angst, Anime, Attack on Titan, Bokurano, Bokurano ours, Dragon Ball, Eva, Evangelion, giant robot anime, Gurren Lagann, manga, mech, Mecha, Naruto, Neon genesis, Neon genesis evangelion, seinen, Shinji, shinji ikari syndrome, Shounen, z No this isn't a which-is-better and the fact that I prefer Bokurano is largely due to personal taste and the fluctuating nature of my favourites list, zz And the fact that I prefer Bokurano is largely due to the fluctuating nature of my favourites list
While it’s often overshadowed by optimistic themes of friendship, fighting spirit, and the indomitable spirit of the human race, angst is very much a part of Shounen and Seinen anime and manga. In fact, in many instances angst is actually the foundation of most shounen themes.
Naruto’s positive outlook comes through strongest when he’s fighting against a nihilistic villain or Sasuke’s angst. Gurren Lagann started coming into its own as a truly great seinen series when, and because, Simon had to break out of his depression spiral to take up the leadership of the Dai Gurren Brigade. And the motivation of shounen’s recent darling, One-Punch Man‘s Saitama, is premised on the nihilistic boredom of angst. Those are the upbeat examples. I haven’t even mentioned the dark stuff like Berserk and Attack on Titan.
To be fair, when a series is too angst ridden, as was the case for Divine Gate, it tends to fall off the map pretty quickly. The shounen and seinen genres are generally about moving on from this angst to some positive end, rather than wallowing in it. Thus Naruto making friends with everybody, Simon acceding to greatness, and Guts using vengeance and hatred as a reason to live. Soul Eater, perhaps the most quintessentially shounen thing ever, has the concept of Black Blood, which is basically a measure of how angsty a character is at any given point, yet it’s overcome and made positive by the end thanks to partnership and courage. Assassination Classroom, a comedy all about the juxtaposition of learning and killing, showed how a tragic loss can be a source of personal growth.
With the exception of Dragon Ball Super, I can’t think of a shounen or seinen series that isn’t, on some fundamental level, about angst. And it’s no surprise why. While angst is a continuing part of life that you just sort of deal with, teen angst is something very different. It’s a struggle for purpose and identity at a time when life mostly consists of going to school, trying to fit in, and doing homework just so you can be judged. It’s not surprising that people in this position are concerned with questions about the point of all this, why they’re here, and who they are. As someone who’s still in education, I’m pretty sure I’d still be in that angst depression if it weren’t for creative outlets like this.
Which brings us to Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the useless term “Shinji Ikari Syndrome.” Evangelion‘s characters are all about teen angst. Shinji has daddy issues and keeps asking others why he exists. Asuka has mommy issues, and relies on the attention of others for self-worth. And Rei is waking up to the notion of personal agency, and Sartre’s ideas about freedom are hitting her hard. All three of them are riddled with angst, and yet only one gets picked on for it.
“Shinji Ikari Syndrome” is a term that’s developed to describe a character you don’t like, who’s maybe a little emo. It’s been defined as an emo character who never does anything (even though Shinji kinda blew up the word), an emo character with no agency (even though Shinji chose to pilot Unit 1), and an emo character who just whines all the time (even though there are plenty of scene of Shinji being honestly happy and content). It’s effectively meaningless, but what makes it actually harmful is that people have confused calling something “Shinji Ikari Syndrome” with actual criticism. There’s nothing critical about it; it’s as lazy and subjective as just saying the characters were “relatable” without qualifying what you mean.
Thankfully, the term seems to have fallen out of use. But there is something about Shinji and his angst which, to me, has always made him an unsatisfying character. That’s the fact that he never grows out of it. By the end of the series he does leave his angst; he has this strange turn of heart in the now meme’d “congratulations” scene. But it didn’t come out of natural character growth, and he never seemed to learn anything important about himself from his angst. Asuka, meanwhile, channeled her need for attention and self-satisfaction into being a university graduate and talented pilot by the age of 13. And Rei, eventually, did grasp her own agency, and made free decisions in light of understanding their moral and phenomenological consequence. Shinji, meanwhile, just sort of wallowed for a while, then got better.
While I think this wallowing is actually interesting to the viewer (if you like dissecting character motivations and internal struggles), it is not satisfying. The reason it isn’t satisfying is because, if you watched Evangelion and didn’t get bored as soon as the giant robot fights became less frequent, you were probably invested in the fates of the characters, so the resolution to the main character’s storyline should be a payoff… which it wasn’t.
It’s at this point that I’d like to contrast Evangelion with another mecha series, that’s even more angst ridden, which has recently become my new favourite, Bokurano: Ours. Just to be clear, I’m speaking strictly about the manga here. I haven’t seen the anime, but from what I’ve heard it’s important that I distinguish the two.
I don’t think I have to go into detail about what Bokurano is or how it compares narratively to Eva. It’s a mecha series, so you already know it’s about teenagers putting their lives on the line in destructive giant robot battles for the fate of the world. The key important point is that death and destruction are a much bigger focal point here than in most mecha series.
The pilots of Bokurano, like in Eva, spend most of their time wallowing in existential concerns. The difference is, while Eva pilots are concerned about who they are and what their purpose is, Bokurano pilots are typically worried about whether they’ve lived a good life, and what they can still do to fix it. It’s a more adult type of angst, concerned with mortality rather than identity, but not meaningfully different for how I see the two.
With Bokurano, despite how much I like it, I can only name one or two characters off the top of my head. I remember their story arcs and such, but I’m just not as personally invested in them as I am with Asuka, Shinji and Rei. It’s not because they’re uninteresting characters; it’s because the tone of the series is so different.
Evangelion is a series that’s always moving. It’s loud, emotional, and active. And when it does quite down and give you time to think, it’s usually just so you can join Asuka and Rei in their awkward elevator silence and better sympathize with them that way. Evangelion certainly can be a thinking-man’s anime, but the show itself doesn’t really call on you to think, nor give you much time to. The experience of watching Eva is much more emotional than it is reflective, causing the viewer participation to be rooted in the characters. Read any analysis of Eva and it will be more about the characters than the ideas.
Bokurano, on the other hand, is slow and quite. Even during the giant robot fights, there’s rarely a sense of urgency. And the characters, while expressive and emotionally complex, are not as prone to outbursts to convey how they feel. The series has this fatalistic tone, which keeps makes everything feel bleaker in a muted way (side note: the art style suits this perfectly). In that respect, it’s more like Mushi-shi or Kino’s Journey.
Bokurano doesn’t call for you to feel the character’s emotions, but it does want you to understand what they’re thinking; to share in their angst. And towards the end of the series is practically states outright that the strength of adolescence is the opportunity to wallow in this angst, in a positive way.
The difference between Eva and Bokurano is that Eva uses the emotional side of angst to explore characters, while Bokurano uses characters to explore the pensive side of angst.
Don’t Lose Your Way