Culture

'Neon Genesis Evangelion' Feels More Explicitly Queer Thanks to This Trans Voice Actor

Casey Mongillo’s take on the young Shinji Ikari has revitalized the classic series.

by Carol Grant
Jul 12 2019, 11:58am

All screen captures via Netflix

Content Warning: Transphobia and gender dysphoria.

Spoilers for Neon Genesis Evangelion follow.

Something happened to Evangelion.

Netflix’s release of Hideaki Anno’s seminal 90s anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, about a group of teenagers forced to pilot giant robots to fight an alien threat, has been under intense scrutiny from the start. The skepticism started pre-release, when original dub actress Amanda Winn Lee announced Netflix was recasting for a new English dub, scrubbing the work of longtime actors like Lee and Tiffany Grant. The actual release proved just as contentious, with translation foibles including rendering one character’s admission of queer love more ambiguous, as it was in the original Japanese script, and changing what the original English described as a “Sect terrorist attack” to a “leftist attack.”

But less has been said about a different feature of this new translation: the new English voice of protagonist Shinji Ikari is a non-binary trans woman named Casey Mongillo. Though this may not mean much to the show's cisgender fans, Mongillo's casting is more than just a reimagining of the classic character. For the marginalized section of the show's audience that includes trans and gender non-conforming people, Netflix's updated dub has breathed new life into one of the most important anime series of all time, taking what was once queer subtext and bringing it closer to outright text.

At first glance, Neon Genesis Evangelion is far from what you'd call a dysphoria narrative. It follows the plight of 14-year-old Shinji Ikari as he's forcibly recruited into humanity's war with the Angels, an alien race who can only be defeated by mysterious mechs (or giant robots) called Evangelions (Evas for short), vessels that only he and a select few teenagers can pilot. Yet from the beginning, Hideaki Anno's story has always been more than that. Shinji is catapulted not only into perilous battles against a diverse array of giant, unknowable monstrosities, but also into the role of a hero, a soldier, a savior, an adult, a man—one he never wanted or asked for, and has trouble fitting into. These internal struggles have allowed Anno's story to resonate with generations of disaffected young people, many of whom identify with Shinji’s inability to succeed in a structure that was stacked against him (and his mental well-being) from the start.

Masculinity, both toxic and affirmative, is intrinsically tangled up in Shinji’s story, and it is through that lens that a queer subtext begins to unfold. As many of the characters around him battle depression, thoughts of suicide, and the dehumanization of war, Shinji also wrestles with his sexuality and gender. From his inability to live up to his father Gendo Ikari's expectations, to his doomed relationship with the mysterious co-pilot Kaworu Nagisa, Shinji's at constant war with both his sexual identity and his performance of masculinity. It is through these conflicts that Evangelion has attracted not just a queer fanbase, but also a transgender one. I know this because I am one of those trans women.

From the moment I came out to myself and started socializing with more trans women, we would bond over Evangelion, sharing memes about Shinji undergoing HRT (hormone replacement therapy), screencaps of all the times he wore feminine clothes, and fanart of him in dresses and maid outfits. It wasn't all just laughs, though. The basis of our recognition came through Shinji’s intense repression, his struggles to live up to an impossible masculine ideal we relate all too well to.

Shinji Ikari

I saw myself in Shinji more than any other fictional character. I, too, spiraled into self-loathing and made awful decisions because I desperately wanted to fit into society's expectations of men, just as Shinji does when he begins to question his self-worth as a pilot and a human being. Through Evangelion, I found many like-minded trans people who saw the same thing. But, strong as our connection to the series was, our transgender reading of it seemed destined to live in the margins of anime culture, existing only in private message groups and queer-inclusive forums. Much as we saw ourselves in Evangelion, we wondered whether Evangelion would ever really see us.

It wasn't until Casey Mongillo came on the scene that I got a taste of what a more explicitly queer and trans Evangelion would be like. Right away, Mongillo differentiates themselves from original Japanese performer Megumi Ogata and original English dub actor Spike Spencer. Where Ogata was a cis woman performing masculinity, and Spencer was a cis male performing as a character questioning their identity, Mongillo's delivery captures the delicate interplay between the masculine and feminine aspects of Shinji's voice and personality, bringing his bodily and gendered anxieties to life in a way those two classic performers couldn't.

Mongillo's voice has a waver to it, a subtle lilt that undercuts Shinji's attempts at manliness, even as you can feel the creep of puberty infect even their lightest deliveries. This extends to Shinji's attempts at living up to his father’s masculine ideal, as Mongillo’s shrill, high-pitched, scream desperately claws at some kind of toughness. Casey Mongillo's exacting control of their voice is not new for professional voice actors, and it's certainly not new for trans women, but I've never seen it utilized this particular way.

Shinji Silhouette

Voice is distressingly important for trans women. Unlike trans men on hormone replacement therapy, whose voices often naturally deepen with testosterone, trans women's voices are more complicated. You can lessen the toll of testosterone on your vocal chords at an early age with the help of puberty blockers. But for most trans women, like me, who transition long after puberty and its drastic effects, the damage can't be undone.

Because your voice can make or break your ability to pass in cisgender society, finding it becomes an act of announcing our selfhood. There are YouTube tutorials dedicated to voice training for those who can't afford professional lessons (probably most of us). Some of us practice for hours each day to get it to where we want it. Some keep their old voices largely the same for personal or medical reasons, and that's just as valid.

Regardless, the trans female voice is a powerful tool. Trans women voice-acting as male characters isn't particularly new (Meowth from Pokemon was voiced by a trans woman), but seeing a trans actor toy with that “male” voice to lay bare these gendered anxieties was like finding an oasis in the middle of the desert for me.

There are subtle details Mongillo employs that aren't immediately noticeable to cis audiences, yet were instantly recognizable to myself and other trans colleagues. Take, for instance, a brief yet unsettling moment in episode 3, where Shinji does target practice within his Eva—his voice hollow and emotionless, droning like a machine. Previous performances may have kept it at that, but Mongillo adds an extra touch, less drained of emotion and more possessed by something other than himself. More than following and repeating orders, they sound like they’re memorizing lines off a script, auditioning for a role that Shinji is desperately trying to convince you he belongs in. It's not just Shinji leaving masculine weaknesses out the door—it's a disconnect from the body itself, leaving nothing but performance in its place.

Shinji and Kaworu

It’s a feeling that many trans women are all too familiar with: that of trying to fit into masculinity rather than rejecting it, dissociating the body from the mind in order to defend ourselves from the pain of being something we're not. I felt this all throughout my life, as I desperately tried to fit in with the other boys, rejecting any and all femininity I held within myself. Mongillo taps into that dissociation so gracefully it feels effortless.

This disconnect also fuels Mongillo’s interpretation of Shinji's sexual frustrations with respect to commanding officer Misato Katsuragi and fellow teenage copilots Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu. These scenes were originally played for laughs and titillation, the animators sexualizing the women in Shinji's life as both “fan-service” and to immerse us in Shinji's headspace. Mongillo lends these scenes an extra layer of discomfort, a dysphoric shame that emphasizes anxiousness over lust. When Shinji's turned on by these women, he's not just embarrassed to find he has an erection. In the scene, his face is reddened and half-submerged in water. It’s like he’s trying to hide any trace of his body—downright mortified to have any sexual attraction at all—and Mongillo’s voice, with its softness and lilt, conveys that better than any other performer has since.

But Mongillo's uniquely trans performance isn’t just about capturing feelings of shame and self-hatred. It's also the way they render Shinji’s fleeting moments of bliss, specifically when he meets Kaworu Nagisa, a new Eva pilot that he immediately sparks a romantic connection with; despite the aforementioned translation debates and reactionary responses from straight anime fans, it’s the rare moment in Evangelion, and even in the official canon of the franchise’s other media, that is overtly queer, (though not the only instance of queer affection in the series). Despite only appearing in one episode, Kaworu’s been the subject of queer readings of Evangelion since its debut, but his queerness runs deeper than just his physical attraction to Shinji. Where everyone else antagonizes or teases Shinji over his inability to be a man, Kaworu is kind, friendly, even loving, seeing something within Shinji that our young protagonist can’t see in himself.

Shinji in bed

It is here that Mongillo's voice shifts from shy reserve to full-on vulnerability, employing more feminine vocal patterns as he gradually lets his guard down around this new figure. The awkwardness of their interactions is also laced with an underlying comfort, as if Shinji desperately wants to return Kaworu's affection but has been denied ways to express that feeling for so long. That longing feels all too familiar to someone like me, who never had a Kaworu but desperately searched for one online.

It is all the more difficult, then, when this bliss is eventually taken away. Kaworu is revealed to be the final Angel, and Shinji is ordered by his father to kill him—the one person who saw his true self. Mongillo's performance taps deeply into that connection, and it is here that the three-dimensional aspects of Mongillo's performance are on full display. When Shinji and Kaworu battle in the episode’s climax, the feminine voice they so eloquently captured in the episode's early moments gives way to more masculine patterns: a rasp of anger, a deepening of pitch, a suppression of weakness. Though Mongillo's lilt comes back out when Kaworu sacrifices himself for Shinji's sake—a glint of the “true self” Kaworu always saw in him—you can hear the dissociation again after Shinji deals the final death blow, their voice returning to the same monotone inflection we heard during Shinji’s target practice moment in Episode 3. And as I watched this, for a brief moment, I forgot that Shinji was supposed to be cis to begin with. In that moment, Shinji was me.

Mongillo's casting as Shinji Ikari is ultimately about more than representation; it’s about opening the door for a new generation of trans women to see their experiences mirrored back to them in his story, just as the show’s cis audience saw in his story a reflection of themselves. Shinji may belong to everyone, and Shinji may belong to Anno, but just as importantly, Shinji belongs to trans women.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.