Kaoru may be the most difficult character to talk about authoritatively in Evangelion.
Part of the problem is he has so much baggage around him. Shinji, by all appearances, is attracted to him on an emotional level, and, maybe, on a physical level.
Instead of making things more clear, this homoeroticism makes understanding Kaoru harder. We’ve only ever seen Shinji be sexually attracted to women, in particular to Asuka. So why here? Why now?
It easy to see why he’s attracted to Asuka. She is broken in a similar way to Shinji, and it’s this similarity that makes them attracted to each other. It’s also what pushes them away from each other as well.
I don’t see that same relationship with Kaoru.
Interpreting his character is only made more confusing by the sheer lack of time we get with him. We meet him a few minutes into the episode. We get a few stuttering conversations where he talks in riddles, and finally, we have a confrontation outside of Central Dogma.
In between, we learn he’s the final angel, he was sent by Seele, and this will be the last battle before the Human Instrumentality Project begins. I don’t think any of that helps me understand Kaoru better.
But I do have two possible interpretations.
When I started watching this episode, I had an idea for how Kaoru was going to play out, but not a clear one. This is one of the episodes that I’ve seen once, but never reached in the subsequent times I’ve tried watching this series.
My idea was Kaoru was Shinji perfected. He was the Shinji that Shinji wanted to be.
There is enough in the show to support this interpretation. Kaoru is a child of Adam, which makes him the “opposite” of humans. This means he isn’t afflicted with human weaknesses.
There are a lot of hints that he is better than any of the humans who try to stop him. He takes over Unit 2 just by will alone. He effortlessly makes his way through all of the security. He just walks into the room where they’re keeping Lillith.
After Shinji kills him, he is sitting on the beach with Misato when he says “Kaoru said that he loved me. I’ve never felt such kindness before. I liked him too. Kaoru should have survived. He was like me, and he was like Ayanami. … He was much better than I am.”
This hints that, at least in Shinji’s mind, that Kaoru is a better version of him. A Shinji that is free of the weaknesses that he has, and who can love purely and without any reservation.
But overall, this is a weak case for how to look at Kaoru. It doesn’t help us understand the homoerotic text in their relationship. Also, Shinji is obviously not yearning to be someone else. He’s yearning for acceptance and trying to find a way to get it.
In fact, we never see Shinji compare himself to others. We see him take actions that he believes will get him praise, but he’s not doing it in emulation of others.
The only real angel
I’ve made the argument a few times that the “angels” are really nonsense monsters. They exist to provide an antagonist so the show can examine the psychology of the four main characters. They could easily be blocks of cheese grown large or a pack of pony-sized ducks.
When they have any meaning at all, it’s to provide context to the struggle between the characters. The shiny angel that can shoot from far away exists so Rei can show that she doesn’t value her life as she protecting Shinji.
The angel that divides into two other angels exists because Shinji and Asuka needed to learn to work together. And we need to understand that they are more similar than they are different.
Kaoru is different. He is the first angel who can talk, so we actually get a sense of what he wants. He wants Shinji to live. He wants Shinji to be happy. And probably, most importantly, he wants Shinji to tear down the walls around his heart.
How do we know this? Because Kaoru could easily just defeat Shinji. He pretty effortlessly steps through all of the locks. While it’s not clear what would happen if he comes into contact with Lillith, it is clear that he outmatches anyone at NERV.
The only reason he loses is that he wants to lose. In the same scene where Kaoru sacrifices himself, he tells Shinji that he wants him to live.
In the scenes leading up to that, we learn that the AT Field is a representation of the walls that everyone puts up around their hearts, and Kaoru has perfect knowledge of what it is and how to use it.
In the light of that, I think the bathtub scene becomes a little less of Kaoru hitting on Shinji, and a little more of Kaoru acting without thought. He is a being of pure love and empathy expressing himself.
I think this shines the most when we look at the now infamous line in the ADV dub.
“You are delicate like glass, at least your heart is. … This is worth earning my empathy. I’m saying that I love you.”
What he provides Shinji is absolution. For all of the nonsense monsters, Kaoru seems to be the only true messenger from some other world, and he tells Shinji it’s OK to want his own world.
Granted, Shinji, as Shinji is want to do, pushes that away, and finds a way to blame himself, but that is neither here nor there.
So what do you think? Is there a third interpretation that I missed? How do you see Kaoru?
As always, thanks for reading.