I’ve done some rambling, self-obsessed posts in my time, but this might be the most self-absorbed piece I’ve ever done. Read at your own peril.
I feel like this is an odd attribute in someone who went to study Japanese at university, but I’ve never been a particularly huge fan of anime. I enjoy the work of Studio Ghibli, of course, and the film version of Akira was very influential on me when I saw it as a teenager. But I’ve been somewhat wary of delving further into the medium, mostly for a reason that’s probably unfair: the fans. More than the stereotype of Western anime fans as socially awkward and obsessive to an uncomfortable degree, what put me off was the way some fans would latch on to this one particular aspect of Japanese culture, and act as if their appreciation for it gave them some unique insight into the country and people. To appropriate this area of Japanese culture without necessarily understanding it seemed to me an uncomfortable expression of Orientalism, the uncritical, adoring flip-side to the xenophobic Japan-bashing of something like Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun. I didn’t want to come off as one of “those” Japanophiles, so for a long time I avoided delving too deeply into anime, or indeed manga.
Recently though, I’ve started to think that these concerns about the people who consume anime shouldn’t prevent me enjoying the best of what the medium has to offer. A few weeks ago I watched an entire anime series through for the first time: namely, Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most famous and well-regarded examples of the mecha (giant robot) genre. I came to the show via an odd route. Given its large profile I had obviously heard of Evangelion before, but only became really interested in it because of the references to it in the music of Gridlink, the recently disbanded grindcore outfit whose final album Longhena has been one of my most frequently-listened to this year. I may therefore be one of the few people who heard the music referencing the show and then watched it, rather than the other way around.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed the show and its accompanying movie conclusion The End Of Evangelion, in spite of some major technical and narrative flaws. The show’s producers were in dire financial straits by the end of its run, unable to even afford to produce animation frames, which is immediately obvious in the last few episodes when certain scenes feature still images for as long as a minute at a time. The attempts at humour in the show’s early run mostly fell flat for me, as did the episodes that merely reproduced the formulaic, monster-of-the-week format of shonen anime rather than subtly deconstructing it. By the end of the series, though, the show’s tone had taken a more serious turn, focused more on character than overarching plot, that resonated with me, particularly in terms of the insights it gave into its protagonists. The teenaged central cast, tasked with protecting humanity from invading “Angels” using the titular biomechanical Evangelions, felt real to me because of their responses to what, realistically, would be highly traumatic events.
Main protagonist Shinji Ikari, in particular, already suffers from low self-esteem before being forced into war, and by The End Of Evangelion appears to be affected by full-blown depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Similarly, the character of Asuka Soryu Langley is initially introduced as confident to the point of arrogance, and at first seems to be a brash, cheery girl in the vein of so many other anime heroines. But she too struggles with self-esteem issues and emotional repression. Having linked her self-worth to her performance in battle, she is devastated by defeat, lacerates herself for her failures and eventually succumbs to a mental breakdown. I appreciated that a fantastical science-fiction setting would devote this much attention to the consequences of its events upon the mental state of its characters. But these characters’ feelings of inadequacy and self-hatred were especially resonant to me as someone who has struggled with the same emotions for most of my life.
It’s for a similar reason that the music of Gridlink strikes such a chord with me. Lyricist and vocalist Jon Chang has explicitly mentioned Evangelion as an inspiration (“It’s a really interesting theme which goes back to Evangelion, of characters who don’t like themselves; who don’t like their lives, and they really don’t like the world that much, but it is up to them to save the world”), and drew upon the imagery, themes and atmosphere of the series and other, similar anime and videogames to create a version of grindcore that retained the genre’s trademark furious anger, but also made room for the sadness and despair of these media’s central characters. The melancholy that accompanies the fury was more evident on Gridlink’s later releases, but their first album Amber Gray features a song directly inspired by Evangelion that balances the two on a knife edge. In just over half a minute, “Asuka” manages to neatly summarise the aforementioned Evangelion character’s emotional struggle, as well as some of the show’s central themes:
In the walls of your heart
I’ll always be no one
In the walls of ourselves
No one hates you
as much as you hate yourself
in your own heart
I can’t entirely explain why, but the “No one hates you/As much as you hate yourself” line in particular is tremendously evocative to me. To live with depression is to forever have that self-hatred accompany you. For myself in particular, the fact that you are always accompanied by yourself is what produces self-hatred. If you spend enough time with anyone you’ll grow frustrated with them at times. Being around myself at all times, and remembering the bad and hurtful things I have done, is a major reason I often hate myself. In the context of the rest of the lyrics, the line could be read as an accusation, an expression of frustration at someone’s depression from someone outside of it who does not understand how mental illness affects people. But it could also be read more positively, as an affirmation. Yes, self-hatred is a frequent feature of my mental state. But it is unlikely anyone in the world hates me to that extent- they don’t spend as much time with me, they don’t know all about me, they likely do not think about me unless I initiate contact somehow. In an odd way, I find it reassuring to hear Jon Chang scream that lyric, and to hear my mind screaming it back. I might not be able to remove self-hatred from my mind, but I can take some small comfort in the fact that others probably do not hate me as much as I think they do.
People, particularly my parents and other family members, sometimes ask me why I consume angry, despairing or melancholy media to the extent I do, with the implication that it is partially responsible for my emotional state. I wonder if it is precisely because it deals with the emotions I feel most regularly- anger, despair, depression, self-loathing- that things like Gridlink or Evangelion resonate with me. Or perhaps it’s because these things are skewed towards negative emotional states, that the inspirational messages I am able to take from them feel more real to me.