Every fandom that’s managed to lure a sizable base has a shipping war or two under its belt. It’d be laughable to call Evangelion an exception, though it does offer the distinction of having enough spin-offs that the major relationships have all gotten their day in the limelight. And while you can find a following for just about every combination of characters, the heat is really on when it comes to Shinji. Those fights get ugly, and fast. And Eva being what it is, interpretation enters into things more often than not. It could be said that there’s three distinct levels to every conversation: what the relationship in question is, what it could potentially be, and how it’s represented by fan expectations. It’s the last one that I wanted to take a quick look at, using the two ‘endgame’ options Kaworu and Asuka (with no offense meant to Rei fans), because it reveals some pretty interesting things about audience expectations. And besides, what better way to start the year before the alleged Third Impact?
That time anime portrayed actual, relatable teen awkwardness
What it is: Shinji and Asuka are two very damaged young people, let’s make no mistake. They’ve suffered similar traumas (the death of their mothers before their eyes and absent/critical parental figures thereafter), while reacting in completely opposite ways – Shinji became withdrawn and sensitive, while Asuka grew showy and brashly independent. These disparate reactions are in service of their twin desires to be loved and accepted, as well as praised for their actions.
Because of their similar ages and experiences, and helped along by their constant proximity, the two are drawn to each other in a rather realistic depiction of the first flush of hormones and young love. However, their clashing personalities and desire to change the other without having to change themselves mean they hurt each other far more than they’re able to offer comfort. For all that they’re able to rely on one another in combat and clearly want to reach out, their personal hurts keep them from truly connecting over the course of the series (at least in a healthy way). In the finale of End of Evangelion the two are alone on the shores of humanity’s collective mind, serving as a metaphorical Adam and Eve.
What it Could Be: The success of this relationship rides largely on both characters successfully tackling their traumas and learning to communicate more openly. As such, it also pretty much requires a) councilors and a stable environment (a nonentity in the world of Eva) and b) age. Given a situation where they’re able to start coping with their issues, the above problems easily become strengths: they have similar pasts as well as immediate history that connect them, and have a tentative mutual trust from battle that could be built upon in civilian life. Using extreme optimism, their personalities also fit the theory of opposites attracting, with Shinji able to mellow Asuka’s outbursts (if he became more assertive and less avoidant) and Asuka able to pull Shinji out of his shell (if she shook her tendency toward verbal and physical violence as conflict resolvers). In the best case scenario their differences would serve as challenges, pushing both characters to become better people.
In Fandom: Both positive and negative depictions of the ‘AsuShin’ relationship stem from the way Asuka differs from the expected female character, taking traits that are there and ballooning them from “flawed human being” to “Anime Archetype.” Negative depictions of Asuka tend to square the relationship as abusive, playing up Asuka’s temper (not uncommonly throwing the word “bitch” around) while emphasizing Shinji as helpless or victimized and ignoring Asuka’s attempts at understanding and the rather equal PTSD of both characters.
Positive depictions, meanwhile, often force Asuka into the tsundere model (including the published AsuShin manga Angelic Days). This downplays Asuka’s temper and channels her difficulty communicating into a mode specifically dealing with Shinji (and you can bet he’ll start to show shades of Generic Anime Nice Guy). These depictions of Asuka favor a male fantasy that spawned legions of descendants: the redheaded tsundere heroine, capable but still needing to be saved when the hero needs to prove himself in her eyes, whose brashness will melt away to reveal a sweet and noncombative personality once the hero recognizes her feelings. This makes Asuka’s behavioral struggles a temporary trait to be conquered by the love interest, rather than something she must overcome herself (with outside emotional support). The characters who followed in the lineage of this fantasy would reflect the increased shallowness of the idea, with anger much less rooted in personal issues than prolonging the romantic conflict.
What it is: Kaworu and Shinji’s relationship is a brief but powerful one, proving to be extremely formative for both characters (because I respect the intelligence and general observational skills of my readership, we won’t go into the mountain of official meta-text validating Kaworu’s love interest potential and disproving the No Homo Kneejerk). Kaworu declares his feelings for Shinji almost immediately, feelings which Shinji only verbally reciprocates after the other boy’s death. Shinji is nonetheless drawn to the angel-boy’s charisma, often flustered by him due to a lack of straightforward affection in his life to date, and deeply wounded by the revelation of Kaworu’s nature. Kaworu, for his part, seems to revere Shinji’s sensitivity as representing the best of human nature, and feels strongly enough for the boy to wish his own death rather than humanity’s (and thus Shinji’s) end. Kaworu also represents Shinji’s understanding of ‘love’ during Instrumentality, and is the ‘important person’ who breaches his AT field.
This scene has more metaphors than you can shake a stick at
What it Could Be: The relationship between Kaworu and Shinji is difficult to judge due to the extremely truncated nature of their time together (in sum total, a few days and an indeterminate portion of universal mind-joining). However, to look at a long term best case scenario (as with Asuka above though here assuming Kaworu is somehow free of or atoning for his role as an angel), there’s great potential for growth and understanding in the relationship. Kaworu’s inquisitive nature is fertile ground for open and thorough communication, exposing problems early and nudging Shinji into a more open disposition. This would then put him in a better position to serve as a barometer of humanity and answer the issues of Kaworu’s non-standard and perhaps callous morality (born more from an outsider perspective than true maliciousness). There’s also a history of physical and emotional affection, a benefit for Shinji’s difficulties with human interaction.
In Fandom: Negative portrayals of Kaworu are so pervasive as to be their own conspiracy theory. These portrayals downplay Kaworu’s feelings by making them manipulative rather than sincere in nature, designed to raise Shinji’s hopes before breaking him in time for Instrumentality to begin (ignoring Kaworu’s role in guiding Shinji to a refusal of Instrumentality, that sincere affection over cruelty is what causes Shinji’s AT field to drop, and the fact that an attached Shinji would be far less likely to freely kill Kaworu – his ultimate desire – than an unattached one).
Positive portrayals have something of the Disney Prince about them, with Kaworu becoming similar to the figures that are popular in female-oriented romance: he’s depicted as the singular key to solving all of Shinji’s problems, often in a way that isolates the two of them or disregards the rest of the cast’s role in Shinji’s life; Kaworu’s messianic traits are also amplified tenfold, resulting in a character who’s completely understanding and intuitive 100% of the time and a relationship with an unrealistic lack of internal conflict. Like Asuka, this more watery version of Kaworu has many, many descendants throughout modern media, though more likely to play second fiddle to the dark and brooding male lead.
Because Shinji stands partially as an everyman surrogate, it’s not surprising that these trends exist – though it does speak to the effectiveness of the character’s portrayal that he strikes a chord with both male and female fans (albeit in different and sometimes reactionary ways). Just as Shinji has historically been made a wish-fulfillment figure, so too have his potential romances, reflecting the desires of the viewer while also flattening out some of the more rounded and problematic aspects of the relationships. This doesn’t make either romance bad, nor does it mean that the desire for a happy and optimistic ending is one that should be discarded – it does, however, beg for a more nuanced hand that’s in keeping with the series’ desire for a semi-realistic depiction of emotional consequences. The connections are more rewarding for having been forged outside of an idealized vacuum, and at their best can strike at the same feeling of ‘truth’ that the individual characters evoke.