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Neon Genesis Evangelion – Episode 22

A full moon draws us back to earth after an episode of painful revelation. After spending so much of this series guessing at the intent behind Gendo and his compatriots’ actions, the reveal of NERV’s origins proved more harrowing than we could have imagined. Not because the goals of this group are so ominous or esoteric; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. By drawing back the veil cloaking Seele, Gehirn, and NERV, Evangelion has revealed that its architects are driven by motives just as petty and human as the rest of us.

Gendo, seeking the one woman who appreciated the alleged kindness behind his stern front. Fuyutsuki, equally enamored with Gendo’s lost muse. Ritsuko, following her mother’s shadow into an entanglement with the man who essentially killed her. Misato, unsure whether she wants to prove her father wrong or complete what he could not. All of them propelled by personal infatuation or psychological grievance, all of them nonetheless carrying the weight of the world on their backs.

It’s a revelation that would likely come as little surprise to first-time adult viewers; after all, any adults in the audience already know this secret. But as a young teen absorbing Evangelion with rapt attention, this too came as both an intellectual blessing and a curse – to know that “adulthood” itself is basically a lie, that we are all simply muddling through, driven by a mixture of high-minded and deeply personal motivations, attempting to present whatever confidence we can muster. Evangelion thus replaces its underlying narrative mysteries with more fundamental, irresolvable questions – the same questions Shinji has been grappling with, now proven to be the work of a lifetime, or perhaps more than that. Will mastering the Eva units or defeating the angels restore the certainty and happiness that these engineers have lost? It does not seem likely.

And still they press on, drawing ever more victims and generations into their futile endeavor. Panning down from that moon, we find ourselves still situated in the past, but more recently: on the day before Asuka’s journey to Japan, lounging with Kaji as clouds drift overhead. Key context for our young pilot is conveyed even before the pan resolves, the camera lingering on empty cans and an AM radio. Just as Misato lacks a healthy model of behavior for dealing with Shinji, so it seems that Kaji lacked a healthy model for mentoring Asuka – and thus he treated her like a young would-be girlfriend, taking her out for picnics under the stars, making her feel like a real adult.

Asuka’s behavior highlights the disconnect between them, as she explains the disheveled Misato’s behavior while Kaji looks on in silence. “I guess this’ll be goodbye for a while” she offers, pushing up her chest and exaggerating her pose, seeking an affirmation of their romantic bond that’s only somewhat undercut by the immature “boooo” that follows. Kaji has humored her so far, but he cannot offer this – he instead undercuts her request, replying “once you get to Japan, I’m sure you’ll make lots of new boyfriends.” But Asuka is not interested in boys her own age, or “stupid brats,” as she childishly describes them. “You’re the only one I love,” she declares, burying her head in his chest. “Well, that’s quite an honor” he indifferently replies. 

“I mean it! If it’s with you, it’s totally okay! Kissing, and even the stuff after that!” So Asuka attempts to assert her maturity, referring to sexual intimacy as “the stuff that follows kissing.” To this, Kaji can no longer play coy, outright declaring “Asuka, you’re still a child. That sort of stuff can come later.” This is no comfort to Asuka – she has grown, her body has changed, and she is ready to be an adult. “I’m already a grownup,” she declares, “so look at me!” Her declaration is met by a flurry of altered imagery, Asuka in all her variants forms, then a doll beheaded and left abandoned. “Look at me!”

So we are introduced to the contradictions of Asuka Langley Soryu, who sees adulthood as a magic doorway into love and understanding, a marker of self-reliance that cannot be questioned or denied. Scornful of her peers, yet revealing with her every word and action her own clear immaturity. Distrustful of family, yet desperate for love. Defined by her mastery of the Eva unit, yet ever-conscious that old victories are never, never, never enough. Her desperation for the certainty of maturity rings with a cruel irony in the wake of our last episode – for as was just made emphatically certain, there is no comforting realm of certainty and self-actualization waiting after puberty and adolescence. There is only ever the struggle to find a happier self.

We cut back again, to Asuka as a child. It turns out she and Shinji have something in common: both of their mothers attempted first contact with the Eva units, each to disastrous results. Though her mother’s body wasn’t absorbed into the Eva unit, that might have actually been kinder; instead, her mother was driven insane, and swiftly committed suicide. We see Asuka at her mother’s funeral, already practicing that proud, defiant stare she employs to square off with an inhospitable universe.

Another cut, this one crueler still. Her mother in the hospitable, mind gone, attention focused on a ragdoll she seems to believe is her actual daughter. Out in the hall, the real Asuka looks on with that same defiant glare. Little wonder she has chosen not to retreat into the comfort of infancy or the arms of her mother, as Shinji has repeatedly attempted. For her, childhood is this image right here – her mother lost and frail, looking to a false idol for guidance. Better to mature past this betrayer, and prove through her own actions how to be a proper adult. Better to leave childhood behind entirely, and any need to rely on this failure alongside it.

It is a painful and thankless task, dedicating your life to redressing the failures of your parents. Most of us are not provided such oversized demonstrations of failure as Asuka or Shinji, but that underlying desire to do better this time, to ensure your children do not suffer the same pain you experienced, is universal. There is only so much we can do to contextualize the limitations of our parents’ perspectives, so much we can forgive them for, so much we can hope to truly understand. For everything else, their specter will remain forever strange to us, their seeming callousness a question with no satisfying answer.

The pain of connection Evangelion describes is difficult enough even when attempted between strangers, between people who could theoretically walk away and leave no baggage in their wake. For parents and children, the stakes are far higher, that alleged assumption of “unconditional love” masking an endless minefield of expectations and regrets, of comments idly made that lodge like splinters in the psyches of our loved ones. We might hope the ways we are scarred by love make us more empathetic, or at least more interesting – that the irritation of need unfulfilled might be polished and forgiven over time, emerging as pearls of wisdom or compassion. Most of the time, this is not true. Most of the time, damage is simply damage.

The indifferent adults speak idly of Asuka’s mother, framing her current actions as reflections of regret. Spending all her time on research, she left no time for her own daughter – and now, she can only imagine making up that lost time with this doll, not the flesh-and-blood girl watching through the window. “Humans made dolls in their own image,” one observer reflects, “If God exists, we may be nothing more than dolls to Him.” Their words turn almost flirtatious as they discuss the distance between science and religion, the girl standing beneath them entirely forgotten. Is this what adults are like? Do adults simply turn away from what is painful, or maintain indifference to the pain of others? Asuka observes, internalizes, and says nothing.

The lessons she has learned are clear in her response to her mother’s death. When told that it’s “okay not to hold it in,” she responds that “It’s okay. I’m not going to cry. I’m going to think for myself.” Her words carry a tragic implication: that it would in truth be impossible to earnestly cry for this woman, this alleged adult who erroneously calls herself a mother. Asuka is not like these other fools, crying on command because the situation apparently calls for it. Asuka is going to think for herself. Asuka is going to be worthy of praise. Asuka will show them what it truly means to be an adult.

Or so she believed. We at last return to the present with a harsh reminder of Asuka’s current status, as she is told her synch rate with the Eva unit continues to plummet. With her combat abilities so low, Ritsuko instantly makes the hard call, prioritizing Unit 00’s repairs over the useless Unit 02. Over at Unit 01, Misato reflects on the strangeness of them having to use the very thing that tried to wipe them out as a route to survival. Perhaps Asuka could see the irony in that; piloting a machine that attempted to destroy humanity, she must similarly channel her mother’s destructive failures into fuel for the future. Misato, of course, can also relate; her mind drifting towards her father, she admits that “I guess that’s what humans do.”

Everything is slow, solemn, and exhausted. With Neon Genesis Evangelion’s production flagging behind anything approaching a healthy schedule, scenes draw on, single shots linger in space – a pragmatic necessity that nonetheless offers a keen dramatic effect, echoing in the very boarding and pacing the fatigue felt by the characters, and the damage wrought to NERV itself. The battered logo on Tokyo-03’s once-proud geofront now leads us to Misato and Hyuga outside, now freely trading information on the top-secret Eva mass production project. In the wake of Kaji’s execution, what’s the point of secrecy anymore? Either NERV kills them or the angels will.

Asuka has unfortunately still not received the memo. Her lingering hopes are embodied in the form of a call to a disconnected number, one last entreaty to Kaji that will never be returned. Kaji was not just her link to a world of romance and maturity; he was actually her only friend outside of the Eva project, the only person she didn’t see as competition, whether as a pilot like Shinji or woman like Misato. Looking up from the phone, her failure is emphasized again by Shinji across the train platform, laughing and carefree with Rei even after his month-long ordeal. Shinji, who was too immature even to validate her pursuit of romance, has now proven himself the superior pilot. Though wholly oblivious to his “guilt,” he has stolen Asuka’s last source of identity and pride.

The tension is clear even to Penpen as Misato’s alleged family share a silent meal. Asuka eats with pointed refinement and clear resentment, Misato staring over her beer with curiosity verging on accusation. Once again, the stillness of the storyboarding is manipulated to facilitate the drama; their lack of movement speaks to their fatigue and disinterest in interaction, while the repetition of cuts serves as a visual articulation of “just going through the motions.” The reveal of Kaji’s death is an offhand snipe, Misato responding to Asuka’s challenge of “it’s probably Kaji calling” with a cool “that’s not likely.” Asuka is fighting one-sided battles and still losing; absent results, all she has left is bravado, canned comments about the “wonder boy” Shinji that ring hollow, lacking the fire of conviction that once characterized her provocations. She is not the triumphant pilot of Unit 02 at this point; she is that lonely girl screaming “look at me,” scared more than anything of being discarded for some other doll.

As it turns out, the call is actually for Asuka: her adoptive German mother, calling long-distance to check up on her. Listening to Asuka chat gaily in German, Shinji reflects that “when she talks in another language, she’s like a total stranger,” while silently pining for the closeness with a mother that Asuka seems to take for granted. As luck would have it, Shinji is mistaken. Asuka holds little fondness for this woman, and sees their conversations as essentially another part of her job. In truth, the Asuka that she presents to Shinji is actually far closer to her true self – and as she admits in the wake of her conversation, she doesn’t actually feel comfortable putting on the “performance” of a daughter in the first place. A flourish of genuine, sympathetic connection between these two lonely pilots – but of course, Asuka soon remembers herself, raises her AT fields, and loudly declares that “it’s all over if even you start sympathizing with me!” Asuka cannot recognize compassion, only pity – the one gift she was offered in the wake of her true mother’s death, the one thing she absolutely cannot stand.

Suspended between her desperation for connection and her refusal to be looked down on, Asuka can only respond with rejection and denial. She hates this apartment, hates this bath, hates this toilet, hates the very air that Shinji and Misato breathe. Her declarations are contrasted against light glimmering on bathwater – a symbol that’s already gained significance within Evangelion, gesturing towards the warm fluid of the womb and the sanctity of a mother’s arms. Asuka cannot find the same comfort in that water that Shinji has; to her, motherhood is a symbol of all that she was denied, and all that she must reject. They are two broken halves of an incomplete whole: Shinji condemned for his failures to embody traditional masculinity, Asuka disgusted by the confines of traditional femininity, neither capable of rejecting the role they have been assigned. And what’s worse, she knows how petty this is, how childish, how beneath the strength and confidence she is determined to evoke. She hates everyone, but she hates herself most of all.

Misato notes this tantrum and says nothing, only bringing up Asuka’s period the next day to excuse her poor synch rate performance. To this, Ritsuko replies with the supremely characteristic “the synch rate isn’t affected by superficial physical conditions,” followed by the preposterous “the problem lies deeper in the subconscious.” Can Ritsuko truly not see how Asuka’s relationship with her body, and with the idea of growing into a woman who might bear children, could have a profound effect on her confidence or sense of self? Asuka, who has always spurned recollection of her birth mother and prided herself on her genderless independence? Surely Ritsuko of all people could understand how a poisoned bond with her mother might impact Asuka’s sense of self?

If she’s aware of her hypocrisy, she certainly doesn’t seem bothered by it. At the end of her rope, Misato glumly reflects that this might well be the end of their cohabitation, and that Asuka’s continued proximity with Shinji might only be hurting her. Piece by piece, the home they built together has been cruelly dismantled; Kaji’s wisdom and affection, the normalcy of Shinji and Asuka’s school friends, even the camaraderie they once shared as fellow Eva pilots. To this, Ritsuko mockingly replies “is this the end of your merry game of house?” Though a generation older, Ritsuko’s response seems little different from what Asuka herself might say; after all, neither of them seem to believe that genuine, non-competitive intimacy is even possible.

“Why do I have to go through this just because I’m a woman? I don’t even want kids!” Biology itself demands Asuka contort herself in pain for the sake of an arbitrary, unwanted ideal. Neither her mother, nor her superiors at NERV, nor even her body are willing to accept the Asuka that exists – and with no power to resist any of them, all Asuka can do is rage, rage, rage. So she finds herself as she steps onto the elevator for one of Evangelion’s most iconic moments, a crowning example of its loaded stillnesses that bubbles over with unspoken intent, as she shares a silent elevator ride with the hated First Child. Rei, who never complains, who succeeds without effort, who embodies “motherliness,” who has bonded with Shinji, and who for all that doesn’t even possess the decency to accept Asuka’s challenge. The seconds build up, a stillness broken only by Asuka’s occasional blinks, a silent battle as she wills her detested would-be rival into action.

You cannot shorthand a sequence like that; you can only let it ride, embracing a meditative pacing that feels fundamentally at odds with the scene’s angry intent, yet is somehow the perfect vehicle for its realization. Such a prolonged sequence inherently draws the viewer into that same anxious box, willing something to happen, if only to defuse the violence hanging heavy in the air. For a production increasingly incapable of populating the scenes between its bravura animation displays with motion, Asuka and Rei’s elevator ride is a masterstroke of economy, turning the limitations defining TV animation into an unimpeachable aesthetic signature. There is great poignancy in the silence after the storm, the rage of characters divided by emotions so vivid we can see them collide in the stillness.

Rei, a connoisseur of long silences, is actually the first to break this one. She even rises to Asuka’s provocation, offering advice that could only scan to Asuka as a challenge: “the Eva won’t move unless you open your heart.” If Rei has learned to care about Shinji, then it is no surprise she has also learned to actively dislike the arrogant, confrontational, closed-minded Asuka. “Yes, the Eva have souls. You should know that.” It’s frankly a great victory for Rei – not just expressing loyalty or concern, but derision and even a hint of humor. As such, when Asuka mocks her again for being a pawn of NERV, it feels like a hard-earned victory that Rei immediately replies “I am not a puppet.” But still, she admits that she’d died for Commander Ikari – a line that incenses Asuka on two levels, pointing towards both her mother’s careless, selfish taking of her own life, as well as that mother’s preference for polite dolls over fallible, flesh-and-blood daughters. Once again, Asuka hates everyone, but Asuka hates herself most of all.

And yet, for all the understandable reasons she despises Rei, Asuka still ends up taking her advice. Standing before the refurbished Unit 02, she demands it obey her orders, echoing her mother’s final retreat as she declares that “you’re my puppet, so all you have to do is quietly do as I say!” There’s a dry comedy in the scene’s shot-countershot cuts from Asuka’s demands to Unit 02’s unblinking head, as if it’s a dog that’s eager to please but incapable of parsing her commands. Even now, even in the wake of that elevator conversation, these pilots are closer and more mutually trusting than any of them would admit or believe. They need to be; for when the next angel arrives, there is no one else to save them.

After the brief return to overwhelming power exhibited by the last attack, NERV’s latest assailant continues the angels’ increasing conceptual oddity, this one maintaining a fixed distance from the base in low orbit. It does not approach, and it does not attack; in its blinding, winged form and silent observation, it could well be mistaken for a biblical angel rather than a hostile force. The angel waits for an unknown sign as NERV formulate their attack plan, and Misato directs Asuka to back up Unit 00. This of all slights, Asuka cannot allow – subservience not just to wonder boy Shinji, but to that hated doll? Whatever sign this angel might have been waiting for, Asuka’s launch is the signal it receives: a rebellion whose finality is understood by both Asuka and her superiors, her last chance to prove she is the proud, independent warrior, the identity on which she has staked her entire sense of self.

A cold rain greets Unit 02 as it breaches the surface, the overcast scene making a graveyard of Tokyo-03’s remaining towers. With Unit 01 on strict lockdown, Unit 00 held in reserve, and even Asuka’s caretaker Misato ready to wash her hands of the pilot, Asuka now truly stands alone, the way she always wanted. But it is not her singular prowess that has brought her here: it is her anger, her denial of outstretched hands, her determination not to be the weak, dependent creature that her mother discarded and forgot. In a show overwhelmingly absorbed with the shields we construct around ourselves, the AT fields we develop to survive the pain of hostile interaction, Asuka has constructed a shield so sturdy and unyielding that not one person can help her now. It is what she always imagined would be her moment of triumph – but isolated within that unrelenting downpour, we feel not pride for her sake, but sorrow that she has come to stand so utterly alone.

“If I mess this up, they’ll probably take me off Unit 02,” she admits. Then a word of encouragement from the only voice she has ever trusted: “no mistakes allowed, Asuka.” Piano keys chime expectantly as Asuka prepares for long-range firing, waiting for a sign of the angel’s approach. But something else reaches out first: a grand pillar of light piercing the clouds, like a blessing from a distant god, a benediction met in turn with a rousing chorus of hallelujah. The bridge crew rush to quantify this advance, noting no physical damage, but intense psychographic readouts. Once again, a curious angel has reached out to grasp the mind of an Eva pilot. Asuka has guarded her secrets against all human interrogation, but against this brilliant glow, her AT field is powerless to resist.

Asuka fires wildly, her rifle swiftly depleted as the angel continues its interrogation. The creature is as relentless as it is ruthless, possessing none of the kindness Shinji found within the angel’s shadow. This is a communication of violence – of intrusion and cruel revelation, the only parenting Asuka received, the only way she knows to respond. For Shinji, the process of coming to understand his own heart has been, if certainly difficult, a journey defined by proud and fulfilling personal revelations. But Asuka knows her heart well, and is right to be afraid of what she has locked inside. At the core of her pride lies a scared, lonely girl desperate for her mother’s affection – and if she backs down now, that pathetic creature is all she will ever be.

As such, even as her mind is clumsily scraped for its darkest secrets, she refuses Misato’s order to retreat. If suffering anew her worst experiences and most closely guarded fears is the price she must pay to remain strong, so be it. It is a twisted, tragic inversion of Evangelion’s larger hopes: the girl who refused to connect having her chest pried open like an angel’s carapace, the hope of mutual understanding turned into a cudgel with which to shame and torment her. Again and again, Asuka refused the outstretched hands of Misato, Shinji, and even Rei, trusting only in her own strength, the only force that would never betray her. And now that she stands alone, she is met by a demand for sincerity that she cannot refuse.

Thus at last are Asuka’s core memories revealed, the painful, defining moments that have lodged forever in her psyche, the truth she has refused to acknowledge, yet nonetheless has been consistently guided by, if only in opposition. A young Asuka standing alone, crying as she hugs a stuffed monkey – a near echo of Shinji’s own visual refrain, the image encapsulating his total abandonment. One more thing the two might have bonded over, if Shinji weren’t so scared and Asuka weren’t so proud, if either of them had the tools for navigating intimacy that their scars so cruelly denied them. Maybe if they’d reached out, Shinji would have found comfort in embracing his sensitive, nurturing nature. Maybe if they’d reached out, Asuka would have found something worth fighting for beyond her fear of being ignored.

The scene shifts, revealing the monkey is a gift from her “new mother” even as we see it torn apart. Asuka doesn’t need gifts, or mothers, or false sympathy. Asuka is going to grow up fast and be independent. Asuka is going to be a proud Eva pilot, and cast that desperate longing for her real mother into the deepest, darkest abyss she can find. Asuka will never again open that door, never again feel the hope of her mother’s affection rewarded by the sight of her mother’s corpse. Buried deep in the recesses of her psyche lie memories she has made foreign even to herself: the desperation for acceptance mutated into a condemnation of the self, an eternal question of “why wasn’t I good enough for my mother’s love? What can I ever do to prove I belong?”

If her mother only wanted Asuka to die alongside her, then what good could Asuka possibly be? Through necessity, Asuka learned to reject such things, to formulate personal value independently of family, of motherhood, of human connection. And then the angel digs deeper still, cutting into the source of her shame: her own willingness to accept her mother’s wishes, to embrace dying alongside her so long as her mother stayed beside her, to be the good doll if that was the only way to retain her mother’s love. A fate she only avoided because of her mother’s indifference; for when the moment of truth arrived, her mother didn’t recognize her at all.

How do you construct a sense of self in the wake of something like that? How can you believe in your value, when the only person you trusted to love you unconditionally proved themselves indifferent to your presence? Asuka chose to reject: to reject the pain of those memories, reject reliance on the kindness of others, reject anything but the strength she could herself command. Thus Misato must be rejected, alongside her immature caricature of adulthood and halfhearted plays at parenting. Thus Shinji must be rejected, alongside his blatant admission of weakness and childish acceptance of dependency. Only Kaji, who rejected her first, was worthy of pursuit – only he could validate her ideal of adulthood, through being conquered and falling subservient to her identity.

It is an unflattering portrait, and for once, Asuka responds not by rising to the bait, but by begging for relief. The scenes replay again and again, a silent interrogation, a persistent question of “is this you? Is this you? Do you recognize the you in this picture?” Even Kaji offers no relief, the maturity he represented now tainted by his apparent bond with Shinji, of all people. Shinji is the one Kaji took to? The boy too childish and fearful even to recognize her attempts at intimacy, to play the role she needed in her game of adulthood? How could that idiot possibly be more desirable than her!?

“Are you lonely?” asks the girl holding the doll, the last form of Asuka willing to admit to such feelings. Our Asuka lies naked and alone, hunched over in the empty playground of childhood’s end. She has no strength to defend herself now. No hope of claiming Kaji, or of triumphing in the Eva unit. Here at the long, lonely terminus of the childhood she has rejected, only that scared little girl remains to speak with her, to make mockery of her claims to adulthood and independence. As conscious thoughts shatter into serrated fears and feelings, Asuka is faced with the emptiness inside: the reality that, once you unpeel her pride and rejection and all else she has constructed in opposition to her mother’s shadow, there might simply be nothing left of her. As she apologizes to Kaji for this angel’s cruel transgression, Unit 02 at last goes silent.

The rest is simply confusion. Shinji gallantly volunteers to save his fellow pilot, but is denied. Gendo calls into play the “Lance of Longinus,” the spear that pierced Jesus’ side on the cross, now framed as a lingering artifact of the Second Impact. Rei descends through “Malebolge” (the eighth circle of hell, here cheekily referring to Central Dogma’s lower depths), while Misato realizes all she has learned about the threat of the angels is a lie. “We cannot turn back time,” Gendo begrudges, “but we do have the power to spur it onward.” The lance is retrieved from a crucified titan bearing Seele’s stolen face of god, and flung towards the angel with terrifying, terminal effect.

What good is any of it? What crisis was averted? What purpose have these children been conscripted to fulfill? Crouched by the now-distant Unit 02, Asuka can only lament the fact that of all her allies, it was that complacent doll who ultimately saved her. The doll who embodies her own weakness, her own desperation for a gentle touch, a fundamental cowardice laid bare in the moment of her greatest failure. Asuka hates everyone, but Asuka hates herself most of all.

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