Asuka Langley Sohryu, the spitfire prodigy who enters the story of Neon Genesis Evangelion like a wrecking ball, has never been the character I publicly align myself with. I have folders of images of Shinji Ikari (and sometimes Rei Ayanami) for all my #same and #aboutme needs. My depression and sense of wrong-footedness in the world IS most like Shinji’s, shrinking from others even as I drip with the need for acceptance, borderline self-absorbed in the conviction of my own worthlessness. I’ve always feared taking up space. Asuka makes herself so much larger than her fragile teenage body. She yells, she crows, she storms, and she’s often standing on the highest ground in a given scene to position herself over her peers and adults alike. I take pains to seem emotionally smaller than Asuka in my life, but the difficulty and effort come in part because I am like her. I too am angry at every failure. My self-concept is tyrannical and rigid, sometimes deforming into a profound lack of compassion for others. I also feel bound to Asuka in her angst over growing up; in her uniquely adolescent, girlish despair at the limits of her own body.
Asuka spends most of her time insisting she has nothing left to learn, that she is already an adult. As the most ruthless and well-trained Eva pilot, she balks at the idea that she should be asked to save the world but not be allowed to act as a professionally and emotionally independent person. I mean, fair point. But like the other pilots, she is a vulnerable child. Unlike Shinji’s passivity, Asuka deals with her trauma and fear of abandonment with false bravado. She would rather be seen as angry and hateful than weak, and has almost no filter for lashing out at others. There’s one moment in episode 22, “At Least, Be Human”/”Don’t Be,” where her anger is intimate and heartbreaking. There’s nobody to witness it and I’m not sure she would have shared this particular pain with others anyway.
Leaning over a bathroom counter after a morning of disappointing training results, Asuka grimaces at her own reflection, drained of her usual brash confidence. She’s been slowly deflating as a person and a pilot over the past few episodes, but there’s a tragic normalcy here: she’s angry that she’s on her period. It’s stupid and mundane, and yet it still feels cruel to watch a young girl reckon with this inevitability of womanhood. I still get pent up and bitter some months at the reminder of my embarrassing limitations. I hated it when I was younger. I hated it and all it represented so much that I forced my body backwards into a false childhood. Even as I starved and hollowed myself out, I felt free, my mind racing with possibilities and Asuka-like courage. Think of all the things I could do, now that I didn’t have to be a woman! I felt hyperalert, strong, brimming with energy I shouldn’t have had. I felt like I had gamed the whole system. (anorexics, like Asuka, can be extremely dumb smart people)
Asuka’s ultimate nosedive into a catatonic depression happens after the bathroom scene. In the following battle, her mind is taken over by the enemy. She sits paralyzed in her Eva, forced to relive warped versions of her worst memories. When she cries “I’m defiled” and “I’m dirty now,” I see a clear line from her disappointment with her own body to her sense of mental contamination.
Before the climax in episode 22, Asuka treats her own sexual maturity or lack thereof with the same bullheaded confidence she has for her piloting. She feels superior to Shinji and her male peers, but enjoys flaunting her beauty. Her affection is reserved for the 30ish year old Kaji. She throws herself at him and begs for his attention in a way that’s later echoed in flashbacks to her child self crying to be noticed by her parents. Her idea of sex and adulthood is vague enough to be exciting and unobtrusive. She sees her budding femininity as a tool to win love and devotion but has every reason to fear and resent the life sentence of adulthood.
Womanhood as a dangerous role plagues the adults of Eva. The Magi, NERV Headquarter’s supercomputers, were built by Dr. Naoko Akagi and implanted with her distinct aspects as a scientist, mother, and woman. The computer with Dr. Akagi’s personality as a woman is the key to a last-minute victory in one episode, but her womanhood was also her undoing. In a flashback about NERV’s history, we learn that Dr. Akagi committed suicide following actions that grew out of jealousy in her affair with Gendo Ikari. When Asuka remembers her own mother and step mother, we overhear a conversation the latter has with Asuka’s father. She reminds her lover that she is a doctor and a woman, and later, that she is a wife before a mother. Even Yui Ikari, though she worked with her husband until her death, gives up a promising solo career in science. Ritsuko Akagi, like her mother, eventually cracks under Gendo’s psychological and sexual manipulations. Misato’s fraught relationship to her own womanhood is wrapped up in the memories of her own mother made weak by her dependence on her father. In Eva, womanhood looms as a force that compromises and endangers people. It deprives them of their promise, their careers, children of their mothers. Every adult female character faces a version of “woman or…?”
I have always felt – in my heart of hearts, but also in literature of girls and women – that there is a sense of limitlessness that burns out in the finality of sexual maturity. I worry this is somehow unfeminist; a failing to fight against a burden I see as inescapable and expand my idea of what power and freedom can mean. But there is an undeniable, near universal fascination with the adolescent girl, not only as an object of beauty, but as a symbol of potential. When I read shojo manga and stories of heroines-on-the-brink, I feel so overwhelmed by the small magic and hope in those narratives, and comforted by the aesthetic assurance that the day to day concerns and melodrama of teenage girls deserves the flash and operatic framing of any other epic. I also want to literally wail.
I miss being a girl and the expression of my grief is only fit for those girlish stories. Where do I put those feelings as an adult? In Evangelion, the answer to that question is exemplified in Misato. She is deeply traumatized but masters her public/private life. Her colleague and best friend, Ritsuko Akagi, keeps an even tighter lock on her damage. Watching Eva as an adult closer to Misato’s age than the kids’, I’m envious of Asuka’s childish lack of boundaries around her violent emotions. I used to bristle against the parts of her that reminded me too much of my own volatility, but now I feel protective of her, fond of her as I am of other young women in my own literary canon.
The most common point of discussion in Eva’s subversion of literary tropes is Shinji’s lack of heroic qualities and stark contrast to other young male anime protagonists, but I am interested in how Asuka fits in not only with shojo manga and anime characters, but girls of children’s literature. She has the hotheadedness that Shinji would have had in a “normal” story,” but also a little bit of the magnetism and independent spirit found in beloved female characters like Anne Shirley, Jo March, and even Pippi Longstocking (all characters with popularity in Japan). Asuka’s red hair and tousled, unfinished beauty have sometimes led me to wonder if Anno, Sadamoto, and co. might have been thinking of Anne and how that kind of exceptional girl heroine would function Eva’s brutal existentialist nightmare of a world.
It’s no wonder that in Asuka’s tantrums against anyone and everyone, she often saves the worst for Rei. Rei is docile, composed, and forever a child. Though Asuka doesn’t know that Rei is a clone of Yui Ikari, destined to stay in the same body and always be replaceable, she must sense Rei’s agelessness. Rei has no mother to miss and she gets the consistent attention and praise that Asuka craves. Asuka’s go to insult is that Rei is a doll, but there’s a excruciating sense that Asuka is jealous of it. A doll is cared for, loved, and valued merely for existing. Asuka lives in fear that anything less than perfection as a pilot will cost her whatever acceptance and affection she’s managed to find.
There are times when my sadness feels quiet and empty like Rei, and more times when it’s so like Shinji that I’ve spent years not being able to read a criticism of his character without taking it as a personal insult. But just as often, I’ve hung my identity on one thing: looking right enough, my eating disorder, myself as a student – to the obliteration of all else. I think I avoided copping to being an Asuka not just out of shame at my own emotions, but to distance myself from the commodification of her character as an object of desire. In the always reductive and exhausting “best girl” discourse, the characteristics that make Asuka wonderful but also so delicate and explosive and sad – her temper, her stubbornness, her recklessness – are flattened into a Badass Girl, or a tsundere, or just a prototypical fiery red-head. Alignment with Asuka meant running into what I already feared – being seen as a woman, as the measure of my attractiveness, before anything else.
I’ve watched Eva about seven times now, and Asuka’s loss of hope and the way she is failed by so many adults seemed more harrowing and awful than ever. When she lies emaciated in a bathtub, broken and resigned after feeling betrayed by her own body and mind, it’s so seering and true to my female experience of growing up. She’s so much like me at 14 (me now), and I’m still so much like her. When I finished the last episode, I cried at Shinji’s cathartic decision that maybe, just maybe, his life could have a greater value. Evangelion is a perfect work of art to me, and I wouldn’t add or take away any moment of it, but I did find myself fantasizing about Asuka having her own breakthrough. At the very least, I thought maybe I could value the parts of her that are in me more fully.
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