Uh, I can’t believe I’ve let this project lie untouched for almost a year. Sorry about that.
In case you missed the first few entries, which feel like they were written a lifetime ago, I decided to do a blow-by-blow revisiting of Neon Genesis Evangelion for better and for worse. I’ve added this series to the television episodes hub page, and here are direct links to episodes 01, 02, 03, and 04. I wonder if I can make it to 26 by the time Evangelion 3.33 is officially localized into English? My guess is yes. Not that I’m efficient, but the licensing process is seriously crawling at a snail’s pace. (Edit: No, wait, it finally got picked up and will be out in February. When did that happen? I guess it’s a race, now.)
Rei, Beyond Her Heart
What’s with Rei’s bandages? Why was it so imperative that Shinji jump immediately in Unit-01 upon arriving at NERV headquarters for the first time? Finally, after laying down the basics of Neon Genesis Evangelion for several episodes — the post-apocalyptic setting, Tokyo-03 as mankind’s fortress against the marauding Angels, Shinji’s existential malaise — the series begins explaining things. Of course, it’ll never fully explain anything, and we’ll all go to our grave wondering about some of those plot details (unless we cheat and read supplemental material), but at least we can begin peering into the past with Episode 5.
As the title suggests, the enigmatic Rei Ayanami is our window into Evangelion‘s backstory — and, in some ways, the bridge between Shinji and his cold father. Previously, Rei has had no identity beyond “the pilot of the Prototype Evangelion, Unit-00” (or, if you prefer, “bandaged proto-moé-blob”). Here, we see that she’s actually the failed pilot of the Prototype Evangelion, Unit-00; her activation test a couple of weeks before Shinji’s arrival in Tokyo-3 resulted in her Eva rejecting her, going into a berserker rage, and causing Rei grievous physical injury — hence her status as bandaged proto-moé-blob.
More meaningfully, this flashback reveals a little more about the Evangelions (namely, that they not only can fly into an unbridled frenzy in emergency situations, but that NERV is making use of bio-organic death machines over which they have the barest thread of control). It also reveals the surprisingly tender relationship between Rei and Shinji’s father, Gendo. Eventually we’ll see that their relationship’s tenderness is predicated on a foundation of creepy weirdness, but for now it’s simply an enigma… and a surprise, as this flashback shows Gendo emoting for the first time. Twice! First, he reels with shock when Unit-00 rejects Rei and attempts to very specifically smash him into tiny bits of Gendo pulp; then he rushes to Rei’s aid heedless of his own well-being. As a bonus, we also get to see Ritsuko Akagi express an emotion besides wry bemusement; she seems taken aback at Gendo’s heroics.
Flash forward to the present for our first taste of Evangelion‘s delightful tradition of technobabble as NERV analyses the remains of the fourth Angel so recently slain by Shinji: We learn that Rei was the “first child” selected after the “Marduk report”; that Angels are comprised of material that demonstrates the behavior of both particular matter and energy waves; and that somehow despite this ambiguous composition their construction resembles the chemical proportions of human DNA.
It’s still early enough in the show that the cast amusingly lampshades this technobabble: When Ritsuko gravely announces the nature of Angels, she, Shinji, and Misato all take a sip of coffee simultaneously (insert laugh track here). Bonus points to Shinji for his spiffin’ Metool hat. And bonus points to Misato for calling Shinji on his passive-aggressive behavior. “When you say ‘nothing’ like that, it’s the same as asking others to pay attention to you,” she rebukes him.
Still, after his catharsis last episode, Shinji seems to have moved beyond his paralytic depression to settle on basic voyeurism: He finds himself silently watching Rei, his father, and his father together with Rei in an attempt to puzzle out the mystery that is Gendo.
Evangelion still seems to be finding its voice at this point. It keeps taking anime clichés and subverting them, but at the same time it presents others at face value. Misato’s terrible cooking (ha ha! A woman who doesn’t know how to cook! What a damaged human being, amirite Japan?) is played totally straight, up to and including the weirdly out-of-place comedy animal Pen^2 eating her curry and passing out in agony.
But then there are the Shinji/Rei scenes, which in other shows would be played for simple titillation. Here, though, despite every outward sign of being sleazy fan service (from Shinji’s classmates salivating over Rei’s body to the contrived accident in which Shinji ends up on top of a nude Rei surrounded by an ocean of her bras and panties) these sequences come off as anything but funny or sexy. Rei is so alien and emotionless, and state of her existence so squalid — living alone in a filthy apartment full of hospital equipment within an otherwise abandoned building complex, with no personal effects on display save Gendo’s half-melted spectacles — turns what would be a cliché meet cute into an unsettling intrusion. Even Shinji, a 14-year-old boy who just touched a girl’s naughty bits for what we can only assume was the first time, seems vaguely creeped out even as he secretly savors the moment.
A big part of what deflates this scene is Rei’s complete lack of a reaction. She doesn’t seem to care that Shinji let himself into her home, ogled her, and then touched her naked body. What does upset her, provoking her to slap Shinji hard across the face, is his dismissal of his father’s trustworthiness.
It’s an incredibly uncomfortable sequence made all the worse by the silence in which Shinji meekly follows her to NERV headquarters. Rei’s lack of concern over her safety and modesty creates a much greater sense of shame at the intrusion than if she had simply gone through the usual anime motions and shrieked about Shinji being a pervert. It reveals Rei as the most emotionally broken person in the show. Shinji struggles with depression, Gendo can’t seem to muster up a scrap of compassion for his son, and Misato can’t cook (haw haw!), but Rei has no sense of self whatsoever. She is a void of emotion and ego.
Still, this is serialized anime for television, so the power of narrative convenience determines that the Fifth Angel take this moment as its opportunity to strike. Rei finally manages to complete her Unit-00 synch test, but Gendo deems her not yet ready to head into combat. So, Shinji steps out and immediately screams in agony as the Angel correctly predicts where Unit-01 will surface and hits it square in the chest with an energy beam that instantly melts a skyscraper.
Yeah, adolescence is tough all around here in the post-apocalypse.