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.
Golden joy, silver sorrow/everything so far/for your sake, for love’s sake alone/let’s empty these two bowls
So ends the baleful, synthed-out theme song to the 1991 anime Brother, Dear Brother as images of carriages, antique clocks, and parasols fade off the screen. The scene is set for something sweeping and operatic, the kind of story where destined love must overcome war, class divides, or even death. It’s a fair expectation from a Riyoko Ikeda story and director Osamu Dezaki, the same combination on The Rose of Versailles, which had all of that stuff. Then the first episode starts and it’s about…Nanako, an everyday 16-year-old, and her first day of high school. Brother, Dear Brother dares to establish a setting where the chasm between epic romance and mundane teenage life isn’t that wide. It may not exist at all. The characters’ minor dramas – being slighted by the school’s most exclusive clique, low grades on midterm exams – are placed up against dark secrets, mysterious terminal illnesses, and the kind of unrequited love that can destroy lives.
I have a weakness for art that is overblown, baroque, and unafraid to lean into its Too Muchness. My fondness for melodrama is because it actually touches me. Especially resonant nuggets of truth about the human condition are often at the heart of the biggest, heaviest-handed stories. When a character in Brother, Dear Brother is compared to a historical prince, we are rewarded with a freeze frame her dressed as a royal and surrounded by fluttering cherry blossoms. Anger and conflict are punctuated by sudden storms, lightning highlighting wide-eyed expressions. The protagonist’s crush actually has a rose in her teeth at one point. It’s all ridiculous. And very charming. Most of all, it conjures a world of female adolescence that forces the audience to live in its visceral experience instead of gawking at teen drama or hiding behind cynicism.
The intersection of personal relationships and the messy cocktail of talent, drive, and competition has become, increasingly, my narrative catnip. I love a good sports anime that is Actually about Human Connection All Along. Some of the most complex and painfully human character types come from these stories: the prodigy who doesn’t want glory as much as everyone wants them to want it, the relentless competitor who can’t work their way into born talent, or the people who define their entire worth by a grueling and fleeting achievement.These tensions have been explored wonderfully in shows like Ping Pong and AKB0048, and this past summer, Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight.
In Revue Starlight‘s Takarazuka-based performing arts school, the girls are not only training to be musical theater stars in their everyday lives, but competing in after-hours, surreal duels to choose their own “stage of destiny,” Yes, the director worked with Ikuhara. Fantastical elements aside, Starlight has moments of surprising bluntness regarding the ruthless and often unfair system that allows only certain actresses to set on a path to become a Top Star. I loved the arc of rivals and leading students Maya Tendou and Claudine Saijo, or the tragedy of Nana Daiba, a girl who rejects her potential to be a top star because she fears the isolation that her success at the expense of others’ failures would bring.
I’ve started a few drafts about Maya, Nana, and others, but I keep coming back to an episode of Revue Starlight that ultimately doesn’t have much to do with being a star, but being a good partner. The protagonist, Karen, is motivated by promise she made with her childhood friend, Hikari, but to me there is a far more compelling look at the weight of long relationships and promises in the duo of Kaoruko and Futaba.
Here’s a story that may sound familiar. There’s a teenage girl who’s reflective and mature enough to have trouble connecting with her peers, but is still emotionally naive. She and the boys her age look past each other. Like anyone, she still wants to experience love and acceptance. She wants to feel seen and heard by someone equally reflective. The first person to scratch that itch is a teacher, a coach, a mentor – an older man with the kindness and sensitivity she’s been craving. The gap between their ages is inappropriate, but so what? This is the closest she’s come to what being in love is supposed to feel like and age is just a number.
The age gap relationship is a taboo and often distasteful topic in real life and fiction, for good reason. It’s all too common for adults to take advantage of the skewed power dynamics at work with a younger love interest. The alleged responsible party is often just…not. There’s also an insidious tendency to blame the instigation or fallout of these relationships on young women (shout out to the people who nicknamed me Jailbait at 17). It’s disingenuous, however, to pretend that there isn’t compelling evidence for why a young girl would develop such feelings in the first place. The dark side of these entanglements have led to some of the most long-standing traumas in my life, and yet…I still find myself drawn to stories of scandalous age differences. It’s hard to know where to categorize these feelings in the context of my past, but I believe there’s a place for processing and experiencing healthy fantasies through fiction. Two stories that have been positive or even healing for me are good old Twin Peaks and the winter 2018 anime Koi wa Ameagari no You ni (Love is Like After the Rain).
I am a person with a lot of screeching and strident anime opinions, but when it comes to actually diving into hot button conversations on a season-to-season basis, I usually wimp out because conflict eats me. But there’s a new show, Darling in the Franxx, that I was compelled to bleed a lot of word viscera about because it’s being very blunt with themes of sexuality and sexual roles. It’s at an intersection of things I spend a lot of my time processing as a girl, a feminist, a sexual abuse survivor, a person with a blood fetish, the list goes on. I don’t think the world needs my take, but I haven’t really seen much discourse in the pro or con camp coming from a cool sexual trauma haver, so here it is.