|Our hero, Shinji Ikari|
No, the really weird ideas that I want to talk about today are the notions that the fandom has adopted that fly in the face of just about everything the text attempts to establish thematically. One of the more obvious examples of this comes from the heavy sexualization of the two teenage female pilots that the fandom--and, frustratingly, the marketing team--participates in, despite the fact that the show goes to great lengths to deconstruct everything from harem anime tropes to the specific character archetypes of those characters to the idea of fanservice in general. The most fanservicey scenes are frequently profoundly uncomfortable, if not outright nightmarishly surreal. According to fan lore, End of Evangelion, the film that acts as the conclusion to the original series, was deliberately dark, brutal, incomprehensible, and full of psychosexual revulsion directed squarely at the protagonist because creator Hideaki Anno was so outraged and disgusted with the Otaku misreading of the film. Whether or not that's true, the fact that the fanbase regards it as plausible should tell you a lot about... well, about the whole Eva phenomenon really.
That's not what I'm here to rant angrily about this week though. No, I want to hone in on another particularly bizarre idea that the fandom has adopted. Specifically, the weird notion that the series protagonist, Shinji Ikari, is straight.
As with a lot of the other more frustrating reactions to the series, it's not just a reproduction of the shitty backwards attitudes that a lot of geeks hold, it reproduces them in such a way that it garbles the actual thematic arc of the series and makes character actions and development alike borderline incomprehensible. It's of particular interest to me, as well, for the way it results in a dismantling of creator efforts to increase representation, forcefully repressing "deviant" sexuality. This is the much canonized practice in fandom culture of erasing what few paltry instances of queer representation exist popular culture. It's the flip side of the coin I discussed a few weeks ago with respect to the possibility of reading queerness into Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: it's reading queerness out of media.
Before we get to discuss Shinji Ikari's bi- or perhaps pansexuality, though, we need to talk a little about what makes Evangelion tick as a narrative. And that means diving deep into the boggy nightmare of Eva's plot.
Bear with me, folks, I'm going to try to make this as comprehensible as possible.
The story follows Shinji Ikari, who pilots the giant robot Evangelion Unit 01 against the Angels, horrific alien entities bent on destroying humanity. They want to use a particular trigger to end the world, humanity (ostensibly) wants to stop the end of the world. Pretty straightforward stuff so far! There are two other pilots (well, three counting one who is effectively immediately taken out of commission when his Eva is taken over by a Angel--which should give you an idea of the kind of series we're dealing with here). They work at the behest of a shadowy organization called NERV, backed by an even shadowier organization called SEELE (German for "Soul" because of course it is), and run by Shinji's father, the father that years prior abandoned him after the death of his mother.
Over the course of the series Shinji struggles with his attraction toward the two female pilots, issues of betrayal and abandonment due to the cold cruelty of his father, and the fear of death and pain juxtaposed with his own suicidal and self-destructive tendencies. Oh, and he struggles with the Angels as well, of course, who start out as big monsters and gradually transform into agents of pure horror as the pilots' minds and bodies are probed, abused, invaded, and ultimately broken. And through all of this, we gradually come to understand that Eva is A. not a robot but a giant biological humanoid B. has terrifying power all its own and C. is barely under the control of humanity.
A whole lot of shit happens that I'm not going to take time to explain because it'd take way too long and honestly people tend to go a bit glassy eyed when you attempt to summarize Eva for them. Even discounting the fact that there's a bunch of shit that's only ever explained in the semi-canonical inserts for Japanese-release-only video games or the fact that the original series had a re-release that added a bunch of scenes or the fact that there's now a possibly canonical retelling of the original series in movie form that goes WILDLY off the rails at the end of the second movie and has reached a point where everyone's sort of collectively shrugged helplessly and accepted that we have no clue where any of this is going...
Even the baseline story of Eva is barely comprehensible on its own merits without heavy rewatching and the aid of fan wikis.
But here's what's important to know:
By the end of the series, Shinji is on the verge of a mental breakdown because of the horrors he's seen, one pilot has been killed then replaced by a clone, and the other is in a coma after a suicide attempt. The sketchy secret organization backing the sketchy secret organization that created the Evas sends a new replacement pilot, the 5th Child:
And Kaworu Nagisa, white haired pretty boy, really likes Shinji Ikari.
This is notable because at this point he's... kind of the only person who does. His father treats him like shit (and really treats everyone else like shit too--Gendo Ikari is a monster), his adoptive guardian has totally sealed herself off emotionally after a pileup of betrayals culminating in the execution of her love interest, the other pilots are as good as dead and are in no condition to deal with Shinji Ikari's leeching need for infinite validation and affection... basically, he's more alone than he's ever been, and the Angel attacks have just been getting more and more mindbendingly incomprehensible and horrifying.
And Kaworu appears on the scene, white haired, perfect, beautiful, and totally, totally devoted to Shinji Ikari. I mean, I need to stress that this is like Free! levels of sheer, undiluted gay. He immediately latches onto Shinji, telling him that he pities and loves him, treating him as the sole focus of his meaning in life, straight up saying that he was born to meet the other boy, holding hands with him in the shower and then sleeping over with him... Like I am not making up or exaggerating any of this there is a lengthy scene of them sitting in the shower naked and talking about Feelings while gazing into each other's eyes.
It is. So. Gay.
I mean I'm not a huge fan of the dub at all really but here's the scene in question and it's not even subtext, Kaworu is just straight up making jokes about sleeping with Shinji and Shinji is reacting as if Kaworu is flirting with him. Look at that boy blush for god's sake:
But the backdrop to all of this is the growing discomfort of the other characters as they realize that Kaworu is not what he appears to be. So to some extent it's not that much of a surprise when his true nature is revealed:
Kaworu is Tabris, the 17th and final Angel.
You can probably predict where things go from here. Kaworu takes the other available Eva and attempts to do the whole end the world thing that the Angels have been trying to do (the mechanics of which I won't even begin to try to explain here). Shinji follows in Unit 01. During this whole sequence, which occurs, by the way, to the sounds of Ode to Joy from Beethoven's 9th because sure why not, Kaworu has seemed oddly hesitant and not particularly inclined toward racing to end the world. And when he finally arrives at the mcguffin that'll bring the curtain down on humanity, he seems to... change his mind. Shinji seizes the boy with his Eva's hand, and Kaworu gives him an ultimatum: Shinji must kill him so that he, and the rest of humanity, can live. In fact, Kaworu is glad Shinji caught up with him, because he thinks Shinji should be the one to live.
And after a full minute--seriously a full 60 seconds--of Eva Unit 01 holding Kaworu in midair while Beethoven's 9th plays in the background, Shinji squishes his wannabe-boyfriend.
You know typing this up in short form really highlights how fucked up Neon Genesis Evangelion is, doesn't it?
Anyway, so that's Key Moment Number One.
Key Moment Number Two comes during the movie End of Evangelion, where...
Ok let me try to describe this without it becoming completely incomprehensible.
The final boss of Evangelion is essentially GOD. And God, an alien entity called Lilith that gave rise to humanity, essentially wants to take humanity back into a kind of fluid shared consciousness. This is called Instrumentality, and the shady organization backing the shady organization that is fighting the Angels secretly has been working towards this goal--this apocalypse where all of humanity becomes one entity--all along.
And the key to their plan is Shinji Freaking Ikari and Unit 01. If they can get him to lower his Absolute Terror Field--the Light of the Soul that differentiates organizations from each other through, essentially, fear of being wholly connected to another being--they can trigger an event where basically all of humanity turns into tang and gets absorbed into Lilith, and Unit 01 becomes a god or... something.
But what's key here is that when people lower their AT Fields during Instrumentality, they see a vision of the person they love most or care about the most or something along those lines--the person they most want to be "one" with. And in just about every case, barring a couple exceptions, it's strongly, strongly implied to be full on sexually tinged love. A LOT of these scenes involve gentle caresses and kisses before people's bodies literally explode into reddish-orange liquid (hence: tang). It's somewhere between extremely touching and extremely disturbing.
So alright, instrumentality involves people lowering their barriers, there's a heavy sexual content, we got it, good.
Now I wanted to make all that clear because while all this is going down and side characters in the command center of NERV are getting turned into rehydrated fruit drinks, Shinji's hovering up in space facing down Lilith... and Lilith for reasons way too weird and creepy to get into here looks like one of the other pilots, like a giant 14 year old girl with creepy eyes. And Shinji's understandably freaking out because he's facing down a giant naked version of this girl, a version so vast that she extends out of Earth's atmosphere. He's just straight up flipping his shit and it looks like he's all set to reject what's going on and then Lilith essentially is just like... mmmmmaaaaaybe this form would be more appealing to you?
And turns into Giant!Kaworu.
And Shinji grins like an idiot and that's pretty much it for humanity--it's all over but the collective screaming as everyone on the planet explodes in glowing crosses and is sucked into Lilith's vagina hands while an eight minute long pop track about suicide plays in the background. It's... look, End of Evangelion is a very, very weird movie, ok? There are Reasons why the fanbase is willing to believe that it was created specifically to troll them.
So to summarize: the person that Shinji finally lets down his barriers for in a way that for almost all the other characters has a strongly romantic and sexual undertone... is Kaworu Nagisa.
All of this is gay as hell and it blows my mind that so many fans apparently can't deal with what isn't even subtext at this point but straight* up 100% text. Like they could literally have shown Shinji and Kaworu boning and it both would not be that much more obvious than what they did show, and I am convinced Eva fans would still find some way to make that just a sign of "close friendship" or something.
I don't think it's out of line to describe this as indicative of deeply rooted homophobia in the Otaku community, homophobia that manifests as denial of male bisexuality while drooling over femslash pairings of all sorts. (There's the occasional defenders of public decency who apply the same standard of complete and total erasure of canonical female bisexuality or lesbianism but they're at least less hypocritical, if not less offensively ridiculous.)
The reason why the rhetoric surrounding this issue is so disturbing to me is because it mirrors word for word discourse used to deny queer identities in real life. For example, one of the most prominent descriptions, one that I saw over and over again from fans, was that Shinji was "just confused" about his feelings for Kaworu.
Queer readers, I know I don't have to explain to you why this is gross, because you've probably lived this shit. I know I have. But for those not in the know, this is a common tactic used to deny queer identities, particularly bisexuality, pansexuality, or any variety of trans identities (all identities prone to erasure in real life--I'll return to this point momentarily) but pretty much capable of being mobilized to deny just about any queer person you'd like to shove back into the closet. It's a form of sort of soft homophobia, a reaction that's less extreme than getting kicked out of your home but is still destructive to your sense of self at a time when you're already questioning your identity. Compare phrases like "it's just a phase" and concepts like women being bisexuals at parties but really, at their core, being straight or notions like bisexuals actually having a binary attraction to whoever they're currently dating.
It's particularly frustrating in the case of an apparently bisexual male character because bisexuality, and male bisexuality in particular, is so highly stigmatized not just in heteronormative dominant culture but in the ostensibly more inclusive queer culture as well. Bisexuals are, by and large (ahah), treated as traitors to both sides, untrustworthy and prone to promiscuity, dirty, slutty, and barely worthy of political consideration in their own right as they are simply the transitional phase, the chrysalis period, before a formerly straight person emerges as a beautiful fully gay butterfly.
Make no mistake, the treatment of bisexual fictional characters is symptomatic of a treatment of actual flesh and blood bisexuals. And the research I did for this article, poking around discussions of Shinji's sexuality, indicated that these attitudes were not just occasional but were outright rampant. Those who weren't aggressively denying that he could possibly be queer with the "just confused" excuse or other rationalizations were labelling Shinji gay for stereotype reasons rather than for the fact that he actually seems to be into dudes.
I think it's significant that two of the most prominent longrunning fanfics of Evangelion almost completely erase and sublimate the possibility of Kaworu and Shinji having a relationship. Nobody Dies, which isn't all sunshine and rainbows but which is fundamentally predicated on the idea of a lighter, fluffier Evangelion where people have way less issues, is for the most part queer-free. Hell, Kaworu shows up in Tokyo 3 hoping to breed with the female pilot Rei! What does it say that the Lighter, Fluffier Eva has an apparently straight Kaworu and straight Shinji? Nothing good, I think. And Shinji and Warhammer 40K (which is a story about Shinji and the game Warhammer 40K and how it turns him into a MAN) touches on the idea only briefly in order to have the two boys react in disgust. TV Tropes can call this a "hilarious" nod to the original series all it wants, but what that is, at the end of the day, is a homophobic gay panic joke, revealing much about the author's insecurities but providing little humor. I mean I don't want to be too down on this story in particular but when the author's profile loudly trumpets "Cleanse the yaoi," and the story repeatedly uses female homosexuality for titillation it's kind of difficult to remain blithe about these things.
The stunning irony of it all is that these instances of casual homophobia simply reveal the eggshell fragility of masculinity that in many ways Eva ultimately skewers. And that, I think, is what sets this narrative apart from other instances of canonical queerness: the queer relationship in question is so important, and so revealing of the protagonist's character, that to remove it is to gut the thematic arc.
See, the thing about Shinji x Kaworu is that it's a messed up, impossible, totally unhealthy relationship.
|Kaworu really, really likes Shinji.|
And if there's one overarching point Eva has about relationships, it's that queer or het, EVERYONE is pretty messed up. I mean one of the central recurring ideas is the Hedgehog's Dilemma, where, like hedgehogs, the closer people get to one another, the more they hurt each other. I just tried to type up ONE of the other relationships in the show and it's wrapped up in so many other fucked up unrequited love situations, sexual relationships of convenience and manipulation, and weird antics with cloning technology, that I ended up confusing myself and erasing the whole damn thing. The one semi-positive relationship in the whole show ends up, as I mentioned before, with the guy getting disappeared after handing off his intel on the stack of shady organizations running Project Eva off to his love interest.
So expecting the queer relationships in the show to be somehow actually stable is ludicrously optimistic. And I think it's a somewhat unreasonable standard in fandom culture that queer relationships should be treated as illegitimate if they are unhealthy or self-annihilating when they come in the context of a whole range of relationships that are also unhealthy and self-annihilating. (Compare Willow and Tara's relationship in Buffy: as it falls apart, it's falling apart in the context of a show where the main character has had two very bad breakups and where just about every other relationship seems to be on remarkably shaky ground. Thus, it is in keeping with the themes being explored about the difficulty of life to have this relationship fall apart.) While it's important that there be positive queer relationships on TV, I don't think the proper way of going about getting that representation is to demand that queer relationships be given preferential treatment in contexts where the overarching message is one of all relationships having problematic elements.
When I point out that Shinji and Kaworu are actually kind of terrible for each other, then, you have to understand that it doesn't undermine the importance of acknowledging their fundamental queerness, and neither does it indicate homophobia on the show's part, coming, as it does, in the context of a whole raft of similarly warped and unhealthy relationships.
What is it that makes their relationship so unhealthy?
Uh, how about the fact that it ends with Shinji squashing Kaworu with his giant robot?
I mean that's just surface shit though. The deeper problem here is that Kaworu sets himself up to be squashed, and behaves like being squashed is a totally reasonable thing to allow in a relationship based on mutual love. And that reveals a deeper problem: Shinji falls in love with Kaworu because Kaworu loves him unconditionally to the point of self-destruction. Shinji is an endless sucking void of neediness, and he frequently seems totally incapable of seeing that other people have needs beyond his emotional fulfilment. In fact, there's a pivotal scene in End of Evangelion where he begs another character for help, saying that he needs her, and she throws that statement back in his face, accusing him (rightly, as we see immediately as he starts begging for any of the other characters in the show to help him) of just projecting need onto her when literally anyone else will do. He simply instrumentalizes whatever character is nearby.
And Kaworu is the perfect object--the perfect objectified being--for that instrumentalization, because he is almost literally a blank piece of paper ready for Shinji to inscribe upon him whatever he needs. He is an almost totally passive entity, passively acting out the plot of SEELE and the other Angels, then finally deciding--in his one real show of agency--to immediately ditch all agency again in the name of his newfound love! Like, even if Shinji could have persuaded Kaworu that there's an alternative to the stark false dilemma that the Angel accepts as inevitable (which apparently, for the record, is something you can do in one of the Eva video games--you can get Kaworu to give up on his suicide mission and join Shinji, which prompts them to talk about wanting to "explore the rest of their lives together" just in case you hadn't picked up at that point that THESE BOYS ARE NOT STRAIGHT) the end result would have been a remarkably unhealthy relationship where Shinji continues acting as an emotional black hole and Kaworu continues to sublimate his own identity.
In the series, when he dies, it's clear that Shinji does what emotionally unstable teenagers do with their exes: he idealizes the everloving crap out of Kaworu, elevating him to a status of absolute goodness and using Kaworu's death to further his own slide into total self-loathing. The fact that this leads ultimately to his total paralysis in the face of Instrumentality and the end of the world, and I think it contributes greatly to his ultimate willingness to send all of humanity to hell when Kaworu seems to miraculously reappear. Kaworu is literally and figuratively larger than life at that point, and for howling affection sink Shinji Ikari, he's the only thing that can possibly take away the pain.
Why can't this be just a very special friendship? I don't know, I guess it could if not for the fact that everything is screaming that it isn't. His relationship with the female pilots could be friendship too! And his guardian's affection for him could be totally innocent and motherly and have no sexual component at all! None of it is that way, but sure, I guess if you insist, it could be read that way... although you better bloody well read ALL of it that way, because WOW does it piss me off that people just "happen" to only read the one queer relationship as totally nonsexual and nonromantic. Please try to at least be consistent with your misreadings instead of just diving straight into the murky oceans of awkwardly half-admitted homophobia and adolescent male anxiety.
But beyond that stuff, I think this dynamic is just far more interesting when we understand it in the context of the other possible romantic relationships in the show. Seeing this as more than just a friendship allows us to understand how it would work--or, more importantly, fail to work--as a relationship, and what that suggests about Shinji Ikari as a character, what it suggests about relationships as a whole as the show understands them, and what it says about sexuality as a fraught, unsettling, and frequently fluid and difficult to circumscribe territory within wider human experience. It's powerful, intriguing, and rich in interpretive possibilities. To forfend those possibilities due to the fragility of the Otaku male's conception of sexuality is to lose a large chunk of what makes Neon Genesis Evangelion such an enduring and fascinating object of discussion and analysis.
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