn’t know 3 was out already, does it have a Dub already?

  8. Ben says:

    Looking at original Shinji versus rebuild Shinji it strikes me that both of them function as deconstructions of the genre. Original Shinji is the ‘If you actually had to save the world at 14 the pressure and stress would probably break you’ deconstruction while rebuild Shinji is the ‘If you treated it as a grand adventure and went wild with the power you *would* fuck it up’ deconstruction. Which arguably makes him a deconstruction of the fan response to Evangelion as well.

    As to the meat of your post – I see where you’re coming from, but I think that in order to learn how to live with the consequences of your actions you have to live. I think the two Shinji’s are ultimately more alike than different, separated only by the from their escapism takes – disconnection versus fantasy. Both of them are ultimately making the same journey – learning how to live in the real world – but since they’re travelling from different starting points of course they’ll have to take different routes.

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