Rei Ayanami is one of the most fascinating characters in anime history.
Period. Final. Full stop.
Now, let’s be honest with ourselves. Anime has a lot of things going for it. It can be exciting. It can be profound. It can be heart wrenching.
But at the same time it’s cartoons, okay? You know, cartoons. Mickey Mouse. Betty Boop. Bart Simpson.
But whoever dreamed up Rei Ayanami cooked up something that transcended cartoons. Wile E. Coyote is cool, and funny, and sad. Rei Ayanami is DEEP, with a capital D-E-E-P.
Later in the game…a happy Rei.
I started talking about anime, but the anime version of Neon Genesis Evangelion is hard to come by right now – until it starts running again on Netflix – and it focuses more on Shinji. Fair enough. He’s also a pretty cool character, whether you like him or not. The reboot film series may or may not end up the same. In 2020, when it finishes, we may find out. So I focus more on the manga version, which is a) finished and b) available.
Okay, manga. Start with this: Rei’s a clone, one of a whole vat full of clones. Akagi’s mother killed Rei’s first incarnation In front of Akagi, and then killed herself, also in front of Akagi; her second incarnation (? We don’t really know how many Reis there have been) falls for Shingi; her third kills Gendo and recreates the world.
Recreates the world. That’s pretty deep, wouldn’t you say?
Rei has two identities, and what’s really cool about her as a character is that she develops from one to the other. Whoa…character development!
Her first identity is that she is nothing more than a tool. They pulled this Rei out of the clone tanks more or less randomly and told it its job was to be an EVA pilot, and pilot EVAs it will do. Beaten up? No problem. I’m an EVA pilot. Send me out there, coach. Shinji not available? No problem. I’m an EVA pilot. Send me out there, coach. Mission suicidal? No problem. I’m an EVA pilot. Send me out there, coach.
On the other hand, she is genetically human, a pretty high-school-age girl. Does she have a human nature?
When she deals with Akagi, the scientist who created her and grew her in a laboratory vat, the woman who stands in place of her mother, she can think of herself as being a tool. When she deals with Gendo, her “father,” who is a user who will sacrifice anything to get his lost wife Yui back, she can think of herself as being a tool.
When she meets Shinji, a boy who is fascinated with her perhaps because of her vulnerabilities and perhaps because she is related to his lost mother, she starts to feel like a human being.
This is doubled? Tripled? in impact in the anime because both the actors who play her, Megumi Hayashibara in Japanese and Amanda Winn-Lee in English (Brina Palencia has taken over the role in the rebuilds, but she wasn’t interviewed), believe she has human feelings but is unable to express them. Question: If the character has feelings but is unable to express them, how does a voice actor convey that?
Damn. They both did a good job, but man, what a job.
You can see this tension between Rei’s two natures all over the franchise. At one point in the reboot movies, for instance, Shinji does something simple for her: he feeds her. She is astonished, simply astonished to find that the miso soup he cooked is “delicious.” It’s clear from the expression on her face that this is a total surprise to her.
She never thought about it before. You can see it on her face. She is starting to realize she is human, less of a tool that sees food as only fuel, more of a person who can enjoy food for more than just its caloric value.
But later on there’s a more telling moment in the manga. She talks to Shinji. She talks to Shinji about her feelings. She talks to Shinji about her feelings as they have gotten to know each other.
This is a big deal. Tools don’t have feelings.
She says, “The first time we touched I didn’t feel anything.”
“The second time it felt a little queasy.”
“The third time I felt warm inside.”
“But the fourth time I was just happy.”
Mind you, the first time they touched was the notorious scene in her room, where she is nude and he falls on her. Of course she feels nothing. Does a hammer have feelings? A table saw? At that point her existence revolves around piloting an EVA.
Worse, at the start she knows she’s an experiment, grown in a lab, raised by cold, manipulating Gendo and Akagi, whose feelings toward Rei are conflicted but not exactly motherly. Hmm…
You can see it. At the start she has no body modesty, for instance. That shows up in every incarnation of the story, anime, manga, rebuild … At the start it does not matter to her whether people see her without clothes. Does a hammer care? A table saw? (Yeah, I whipped out a little parallelism there.)
This contrasts strongly with Asuka, who we all know to be fully human (although a little offbeat, perhaps). Asuka loses her mind at the very thought that Shinji might catch a glimpse of her lady parts and reacts with characteristic anime violence.
In the early parts of the story Rei projects no sense of having a free will. She goes where she is told and does what she is told, to the point that she climbs into Shinji’s dreams and impersonates his mother because Gendo tells her to. (It’s after the last time she does this that she tells Shinji how she feels about him.)
But by the end…The fourth time they touch (she burns her fingers and he helps her run water over the burn), she is having human emotions. When she talks to Shinji about her feelings, she’s not a tool. She’s a fourteen year old girl opening her heart to her first boyfriend. And at the end of the scene, she asks if she can hold his hand again. (He holds her hand.)
Poor Rei has no idea what a player Shinji is
And then, not long after Asuka is injured badly and Shinji goes to sit by her hospital bed. Poor Rei is torn apart inside. She’s only loved one boy, ever, and he’s paying attention to another girl.
Typical of Neon Genesis’ unwillingness to do anything the easy way, this incarnation of Rei dies … sacrifices herself … not much later. Does a suicidal desperation play a role in that? I’m not sure. Then poor Shinji is left there with the new Rei Akagi decants, a girl who is back to zero, who sees herself as a tool. But that’s a story for another time.
Rei Ayanami holds the same kind of fascination as a character as Motoko Kusanagi, or Battle Angel Alita: they explore where the line is between being a human being and a machine. But at the same time she comes at the question from exactly the opposite direction: Motoko and Alita are humans jammed into machines and aware of that fact, wondering where their humanity is going. They are the human ghost in the mechanical shell; Rei is the human shell with no ghost inside. She was raised to believe she’s a machine, and somehow along the line she has to figure out how to be the human being she really is.
And she has to do it all by herself.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks