Okay, Neon Genesis Evangelion is too cool for words and everyone knows it. This is not news.
One of the ways it’s cool is that it has multiple structures that are all to be treated as canon. There’s the original anime. There’s the new denouement outlined by the End of Evangelion OVA. There’s the manga. And there’s the rebuild, which they haven’t finished yet but is coming, the last volume premiering January 23rd in Japan, and sets the whole story into a new time frame after the events of the previous series.
In broad terms it’s the same story, Eva vs. Angel for the future of Earth. It has the same Rebirth metaplot in each (assuming that the rebuild holds true, not a safe assumption). It has the same characters, for the most part, if you overlook Mari from the rebuilds.
Ultimately the story is about Shinji, the things that happen to him and the changes those things make in him. As the central character Shinji is engaged in a number of plot-relevant relationships. The things that go on between Shinji and Gendo, Shinji and Misato, Shinji and Asuka, Shinji and Kaworu, and Shinji and his mother, Yui, underlie a lot of what happens.
Oh, yeah, and Shinji and Rei.
I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. Rei Ayanami is DEEP. She’s a clone raised to believe she is a tool and has to find the humanity inside her.
Shinji is pretty deep himself. His mother disappeared in an experimental Eva trial in front of him when he was just a boy. (That’s the manga version.) His father is emotionally distant, a misfit all his life who becomes obsessed with finding his lost wife to the exclusion of everything, including his own son. Shinji is raised by emotionally distant relatives, then sent back to Tokyo-3 to pilot an Eva. Thrown into the fight with no training and no preparation, he develops a wicked-ass case of PTSD.
And somehow these two screwed-up kids need to make it work.
The Shinji/Rei axis differs between the stories. In the original anime, where the focus is centered on Shinji, they are rivals for the attention and affection of Gendo. We see Gendo risking his life, and being horribly injured, trying to save Rei in an experimental failure.
She keeps his shattered glasses as a token of that moment. When Shinji sees his father’s glasses in her room, he is moved to try them on, but she takes them back.
Okay, dudes, that’s symbolism. They are vying for Gendo’s affection, as represented by the glasses. Rei wins, all the way down the line. After all, Gendo is driven by his desire to find Yui and Rei is Yui’s clone. How could a mere son stand in the way of that? That’s one of the things that drives Shinji away, away from his father and away from NERV.
So, rivals. They get a little closer as time goes on. It’s clear that Shinji synchs better with Rei than Asuka, that his feelings toward Rei are more complex and stronger than his feelings for Asuka (or Kaworu, for that matter). Shinji is attracted to Rei for reasons he does not understand, although we know it is because she is a clone of, and represents, his lost mother. Rei is not initially attracted to Shinji, since she sees herself as a tool, but as she starts to understand that she may be human she starts to have feelings for Shinji.
Kinda dull, actually, but the anime simplifies a lot of the story, at least if you go by the manga. Text is usually deeper than TV. That’s just how it goes.
In the manga their relationship goes much deeper. It’s clear there that Rei comes to discover her human side, to understand she is not simply a tool, and the reason this happens is because of her developing affection for Shinji. He’s a boy and she comes to love him, her first love in the romantic sense.
Shinji’s feelings for Rei remain complex, as is appropriate to the central character. There’s no question that he feels affection for her. The sight of her, beaten up, battered, and bandaged are what get him into the Eva cockpit in the first place. She fascinates him in school and when she begs him for affection, he provides it.
Then they are also warriors together. They fight the second angel together, Rei’s shield protecting Shinji’s positron rifle. They have the sort of connection only people who have faced death together can have, and which other people cannot understand.
And then, of course, Rei reminds Shinji of his few memories of his mother. As well she should, since Rei is his mother’s clone (How she is blue-haired while Yui was a brunette is something to talk to Akagi about). It’s impossible for him to not be fascinated in her.
It’s doubly interesting in the rebuild movies. Remember that trope you’ve seen a thousand times in a hundred harem series? “Sharing food is an indirect kiss”? So all the girls try to feed the boy?
Shinji feeds Rei. Okay, it’s a) an indirect kiss and then it’s b) gender role reversal, the boy feeding the girl. Yeah, hmm. Gender role reversals are all over Eva, and this is just one of many.
Okay, back to the manga: At the same time Shinji is finding feelings for Rei he’s also fascinated by Asuka, in a very different way than he’s attracted to Rei. Asuka is HAWT; since they live together at Misato’s, he sees her in a variety of sexually charged poses…in the bath, nude fleeing from Pen-Pen, in a loose shirt with no bra. She kisses him and even climbs into bed with him.
Rei is love. Asuka is sex. There’s a difference, boys and girls.
But being fourteen, Shinji is confused about the difference. Be honest. At fourteen none of us had it figured out. At fourteen we were horny and confused.
Rei, just discovering the idea she is human, is simple. She loves Shinji.
Shinji has feelings for Rei, but he also has feelings for Asuka, and since he is fourteen the feelings he has for each of them are very, very strong but very, very different. The feelings he has for Rei? He loves her, perhaps as a sister, perhaps because she is the clone of his lost mother, perhaps in a simple but pure sense, but he loves her in the familial sense.
The feelings he has for Asuka? Watch End of Evangelion. There’s a scene. She’s unconscious in a hospital bed. He sees her breasts. They turn him on. He does what comes naturally.
Recall he’s also seen Rei’s breasts, and seemed more panicked than turned on. You think there’s a little dramatic tension in the contrast between his feelings for the girls? Oh, heck yeah!
But in the end, one of those feelings is stronger than the other. In the end (if you can’t read the manga watch End of Evangelion, which is pretty close) it comes down to just the two of them, Shinji and Rei, and they are there because of what they mean to each other, just two screwed up kids holding the fate of humanity in their hands. Rei has the power to recreate the world. Because she loves Shinji so much, she will recreate it as he likes.
Shinji is in an impossible position, because no matter what world he chooses he cannot keep Rei with him. And so he chooses and loses. Boom. End of story.
It comes out a happy ending, a normal world. At the end of the anime we’re treated to five minutes of it, with all the kids in school and Misato as their teacher instead of their commanding officer. This world gets explored in The Shinji Ikari Raising Project, a game and manga series. In it Rei is just a girl, Shinji’s cousin, Yui is alive, and so is Asuka’s mum. It’s a totally different world, but in it (spoiler) Shinji comes to love Rei as well. Or again, if you prefer.
Normally I break couples down along the lines of symmetric and complementary. But Shinji and Rei? It’s much too complex for that. And that makes it real, and that makes it powerful, and that makes it great art.
Damn, I hope that comes out in the rebuild. I watched the three movies again this week and it’s looking bad for love in number four (3.0 + 1.0, rather).
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.