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Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 16

After a season and change of cloaking its personal inquiry in the trappings of a more or less traditional, episodic giant robot anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion’s sixteenth episode represents a formal casting off of its genre pretensions, in favor of directly interrogating the psychology of its forlorn protagonists. This is less dramatic of a transition than some might argue; given the overwhelming focus on cast psychology that has characterized these writeups, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn I see this process as more fulfillment of the show’s lurking ambitions than a genuine shifting of its trajectory. But premeditated or not, this is undeniably the moment when Evangelion fully strayed from its design document, embracing a prioritization of psychoanalysis that to Anno seemed the only way to fully respect the characters he’d conceived, the audience he was seeking, and the hope of happiness he still carried for himself.

Evangelion’s sixteenth episode is titled “Splitting of the Breast,” a concept raised by Sigmend Freud and further explored by psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. The phrase refers to an infant’s compartmentalization of their experiences into those prompted by “good” or “bad” objects, when in truth, both good and bad experiences generally come courtesy of the same individual: the infant’s mother. A young child cannot understand this dual nature; there is a “good breast” and a “bad breast,” not a mother who is capable of both helping and harming, allowing the child to direct all their love towards that which is adored and all of their hatred towards that which is despised.

This is a rationalization, of course, and the process of maturing demands decompartmentalizing these feelings, realizing that everyone, even one’s own mother, is capable of both help and harm. This attends the natural, painful process of realizing we ourselves are mutable entities, that our identities are not fixed points, and that coming to understand either ourselves or others demands grappling with the inherent complexity and even contradictory nature of human instincts (a truth emphasized by the episode’s other title, “The Sickness Unto Death,” referring to Kierkegaard’s own explorations of despair and the longing for a unified self). Shinji, who never knew his mother, still lingers in a stasis of seeing his mother as a perfect angel – as the security and love he has longed for, denied by a callous world and distant father, all of the “bad” that he has chosen to disregard.

Without moving forward beyond this preoccupation with his mother’s love, Shinji cannot hope to grow and understand others. But Shinji, like so many others in Evangelion, is trapped in a cycle that demands some form of outside intervention – some role model that simply doesn’t exist, through which he might model a happier, more mature self. Instead, he is stuck piloting the Eva unit, perpetually returning to the womb, hiding within a shell he has defined as “good” to avoid suffering from the human interactions he has defined as “bad.” It is little wonder that Shinji’s trials are titled with the thresholds of infant maturity; until he has a firm grip on his own ego, has united his own personality and accepted his contradictions, he cannot possibly begin to understand the fragmentary truths of others.

The episode begins with those familiar drops of water falling into a cool blue void. It’s a persistent motif in Evangelion and anime in general, here largely associated with both mindfulness and a return to the womb – two instincts that, admittedly, have an almost contradictory relationship in this show. Shinji, Asuka, and even Rei feel most at peace, most alive when they are connecting with their parents, serving as instruments of their longed-for protector’s wills. But their moments of connection to that larger, all-encompassing parental instinct are also marked by a loss of the self, an oblivion of consciousness that to them is actually comforting. In contrast, the journey towards self-awareness demands keen consciousness of the self, and a focus on the here-and-now that pulls them away from their childlike certainty.

Here, the dripping of water has a third purpose: an extremely literal one, conveying the leaking tap as Shinji cleans the dishes, happy to have contributed to the domestic security of his new home. For Shinji, Asuka, and Misato, Misato’s apartment has become their new family – and though Shinji could never outright declare his attachment to this place, his need is made clear through his actions, whether the grand gestures of him returning home after fleeing, or smaller ones like him making breakfast for the three of them. Shinji is physically articulating a truth that he cannot yet understand – that family can be a practice, not a life sentence, an active choice we are able to make. But he is still too hung up on the absence of his mother’s love and presence of his father’s scorn to embrace the community of people who enjoy his company, particularly when they’re such uncommunicative messes themselves.

Asuka at least certainly doesn’t make it easy for him. Snapping at his latest obsequious retreat, she declares that “you always apologize right away, but do you actually feel sorry? It’s like you apologize automatically so that you don’t get yelled at!” Shinji’s refusal to defend himself seems inconceivable to Asuka, who has learned to get by through always demanding her presence be acknowledged, always pushing others until they push back, always physically asserting her presence and validity. Her complaint isn’t wrong; Shinji does not believe he is valid, and does not like being hurt, and so he preemptively apologizes and concedes any point, happier to be condemned by himself than to risk further condemnation from others. In response, Asuka sees this as him intentionally playing the victim, making her look bad through his refusal to butt heads – conflict is existence to her, and Shinji’s refusal to engage in conflict makes her feel less legitimate as well.

With Shinji failing to rise to her provocation, Asuka turns to Misato, acting out her frustrations first with Shinji (“haven’t you been too soft on him lately?”) and then with Kaji and Misato’s relationship (“what kind of guardian are you?”). All of her attacks stem from her childish perspective – in truth, while Misato and Kaji’s relationship is indeed a fraught bond, that’s more due to their competing professional duties than anything relating to the base fact of their relationship. Asuka yearns to be an adult, but can only see adulthood as a series of distant signifiers like love and marriage; like so many of this show’s characters, she lacks a proper blueprint for growing up, her parents having only left her with questions, resentment, and grief.

Later on, Shinji at last finds a reason to be proud of himself: his excellent synchronization scores, which Misato relays with a fond “you are number one!” Shinji is overjoyed at having triumphed in this arbitrary hurdle, and Misato is happy to encourage him, delighting in the odd familial happiness they’ve found together. It’s not like he’s particularly thrilled that he’s so good at Eva piloting specifically; he is simply desperate for encouragement, and piloting the Eva is the only pursuit he has not shied away from, the only skill he’s kept nurturing in spite of his fear of being scolded or abandoned. Sticking with things in spite of discouragement is the only way to cultivate skills and gain pride in those skills, but Shinji is so fearful of condemnation that he’s only managed to embrace that process in the context of the Evangelion, the only duty he’s been forced to maintain.

His joy is sadly short-lived; in fact, it doesn’t even survive the bus ride home, stolen by the mockery of some laughing children a few rows up. Shinji’s reaction to even this most inconsequential of censures emphasizes his inability to rebuff the scorn of others; as a boy with virtually no internal sense of pride and self, he is entirely dependent on the praise of others to give him a sense of pride, purpose, or belonging, to the extent that even these random children can undercut his feeling of satisfaction. Shinji essentially lacks an AT field altogether – there is no buffer between the reactions of others and his own response to those reactions, no defensive shielding allowing him to accept scorn or criticism without taking it as a truthful assessment of his identity and worth. This is what Asuka hates – Asuka, who refuses to be defined by others, cannot stand how Shinji so easily accepts their judgments.

And then, with a rustle of wind and beating of wings, an angel appears. An angel unlike any before – an orb with no defining features beyond its black-and-white stripes, hanging silently above Tokyo-3. One of the most iconic of all angel designs, Leliel – inspired by surrealism and optical art, its form inherently rebuking any attempts to anthropomorphize or humanize its inexorable advance. A creature whose physical nature only reflects that of the observer; with nothing to infer regarding its nature from its form, our responses to its presence are entirely our own. It is a great and unfortunate tragedy that Shinji would meet such a monster in his rare moment of triumph, while he possesses such an unusual sense of pride and confidence.

With Gendo absent and a plan of action unclear, Asuka is swift to taunt the “golden boy,” mockingly requesting he show his inferior peers how it’s done. Asuka is expressing her self-hatred in the same way she’s done time and again, but for once, with Misato’s words of praise still ringing in his ears, Shinji rises to the provocation. “Combat is a man’s job!” he declares, reiterating Misato’s praise as he accepts the point position, reveling in the sense of purpose her praise has fostered. Shinji normally feels unsuited for any of the roles he sees as available in society – he is neither masculine nor feminine, neither provider nor nurturer, and intimidated by the examples of both he sees represented in the world. But having been praised by Misato, he at last believes he is capable of taking on a “man’s duties,” emulating the strength and emotional distance he’s recognized in characters like Kaji and Gendo. It’s exactly the evolution Asuka was hoping for, arriving at the worst possible moment for Shinji.

“Shinji has gotten quite respectable, hasn’t he?” remarks Ritsuko, to which Misato grinds her teeth and mutters “No, I’ll chew him out when he gets back,” prompting a “you’ll make a good guardian” from Ritsuko in turn. Their exchange reflect their own distinct feelings on masculinity and parenting; Rtisuko is oddly charmed by Shinji’s attempts at masculine bluster, which make him appear more like his father, while Misato sees only selfishness and self-destruction in Shinji’s words, which remind her of her father. And Ritsuko, who is more than mature enough to recognize the contradictions in her own philosophy, is also happy to praise Misato for possessing the more parental perspective on Shinji’s growth.

Regardless, the die is cast. Buoyed on by Misato’s praise and Asuka’s provocation, Shinji races forward without backup, firing his pistol at the strange orb only for it to suddenly vanish. Then darkness – a great pit beneath Unit 01, appearing without warning and dragging the young pilot under its imperturbable surface. “Misato, what’s going on!?” Shinji screams, asking his mother-surrogate to make sense of this terrifying situation. She has become the cornerstone of his confidence, but she cannot save him from this; Ritsuko’s words are made cruel in retrospect, as this boy she encouraged so proudly disappears beneath the tar, the confidence she fostered dragging him into oblivion. Unit 01 is silent. Sixteen hours of life support remain.

Asuka is, understandably, a touch guilt-ridden due to her role in Shinji’s apparent demise. And in true Asuka fashion, she attempts to resolve these feelings by loudly denying them, ranting about Shinji’s “big head” and practically inviting Rei to reprimand her. Just as Shinji cannot embody strength, Asuka cannot embody vulnerability – she has only her own pride to guide her, and she’s unwilling to abandon it for anyone. And yet she wants to have a fuller identity, wants to be scolded for aggravating Shinji – wants to have parents who care, more than anything. She wants someone to articulate the feelings she cannot articulate to herself, but all she has is Rei, who asks “do you pilot Eva just for the praise of others?”

Rei has her pinned – Asuka is in truth no different from Shinji, or perhaps even less commendable, as Shinji has previously demonstrated his piloting is in part an attempt to allay the suffering of people like Rei. Does Asuka pilot for nothing beyond praise and her own self-satisfaction? Is there nothing she truly cares about beyond herself? They are incapable of connecting – Rei who has so few words for describing her relationships with others, and Asuka who can only reach out through violence, incapable of extending a gentle hand. “No, not of others,” Asuka declares, desperately affirming her externally validated selfhood even as she denies its vulnerability. “I do it because I want to praise myself.”

Misato, at least, is not so fragile as to have her identity fully dismantled by this latest catastrophe. In describing her plans to Ritsuko, she states firmly that “he went out on his own. So I’ll just have to scold him when he comes back.” Misato is not attempting to deny her culpability in this situation; she’s well aware of the power she holds over Shinji, and of her own dubious suitability as a guardian. But she is not giving up; through her words, she affirms both her confidence that Shinji will return, and her determination to be here when he does, to offer the scolding that a proper guardian would provide.

Unfortunately, Misato affirming her suitability as a guardian necessarily means undercutting her validity as a military supervisor. And so it falls to Ritsuko to lead the 01 retrieval operation, by designing a plan of action that will almost certainly kill Shinji, and thereby embracing her position as a monstrous but efficient overseer. Like Shinji and so many of Evangelion’s other characters, Ritsuko is stranded between two poles, represented by her intimate concern for Misato and her “monstrous” love of Gendo. Her position makes it easier to make calls like this; after all, if you already see yourself as a monster, what harm is there in following your nature? She accepts she might not be understood by humans, but hopes to at least be perceived in total by fellow monster Gendo.

The transition is painful, ugly – a slap in the face, an accusation, and then the defeated transition from the human “Misato, trust me,” to the sterile “I’m taking control of this operation.” Ritsuko the human, close friend to Misato, cannot resolve this situation. And so Ritsuko the administrator, faithful servant of NERV’s callous interests, steps in to take over. Even as adults, we cannot easily square the contradictions in our desires – our simultaneous need to be loved and to be respected, our desires for security and for novelty, the things we hate in others yet learn to love in ourselves. Adulthood demands embracing contradictions, accepting that the “splitting of the breast” is a fantasy, that good and bad things can both come from the same source, same confidant, same parent. We must accept these contradictions in ourselves, and thereby hope to accept the contradictions of others. Misato wants to be the loving guardian now, and has abandoned her responsibility as the shot-calling military leader – seeing this contradiction unraveling in her friend, Ritsuko takes command.

And so we at last see Shinji on that iconic train, a substitute for the womb, a liminal place of passage and potential – the same sanctuary he retreated to when he first ran away from NERV, taking refuge in the steady passage of stations, and their attendant assumption that there is always another path forward. His identity is obscured, caught in fisheye perspectives that echo his uncertain self. The scenery is red and orange, the glow of the entry plug, the crimson of blood. And Shinji’s own voice is a single wavering line in the darkness, an expression of selfhood with no attendant details – Shinji simply exists, that is all he knows, all he is certain about himself. His only proof of selfhood is his own voice breaching the darkness – a thin line in oblivion, of uncertain color or caliber.

What responds is also “Shinji Ikari,” his own voice played back to him, its separate identity as a source only clear in its portrayal as a horizontal line instead of a vertical one. Through these visual flourishes, Eva’s creators are doing their absolute best to convey both the process of self-actualization and the convergence of an alien consciousness on our own – a creature which has virtually no common language for expressing its existence, and therefore simply latches on to the language humanity offers.

“I am you. People have another self within themselves – the self which is actually seen, and the self observing that.” Our conceptions of our own identities will forever differ from how we are remotely observed, and of course, every observer has their own distinct conception of our identity as well. And for Shinji, this truth is practically intolerable, a reason to turn away from the very possibility of being judged or hurt. Through the alleged approach of this foreign consciousness, we witness the acknowledgment of Shinji’s own independent consciousness, the observer hiding within his mind.

Through a torrent of momentary flashbacks and contradictory calls to action, we are invited to parse Shinji’s mental impulses at the same pace he himself does. His instinct to assign blame, his immediate rush to blame the father who abandoned him, his counterbalancing instinct to blame himself for practically anything, and then Asuka’s voice braying in his head, complaining about that instinct almost before it is activated. The rush of consciousness, the freedom and terror of being alone with your thoughts, the fear of being “wrong” somehow in your fundamental psychological construction; all preoccupations that struck me deeply as an adolescent myself, when Evangelion proved crucial in assuring me that these subjects were worthy of discussion and artistic representation, that the thousand agonies and anxieties I quietly suppressed were valid and worth considering. That I was valid, in all my contradictory muddle and simultaneous terror at being seen or ignored. The great fight of my own life, at last realized as a narrative I could see and relate to, with Evangelion providing that key acknowledgment that my feelings were acceptable, perhaps even universal, an assurance so long denied to me and Shinji both.

“You just believe you can’t do anything.” “Don’t you have faith in your father?” A thousand contradictory directives stew in Shinji’s mind, leaving him little recourse but to sink back into his own thoughts, to retreat into a cocoon where none can hurt him – the sanctuary of the womb, where he is valued for his existence even if he cannot define that existence himself. And yet, the margin between hope and despair is so piteously thin. “My father called me by name,” “Misato said I was number one,” even such meager gifts as these can provide a lifeline, an identity, a reason for being and an understanding of who he must be: the diligent son, the strong male defender, or whatever else someone will reward him for being.

“If I believe in those words, I can continue living.” “Even as you deceive yourself?” Shinji’s internal consciousness is well aware that his clinging to faint praise is pathetic, is an act of self-delusion. But what else can he do? If the world isn’t going to genuinely praise and accommodate him, isn’t going to love him for simply existing, what can he do but cling to what moments of validation have been afforded to him? Asuka can call it cowardice, but is it cowardly to want to live? And is what she’s doing any braver, the lies she tells herself, the anger she projects on everyone around her? Why can’t people just be kind!? After all, “everybody does it! That’s how everyone survives.” He understands, but is still not happy in that understanding – not able to accept the contradictions of allegedly “earnestly” engaging with the world, not capable of reuniting the breast.

“You’ve shut your eyes and turned a deaf ear to things you don’t like.” The inner Shinji uses “like the fact you can’t swim” as a simple example of something Shinji has lied to himself about, telling himself that “humans weren’t meant to float.” It is a harmless representation of a much larger instinct – the desire to internally validate our external failings, the need to reorient the world’s nature and purpose in order to better accommodate our emotional needs. We are all lying to ourselves about our own nature, about the world around us, about the feelings of others – is it more mature to deny these lies, or to accept them as natural? Regardless, it is clear that Shinji himself, at this moment, is incapable of accepting the contradictions he’s living with – for regardless of what he’s accepted, he still isn’t happy. That ultimately might be all that matters; finding an illusion that lets you arrive at a contented peace with the world.

“There’s no way you can live just by linking the enjoyable moments like a rosary.” It is Shinji’s childhood doubts telling him this – for in truth, all of us survive exactly so, while also accepting the painful things. If it is possible to truly live happily, to embrace every moment and not fear the encroachment of our own Cassandra-like anxieties, then that manner of existence is at least not available to the anxious and depressed among us. We must learn to live otherwise, accepting that unhappiness might be the natural state of, if not existence, at least our consciousness, and therefore embracing happiness where we can. But Shinji’s internal self, an icon represented as the unhappy child running away from home, cannot stomach this alleged insincerity, cannot accept that life might never be better than this.

“I’ve found something I enjoy. Finding something you enjoy and doing nothing but that… what’s wrong with that?” Shinji isn’t wrong in that thought, even if his consciousness won’t let him off so easily. Many of us, myself very much included, have only been able to resolve the anxiety of pursuing a happy selfhood and purpose, of challenging those nagging doubts that we are irreparably broken and inevitably a burden, by finding a passion in which to pour all of our dreams and fears, all of our desire for connection. For all the good it does; I found writing, and I write every day, but I would still have to admit to Shinji that believing there is nothing wrong with that is an eternal, unresolvable struggle.

Perhaps there is simply no overcoming that childhood lack, that first encounter with the intolerable, whereupon we divide our world into love and hate, yet always find ourselves pursuing that which has abandoned us. “Father, am I unwanted?” Shinji asks – a question that surely resonated with my own adolescence, wherein I was essentially abandoned as heir in favor of my younger sisters, who better echoed my father’s assigned interests. For Shinji, this desire for approval is further complicated by the news of his mother’s death, and how his subsequent maternal influences have similarly echoed Gendo’s commands. His mother always loved his father, which is why part of him hates her, and Misato, and everyone else who values Gendo over him. An oedipal rage stemming from the universal need to be valued, to be loved – or simply, as Shinji ultimately phrases it, to “not be alone anymore.”

As his consciousness fades, Shinji curls up and accepts the end, his fetal posture echoing his unanswered desires. Then a soft light, a gentle hand approaches. Someone who could genuinely understand him, love him unconditionally, someone who could accept all the faults that he himself cannot – the mother he always longed for, assuring him he has every right to exist. Imagery echoes both the faded memories of his father’s departure and the psychedelic connection of Tomino’s Newtypes, a connection that goes beyond words or any other external instruments, a true bonding of the souls, one consciousness to another. Tomino wondered “could such a connection prevent the proliferation of future wars?” Anno’s question is more fundamental: “could such a connection give us a reason to exist?”

The angel Leliel’s death is violent and terrible, a horrifying realization of primal emergence, as Shinji and Unit 01 struggle like beasts to be born. Misato’s subsequent rush to Shinji is the opposite; a clear visual echo of Shinji’s prior rescue of Rei, Misato overwhelmed by that fundamental desire to protect your child, to embrace them, feel the texture of their body, be assured they are here alongside you. Shinji could not easily discover a reason for living, but he didn’t want to be alone – and Misato, with her doubtlessly distinct and perhaps even unflattering version of Shinji in her own mind, was desperate to welcome him back. We may not understand each other, and our internal versions of each other might be wildly distinct, but that does nothing to diminish how important we can become to each other. Mutual understanding might be a fantasy, but mutual appreciation surely is not – for however many versions of Shinji might exist, and whichever one might make Shinji’s own consciousness content, it is undeniably true that Shinji matters, that his continued existence is important to the people close to him. When we cannot believe in our own value, perhaps the tears of another are the only way it might be measured.

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