The Importance of “I Love You”: Queerness in Evangelion

Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the undisputed classics of anime, a juggernaut so thoroughly imitated that a modern viewer might retroactively recognize a dozen now-common archetypes and story beats originating with Anno’s magnum opus. It is really, really important to the history of the medium. It is also, if we’re being honest, a little bit of a mess. The show’s tone morphed repeatedly during production, with the famously dark content of the final third both blossoming from the creative team’s frustrations and simultaneously causing them yet more issues as the show began to bleed sponsors at an incredible rate.

The resulting project is a narratively uneven one, with plot threads and themes that sputter out or contradict each other and a famously divisive ending that ties up the series’ multifaceted depiction of trauma and mental illness with a comparatively singular resolution reflective of Anno’s own personal revelations. But at the same time, that’s what makes the series so enduring. It is a work that feels in some ways forever unfinished, picked at by alternate universes and remakes and endless fan theories; it invites everyone to step in and find something of themselves like it’s the first time. The exception to this has always been queer fans, whose touchpoints with the series have been historically denied first by members of fandom, and then by the franchise’s own revisionism.

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History of an Icon

Evangelion is, in the simplest possible terms, the story of 14-year-old Shinji Ikari. For reasons initially unknown, he’s one of the only candidates who can pilot the giant robots known as EVA, humanity’s last defense against invading monsters known as Angels. Unlike most mecha shows that came before it, the series dialed in on the traumatic implications of being a child soldier, on top of the young cast’s struggles with mental illness.

Late in the series, when Shinji is the only one still (barely) standing in the war of attrition with the Angels, he meets a boy his age named Kaworu Nagisa. While Shinji has struggled to communicate with others in his life, he and this boy share a seemingly instant connection. Despite knowing one another for a short amount of time, Kaworu tells Shinji that he is worthy of love. Not just that, Kaworu says he loves him. For the first time in his entire life, Shinji is validated in a straightforward way that he understands, and feels an attraction to someone capable of clearly accepting. It’s a sharp contrast to his crush on fellow pilot Asuka, a girl whose own trauma leads her and Shinji to hurt one another multiple times.

Naturally, because this is Evangelion, it must end in a way designed to make Shinji as miserable as possible: Kaworu is the final Angel sent to destroy humanity; Tabris, the angel of free will. But because of the feelings he developed for Shinji, he no longer wishes to carry out his duty. Instead, he asks Shinji to kill him. And Shinji does, completely losing what little mental stability he had left. Like many things about Evangelion, it’s a plot thread that might sound tired or troubling now, but it was mind-blowing in 1996. Yes, it’s another case of queer love ending in tragedy, but it was more than that. Queer affection is so world-changing, so important, that it gives humanity a second chance.

Shinji Belongs to Everyone

It is disheartening, exhausting even, to see this argument recur in 2019 as if nothing has changed. It’s doubly so because the scripting issues and Netflix’s shameful treatment of the original dub cast overshadow the exciting potential of the new actors, who are utterly blameless. In fact, I was downright thrilled at the announcement that the new dub cast nonbinary actor Casey Mongillo as Shinji. That news was as big a revelation as Kaworu and Shinji were to so many in the 90s. Not only did it make a small step toward lessening one of biggest sticking points in conversations around representation – that not only are trans roles taken by cis actors more often than not, trans actors are almost never cast in cis roles – but it opened a door.

Evangelion is an intensely personal anime for many because its rough edges allow it to capture a certain rawness about the adolescent experience. Many viewers can see their own youthful mistakes in Asuka or Shinji, and I was decidedly a match for the latter. His depression, anxiety, terror of abandonment, and total inability to grasp that other people might be going through struggles just as important and difficult as his, evoke a slightly painful nostalgia in me every time I revisit the series. That he is a male character with many feminine-coded traits, with characters berating him (subtextually or directly) for not fitting gendered expectations, only increased that affinity.

To see another trans person step into that role is powerful in a way that’s difficult to explain. It doesn’t automatically make Shinji as a character trans, but it confirms a sense of rightness: yes, there was room for you to see yourself in this character; look, even the casting directors thought so. It’s the power of representation. And yet that moment is coupled with the reaffirmation of one of the most common battles against erasure in anime fandom. This interesting step forward isn’t even on the table as a talking point, because we have to go back to an argument that’s been going on since 1997: “hey bro, is it gay to hold someone’s hand and tell them you love them?”

Kaworu Died For Your Sins

Despite his minimal screen time, Kaworu is of legendary importance to the franchise. His subsequent appearances all highlight his relationship with Shinji, though the execution can be somewhat hit-or-miss. In End of Evangelion he appears again as the embodiment of love, the only thing able to reach Shinji even briefly before the film carries on merrily down the Darkest Timeline. Video game spin-off Shinji Ikari Raising Project included him as a dateable love interest, although pursuing that road would lead to Rei and Asuka teaming up to “set Shinji back on the right path.”

The official manga includes a kiss (something written into but cut from episode 24) and grapples more directly with Shinji admitting his attraction in so many words. But it also makes Kaworu more otherworldly and sinister, including having him mercy-kill a kitten in his first appearance. The Persona-esque Campus Apocalypse centered around Kaworu’s love and then erased him from existence at the end. High School AU Angelic Days made him a possessive sociopath. Even still, those who’d taken power from the fact that one of the biggest sci-fi franchises on the planet starred a bisexual hero persevered. Even if by modern standards it was settling for scraps, it was still a revelation.

But even that, bogged down by a tragic ending, was constantly disputed by straight fandom at large. You can go onto Twitter right now and find a wave of devil’s advocates insisting that the affection between Kaworu and Shinji was meant to be platonic, and that anyone who watched the series — or saw any of the official art, or read the manga, or saw the engagement ring advertisement using the pair — and saw queerness in it were deluding themselves. Because Kaworu is an Angel, so the argument goes, he cannot understand human love. And Shinji is just desperate, rather than experiencing an authentic attraction he’d never considered before. These arguments have been around for as long as the series has existed. In mainstream fandom circles it was perfectly fine to argue ’til the cows came home about which underaged girl was more fuckable and which ending better fits the series’ tone, but God forbid you brought up the fact that Shinji is into another boy.

Why Translation Choices Matter

Which brings us, at long last, to Netflix’s rewritten subtitles. There’s been a lot of furor over the changing of the original translation from “I love you” to “I like you.” While it’s technically a more precise translation, given that the line uses the word “suki,” that discounts the importance of conveying intent cross-culturally. The variability and potency of “suki” in Japanese is not directly equivalent to “like”, which is a much weaker word in English. Love, on the other hand, is both potent enough that it could be an understandable revelation to Shinji for the English viewer, and still contain multitudes.

The English translator’s commentary on the decision referred to a desire to keep the scene open to interpretation. Walking into this situation in a vacuum, it is easy to conclude the following: that “like” is still a word that can be used, particularly among awkward young teenagers, to convey a sense of romantic affection; and that Kaworu and Shinji’s behavior is still so potently flirtatious in their other actions that it carries across their queerness regardless. In a better world, this would be true.

That is not, however, the world as it is. In this world, queer fans have spent two decades graphically aware of the fact that even with direct and unambiguous language in translation, their existence will be denied. It becomes that much more of a betrayal to see that equivocating erasure seemingly justified by a new translation twenty years later.

Translation is always localization, and good translation is always aware of the context of the receiving market when translating concepts (in fact, even ADV went through a process of refining their subtitles from the initial tapes to DVD). That doesn’t mean turning rice balls into jelly donuts. It means that when translating a concept meant to convey flirtatious intent within a much more indirect language, a more potent English phrase is likely called for. Because at the end of the day, the phrase “open to interpretation” is a coded phrase, one simply never used in reference to straight couples.

There is some talk that Khara, the studio behind the Rebuild of Evangelion reboot, is allegedly exceptionally involved in the script approval process for anything involving the franchise – locking the franchise even further into the trap of “technically accurate but lacking cultural resonance.” If so, that leaves the adaptation team’s hands tied to some extent. But it also reflects the importance of allowing a localization to breathe and capture the spirit as much as the letter of a work. It also tips its hand to the franchise’s shifting priorities, given that the original ADV dub was presided over by director Hideaki Anno himself. As Evangelion has grown from a raw, honest, and singular experience to a glossy franchise selling bucketloads of sexy figurines of its underage cast, it has progressively sanded off the rough edges that drew so many to the original. Apparently, queerness can be counted upon that list.