Why Kaworu and Shinji's Relationship Matters to the Story of Evangelion
I'm glad that Netflix now has Neon Genesis Evangelion and End of Evangelion, a movie that serves as the ending to the series the creators wanted to produce but could not. But skip the re-dub and watch it in Japanese with subtitles. They had no clue with this translation, and made several mistakes. To be fair, Japanese and English are not easy to translate back and forth. They don't share common roots, like say English and French or English and German.
One mistake that angered Evangelion fans, especially fans of Kaworu and Shinji, is that they changed "I love you" to "I like you", which is seen as erasure of the homoromantic nature of their relationship. Their relationship is brief, weird, and ultimately doomed by fate. What does Kaworu's relationship with Shinji mean in the larger context of the story? And why is the Kaworu and Shinji relationship an important part of gay representation in media? Does Karoru embody negative stereotypes as well? Let's get into it.
Spoiler Warning for the Ending of 'Neon Genesis Evangelion' Ahead!
Who is Kaworu Nagisa?
Kaworu is a character who only shows up in the third to last episode of Evangelion, at the end of which he dies. So it's a really weird moment, in an already weird show. He is both the final pilot of the Evangelions and the final Angel, disguised as a human.
Kaworu meets Shinji at a time when he is very distraught about the results of the recent Angel attacks, to say the least. Asuka is a complete mental disaster, Kaji (Misato's lover) was murdered, and Rei has been killed and replaced with a clone of herself. So Shinji is traumatized and has no one to talk to, nowhere to go.
Kaworu's Quickie Love Confession
When he meets Kaworu, Shinji is in an extremely vulnerable mental state, in other words. So it seems that you could read their scene together, showering and then talking in bed together, as Kaworu preying on Shinji's loneliness to use him to infiltrate Nerv. After all, it seems odd that he would confess love to someone he just met. You could also say the meaning is more of a spiritual kind of love, the Greek term 'agape' love. Because the preceding exchange is:
"You are worthy of my grace."
"It means, I love you!"
That sounds oddly more like something you would expect the Abrahamic God to say to a person than a romantic confession.
The translation error here with the Netflix dub is a somewhat understandable confusion. The word used to say "I love you" is "suki" (pronounced 'ski' because the 'u' is voiceless). This word can be used to mean like or love, depending on context. It can be used to say "I like ice cream" for example, which would be "Aisu ga suki (desu/da/yo optional)." Meaning literally, "ice cream is liked". Japanese requires context for understanding however, which is part of what makes it difficult to translate into English. "Suki" is a word also used in anime to make romantic confessions and talk about crushes. It's pretty much universal in anime that "suki" means a lot more than liking someone as a friend, if you watch other anime and note the way other characters react to the use of this word. Another clue that the whole thing was intended as romantic is that the word translated as "grace" in the preceding exchange is "koi". This word unequivocally means "love", romantic love, and "grace" is a really, really friggin' weird way of translating it.
So it should go more like,
"You are worthy of my love."
"I mean, I love you!"
There is nothing ambiguous about it. Evangelion is, and always was, canonically homo-romantic. When they localize it, they should not pretend that was not there. It was absolutely unequivocal what Kaworu was saying, to anyone who speaks Japanese or even to people like me who have studied it but are not fluent. It's understandable why this blind idiot translation of "I like you!" feels like a slap in the face to Evangelion fans. But why? Well, what is the importance of Kaworu's role in the story? And how was the Kaworu/Shinji pairing, however brief and star-crossed, important to the concept of gay media representation?
Kaworu's (Weird) Role in the Story
Kaworu shows up near the end. He seems to represent some kind of completion, the completion of the union between Evangelion pilots and Angels that will bring about Human Instrumentality. Human Instrumentality is a merging of not only all human consciousness into one entity, but that includes the reunion of Adam, Lilith, the souls trapped in the Evangelions, and the Angels' consciousness, all merging with humanity as well. Kaworu represents this synthesis, being the final Angel and the final Eva pilot simultaneously.
So Kaworu represents the series kicking off its finale, humanity pushing closer towards Instrumentality. He also represents the Angels changing, learning more about humans and becoming increasingly human-like, increasingly curious about and capable of understanding human emotions. He represents the culmination of this, being able to understand Shinji's deepest thoughts and feelings without Shinji having to say anything about them.
Kaworu and Shinji's Emotions
From previous episodes, Shinji is seriously messed up emotionally. He tries to cry, but cannot bring himself to. He rejects help from Misato, perhaps getting sick of her pep talks. Interestingly, he refuses to let Misato touch him, slapping her hand away. Later, he will accept being touched by Kaworu instead. During the movie End of Evangelion, we see he rejects Lilith taking a form similar to Rei Ayanami, but he merges with Lilith when she assumes a form similar to Kaworu instead. Kaworu is the one person who is able to help Shinji overcome his "hedgehog's dilemma" tendency to push people away, his fear of intimacy. The "AT field" that Evangelions and Angels alike use as physical barriers is a representation of the mental barriers people put up between each other. Instrumentality is supposed to erase barriers between people, merging everyone into one consciousness, which in End of Evangelion ends up being controlled by Shinji.
Shinji's "therapy" in the final episodes of the show and in parts of End of Evangelion has to do with him breaking down his mental barriers between his sense of "self" and "other", or "enemy". His relationship with Kaworu means he is ready to let others in and even to accept the pain of getting hurt should that be the result, which it is with Kaworu. His relationship with Kaworu is also about him loving himself. He has to learn to accept the parts of himself he doesn't like, and get over his lack of confidence in himself. Kaworu is brimming with confidence, which is probably a major reason Shinji feels attraction to him almost immediately.
Problems With Kaworu
But nothing in Evangelion is that straightforward or simple. It's relieving to see Shinji find intimacy in a form he can accept, but that also makes it worse to see Kaworu die. Shinji is forced to kill the only person who ever loved him. It could have been planned that way all along, to destroy Shinji's will entirely. The deterioration of Asuka's mind allowed Kaworu to use her Evangelion Unit 02, controlling it telekinetically. A similar destruction to Shinji's mind by building up and then knocking down his hope of a relationship might also have been part of SEELE's plan, and the fact that Kaworu is an Angel means we can't trust his motivation or understand his true intentions.
As the Angels are very inhuman, never taking a human form prior to this point, you can wonder as to what extent Kaworu, or any Angel, is capable of loving a human. It's not clear if they reproduce like humans, which makes you wonder if they would have similar sexual and romantic desires as humans, and if they do, it must serve some other purpose. Angels are alien, other, and strange. It's said we have some of the same DNA, but they take many strange unique forms that look nothing like humans, and they seem to have trouble understanding humans.
Before Kaworu comes, the two previous Angels seem to be interested in psychologically understanding humans, and in merging consciousness with them. They do this by invading the minds of Asuka and Rei. Inside their host's consciousness, they take on a form mirroring that of their host, and interrogate the host about her memories and feelings. This is like the Socratic method. The Angels learn about human emotion from a process of often cruel interrogation, which is where the concept of the "cruel angel's thesis" comes from in the show's opening song. The Angels are using Asuka and Rei, and then Shinji, as test cases to further their understanding of human nature.
Is Kaworu a Bad Guy?
This is, since the Angels are not very human, a case of "Blue and Orange morality". That is, they are too different from humans, and think too differently from us, for us to see their morality as "black", "white" or some "shade of grey" in between.
One problem is Kaworu seems predatory, at the very least, pushy. He rushes to showering with Shinji and then follows him to bed. This is the "stalking is romantic" trope - the only reason it's not considered sexual harassment is because Shinji is interested. But in his emotional state of extreme grief and despair, it seems like Shinji has not quite the best mental capacity to consent to any relationship. And Kaworu is clearly able to psychically read Shinji's emotions. This implies that there is something a little bit predatory perhaps about what Kaworu is doing, but it's unclear if Kaworu knows it's wrong or pushing boundaries, or if he simply doesn't care. It's also difficult to tell if Kaworu really loves Shinji, or if he's seducing him in order to further his goal of merging with Adam for Instrumentality. We don't really have enough information from Kaworu's perspective to see if he's sincere or manipulative when he tells Shinji "I love you". But the fact that it comes out of the blue, comes from a stranger whose objective is to infiltrate Nerv, and comes from an Angel, makes this confession a little bit suspicious. Especially given the kind of show it is. Hint: It is (not) a romance show.
Kaworu and Gay Anime Representation
In anime and manga, gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender stories exist, but are often relegated to niche sub-genres (yuri and girl's love for lesbians, yaoi, bara, and boy's love for gay men). Main characters in mainstream works are usually straight and cisgender (not transgender). Sometimes anime uses gayness or gender tropes as jokes, especially making a joke out of a straight male character being attracted to a feminine trans woman or male crossdresser. Trans women characters are often the brunt of jokes. They're also often relegated to "second place love interest" status. For example, Kamatari, a trans woman with a crush on a major villain in Rurouni Kenshin, is the losing love interest to cisgender woman Yumi, and in Steins; Gate, cross-dressing Luka is second-class love interest to Okabe, and her gender expression is the butt of jokes. But on the other hand, cross-dressing and gender-bending characters are more widely represented in anime and manga, because Japan is more open about such things than the more regressive parts of America.
Gay and lesbian representation, and gay and lesbian main characters, are rare outside of works intended for a gay or lesbian audience. These are relegated to niche websites and serialized manga magazines specifically catering to either demographic. Manga is not all one thing. But, the manga most likely to get translated, made into anime, and massively distributed outside of Japan is the shounen genre. That is, geared towards boys, usually focusing on action and fighting. This genre rarely has main characters who are anything other than cisgender, straight, young men, because that's what the target demographic for the genre is.
Having gay romance (even in a single episode) is one of many ways Evangelion is a challenge to the conventions of the shounen and mech genres. Evangelion focuses on the feelings of women, putting female characters into the spotlight (quite literally at the end), making women a driving force in the plot. In other mech and shounen shows, women are basically furniture, there to support or prop up the character arcs of the male characters. I'll probably write another article about how Evangelion challenges gender roles as a whole, especially in having a top scientist and top military strategist who are both female, as well as two out of the three main Eva pilots being female.
But focusing on Shinji's feelings and his relationship with Kaworu, some see his acceptance of Kaworu's affection, in contrast with his fear of women and girls, as him realizing he is homosexual and coming to terms with that. His self-acceptance and self-loathing issues mentioned above could be seen as the problem many gay youth have, struggling with fear or disgust of their own sexual attractions. Especially if society labels these attractions as abhorrent or unnatural.
But, Shinji is definitely sexually attracted to girls and women too, as evidenced by the icky scene with comatose Asuka in End of Evangelion. He just has more issues communicating with and relating to them. For some reason, he opens up naturally to Kaworu, and this is probably more of a personality compatibility thing than an issue of sexual orientation. He is afraid to open up around women. In the end, Kaworu's gender and physical form hardly matters - Shinji was so desperate at that point for affection or attention from anyone he probably would have made out with a talking goat.
But, this homo-romantic relationship is not only significant to the plot of Evangelion and to Shinji's personal emotional journey, but it's highly regarded as one of few mainstream anime with a (relatively) positive homo-romantic relationship involving the main character. I can understand the feelings a lot of LGBT and non-LGBT anime fans alike feel when they see this relationship; it treats a homo-romantic pairing as just as healthy, natural, emotionally comforting, and nurturing, as a hetero-romantic one could be. In an anime that does not exclusively focus on such topics or cater to just a gay audience. Any representation at all in a mainstream anime is a step forward. On the women-who-love-women side of things, this is also why we love the relationship between Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in Sailor Moon so much! Representation outside of manga specifically made for gays and lesbians, acknowledging the characters as humans rather than stereotypes and cliché jokes? More please!
I think the Netflix dub is just a case of a translation mistake, not an intentional move to localize the anime to erase gay content. Similar translation mistakes in other parts of the show lead me to this conclusion. Instead of translating the show taking context and how people actually speak in English into consideration, the translation is very narrow and literal. That is why they translate "I love you", a clear love confession, into "I like you", because it very technically literally translates that way. But when talking about people, the word "suki" almost always refers to romantic attraction. It is used for "like" only when talking about something other than a person. The use of the word "koi" in that scene makes it completely unambiguous that the meaning of "suki" there referred to romantic love. They were simply flipping through a dictionary to translate instead of understanding the context and how it impacted the meanings of the words.
Kaworu and Shinji is positive representation of a gay romantic pairing in a successful anime aimed at a wider audience. For many fans, discovering Evangelion as teenagers was part of coming to understand and accept their own sexual orientation, much like the pairing of Sailor Uranus and Neptune was for me in Sailor Moon. Anime and manga do have some stereotypes and clichés about LGBT people, but they also have more gay, lesbian, cross-dressing, and trans characters than mainstream television, and were quicker to have inclusive representation than mainstream Western shows, movies, and cartoons. Japan is a sexually relaxed culture compared to the United States, and gender variance is not as shocking, although it is sometimes the butt of hurtful jokes or negative stereotypes. Kaworu has an air of confidence that attracts both Shinji and the audience. He's enigmatic. It's hard to know what he truly wants. He's only in the show for a single episode. But he has an undeniable strong impact on the show, on Shinji emotionally, and he makes a gay icon character in a media landscape that often pushes gay characters to the sidelines. He's not afraid of who he is, and he teaches Shinji how to love himself. Many in the audience need that push to self-confidence as well, which is why many fans of Evangelion like Kaworu and why he's dear to many of our hearts. Whether you personally like Kaworu or not, it's hard to understate his importance in terms of gay main characters in mainstream anime.
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© 2019 Rachael Lefler