"Get In The Robot, Shinji"by Zac Bertschy,
I've been an anime fan since the spring of 1996, when bootleg tapes of Hideaki Anno's world-shattering classic Neon Genesis Evangelion (which hits Netflix today at long last) started circulating heavily among the bearded, bespectacled fans of the day. It's still my favorite anime - probably my favorite television show, period. I've been obsessed with it since then, I think, an obsession that has only grown in the 23 years since. Back then, plenty of people didn't quite know how to handle what they were seeing. The images held things in common with other robot-and-tokusatsu-obsessed anime of the time, but Evangelion was somehow completely unlike anything we had ever seen before. The show pushed us in ways we weren't expecting, with one character in particular providing a challenge many fans just couldn't quite seem to understand, and that deep, fundamental misunderstanding gave birth to a phrase – a meme, really - that still hits me like nails on a chalkboard every time I've heard it for the past two decades. I heard it a lot back then, and I still hear it a lot now. It's been haunting me for 23 years now.
“Get in the robot, Shinji.”
I hate this phrase so much. It's on countless bootleg tee-shirts. People will repeat it ad nauseum when you bring Evangelion up. In my opinion, there is no faster way to announce to the room “I fundamentally misunderstand the TV series Neon Genesis Evangelion and maybe have an empathy problem” than to say “Get in the robot, Shinji” out loud.
Hang on, I'll explain.
At its core – past all the flashy abstract designs and deliberately pandering fanservice and brilliantly choreographed action - Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show about the painful and daunting process of overcoming self-hatred and deep, dark depression. Not just sadness, the kind of thick, rich, seemingly unconquerable depression that results from traumatic abuse and abandonment, the kind that defines you as a person, the kind you'll spend your whole life trying to overcome. In the show, Shinji is a wildly depressed and understandably angry kid being used and abused by his evil father, Gendo Ikari, for his own unbelievably selfish ends. Gendo wants to plunge what's left of humanity into the end times so he can be reunited with his dead wife, and believes he's entitled to rob each and every one of us our individuality and then murder us all for the privilege of doing so. To achieve this, he goes above and beyond - in unprecedented ways - to cruelly manipulate his miserably anxious and traumatized kid into piloting an enormous armored beast imbued with the soul of his dead wife in the hope of triggering the event that will get Gendo what he wants - the solipsistic dream of divine reunification with something he can't have anymore.
It isn't just garden variety manipulation, either – Gendo invents new ways to totally scramble Shinji's brain as best he can. He directly takes advantage of Shinji's basic sense of empathy, telling him that if he doesn't want broken and bleeding Rei to get hurt even further, he'd better get in the fucking robot. He demands Shinji murder his friend - commanding him to crush poor Touji's entry plug - and when he refuses, Gendo rips control away from Shinji and forces him to watch the beast he's trapped inside smash his friend to pieces. Gendo weaponizes Shinji's self-hatred against him over and over again; their interactions are pure manipulation. It is absolutely vile, deeply traumatizing behavior that leaves Shinji with even deeper psychological wounds. Gendo Ikari is one of the great screen villains as a result, but not in the fun, campy Saturday morning cartoon way so many other great villains are – Gendo is pure real human evil, the type so many people with truly abusive and selfish parents have experienced.
And yet – "Get in the fucking robot, Shinji” your friend says, callously.
“Shut up and dance for me.”
It drives me bananas. That there are any people at all who respond to this story with “Get in the robot, Shinji” – which translates directly to “shut up you whiny bitch and do what your selfish, abusive father wants” – still blows my mind. To gaze upon this broken child, to see what's being done to him at the vicious hands of his father and to respond to that by telling him to stop whining about it, shut up and give him what he wants - to me, it's a pretty trash response to have.
So why do some people respond that way? Why are there so many tee-shirts with this slogan printed on it?
It's not so difficult to figure out, though the reasons are diverse. For the chronically depressed, your entire existence can feel like a burden on others – Shinji expresses this directly over and over again in every iteration of Neon Genesis Evangelion. There are plenty of people out there willing to - even happy to - respond to that by turning it against you, running you down and making you feel like it's your fault for feeling the way you do. They respond as though castigating you for the way your abused brain makes you feel is going to somehow fix it and make it so they don't have to hear about your problems anymore. Your depression is an irritant, a problem that needs a quick solution so you can go back to filling the role you're supposed to as a predictable and unchallenging supporting cast member in the television show of their lives.
For some, it's a defensive response - Shinji's raw depression makes them uncomfortable, so the walls go up. Their response to it gets reduced to a flip joke designed to shut out feelings that are hard to deal with.
It's not all that difficult an attitude to comprehend, or even to understand – depressed people can be a lot to handle, too much sometimes. Taking a break from someone who is spiraling – as Shinji does frequently throughout the show – can be an important step to protect your own mental health, even if it's perfectly understandable why he might be spiraling. There are gentle and loving ways to do that, though – “get in the robot, Shinji” is the callous opposite of that, a validation of his abuser, an expression of casual, thoughtless desire to see his vile treatment continue. Thinking about the show and what that slogan represents in context for even a minute reveals the cruelty of that phrase, in my estimation.
Thankfully, Neon Genesis Evangelion and its creator, Hideaki Anno, are on Shinji's side, particularly in the original television series. Frankly, it's a big part of the reason this show speaks so deeply to so many people. There's hope for us all, in the end.
For as much abuse as he suffers, for as miserably depressed and mistreated as he is, in the bizarrely-maligned original TV ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Anno gives Shinji a way out: self-actualization, the sort of thing those of us living with depression can achieve if we try hard enough to see value in ourselves, to overcome self-hatred and learn to love the person inside and what they represent.
Now, this is really hard work for the chronically depressed – it takes years of therapy, re-wiring your own brain from the inside out, but according to the TV ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, it's absolutely possible – if you just do the hard work, and learn to love and value yourself.
After that – who knows, you could even be capable of loving other people in the way they deserve. What could be better than that?
Anno saves Gendo's brutal comeuppance for the significantly angrier and dramatically more pessimistic film ending, End of Evangelion, but make no mistake - that asshole gets what's coming to him. There's no mystery how Anno feels about Gendo's abuse and what he deserves.
So “Get in the fucking robot, Shinji”?
No. Never. Not for anyone. Once you learn to value yourself - to love yourself - you'll never let anyone tell you to get in the fucking robot ever again.
After all – it's a beautiful world. We just have to allow ourselves to see it.
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