There’s a reason most people prefer Asuka rather than Shinji in Neon Genesis Evangelion*, even though they’re both about as functional as human beings (i.e. not very). Asuka isn’t even as effective at her job as Shinji is, much to her intense frustration. Yet it’s Shinji that’s universally reviled, whereas she’s just reviled in certain circles. (No one comes out of that series looking good.)
Because she strives. Ineffectively and often recklessly, but at least she tries. Asuka is a fighter, the type who will bite and claw and scrabble until she tears her enemy’s throat out, or she breaks. She’s fire incarnate, and fire is not often portrayed as wise, but at least it does something. At least she cares enough to get mad.
Shinji, on the other hand, is a coward. And nobody likes a coward.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot due to another anime, Re: Zero, which I need to finish. I’ve been trying to quantify why I so intensely dislike the main character, Natsuki Subaru. Part of it is that he’s not really a character so much as a collection of attributes—I still couldn’t rightly tell you what drives him other than pure animal desperation, which, ya know. Not attractive. Though I have sympathy for this from a writing perspective. Creating vivid characters is hard! Believe me.
That doesn’t explain why I so dislike him, though. I think it may be related to the Asuka/Shinji thing, only most characters in Re: Zero are situated at a different place on the competence curve than they are in Evangelion.
What I mean is, everyone in Evangelion is basically incompetent, because they’re all thoroughly shattered human beings. Whereas in Re: Zero most characters are broadly competent, or at least are trying to be. That’s what makes Subaru so aggravating.
Sure, he tries, but he’s so damn bad at it. He keeps stupidly banging his head against the obvious conclusion, or he runs around desperately debasing himself, or he checks out entirely and lets his companions haul his dumb ass around, or he doesn’t think. Yes, he’s often striving, but when everyone around him is basically competent and he’s so damn stupid, it can be torturous to watch.
And yes, you can make the argument that he’s just a “regular” guy, and there’s no reason he should have the fortitude of Maximus from Gladiator. To which I would respond that we don’t tell stories about regular people. We tell them about exceptional people, for one reason or another.
Compare Subaru to Izuku of Boku no Hero Academia. Izuku is a regular kid, in that he wasn’t born rich, famous, or possessing unique talents, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t exceptional. He strives, and he strives intelligently, in a story full of competent people. That forces him to be better than others, or just good enough to not die.
We like characters who strive, this is true. But it’s also important to respect the competence curve, and make sure your main character isn’t far below it. Replace Subaru with Maximus, and I would be all over that series. Watching someone stoically enduring all that pain, intelligently tackling the challenges, and being slowly worn down to a nub as he fails and fails and fails . . . That would simultaneously be more interesting, more compelling, and more depressing.
As is, I leave about half of the episodes wondering how much pain could be avoided if Subaru wasn’t such a damn idiot. Not a great look for a main character. Hopefully the last few episodes are better.
* In the original series and End of Evangelion. I don’t know about the new movies, because I haven’t seen them.As always, thank you for using my Amazon Affiliate link (info).