I would like to be reporting on a whole generation of new fans suddenly created – an upwelling of anime love generated by the Netflix release of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, for the second month in a row, fandom is enmired in complaints and arguments about the English-language version. This time it’s over the appearance of Kaworu, the “Fifth Children”, who famously tells the beleaguered hero Shinji that he loves him.
Or rather, he did, in the old ADV Films DVDs. In Dan Kanemitsu’s new translation, he says he likes him, which Kanemitsu has defended as a deliberate word-choice for ambiguity’s sake.
It turns out that there is a faction within fandom who demands that this not be ambiguous at all. Many have fond memories of Kaworu’s declaration as a moment of LGBT clarity, a “we’re here, we’re queer” invasion of mainstream anime to be celebrated, and now being suppressed. Others are armchair translators who remember the former version and don’t like the change.
Kanemitsu is working with a bunch of factors behind the scenes, starting with his own undeniable talent (he didn’t win this gig in a lottery) and unknown stipulations by Studio Khara, whose own staff are keener on the “like” side. Add to that the delicious tangle that he cannot even lean on precedent, because Evangelion’s creator Hideaki Anno limited himself to the equally ambiguous comment that Kaworu “could” be a potential same-sex partner. Meanwhile, ADV’s own original translation of Evangelion had “like” in its 1990s VHS subtitles, and switched it to “love” when the DVD came out.
The fact is that suki can mean like or love depending on context. There are hundreds of ways to say “I love you” in Japanese, but the Japanese hardly ever employ any of them, regarding a direct declaration as rather gauche, blunt or well, foreign. Kaworu’s line is already a step away from the norm, a nudge beyond flirtation – a comment sure to unsettle and discombobulate.
So I’m with many others in the translation field when I say that I, personally, would have gone with “love” for this line, not only for its possibly disquieting force, but because Judaeo-Christian tradition, on which Evangelion leans so conspicuously, has multiple interpretations of the term – including philia (brotherly love), agape (charity) and eros (erotic love). Just because you unpack the term into a single English word, doesn’t mean that the arguments over interpretation are over.
But I would have done so in search of the same ambiguity as Kanemitsu. I find it in scripture and the assumption of an audience with a Christian cultural background, which is frankly, a presumption on my part not necessarily shared by the audience Kanemitsu is playing to. “Context” is not merely the dramatic situation of the line, but the abilities and expectations of one’s presumed audience. So both lines are right, depending on who is reading them.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 192, 2019.