I like Ikari Gendo. I don’t mean his treatment of Shinji necessarily (I lived through my own father issues, now happily resolved), nor his obsession with Yui (he took his wife’s name, he animated a super robot with her soul when she died, and cloned her repeatedly in the form of Rei). I like him because he stuck it to the man.
I realize that paragraph I just wrote is one of the most dishonest things I’ve ever said as an anime fan. You see, I realize now that Ikari Gendo is a central figure in a long conversation I’ve been having with myself on the nature of the guilty pleasure. I will address the concept in full in the beginning of next year as the notion of the guilty pleasure is at the very heart of my enjoyment of anime.
For the purposes of this post, however, I’ll just say that for me the guilt in the pleasure has very little to do with high-culture v. low-culture conversations. I won’t pretend that I won’t gladly miss an opportunity to watch El Dude perform live if I could go to this instead (the Nodame Cantabile dorama has turned me into a classical music enthusiast, an ongaku otaku, if you will; Gustavo Dudamel is a real-life Chiaki Shinichi). I’d actually watch Rebuild of Evangelion over any Academy Award-winning film of the last 13 years. I’d rather re-read my wife’s copies of Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge than anything by Tolstoy (who I really like as well), to be honest with you. I don’t have a shameful otaku secret, compared to that other fellow who posts on this blog.
The guilt that I deal with is my genuine appreciation for evil, complex characters. Lelouch Vi Britannia is one, and so is Yagami Light. I like them, I root for them. And although I enjoy it too when they die, I am sympathetic to their ambitions and cheer for them throughout the narrative as I experience it. Why the guilt? It’s because at the very least, I tolerate their irresponsible, selfish, underhanded, or malicious acts. At worst, I endorse them; even if I try not to think about this too much. It would be an easy out if I justify their actions as for ‘the greater good’, or they do a heel-face-turn and become good guys in the end. But no, I actually enjoy it when they are in the midst of their monstrosity, at the heights of their evil powers. I know there are many who share this delight, perhaps in varying degrees. But this is nonetheless true because anime like Evangelion, Death Note, and Code Geass are remarkably popular.
So Ikari Gendo, the father of Shinji who is the most angst-ridden and emo pilot in mecha anime. Shinji’s emotional problems are credited to his father, and the narrative as experienced does little to dissuage this notion. If Shinji was to visit a counselor or an analyst, he would actually be tagged as the identified patient. He is a symptom, and the real illness is none other than the father.
Gendo is more terrifying than any angel, than the third impact itself. The impact seems preventable, survivable even even if only by proxy (Shinji and Asuka). But Gendo, he’s the bogeyman in Evangelion, he’s the devil. He’s a lie that humanity: Shinji and Rei and Asuka and Ritsuko and Misato and Fuyutsuki rely on, depend on, cling to. He is the false hope. We are reassured whenever he takes over an operation from Misato. We know it won’t be necessarily good for Shinji but we know we’re going to beat the angel. He’s the Antichrist that will sacrifice humanity and instrumentality itself.
The foretold antichrist is a leader and a liar. But this is no Damian Thorn protected by dark creatures from infancy to ascendance. Everything Gendo achieved he did through no favors, just talent and fortune. And lady fortune has a name, she is Gendo’s only god and love: Ikari Yui.
It is this wrinkle, this twist in the narrative that makes the evil that is Gendo so intoxicatingly romantic. It’s about love now is it? In the BBC television mini-series Jekyll, where evil is manifest in a character-as-device Hyde, evil and love are charmingly juxtaposed. Taking from the maternal instinct, a conversation between one mother to another: “When did you know that for the first time in your life, you can kill another human being?” The answer was, “When my children were threatened.”
There’s nothing parental you can accuse Gendo of, his relationship with Rei being the stuff of nightmares (or fantasies, depending on who you ask). But the driving force, so powerful so as to ruin existence itself, is nothing else but love. I hesitate to call it selfish because Gendo did not want to possess Yui. He took her name, forgoing the extension of his line – the very foundation of selfishness: the biological imperative to pass on one’s genes at the expense of others. One can argue that this is merely a semantic quibble, but it is very clear in his treatment of Shinji how much he thought of his genetic legacy. His obsession with Yui is genetic and spiritual preservation. This was all he ever cared for. This is a great and terrible love, which had no redemption, no heroic reversal. He didn’t deserve one, even if only for his evisceration of two generations of Akagi scientists.
For the non-spoiler averse, here’s the Gendo end, c/o Wikipedia:
Gendo pretends to follow Seele’s orders without question, he has his own agenda and tries to out-manipulate the committee. His final outspoken rebellion towards Seele comes from his desire to initiate Third Impact under his complete control. He implants Adam’s embryo in his hand (only shown in Death and Rebirth and the Director’s Cut Edition) and tries to merge with Rei to achieve this purpose.
In The End of Evangelion, Rei finally defies Gendo forwardly and separates with him (after absorbing Adam) to merge with Lilith and start Instrumentality on her own. Seeing that all his plans to be reunited with Yui have come to nothing, Gendo begs Rei to return to him, she refuses. After Instrumentality is started, Gendo confronts specters of the various Reis as well as Kaworu and Yui herself. Gendo confesses that he is afraid of the “invisible bonds” formed by those around him, and that he was afraid to confront his son after Yui’s death. A vision of Unit 01, with much of its armor missing, (the real Unit 01 is at that moment within the Tree of Life, and still fully armored) is seen holding Gendo in much the same manner as Kaworu in Episode 24. Gendo states that “…this is my retribution”, and the spectral Unit 01 bites off his torso as he utters his final words: “Forgive me, Shinji.” The camera then shifts back to Terminal Dogma, where the lower half of Gendo’s body is seen, still standing, with his torso severed.
I nominate Ikari Gendo to the very pinnacle of romantic evil. Tell me, is there a character more completely consumed by love, who has performed more atrocious acts in its name, who is so necessary to the salvation of everyone in the narrative that the same acts are permitted, whose gambits so complex and costly?
And even if Yui would not, cannot absolve nor forgive him, I get him. I appreciate him for everything that he is and for everything he is not. Evangelion would not be what it is without him, and even just for this I will endure being Shinji so just for that moment, I can forgive Gendo.