Before I started watching the classic mecha anime NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, multiple people had given me a warning. Something along the lines of “The anime is awesome, but the main character is a whiny brat.” So I went into the series expecting to despise NGE’s hero Shinji Ikari. After the first episode ended, I exclaimed in surprise: “Shinji’s not whiny! He has clinical depression!”

This wasn’t just my interpretation of the character, I soon realized. Shinji’s depression is deeply woven into NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. NGE creator Hideaki Anno mentioned in an interview that, prior to starting the series, he was in a four-year-long depression. NGE developed out of Anno’s resolution to no longer “run away” from who he was. A resolution that Shinji repeats verbatim in the anime several times.

Certainly, Anno’s experience paid off. NEON GENESIS EVANGELION has some of the most realistic depictions of depression I’ve ever seen in media. And this is a series that’s over two decades old! We all know how serious the topic of depression is. Yet, when it comes to depressed characters like Shinji, we stop taking things seriously. Considering that real lives are on the line when we’re misinformed about depression, conversations about it are essential. And so I have to wonder…why do so many people love to hate Shinji Ikari?

Shinji Ikari’s Depression

Shinji Ikari gearing up with his giant mech in the background.
Poster of Shinji Ikari, ft. giant robot. | Image: Zerochan

Studio Gainax’s NEON GENESIS EVANGELION begins with Shinji deep in the midst of a depressive state. He is taken in to see his estranged father, Gendo, who runs a government agency dedicated to fighting “angels.” These otherworldly monsters have descended from the skies and brought Earth into chaos. 14-year-old Shinji expects to finally speak with his father after years of abandonment, but Gendo coldly issues an ultimatum. Shinji can either become a mech pilot and work as humanity’s last resort against the apocalypse, battling monsters every day. Or he can watch his father force another 14-year-old into battle despite severe injuries. Given the circumstances, Shinji reluctantly agrees.

During the first four episodes of the series, Shinji constantly doubts whether he is good enough to defend humanity. He becomes increasingly lethargic, reacting very slowly to his opponents in battle. When he defeats them, he sobs to himself. Hardly speaking, he responds to everything with a monotone “yes.” At school, a classmate punches him twice. Rather than defend himself, Shinji just lies limply on the ground. Later on, we can see that Shinji doesn’t always act like this. As things pick up for him in the story, he speaks more and his voice has actual tone in it. He learns how to pilot his mech efficiently, and he starts making friends. It’s not until the third act of NGE, marked by a confrontation with Shinji’s shadow self, that the symptoms return.

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Depression & Me

Shinji encounters his shadow self on a bus.
Shinji can’t catch a break, even in his mind. | Image: Tasukete

When I first watched the series, NEON GENESIS EVANGELION’s in-depth depiction of mental illness blew me away. At the time, I was deep in a battle with depression myself. It was the summer I started antidepressants, so you know it was bad. Different people show depressive symptoms in a variety of ways. Yet Shinji and I experience depression quite similarly. When I used to have regular episodes, it was like I would slowly turn into a statue. The sadder I got, the harder it was to speak and move. People would say things and I’d hear them, but I hardly had time to react.

It’s incredibly common to experience mental illness physically in this way. Among people with depression, common symptoms include fatigue, weight loss, and medical ailments with no clear cause. And anxiety disorders, which often go together with depression, can cause rapid heartbeat, hyperventilating, and difficulty speaking. So when someone says they’re struggling with mental illness, it’s probably not just all in their head. It’s in their body too.

So personally, if I’d been in Shinji’s place, I would’ve struggled physically just as much as he did. It would’ve been hard enough getting into the robot, much less using it for battle. This is why the fandom’s joking statement “Just get in the robot, Shinji” has always felt harsh to me.

“Get in the Goddamn Robot”

From the start of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION, Hideaki Anno was open about his inspirations for Shinji. And yet, to this day, a character from 1995 sparks constant jokes. Look up any online discussion of NGE. You will find comments calling Shinji “whiny,” “angsty,” “gay,” “girly,” “a sissy,” and so on.

The main critique of his character seems to be the following: Shinji has the dream life any nerd would love. He has a cool robot, and he’s surrounded by beautiful women. Yet instead of banging chicks and eagerly punching bad guys, he cries and cries. In fact, his main romantic encounter during the series happens with another boy. This leaves the NGE fandom’s main waifus Asuka and Rei in the dust. Interestingly, this is the central hang-up I keep finding on forums. I would’ve expected the big issue to be that horrible hospital scene. You know, the one from the END OF EVANGELION movie that I refuse to speak of.

In all of this, there seems to be vicious anger towards Shinji for not performing masculinity sufficiently. And his tears seem connected to it. Instead of relishing violence, he breaks down at the thought of it. Instead of actively pursuing female characters, he longs for an emotional connection with them. These traits of his depression all read as feminine qualities. After all, I’ve heard countless times how “boys don’t cry,” or, if they do, they “cry like a girl.” Just as if they do badly in sports or fights, they “hit like a girl.” The logical connection is simple. Showing emotions is girly, and girly is weak. Therefore, showing emotions is weak.

You’re Getting Hysterical

People viewing mental illness as feminine is nothing new. In fact, it’s a well-documented trend that extends back to ancient times. Take a look at the history of “hysteria,” an illness supposedly caused by the uterus itself. From BCE until the Victorian Era, hysteria was the go-to diagnosis when a woman experienced anything from tremors to tearfulness. With philosophers like Aristotle teaching that women are inherently more emotional and men more logical, hysteria would make total sense. Of course, it’s the womb moving too much that makes ladies emotional. It’s definitely not the fact that we’re confining them to the house and calling them stupid all day. And so we resent the hyper-emotional state that mentally ill people often experience. Why? Because we’ve associated it with a weak mind, a girly mind.

Girly Depression

Lapis Lazuli after being freed from a magical mirror.
First appearance of Lapis Lazuli, from STEVEN UNIVERSE. | Image: STEVEN UNIVERSE Wiki

Shinji Ikari isn’t the only animated mentally ill character who receives intense resentment for his sensitive nature. For example, Lapis Lazuli is one of the most hated characters in the STEVEN UNIVERSE fandom. If you’re unfamiliar with the cartoon, Lapis is a glum alien recovering from a horrific past. Many fans dislike her for a variety of reasons. She’s still emotional, ages after her trauma. Easy to panic, she flees the second there’s danger. Even when trying to do something fun with friends, she’s still upset. Of course, these are all real symptoms of PTSD. And STEVEN UNIVERSE creator Rebecca Sugar based Lapis on her own lived experience with a failed relationship.

When you look at the critiques of Shinji and Lapis, they start to read like typical misogynist complaints of women. These characters are passive, whiny, emotional, shallow, physically weak, and fearful. To gain the viewer’s respect, they must learn to “man up” and fight back.

However, these aren’t the only types of characters coded with depression. There’s another type that fans tend to adore.

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Manly Depression

Sasuke brooding.
Sasuke, master of angst. | Image: NARUTO Wiki

This type reacts to trauma not with tearfulness or fear but with rage and apathy. Instead of breaking down, he becomes obsessed with a goal out of vengeance or spite. He’s glamorous in his violence, romantic in his anger. He’s Sasuke in NARUTO and Eren Jaeger in ATTACK ON TITAN. Zuko in AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. Batman in, well, BATMAN. These characters tend to have extremely devoted fanbases and long fanfics diving into their troubled pasts. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone calling DEATH NOTE’s Light Yagami “shallow” and “weak,” even though he is a literal serial killer.

Why do characters who’ve committed atrocities deserve pity, while a character whose biggest crime is running away deserves wrath? Because our ideal is the hard-ass masculine action hero whose only emotion is anger. And when someone reminds us that humans are more vulnerable than that, we can’t cope. We look at Shinji who can hardly speak and Lapis who still reels from abuse and we must twist things so that they are responsible for their own pain.

Why Do We Hate Shinji Ikari?

Depressed Shinji struggling to fall asleep.
A depressed Shinji trying to sleep. | Image: OtakuPT

While I agree Shinji Ikari is definitely not a perfect hero, I don’t believe the hatred he still gets comes from his own actions. It comes from something much more sinister. Somewhere along the way, we developed an urge to lash out against those who show “weakness” especially if they are feminine. ” That means turning our backs to survivors of abuse, suicide, PTSD, and more. Rather than providing support and resources, we laugh at these people. So when those with depression go to an NGE chat, they see hundreds of comments about how repulsive they are.

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION has been around for 22 years, but the conversation around mental health activism is very recent. So it’s understandable that people who watched the series years ago might not think to look back at it from a new perspective. However, with all the recent discussions around depression, it’s time to reconsider how we talk about Shinji. This anime and its community could be a great tool to empower those struggling with depression and suicide. We could provide space for people to share their own experiences with mental illness and embrace them as heroes capable of defending the world. But so far, the fandom’s first instinct has been to distance themselves from people like Shinji. In the end, that just makes the Shinji Ikari’s of the world all the lonelier.

Featured image courtesy of SoraNews24

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