I’m going to be spoiling most of the Rebuild films, End of Eva, and NGE here, so just be warned for that. I haven’t talked about Evangelion since I praised the Rebuild series for fixing so many of my problems with the original Neon Genesis Evangelion (and you can read that here).
Since writing that essay, I have walked away from the franchise almost entirely satisfied, except for one solitary complaint; Shinji ending up with Mari didn’t make a lot of sense. I appreciate that series creator Hideaki Anno put an end to more than two decades of waifu wars by introducing a new character as the love interest, but the two of them barely got any screen time together.
I wasn’t actually upset that they got together, like many people, but I was confused that there wasn’t more buildup. Mari only shows up for the first time in the second film where she and Shinji become acquainted, and I’m not even sure they speak at all in the third, so they don’t even get to know each other until 3.0 + 1.0. The two do form an impromptu partnership, have some good chemistry, and their reunion is a powerful scene, but almost immediately after, we find out that they’re an item in the new post-Instrumentality world.
In the intervening months, I’ve had time to grapple with that odd decision, because I’ve come to realize it’s not necessarily a bad one. See, if you only know one thing about weebs, it’s that we’re never satisfied. Anno did all this work to make a satisfying and final conclusion to Evangelion, but we’re still mad because Shinji didn’t shack up with his mom.
So rather than defend the decision itself, I’d rather debunk the idea that Shinji had other viable romantic partners, ultimately leaving Mari as the person closest to him at the end of the series. They should have given the two more time together, but it was the correct decision, and here’s why.
As I just mentioned, many people are convinced that Shinji should have hooked up with Rei, a clone of his mother. Personally, I adore Rei, and she’s clearly series best girl, but there’s a good reason why I think that; she’s not my mother.
Evangelion is obsessed with Freudian psychology and Oedipus Complexes, but Anno never frames that fascination positively. In NGE and End of Evangelion, Shinji and Rei’s relationship is cut short by the Third Impact. In the Rebuild films, Shinji grows close to different Reis before they die and are replaced by another clone.
This all adds up to their ersatz maternal/romantic relationship being left dangling, regardless of the ending you prefer. If it was clear, Anno says you should not romance your mother, even if it’s a clone. Actually, especially if it’s a clone. I didn’t think that had to be said, but here we are.
A key component of an Oedipus Complex is that it’s a natural part of development (or it would be, if Freud wasn’t so confident that everybody experienced sexual attraction to their mothers) and it is a stage of development that would give way to identification with the father. A child might be possessive of their parent, even territorial, but there is no growth without cutting the umbilical cord.
And this growth is demonstrated in the Rebuilds. Rei’s iteration as of 3.0 + 1.0 forms a romantic attachment to Shinji, helping him break from his depression after the damage he’s caused in the last films, but she ultimately dies. In the film’s climax, Shinji learns that his father Gendo experienced the same depression, isolation, and need to escape from his life that Shinji has been struggling with.
It isn’t until this point that Shinji can identify with his father and coax him through the loneliness that they shared, which previously only Shinji’s mother could do, that they’re able to start again. Shinji’s final act before recreating the world is to empathize with his father and supplant his mother’s role as well as Rei’s, and they are able to begin again. I’m not saying Freudian psychology isn’t without its flaws, but the series is built rather intricately around these ideas.
I personally love Rei’s story and development in Thrice Upon a Time, as it clarifies and contextualizes her feelings for Shinji in a way that other versions lacked. In the end, though, this has always been Shinji’s journey. The first crucial step Shinji takes towards recovering is losing touch with the maternal crutch he’s found in Rei, and being able to carry on not in spite of that loss, but because of it.
Asuka is interesting in that she might be the only love interest in Evangelion who had a shot of ending up with Shinji. However, what brings them together is also what drives them apart. It’s the result of them sharing fundamentally similar personalities that have responded to their trauma in radically different ways. Both envy the other; Shinji for the weakness Asuka could never afford, and Asuka for the strength of character that Shinji could never muster.
Ultimately, their romantic tension is shallow. The two care for each other as much as anyone in their positions could, but it’s an immature sort of infatuation. If he ever pursued Asuka, Shinji would just be conforming to audience expectations. The soft-spoken protagonist managing to crack the cold exterior of the hot-headed, competent love interest is good material for a rom com, but it’s not Eva.
Shinji is being forced to grow up, and he can’t do that by giving in and doing as he’s told. Much has been made of Anno’s use of Evangelion to criticize otaku culture and escapism, but it’s never as clear as when Shinji explicitly rejects his surface-level interest in a girl who has never been able to truly love or accept him for who he was. She could be his friend, a partner in a fight, but their differences and their similarities make a romantic relationship between the two toxic, if not impossible.
Asuka is an excellent foil for Mari, particularly why the latter’s relationship with Shinji succeeds while the former’s does not. Both are presumptuous loudmouths, but Asuka lacks Mari’s willingness to put her trust in Shinji. In the end, the two realize that any feelings they held for one another are long gone, and come to terms with the fact that they’re not the kids they once were.
Honestly, Kaworu inspired this whole essay, because I had a stray thought that no matter the timeline, Kaworu will manage to show up, make Shinji doubt his sexuality, and die. Shinji’s relationship with the Final Angel is one of the most iconic parts of this story, despite its brevity. Seriously, before I watched Eva, I assumed Kaworu was a principle character just from what I gathered from the anime community. Turns out, he’s just a guy who show’s up and dies in a single episode.
That isn’t to say his influence is as small as his screen time, but it’s another area that the Rebuild films have improved upon. Kaworu and Shinji get a single episode in NGE, while the third film is primarily about their relationship. For once, I actually was under the impression that Kaworu is this fated figure in Shinji’s life who will persist through every timeline and universe to try and make him happy. The Rebuilds make it clear what Kaworu was meant to be.
He loves Shinji for his flaws, and more than that, he likes Shinji, unlike Asuka. He sees Shinji’s fragility and his powerful emotions, and can’t help but admire the boy like some kind of porcelain doll; beautiful precisely because he is delicate. In every variation, Kaworu is destined and perhaps doomed to pull Shinji from a dark place, but is unable to help him from plunging back in further.
Kaworu’s love isn’t toxic like Asuka’s, but it’s just as unhelpful in promoting Shinji’s growth. He is fascinated by Shinji’s weakness, and while he genuinely wants him to be happy, there’s no way to make that happen in this world. Kaworu could never wind up with Shinji because he is, as he so often puts it, a child with a predetermined fate.
That’s why he is seen at the train station in the new post-Instrumentality world, chatting idly with Rei. He’s either unaware or indifferent to the object of his affection, who for once is so close and attainable. He and Rei are parallels much like how Shinji and Asuka are foils; they have a shared romantic interest in Shinji and want to make him happy, but their roles prevent him from growing into the man he needs to be to step forward and take that happiness for himself.
That isn’t to say their work is for nothing; Shinji became the person who could reach out to Gendo and end Instrumentality on his own terms. Not because the world has been separated from pain and individuality, but because the world is just as capable of gifting joy as it is inflicting pain.
Like I said before, the Rebuilds could have done a better job of establishing Shinji and Mari’s romantic chemistry, but I still love the ending that we got. Their relationship wasn’t profound, but it squarely rejects the idea that you need a grand fated love story to be a happy couple. We tend to not judge stories by realistic standards, but Thrice Upon a Time points out how silly that kind of thinking is.
Each person I’ve talked about here played an important role in Shinji’s maturation, but the point is that he is not ready and able to move forward on his own. What Shinji needs is someone who is willing to work with him, not on his behalf, and to explore how fulfilling that type of relationship can be. And after the destruction of the evas, they have nothing but time.
You could argue convincingly that Shinji should have ended up with a character established prior to the Rebuilds, or with a deeper connection, but that’s not the right choice for Shinji. This story has always been about pushing us to go outside, talk to people, fall in love, and experience the world as it is. Real people don’t have partners they’re destined to meet or are bound to by fate; you decide to put your trust in one another, and you go from there.
But if you want to tell me I’m wrong and don’t understand Evangelion, I’ll call you a liar for pretending that any of us understand Evangelion. Either way, the best way to verbally abuse me is to like the essay, comment, or head over to Twitter and talk to me @ExhibitionOtaku, where all the takes are a lot hotter and more timely than this essay. Until next time, thanks for reading.