Anne of the Apocalypse

*note: this is a post I salvaged from an old website, it must be from around summer 2019**

Asuka Langley Soryu, the spitfire prodigy who enters the 1995 anime classic Neon Genesis Evangelion like a wrecking ball, has never been the character I publicly align myself with. I have folders of images of protagonist Shinji Ikari for all my #same and #aboutme needs. My depression and sense of wrong-footedness in the world has always felt 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 the boundaries of 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 pilot of the mysterious giant robots known as Eva units, she balks at the idea that she should be asked to save the world but not 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 the show’s 22nd episode, “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 frustrated 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 cheated the whole system. Anorexics, like Asuka, can be extremely idiotic for 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 Kaji, her 30-something mentor figure. She throws herself at him 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. In Evangelion, 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 manga targeted at teenage girls and stories of heroines-on-the-brink, I feel so overwhelmed by the small magic in those narratives. Girls in these stories have wide eyes that hold galaxies worth of hopes, signaling that their perspective and minds are full of ideas worth sharing. Every tragedy and heartbreak fill the pages with their oversized nowness. I’m 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 mourn.

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 Asuka’s guardian, Misato. She is deeply traumatized but masters the code-switching, balancing act between her public and private life. Her colleague and best friend, Ritsuko, keeps an even tighter lock on her damage. Watching Evangelion 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 Evangelion‘s subversion of literary tropes is Shinji’s lack of heroic qualities, in stark contrast to other young male anime protagonists, but I am interested in how Asuka fits in not only with other manga and anime characters, but girls of children’s literature. She has the hotheadedness that Shinji would have had in a “normal” adventure 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 who enjoy immense popularity in Japan). Asuka’s red hair and tousled, unfinished beauty have sometimes led me to wonder if the creative team might have been thinking of Anne and how that kind of exceptional girl heroine would function Evangelion‘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 her fellow female pilot, Rei. Rei is docile, composed, and forever a child. Though Asuka doesn’t know that Rei is in fact a manufactured being, 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 correct enough, eating, 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 discourse about who is the “best girl,” 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 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 Evangelion about seven times now, and Asuka’s loss of hope and the way she is failed by so many adults seems 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 searing and true to my experience of growing up. She’s so much like me at 14, and I’m still so much like her. When I finished the last episode of my latest re-watch, I cried at Shinji’s cathartic decision that maybe, just maybe, his life could have a greater value. Evangelion is the fictional narrative closest to my heart, 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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