I’ve been revisiting Neon Genesis Evangelion lately and have come to appreciate it in ways that I hadn’t before. While I always found the show to be especially good at showing the deep-seated fears and emotions within the characters to the point that they feel almost tangible, I’ve begun to take note of how well the characters’ words and actions exemplify their personalities.
One example that stands out in my mind comes from Episode 19, the famous episode where EVA-01 goes berserk and eats the enemy angel, Zeruel. When Zeruel descends upon Tokyo-3, it is first met by a barrage of artillery fire from Asuka and her EVA-02, just weapon after weapon after weapon, with Asuka getting progressively angrier until she is defeated. Rei then appears, her EVA-00 missing an arm, and charges at Zeruel with a powerful bomb with the plans to detonate it at point blank range. Later, right before Zeruel can attack the staff of NERV, Shinji bursts through and engages in melee combat, then loses power, then goes berserk. What I’ve come to realize is that the way each character fights in that scene represents them incredibly well, acting as more than just a visual spectacle.
Asuka is always looking to prove her self-worth, particularly as a pilot and as compensation for her traumatic childhood, and her desperation mounts increasingly as more and more weapons are deployed by the EVA-02. This loud, brash display of firepower is Asuka.
From the way everyone else reacts to seeing Rei carry the N² Mine, it is clear that no one knew of this beforehand, which means that the idea is entirely her own. Rei, who constantly questions whether or not she is human at all, has very little regard for her own life.
Shinji fights with a form of desperation different from Asuka’s, and as one of his core traits is a vague sense of self-identity, Shinji’s close combat perhaps shows his desire to gain an identity through the piloting of EVA-01. This also differs from Asuka because Shinji is not looking to prove himself, but rather to find himself. It might also be possible to say that the berserk scene itself shows Shinji’s tendency to be pulled along, though I’m not sure about that one.
I think the best indicator for how much this particular moment in Evangelion represents the inner feelings of its characters comes from a comparison to the redone scene in the second Rebuild of Evangelion movie. In it, Mari replaces Asuka in EVA-02 for the film’s iteration, and the fight begins in a similar fashion, with EVA-02 surrounded by firearms which Mari initially uses one after the other. However, the scene itself feels remarkably different. Mari uses each weapon more slowly and deliberately, never really reaching the intensity that Asuka did in the TV series, and after only a few decides to run in up close with a melee weapon. The method Asuka used is something only Asuka can do; it would not reflect Mari’s character.
As for Rei and Shinji, their changes highlight more of a subtle shift in character, a fundamental part of the new films. Rei, just like the original, attempts to defeat Zeruel by detonating a bomb at point-blank, but in this version Rei takes the time to push Mari and the EVA-02 out of the blast radius while thanking her, showing that her actions do not simply stem from doubting her own humanity but from also affirming the humanity of others. Shinji’s fight is initially similar, but as I once mentioned in my review of the film, Shinji never loses control, the “berserk” EVA-01’s actions conscious and deliberate on the part of Shinji. While he still seeks his own identity, he is able to set that aside to save Rei, establishing a stronger identity in the process.
I’d like to actually end by talking about Mari once more, because as I was making this comparison I realized the role she plays relative to the others in terms of their relationship to the Evangelions. Asuka pursues self-worth, Shinji self-identity, and Rei a connection to humanity, but Mari seeks pleasure in the act itself. She revels in being an EVA pilot in and of itself, with no seeming underlying motivation except perhaps some strange desire to experience life to its fullest. Her “bestial” fighting style, even before she activates the actual “THE BEAST” mode, is indicative of this. That Evangelion is able to cut to the core of its characters in even its action scenes makes it truly impressive.