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.