By: Heike Hoffer, Ph.D. in musicology from The Ohio State University
Featured image: Screen shot from Neon Genesis Evangelion1
The anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, which aired on Japanese television between 1995 and 1996, has inspired questions about its symbolism among viewers worldwide for almost three decades. One scene that is often brought up in fan forums takes place in the fifteenth episode of the original TV series when the main character Ikari Shinji, the fourteen-year-old pilot of a fearsome giant robot, takes out his cello and plays a section of the “Prelude” movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No.1 in G Major, BWV 1007. Fan discussions of this moment have yielded little in the way of meaningful analysis, but do raise a number of insightful questions about why the Evangelion creators used Bach’s music for this scene and how Japanese viewers might interpret this piece in the context of the narrative.
Bach’s music has enjoyed a significant following in Japan since the Meiji era, when Japan’s national borders were opened to the world and music of every type came flooding into the country as part of Japan’s process of modernization under the new Meiji government.2 Over time, Bach emerged as a favorite among Japanese consumers due to the sizeable quantity of his works being imported in the form of sheet music, scores, and eventually recordings. In addition, European music scholars who consulted with the Japanese government and Japanese universities treated the composer with great respect, furthering Bach’s image as a legendary European master worthy of Japan’s attention. Bach was known to members of all social and economic classes due to the inclusion of his pieces in the national music curricula, the production of biographical materials intended for popular readership, public concerts, and radio broadcasts.3 As a result, many people adopted an attitude of veneration for the composer, leading to him gaining widespread popularity and being given the honorary title of “Father of Music,” a name still used colloquially across Japan.4 To this day, every Japanese student studies Bach as part of their compulsory music classes in elementary and junior high school, meaning that most modern Japanese have a basic familiarity with his life and important works.
Despite having a general knowledge of Bach from their school days, not all Evangelion viewers recognized the First Cello Suite as a piece by the Baroque master, and Japanese online forums feature numerous questions about the identity and meaning of this piece in the context of Evangelion’s fifteenth episode. When Evangelion director Hideaki Anno was asked about Shinji’s reasons for playing the cello in a special-edition Evangelion Q&A book, he explained that the choice of cello as Shinji’s instrument was actually the idea of the screenwriter, Satsukawa Akio, but that he liked it because Shinji “just looks like a cello guy, that’s all.”5 Since the identity of Bach and the First Cello Suite are never stated outright during the anime scene itself, the Evangelion creators chose, in part, to use the First Cello Suite to convey broader concepts of high social status and intellectual refinement associated with the Western classical music genre. Viewers who actually knew the piece and that it was by Bach benefitted from an extra layer of meaning in their interpretation of Shinji’s performance, but this knowledge was not required to understand the scene in general, demonstrating one of the great advantages of using pre-existing music in anime or any visual media: pre-existing music can rely on its historical associations to communicate additional meaning to viewers who recognize the piece and its extramusical contexts, but it can also just as easily generate meaning for audiences who do not know the piece or its history.6 In this case, the choice of a piece by Bach effectively conveyed multiple levels of information about Shinji to viewers depending on their experience with Bach’s works and Western classical music in general.
Given Bach’s association with the sophisticated image of Western classical music, one logical interpretation of this scene is that Shinji’s performance of Bach symbolizes his privileged position in the story. Learning an instrument is known to be a challenging undertaking, but Shinji seems to play Bach’s demanding “Prelude” movement with the same ease that he has shown in piloting his giant robot in other episodes of the anime, heightening the viewer’s perception of Shinji’s intellectual and physical abilities by connecting them with the illustrious Bach and the refined image of the Western classical genre.7 But this perception of Shinji as a superior elite is contrasted by a more culturally nuanced viewpoint that treats him as a Japanese yūtōsei (honor student), a common stock character found in a wide variety of Japanese entertainment media. Every Japanese school, both in anime and in real life, has a few yūtōsei in the student body, typified as obedient model students who are seemingly good at everything, but not especially notable overall and even a bit boring. Yūtōsei are not rare genius elites, but are instead merely above-average, particularly in the areas of studying, leadership, and modeling the moral codes prescribed by the Japanese school system. Shinji embodies these virtues flawlessly with his good grades, role as a giant robot pilot, and clear moral stance. Of course, above-average proficiency at extracurriculars such as sports and music are a must for yūtōsei, and Shinji does well in physical training for his giant robot as well as playing the cello. Finally, yūtōsei cannot exhibit any sort of irregular physical appearance or behaviors, making the black-haired, dark-eyed Shinji the perfect likeness of an obedient Japanese student, especially when he wears the generic black pants and white shirt that serve as the typical school uniform of junior high school boys across Japan.
Further evidence for this viewpoint can be found in Japanese fan blogs dedicated to Evangelion that often describe Shinji as a yūtōsei, not as an elite. One commentator on the fan website “Nan J God” hilariously quipped that Shinji “seems like Nobita, but is actually Dekisugi,” referring to the contrast between the bumbling character Nobita and his rival, the charming yūtōsei Dekisugi, in the long-running children’s anime Doraemon.9 Other fan entries in Niconicopedia and DIGLE contain phrases such as:
“Since he can play cello and learn new things quickly, he has many unexpected talents. His school performance is good too, so he’s seemingly a bright kid matching his reputation as ‘yūtōsei’.”10(Niconicopedia)
“Actually, Shinji is indeed yūtōsei! Maybe he’s attractive to women because of that?”11 (DIGLE)
“Since he’s pretty good at studying, playing cello, and cooking, all at the age of 14, he’s actually quite a yūtōsei.”12 (DIGLE)
Posts like these demonstrate how Shinji is characterized as an above-average yūtōsei in the minds of fans, but the most significant evidence on this topic comes from the original kikakusho (proposal materials) for the Evangelion series. Kikakusho documents are presented to possible sponsor companies to entice them to offer their financial support for a project and, in the case of anime, often include a plot synopsis, character descriptions, and visual design prototypes, among other things. In the kikakusho for Evangelion, the famed director Anno himself describes Shinji as an “otonashii yūtōsei” (docile/unassuming honor student), suggesting that Shinji should be understood as possessing above-average skills, an unassuming manner, and a slightly boring personality. These traits signify a major departure from the impossibly perfect wunderkinds who typically served as giant-robot pilots in anime in the 1990s, making Shinji a unique sort of anime hero.
If Shinji is meant to be understood as a yūtōsei, then how does his performance of Bach contribute to this image? Bach’s six suites for solo cello are known to be difficult and are beloved by professional cellists worldwide, but they are also a staple of undergraduate cello studios and can be performed by high school cellists, or even talented junior high cellists, assuming they have a private teacher. This increased musical accessibility makes Bach’s “Prelude” movement a reasonable repertoire for Shinji since he has supposedly been studying the cello privately since the age of five. There is no doubt that Shinji is talented if he can play this difficult music as a junior high school student, but he is also similar to other young cellists who have tackled the cello suites in their own musical studies, making his abilities seem more modest and easier to relate to. During the scene in the fifteenth episode, the giant robot pilot Asuka happens to hear Shinji playing and applauds politely as she says “You’re pretty good!”, suggesting that he is not a genius-level musician but rather producing the above-average work expected of a yūtōsei. Shinji’s response reinforces Asuka’s assessment as he answers, “Well, even though I started the cello when I was five, I’m still not very good, as you just heard,” offering a yūtōsei’s appropriately humble response to praise.
This scene also uses visual elements to illustrate the unpretentious nature of Shinji’s playing. He is viewed almost entirely from behind with only a brief close up of his face, emphasizing how his rendition of Bach is a private moment meant only for him and not a bravado performance for the enjoyment of others. Shinji, who is often overly concerned about the opinions of those around him, allows himself a brief moment of selfish pleasure doing something he enjoys instead of doing what others expect.13 His surroundings are mostly static, with no movement other than Shinji’s arm drawing the bow back and forth across the strings, and the setting is unremarkable, showing the bare walls of Shinji’s mundane Tokyo apartment, a plain kitchen table and chairs in the foreground, and a potted plant partially blocking the camera’s view. In contrast, when anime features a genius-level musical performance, these moments are typically viewed from the front, taking the vantage point of a concert hall audience, and are set off with dramatic changes of background and visual effects meant to convey the character’s internal experience as visible cues.14 For example, flowers, stars, or musical notes might swirl around the screen or the performer may suddenly appear on a mountaintop or in a field filled with blooming wildflowers. Shinji’s playing is not accompanied by any of the stylized visual tropes that anime uses to mark an elite musical performance, showing that, no matter how cathartic playing Bach may be for Shinji, his performance is merely average.
Japanese anime viewers regularly encounter yūtōsei in anime and other visual media, as well as having had them in their classes or were maybe even one themselves, inspiring a sense of camaraderie with Shinji in this familiar role. Unlike his fellow giant robot pilots, particularly the noisy, boastful foreigner Asuka and submissive, anti-social Rei, Shinji is a quintessential example of a type of student that nearly all Japanese have interacted with in their own lives. His educational experiences, particularly striving to get good grades and learning Western classical music, mimic similar experiences of Japanese viewers from their own school days, encouraging them to relate to Shinji as someone who has had a recognizably Japanese upbringing comparable to their own. In this case, Bach’s music cements Shinji’s image as an above-average yūtōsei, making him feel familiar to Japanese audiences and positioning him as a character that they can empathize with, providing a welcome personal connection with the unlikely hero of this complex and compelling anime.
Heike Hoffer currently lives in Tokyo, where she conducts research on the relationship between Japanese anime and Western classical music in terms of the cultural landscape of modern Japan. She received her Ph.D. in musicology from The Ohio State University with a thesis examining how anime creators make use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” melody as part of the anime score. In her free time, Heike travels around Japan with her husband visiting anime and manga museums.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion, season 1, episode 24, “The Final Messenger,” directed by Shoichi Masuo Masayuki, aired March 13, 1996 on TV Tokyo.
- Luciana Galliano, Yōgaku: Japanese Music in the Twentieth Century, trans. Martin Mayes (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2002); Bonnie C. Wade, Composing Japanese Musical Modernity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).
- Galliano, Yōgaku: Japanese Music in the Twentieth Century.
- Thomas A. Cressy, “The Case of Bach and Japan: Some Concepts and Their Possible Significance,” Understanding Bach 11 (2016): 140-46.
- “Interview with Anno Hideaki,” in Like a Cruel Angel – Neon Genesis Evangelion (Tokyo: Tokyo: Magazine Magazine Publishing Co. Ltd., 1997), 13.
- Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987); Jonathan Godsall, Reeled In: Pre-Existing Music in Narrative Film (New York: Routledge, 2019).
- Heike Hoffer, “Beethoven, the Ninth Symphony and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Using Pre-existing Music in Anime,” in Anime Studies: Media-Specific Approaches to Neon Genesis Evangelion, eds. José Andrés Santiago Iglesias and Ana Soler Baena (Stockholm: Stockholm University Press, 2021), 85-110.
- Neon Genesis Evangelion, season 1, episode 15, “Lies and Silence,” directed by Shoichi Masuo Masayuki, aired January 10, 1996 on TV Tokyo.
- Nan J God, “Ikari Shinji: Why Isn’t He Popular?” November 19, 2020, accessed October 5, 2021, https://nanjgod.blog.jp/archives/7892532.html.
- Niconicopedia, “Ikari Shinji,” accessed September 23, 2021, https://dic.nicovideo.jp/a/碇シンジ.
- “’Evangelion’ Ikari Shinji: Thorough Commentary,” DIGLE Magazine, accessed September 25, 2021, https://movie.digle.tokyo/vj/sch/anime/104996.
- Niconicopedia, “Ikari Shinji.”
- Hoffer, “Beethoven, the Ninth Symphony and Neon Genesis Evangelion: Using Pre-existing Music in Anime.”
- Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994).