I like giant robot anime and I’ve been really enjoying Netflix’s Original Series Knights of Sidonia. I was surprised that I like Knights of Sidonia given that Gurren Lagann seems like the end of the giant robot anime genre. The genre seems to always have similar protagonists, at least superficially, so I thought I’d run through a comparison. Also, chicks are mysteriously obsessed with Shinji.
The three giant robot anime protagonists that I’ve seen are passive characters, generally laid back and easily bullied by people around them.
#1. Shinji Ikari (Evangelion)
Shinji is probably the most influential giant robot anime protagonist of the last two decades. Shinji is pretty hard to take as a character. There’s a shirt I once saw that said, “Get in the goddamn robot, Shinji,” and that’s the sentiment of the audience for most of Evangelion. Shinji’s major character trait to me is that he doesn’t want to pilot a giant robot. Shinji hates piloting giant robots, and he’s basically forced to do it constantly because, due to weird circumstances involving his mother and his own unstable emotional state, Shinji is the most effective pilot. His effectiveness is primarily his ability to go berserk (which seems to enhance the power of his giant robot).
Shinji was neglected as a child until he was 13 when a secret organization decided to use him as a weapon. He’s practically crippled by a lack of self-esteem, as well as a massive dearth of angst, and though he starts to come together during the first half of Evangelion, he pretty much falls apart by the end. Shinji’s tale seems to be mostly about a broken boy who only gets more broken. I don’t really like Shinji, but that’s because I’ve seen Gurren Lagann.
#2. Simon (Gurren Lagann)
Simon is the anti-Shinji, which makes sense since both shows are made by Gainax and Gurren Lagann came out after Evangelion. Shinji and Simon start off in similar places. Simon is an orphan and both passive and lacking self-esteem. He’s also somewhat cowardly, but mostly this is in contrast to his older brother figure, and hero, Kamina. Time and time again Simon is forced into situations that scares him because Kamina’s near suicidal confidence keeps getting them into trouble. But, unlike Shinji, Simon has an emotional bond to Kamina who, despite his apparent insanity, believes in Simon and trusts him. That faith in Simon helps Simon actually eventually overcome his fears.
That’s what makes Kamina’s death so heartbreaking for Simon, and he plunges into an angst spiral that, while annoying, I surprisingly didn’t resent. Shinji’s angst spirals were irritating because he basically gave up at the first opportunity. Simon seemed to have earned his angst, Kamina was his only family and his inspiration, so I didn’t resent him taking time to process that. When Simon actually bounced back from Kamina’s death it was pretty awesome.
Also unlike Shinji, Simon is allowed to grow to adulthood. Even as an adult he shares Shinji’s passiveness, but unlike Shinji, the adult Simon’s passiveness stems mostly from a detachment from the non-giant robot world. When giant robots are called for again, Simon is both aggressive and decisive. Basically, Simon is like Shinji if Shinji ever had a chance to get out of the emotional hellhole that is his existance.
#3. Nagate Tanikaze (Knights of Sidonia)
Nagate is a lot like Simon and Shinji in that he’s really laid back and kind of passively interacts with the world. People are obsessed with him, but it kind of makes sense by season 2. That’s one of Sidonia’s strengths, actually, in that it takes some of the giant robot anime tropes and kind of makes them make sense in-universe. Gurren Lagann did it best, but I enjoy that Sidonia’s approach.
Nagate’s advantage over Simon and Shinji is that he was trained by his father-figure since childhood to pilot giant robots. Which translates roughly to Nagate played video games his entire life. The result is that Nagate actually wants to pilot the giant robots and there’s a reason why he’s good at it. There’s also some good reasons why his people seem to instantly recognize that. It’s kind of nice having a giant robot protagonist who is actually in to piloting giant robots.