shonen women part iii: on evangelion and western perceptions
As the West and Japan grow more enchanted with each other, our cultural landscape is exposed to new and unique interpretations of the female. This three-part series by Marie Davis explores the characterisation of women in shonen anime and manga, and their relationship with their burgeoning Western audience. (Part One and Part Two.)
My first introduction to a world of storytelling outside of the Western canon came from strange, late night viewings of SBS. It was there I watched Neon Genesis: Evangelion, my first shonen anime. The series followed fourteen-year-old male protagonist, Shinji Ikari, as he worked for the mysterious organisation NERV. Shinji, along with other teenagers, piloted giant robots called Evangelions (or Evas), that fought mysterious other-worldly creatures known as Angels. At the time, the Freudian undertones (lots of symbolic wombs and mother fixations) did not exactly go over my head, but they weren’t something I clearly understood. It took repeated viewings over the years to understand the complexities of the series.
Evangelion also showed me a side to women I hadn’t seen in media before. There was no lack of strong female characters in the series, with NERV’s commanding officer and lead scientist both women, as well as half the Eva pilots. But it was the first time I was exposed to women who had their own agendas. Each character, regardless of gender, had a unique perception of the post-apocalyptic world in which they lived, and each responded differently. It was the first mature-aged series I watched where the main motivation of women was not love or romance. I guess, with the threat of another apocalypse, they had more important things to deal with.
Out of all the characters in the series, I found myself relating most to the character of Asuka Langley Soryu, the proud and aggressive pilot of Eva Unit 02, and one of the most divisive characters in the series.
‘Asuka is a bitch,’ was my friend Amber’s initial response to the character. Amber, like many first-time viewers of Evangelion, was immediately put off by Asuka’s aggression.
‘It’s not that I didn’t want her to win,’ she continued. ‘It’s just that I didn’t want her to have the satisfaction of winning.’
Criticisms of Asuka are not unfounded. While she has many admirable qualities, she is also a deeply flawed character. She is strong and determined, but too proud to admit her mistakes. She is assertive and independent, but can be vitriolic and alienating towards the other characters, most notably Shinji. As the series progresses, these flaws are revealed to stem from her mother’s mental illness, abandonment, and eventual suicide during Asuka’s childhood. The complexities of Asuka’s character, her motivations and her struggles, are explored to great detail within the series. But in the Western audience interpretation, Asuka’s character is routinely simplified to one word: ‘bitch’.
Asuka’s character is a stark contrast to Shinji’s. While Asuka is fiercely independent and decisive, Shinji is ambivalent and reluctant about Eva piloting. It is Shinji’s struggle between action and inaction that makes him another divisive character for Western audiences. Perhaps the best example of negative audience perception came from Jeph Jacques’ web comic, Questionable Content, in which the character Dale wore a ‘SHUT UP, SHINJI’ shirt that would later be popularised in memes and sold printed on merchandise.
In many ways, Shinji and Asuka are an inversion of typical gender roles. As Gavin de Becker explains in his book The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence, women are characterised by their uncertainty, and that ‘explicitness applied by women in this culture has a terrible reputation.’ On the perception of women, he states that, ‘[a] woman who is clear and precise is viewed as cold, or a bitch, or both.’ Under this framework, Shinji is perceived as an emasculated male because of his lack of certainty, while Asuka is perceived as a bitch for her explicitness.
I recently convinced my friend Morgan to re-watch the original Evangelion series. He found himself relating most to the character of Shinji because, as he told me, he ‘is amiable, docile, confused and harbours a lot of personal conflict.’ I watched sporadic episodes with Morgan, as well as the subsequent film, The End of Evangelion. A pivotal scene from the film has Shinji, distraught over a comatose Asuka, accidentally ripping open her hospital gown trying to shake her awake. The camera pans away, then returns to show Shinji’s hands covered in his own semen. Morgan is repulsed by the scene, calling Shinji a ‘sexual offender’. However, when I ask him whether he has lost respect for Shinji, he pauses, before answering, ‘Nah, he’s still awesome.’ I then ask him if, over the course of the series, he’s become more sympathetic towards Asuka.
‘Definitely,’ he replies, but then, ‘I mean, just because you have a history doesn’t excuse you from the way you act, your behaviour.’
‘Shinji masturbated over her, but Shinji’s still awesome?’
‘Yeah, I guess that’s bias on my part.’
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s 2015 Golden Globe acceptance speech, she praised ‘complicated women,’ citing the burgeoning trend of a ‘wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film.’ But still, when we are introduced to a female character, or any character outside the white male cisgender norm, they are put in a vulnerable position. It’s easier to forgive men than women, because we come from a history of media that examines the complexity of the male, while objectifying the female. So while the West goes through this teething process of figuring out where women stand in male-targeted genres, I have to wonder if women, on and off the screen, will ever be forgiven for their imperfections.