In the twenty-second episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Asuka breaks my heart, adding to the long list of things in this show that have broken my heart. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of suicide, grief, PTSD, mental health/ableism.
Wow, this was a tough episode to watch, but I came out of it hoping that this made Asuka seem like a more sympathetic character instead of less likable. I’ve gotten a few weird tweets from folks who love the show but are very open about their dislike of Asuka because she’s “annoying” and “pushy.” (I blocked these people because seriously, I’m not interested in character readings from people who don’t seem to understand that they shouldn’t be having this conversation with me in the first place.) I understand now more than ever why she’s been portrayed as she has throughout the show, and I suppose I find it even more suspect that people would feel the need to talk about their grave dislike of a character who very obviously is dealing (or not dealing) with their grief over their mother.
My instinct here, as I watched Asuka’s backstory, was one of understanding. I knew that Asuka was competitive and desperate for validation, and that never turned me off of her as a character. She played an antagonistic role sometimes within the show, and I think you could even argue that she’s a foil to Shinji. She exists to highlight his selfishness or his lack of ambition. Hell, I even think you can analyze her by thinking of Asuka as a commentary on the whole Chosen One narrative! She constantly makes a point to state that Shinji is too perfect or too willing to save others. He’s very much the Hero of this piece, and I like the idea that Asuka can point out the absurdity of that. At the same time, I prefer characters that get their own story, too, even if it’s not the focus of an episode or a series. That’s really important to me!
So does “Don’t Be” provide that? I think it does, at least in the sense that it goes to great lengths to put Asuka’s behavior in the context of her past. Now, I don’t think anyone needs a justifiable or easily-categorized past in order to explain current behavior. We, as humans, are far messier and more complicated by that. But in the limited space of this episode, I appreciated the “explanation,” so to speak, of Asuka’s general attitude towards life. Why is she so driven to succeed? Why does she want to succeed on her own? Why is her independence so important to her? There’s been little exploration of these themes or issues beyond a surface-level examination, so just on that level alone, this worked for me.
But it’s in Asuka’s reaction to her mother’s suicide and the events surrounding it that are helpful in understanding this character. Her mother’s declining mental health was due entirely to work in this field. Like with Yui, an accident on-site caused the problems she had. Watching her mother’s decline could easily explain why Asuka has such an aversion to all forms of mental illness, why she refuses to talk about her own feelings, and why she believes that she is the only best friend she has. She probably feels abandoned by everyone who cares for her, so why should she ever depend on anyone to support her?
I want to avoid doing any armchair-diagnosing here, so instead, let me just speak more generally. If Asuka has a mental illness, or if she is manifesting symptoms of grief and PTSD in the present time, I want the world she’s in to support her. It’s not easy to support people with mental health issues that are uncomfortable, might present with violence, or are just downright scary, but that doesn’t mean that these people don’t deserve respect or to be treated with dignity! The fact that there is no counselor of any sort for these kids is abominable to me. The very act of synching with the Evangelions is mentally straining, and yet no one seems to provide ANY help to these pilots in this regard. Despite knowing that Asuka’s sync rates were plummeting each day, did anyone actually do anything to figure out why this was the case?
Nope. Instead, she’s given a quiet ultimatum: figure this shit out on your own, or you’ll no longer be a pilot.
So when the newest Angel attacked and hit Asuka with a beam of energy meant to disrupt her mind, I knew this would end disastrously. Everything about this was destined for failure. Why didn’t anyone stop her? Why would you continually push someone who has very obvious issues with validation and attention into doing something that requires her to seek out validation from her peers? I realize I’m analyzing this from a possibly bizarre angle. The show feels like a commentary on this genre, and I’ve not seen much of the genre anyway, so perhaps this is totally flying over my head. I admit that! I can see how you can look at this episode (and the series as a whole) as one long look at the mental/emotional ramifications of being a mecha pilot. So I don’t think there is one way to look at all of this; there’s probably a ton of them!
I just have a lot of feelings for Asuka because I have a lot of resentment within me. When the rest of the world appears to get along fine, it’s hard not to look at one’s own life and wonder what made you so “polluted” for things to seemingly never go your way. There’s a specific context here for Asuka, of course, and comparing my life to hers isn’t applicable in every sense. But I sometimes resent not having a “normal” childhood or “normal” parents, and I’ve been out of my original home for sixteen years now. Asuka is far closer to the trauma of watching her mother slip away and having her father ignore her. She can’t see the world through a new set of eyes, and thus, even when Shinji or Rei genuinely helps her, she can’t interpret it as anything but her own personal failure. She’s an independent person, and any assistance – no matter how needed – is a sign of weakness.
“Don’t Be” offers no actual solution for Asuka, and the ending of this episode is a grim thing to watch. She’s back to distrust and hatred. But Neon Genesis hasn’t offered much in the form of answers to anyone, which makes me curious about whether or not the show will give closure to these characters, whose lives have all been torn apart by the Angels and NERV and THIS LONG, LONG NIGHTMARE. I don’t have the answers myself, either. I JUST HURT.
The video for “Don’t Be” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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