Okay, look, I’m biased.
Imagine tiny Nate for a moment. Thirteen, fourteen, something like that. You’re Nate, by the way, in this story. You’ve just found out what anime is and you’ve blown through Fullmetal Alchemist like it was nothing. This is your second anime. Neon Genesis Evangelion. Maybe not a great anime for a thirteen-fourteen year old, but too bad, you’re watching it, and you love it. You relate a lot to Shinji, he’s a sad kid with terrible anxiety and depression like you and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. Everything seems to go just terrible for Shinji Ikari.
And then you get to episode 24, and Kaworu Nagisa walks in and tells him that he’s valuable, and a good person worth caring about, and that he loves him and then he dies tragically which makes you love him anymore. You’re blown away by what you’ve just seen!
You see, Evangelion is a weird anime. Everybody knows this, but a little more specifically, director Anno Hideaki has stated that most of the characters in Evangelion are based on popular character tropes from Shonen anime at the time, only fully realized as “real” people. For example, Rei is the cool kuudere, Asuka is the fiery yandere, Misato is the uncomfortably hot mom figure, only, the series explains to get someone who acts like they do, you’d need a person who had profound issues, and the series went into spotlighting those issues. It’s a weird show written by a man who was severely depressed at the time and it shows. Kaworu Nagisa, however, is in the opposite direction- instead of being a popular trope made dark and gritty, he was supposed to represent complete and unconditional love.
Kaworu Nagisa was written to represent the concept of love. He meets Shinji Ikari at his lowest moment and he’s kind to him. He spends time with him and gets to know him, and loves him for all his flaws. Supplementary material for the series reveals that Kaworu Nagisa wanted to destroy mankind until he met Shinji- that his driving force the past fifteen years had been the extinction of humankind to replace with the angels to give a new species a chance to thrive on Earth. Only, he meets Shinji and he loves him, and through him, he learns to love all humankind, that our flaws make us individuals and interesting and so, when he’s drawn to Adam and realizes that it’s the culmination of everything he’s been working toward his whole life, the destruction of humankind, he doesn’t want to anymore. Shinji has to kill him because if he lives, it will mean the end of human beings and Shinji is not the existence which should die.
This episode premiered in 1996. Making the embodiment of unconditional love and forgiveness a gay 15 year old boy and that unconditional love one he felt for another boy was a powerful move. The scene where Kaworu stands beside Shinji and smiles at him and tells him he has value and then says “I love you,” to the moment at the end of the episode where Shinji admits “I loved him, too” are scenes that blew my mind as a child, I had no idea that you could do that on tv, that you could do that in real life, and it changed my entire outlook on myself as a person. Shinji was such an intimately relatable character to me at the time, and to be told that I, via Shinji, was a valuable person deserving of life despite my problems was so valuable to me then and even still now.