In the book Living a Life That Matters, rabbi Harold Kushner writes the following:
Much of our lives, much of our energy will be devoted to closing that gap between the longings of our soul and the scoldings of our conscience, between our too-often conflicting needs for the assurance of knowing that we are good and the satisfaction of being told that we are important.
This theme of wanting to do what is right, but also being told that we matter is central to the 26-episode anime TV series, Neon Genesis Evangelion. All the characters want to do what is right: to defend mankind against alien invaders called Angels. But each character looks for assurance from different people. For example, the main protagonist is a 14-year-old boy, Shinji, who is suddenly thrust into the pilot’s seat of a mysterious robot, Eva Unit 01.
Shinji has a dysfunctional relationship with his distant, stern father, Gendo Ikari. It’s dysfunctional because his father left him when he was very young, and even though Shinji sees his father now, his father keeps his distance. To earn his father’s praise, Shinji takes great honor and pride in piloting his Eva to defeat the invading Angels. Unfortunately, his father praises him only once in the entire series!
Shinji’s guardian, the beautiful, strong-willed Misato, plays his pseudo-mother. Shinji’s real mother died earlier. Throughout the series, we observe Misato watching out for Shinji’s well-being and coaching him. Misato’s father died while saving Misato from “The Second Impact”, a massive explosion caused by something to do with the Angels. Misato is driven by revenge for her father’s death, and as a result, she focuses on her military career as a member of NERV, the organization whose purpose is to defeat the Angels using the Evas.
Another Eva pilot, Rei, who was genetically engineered by Shinji’s father, just follows orders, speaks softly, and is eerily robotic. Rei is motivated simply by following her creator’s orders.
The scientist Ritsuko is the daughter of a woman who designed the computer system Magi that controls NERV. Ritsuko is motivated by living up to her mother’s reputation.
The third Eva pilot, Asuka, is a fiery girl who seeks assurance from NERV command that she is a good pilot. However, she fails during several battles to defeat the Angels, and is very hard on herself for her failures. In addition, as a result of an Angel’s psychological attack on her Eva unit, we see that Asuka’s mom committed suicide when she was very young. Asuka has been blocking out this tragic event in her mind, and reliving it paralyzes her ability to pilot her Eva unit.
The final two episodes are a psychedelic ride into each character’s minds, especially Shinji’s. These episodes are really hard to watch because of quickly changing scenes, which often repeat the same material. There is a key scene where all the characters, including his father, applaud Shinji, giving him wide assurance that he matters. The final frames of the last episode contain just the words, “Thank you, my father. Good bye, my mother. And to all the children, Congratulations!” I wonder if the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno, had similar relationships with his parents–he wanted to do what is right, but he never got the praise he wanted from his parents!