Neon Genesis Evangelion is a dense and messy thing. But even at its most troubled it still hits the powerful truth that we all want to love and be loved. It’s the consistent thread holding together all of its character journeys, the thing that guides the lives and goals and decisions of its cast. Episode 9 may not be the most conventional place to look at this, but it’s the first time we really see the vulnerability that fuels two of Evangelion‘s most prominent relationships: the one between Shinji and Asuka, and the one between Misato and Kaji. Humans desire intimacy, and these four characters each struggle with it in different ways.
NOTE: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 9, AND PARTIAL SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THE SERIES.
The introduction of Asuka to Evangelion is SUPER important. It’s the first time we see Shinji communicate with someone he sees as an equal. He can’t connect with any of the adults around him, his school friends are a distant presence and Rei is impossible to emotionally engage with. Conversely Asuka and Shinji are comfortable getting at each other’s throats, knowing they can get away with it. At the same time, however, Shinji sees her as a distant object of attraction. He sees her as someone within his reach but someone who can’t possibly consider him likeable or charming enough to have a relationship of any sort. And to a socially anxious 14 year old boy like Shinji that can be huge. Like, as huge as the threat of the angels destroying all of human civilisation.
So what does Shinji do? Well, in a moment of sexual and emotional impulse he tries to kiss Asuka in her sleep. That’s an absolutely shitty and reprehensible thing to do, but as a teenager who’s deeply confused and desperate to experience human intimacy he doesn’t really process this. This state of panic as Shinji timidly comes closer to her lips is undercut by the sound of heavy breathing and the barely audible rewinding tape, carrying as much a feeling of guilt for the terrible thing he’s about to do as a self-centered fear of being caught doing that terrible thing. Just as he’s about to commit the deed Asuka cries in her sleep for her mother, which causes Shinji to back off.
That cry scares him for a couple reasons. The first is that he finally properly realises that he’s taking advantage of a vulnerable person. The other more important reason is that he’s forced to see that Asuka is a fragile teenager like him. This idea that Asuka is a human being who’s just as emotionally desperate and fraught as him is kinda repulsive to Shinji. He resents that he can’t respond to her sleeping figure as if she were a simple object of desire without her own life and problems, which he demonstrates when he follows his guilty retreat by saying “You’re just a child yourself”. In essence he’s avoiding personal reflection by blaming the unwilling subject of his lust for making him feel the way he does. When he thinks there’s nowhere else to turn to he blames the world for his emotional hangups. This is a trend that continues through his relationship with Asuka, demonstrating how Shinji’s desperation for intimacy drives him to frustration and projection.
This scene is immediately followed by a cutaway to Kaji kissing Misato. We can immediately tell this isn’t a consenting interaction by the way Kaji physically looms over her and firmly grasps her hand. We also see Misato eyeing the elevator waiting for her opportunity to escape. As soon as she’s able to force herself out of her ex-lover’s grip she tells him outright not to do that again, to which he responds with the standard demeaning “But your lips didn’t say no”. He passes his notes to Misato but she knocks them out of his hands to gesture him to back off, and he reacts with a flippant bow.
Kaji arguably isn’t much more emotionally or sexually mature than Shinji. He’s certainly more self-confident and charming as an experienced adult, but he demonstrates the same childish entitlement to intimacy from unwilling individuals. The big difference is that Kaji knows how to get what he wants. And it’s not just Misato that he targets. Earlier on we see him sneak up behind Ritsuko and very physically flirt with her. He immediately acts on desires for intimacy, and uses his cool veneer so people perceive him as being an endearing playboy rather than someone engaging in ultra creepy behaviour.
This is doubly concerning as it preys on Misato’s vulnerability. We already know by this point that they had a past relationship and that Misato willingly broke it off. She knows this relationship is fruitless, and yet she still falls for him again. Why? Because Misato wants INTIMACY. Because she finds herself at a point where she’ll take whatever physical comfort and pleasure she can get, even if it hurts her in the long run. Kaji may think that Misato just finds his flirting irresistible, but in actuality she’s just trying to fill the hole in her heart left by her late father. This is a picture that gets painted more vividly in later episodes, but here we already see the uncomfortable and desperate dynamic between the two.
The characters of Neon Genesis Evangelion yearn for closeness. They struggle for love because they want to believe they’re worth loving. Because in a changing world where they’ve lost so much they want to find something to cling to and never let go. Neon Genesis Evangelion, above all, is about being human.
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