The thing about shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion is that it isn’t just one thing that makes them so iconic. It’s an entire repertoire, from the out-of-the-box premise to the dystopian setting and even the characters that have made their mark on the anime landscape. Before the rise of the mecha and the ‘Giant Robot’ subgenre, there wasn’t much exploration of the people involved with the robots. When Mobile Suit Gundam, we saw a shift, but it wasn’t until Neon Genesis Evangelion that we struck a winning formula – especially with its characters.
And truly, it is because there is just so much to dissect with this franchise. The plot alone can be discussed ad nauseum and you will always find a new easter egg, something you didn’t consider before. But it’s the characters that are the true face of Neon Genesis Evangelion. From Shinji Ikari’s beginning hesitation to Asuka Soryu’s bright confidence and Rei Ayanami’s quiet mysteriousness, there isn’t a trio of teenagers more recognizable in anime. And for a show from the 90s to still have that kind of pull, is kind of fascinating.
Because in hindsight, I genuinely don’t like protagonists like Shinji. In fact, for the longest time, I avoided trying Neon Genesis Evangelion for this exact reason. It wasn’t like I wasn’t interested, because the future dystopia and all sounded right up my alley. And, like, who doesn’t love giant robots? But Neon Genesis Evangelion put me off because the main character felt so timid against the iconographically charged setting filled with complex characters. Compared to that, there wasn’t much pull within the very central character.
But now that I’ve finally dipped my toes in, I get it. It’s not about having a super smooth or charismatic protagonist that can keep up with the high stakes in the show. It’s the exact opposite. The fact that Shinji is so uncertain, basically thrown into a system he never asked for, is the appeal. The loss of innocence, and the fragility of the human condition. And of course, giant robots. So, let’s take a brief look at all the individuals of Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Shinji is often described as one of the most polarizing characters in anime history and, well, it’s easy to see why. Whereas in this day and age, hermit characters are seen as more of a comedic ‘everyday hero’ sort of situation, that was not the case in the 90s.
Shinji is the son of Gendo and Yui Ikari, the latter of whom died in an accident before the show started. Shinji was left in the care of a guardian until his dad summoned him to Tokyo-3 to be a part of NERV, an organization where he is the Supreme Commander. Why? To become the Third Child, a pilot that mans the Eva-01, the first non-prototype Evangelion unit.
It’s no secret that Hideaki Anno projected a lot of his own mental and spiritual fascinations onto his passion project. And that holds for Shinji as well, who is meant to encapsulate Freudian complexes combined with the introspection of the ‘otaku’ culture that was starting to be rampant in Japanese society. Remember how I said I disliked protagonists like him? Well, that was kind of on purpose. Shinji was not meant to be a likable main character, but a relatable one. So, his weaknesses and insecurity were part of that nuance, despite many critics at the time questioning Hideaki for his character arc.
Gendo Ikari remains one of the most popular villains in anime history, and wins worst dad of the year, without fail. But just like with Shinji, his character wasn’t antagonistic, but multi-faceted.
After all, Gendo was the one who started it all. He is Shinji’s biological father and the mastermind behind both the Human Instrumentality Project and the Adam Project. Gendo is the reason Shinji got involved with the Evas in the first place, showcasing how cold he could be to endanger his child like that. But the man is calculated, and pragmatic in his goal to reunite with his wife, which is the entire point of the Instrumentality Project.
Gendo doesn’t just come across as a Mad Scientist type of deal, that’s basically who his character is based on. The main inspiration behind his framework was Victor Frankenstein, and the distant Japanese father archetype melded into one. Hideaki also used the concept of an Oedipus Complex as one of his inspirations for Gendo. And for all his manipulative ways, he’s considered pretty iconic when it comes to sheer recognition across the anime community.
If Gendo failed at being a father, it was Misato Katsuragi who stepped up as a parental figure. In a line-up of characters that are messed up and bleak, Misato almost comes across like a flicker in a dark room.
Misato was Shinji’s guardian for most of his life while acting as the captain of NERV’s Operations Department. She is exuberant and callous, which does not give away any hint of her traumas as a child. But it’s because of her bright and messy energy, she feels like such a diametric opposite to the characters she’s put up against. She often prioritizes her feelings over the interests of Nev, so it isn’t surprising when she leaves and becomes the Captain for Wille, Nerv’s biggest competition.
Weirdly enough, I liked Misato as a character. Because of how she covers her deep insecurities under this extroverted guise. But it also turns out that her character was very inspired by one I already love: Usagi Tsukino from Sailor Moon.
So, when talking about Asuka, I didn’t expect there to be this much discourse. She’s one of the most recognizable ‘waifu’ characters in anime, with her red color palette and boisterous attitude. But she’s honestly such a complex character, even if she doesn’t always come across that way.
Asuka is the red-haired flame of a girl who is the pilot for Eva-02, dubbed the ‘Second Child’. And, in a way, she seems like the complete opposite of Shinji. She’s a child prodigy who knows her worth. Asuka is confident and brave; tackling things with a hunger you don’t see often. She was being angled as a potential love interest for Shinji, but her feelings quickly became indecisive.
And, at some points, she just feels like her own favorite person. But that has its consequences because we quickly learn that her spontaneous nature hides deep self-loathing and abandonment issues. It’s fascinating to see how she was received back in the day, with a lot of fans disliking her for her hubris and narcissism. But again, it’s these character quirks that made her dynamic with those around her, specifically when it came to Shinji and Rei.
Rei is probably the character I end up feeling the worst for. And at the same time, it is her character that is central to the entire plot’s ideals of suffering and rebirth.
Rei is a clone, plain and simple. She is made from the remnants of Shinji’s mom, Yui, and every time she dies, she is replaced. She first starts as this robotic teen, obeying every command that came from her superiors as the ‘First Child’, the pilot of Eva-00. But despite her shyness, she does appear more open to Gendo. And slowly, she does start to become more humane when she continues interacting with Shinji and her classmates.
She is often related to the Virgin Mary symbolism, thanks to her singularity. An interesting thing that is brought up is her humanity, about how she is shown as replaceable but also still human. For most of the anime, her role was almost docile. But in the movies, she took a much stronger stance.