Lost inTranslation: Why Netflix’s “Neon Genesis Evangelion” is So Problematic
Why all the changes? That’s what a lot of fans of the classic anime series said when it was recently brought to Netflix. With a new voice cast and the loss of their iconic ending song (a cover of Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon”), the most obvious changes soon became a side topic of conversation as fans realized that the new translation seemed… off.
To bring a new, polished version of the massively-popular series to streaming, Netflix went with Studio Khara, the splinter studio formed by Hideaki Anno, director of the original anime. This is not the first time that Khara has re-envisioned Evangelion, as they started making a 4-film retelling of the original series back in 2007. The fourth and final film of that series still has not been released, with many crediting the delay due to…you guessed it, Anno’s unhappiness with voice-over and translation issues.
So what’s new in this story? Is this just another series with a huge fanbase that produces a lot of pressure on the creators to ‘get it exactly right’? Recently controversial properties like Star Wars, Joker, or Game of Thrones might have you thinking so. But actually the new complaints about Netflix’s revision of Evangelion are more insidious and hint at a political agenda. A series and a network that has always been fairly liberal with their ideas are now being accused of queer erasure, and worse: bad grammar. (I kid!.. But seriously, they are.)
You have to understand the context that this is happening in. The translator for this series, Dan Kanemitsu is… problematic at best. Like in the UK and US, there is a subtle political war going on in Japan right now, and their Prime Minister and his Cabinet members are members of far-right nationalist hate groups. (Try to imagine if the President of your country supported groups that protest outside embassies and chant for all immigrants to get out of the country… I know it’s difficult, but just imagine.)
Japan actually passed a “State Secrets” law allowing vast degrees of censorship of books and news that don’t line up with the ruling party’s political viewpoints, leading to prominent news anchors and journalists quitting and a high degree of self-censorship in reporting and other media. Ironically, Kanemitsu appears to be vehemently anti-censorship on his website (which I urge you all to poke around) until you realize that his concern is mostly that he be allowed to portray childlike-looking girls with huge breasts in sexualized situations.
Yeah, Kanemitsu is super into what a lot of people would regard as cartoon child porn, and has lots of documents on his website about it. A few years back, when some Japanese politicians realized that they should probably get the pornography off the knee-level bookshelves of every bookstore, newsstand, and convenience store in Japan before the Tokyo Olympics…Kanemitsu was there at the townhall meetings screaming ‘Censorship!’ He makes a special note on his website that if the bill goes through (it did) then it would be illegal to portray same-sex relationships in media, since these marriages are not recognized in Japan. So it makes you wonder why his translation of Evangelion seems to purposely re-write any queerness from the story?
The main point of contention is the re-framing of protagonist Shinji’s relationship with a male teen he meets later in the series, Kaworu. In the beginning of the series, Shinji has confused feelings towards several of the women and girls around him, ranging at times from a sexual relationship to maternal, familial, seeking comfort, understanding, or just identity. This becomes an increasingly more important and powerful theme as the story develops into being less about giant robots and more about what it means to be human.
Shinji’s complicated relationship with Kaworu is a vital part of Evangelion. When Shinji first meets Kaworu, he is presented almost as an idealized mirror of himself. Kaworu is a confidant and also an equal, in a way that the females around Shinji differ from. For his part, Kaworu expresses his feelings for Shinji firmly and from the start. That acceptance and love is important for Shinji’s self-exploration, as acceptance of Kaworu would represent a kind of self-love and self-acceptance. This has all been changed in the new “translation” to present Kaworu’s language as much more platonic:
Whereas this translation re-frames the language Shinji uses at the end of the series with his German on-again-off-again crush like this:
Some people, including Studio Khara, have tried to defend the translation by saying that the original Japanese words are ambiguous, and could be translated as either “love” or “like”. I lived in Japan for over 5 years and I can tell you that this is pretty disingenuous.
There is no ambiguity in the words. Japanese has words for “love” and words for “like”, full-stop. The ambiguity is in the usage. The simple fact is that Japanese people almost never use the word “love” (aisteru あいｓてる) in real life to another person. In romances, people use a few varieties of saying “I like you” (suki desu すきです) or “I really like you” (daisuki 大好き), etc. When people propose, they usually don’t say “I love you”! A typical proposal is “Will you make miso soup every morning for me?” (僕ぼくのために毎朝まいあさみそ汁しるをつくってくれませんか？) Japanese people tend to be very under-stated about expressing their feelings.
This is why localizing video games and anime is so difficult, because it really requires someone to change a lot of dialogue in order to give it the same meaning and impact that it would in the original culture. Japanese language usage is so context-dependent and culturally-dependent that literally translating everything word-for-word is a rookie mistake. It’s something people would find out early on in a foreign-run language school
Kanemitsu got his degree from the University of Minnesota, so I don’t think he’s making any rookie mistakes. That means he understands that literal translation doesn’t work a lot of the time, and he’s doing it intentionally. So look at what he chose to change. He tried to re-frame the queer subplot as just friendship through his translation. He inexplicably added the description “Leftist terrorists” whenever the script mentions “terrorists”. He purposely took out a lot of the swearing (Japanese doesn’t have a direct translation for the expletive use of “f**k”, for example), so stirring, iconic lines like Shinji’s final, despairing “I’m so f***ed up!” become “I’m the lowest of the low!”
Why would Kanemitsu purposely do this? Well, he has defended his translation as simply being the most direct translation of the original intention of the creators. He did, after all, purposely use the word “children” whenever the script talked about 1 child because, hey, that’s what the original creators wrote. He also literally translated the iconic slogan of the series’ shadowy government organization, “God is in his Heaven, All is Right With the World” as “God is in heaven, all is very good” despite the original wording being in their logo and visualized all over the place. So, hey, it’s all even better and more accurate now, right? Right?
Except that it’s pretty clear that making Shinji an unconflicted, cis-straight male was not the original intention of the creators. The original manga (comic book) was developed alongside the anime, but actually started being released about a year before. Like the anime, it includes several scenes where Kaworu makes his intentions known.
It should be noted that after this, Shinji rejects Kaworu… the same way he runs away from the various women that make moves on him. It’s a bit of a trope-y anime fantasy for the meek young man to be chased, but the importance of this particular relationship becomes clear by the series finale. In a 1997 print interview, the anime’s director, Hideaki Anno, explained about Shinji that “Kaworu was the first friend he could open up to, and he could also be someone that could be a same-sex partner”.
That seems pretty explicit. And for anyone who has seen the anime or read the manga, the confusion and search for identity match perfectly with not only Shinji’s character, but with the theme of the whole story. But as I mentioned before, the political climate in Japan has been changing since those original releases. Back in 1993, Japan experienced a political upheaval, where the Conservative government was ousted for the first time since the country actually started having elections.
The next few years marked a new direction for Japan, with the Socialist party leading the way. The government acknowledged for the first time their role as an aggressor in WWII, and began making formal apologies for atrocities committed against neighboring peoples, including China and Korea. The Prime Minister started an anti-corruption campaign to get money out of politics, and instituted Japan’s first ever 40-hour work week, attempting to limit the incredibly high suicide rate due to overwork.
Previous to this time in Japan, it was commonly said that there were no gay people in Japan, despite obvious records of a long and robust history of it. This was explained as separating sexual acts from sexual identity, and many LGBTQ people were not “out” and indeed followed their families’ wishes and married and had children. However, from the ’90s, social values have also become more liberal, and Japan began to see a wider acceptance of Gay or Trans celebrities and of the previously notorious 2nd district of Shinjuku, which was the “gay area”.
This openness has steadily gained acceptance among Japanese people, although there is a dichotomy between the average citizen and those featured in the media. Funny caricatures of the LGBTQ community are accepted on TV, as are pretty lesbians getting married at Tokyo Disney, but for the average person, there is still a lot of societal pressure to be “normal”. Despite a few visible political figures who are openly “out”, the current political leaders have been very vocally against the LGBTQ community, calling them immoral and insinuating that they’re not part of Japan and Japanese culture. It fits with the Right-wing, homophobic attitudes present in various Incel and chauvinistic groups in other countries.
So back to the Netflix translation and how translator Dan Kanemitsu fits in. A visit to his website paints him as a pretty interesting, out-there dude. It uses various Right Wing terms like “thought police” and “moral crusade” and features quotes from politicians saying that ‘if we worry about offending every single person, then we’d have no more society left.’ This kind of rhetoric will sound familiar to those who’ve listened to quotes from Jordan Peterson speeches and his Incel fans.
This matches perfectly with his fascination for Nazi iconography, like his own comic book called “The 8th Panzer Regiment”, which features…what else?…scantily-clad young girls wearing the famous Nazi Iron Cross.
I’m sure that you’ve all heard the Right Wing refrain before about how the Confederate Flag is not promoting slavery, how the Iron Cross doesn’t idealize or promote Nazism, or how white guys throwing the okay hand gesture in photos just happens to signify White Power. I’m not going to rehash that kind of pedantic sticking-your-head-in-the-sand. The fact is that those associations are there, and using the iconography is either ignorant or gaslighting.
So what are we to think about this new Netflix translation? We know the intentions of the creators are not ambiguous. We know the translator has been literal in some cases, but added words or changed them in others. Is this just a case of a notoriously-difficult creator chasing off his voice actors and translators, leading to them trying to make the ‘safest’ product? Or is this everyone at the studio trying to fall in line with current political pressures? Or is this a translator trying to subtly work in his own world view and defend it with claims of literal-ism? Or maybe a bit of all of them?
Or maybe this version is just a mess, and we’ll never know how it got that way? Good thing we’ll always have the original versions and don’t need to watch the Netflix revision or the upcoming film. You can always vote with your dollar.