Sunday, May 21, 2006

Unit 00 (Rei)

Neon Genesis Evangelion's mysterious Rei Ayanami's first name translates to "zero" in Japanese. As such, Rei signifies a time before time, or perhaps a time before counting. This is yet another reference to her identity as the clone of Shinji's mother--she is what he knew before knowledge. She is primordial, primitive, thoroughly embodied rather than spiritual. She has no concern for societal expectations, choosing to prioritize her personal loyalties (like those to Shinji and his father) above going to school, keeping a stylish apartment, or wearing nice clothes. She also rejects social niceties and courtesy in favor of telling the truth--one of the primary differences between Rei and her fellow pilot Asuka is that Asuka is concerned with how others perceive her, and Rei is not. Where the other characters are strangers to LCL--the "primordial soup" in which lifeforms swam before evolving--Rei soaks in it, needing regular exposure to the substance for her body's continued coherence.

Many viewers may be tempted to see Rei as a victim simply because she lives in apparent poverty and has few recognizable social skills. However, Rei seems to be a creature of desire, refusing to consult others when she has made a decision, and often defying orders at critical moments. While Asuka may see Rei as a doll or puppet, Rei frequently makes her own choices, especially where Shinji's safety is concerned. Although ostensibly Rei ascribes to no major religion or philosophy, she has adopted a strong "others first, self last" ethic. When describing this to Shinji, she speaks of a deep love which connects her to all people. In contrast, Asuka has already graduated from university and considers herself an intellectual, but feels profoundly alienated from her fellow humans, constantly estimating her relationships to them in terms of superiority and inferiority.

We might therefore call Rei a child of nature. Although this phrase conjures up images of sublime, pre-lapsarian innocence, Rei is anything but. She is a cyclic being who has lived multiple lives. She has an intimate understanding of suffering and pain. Rather than innocent, Rei is resigned: she is fully aware that what exists now can be swept away later. (Dr. Akagi says that Rei's aesthetic is based on water and light, two elements which are in constant shift.) Her words "if I die, I can be replaced," are at once a harbinger of deep existential torment and a call to reject the crippling, self-satisfactory ideals of individuality, as well as an acknowledgement of her own cloned status. Rather than self-aggrandizement or self-definition, Rei pilots the Eva because it is her duty--she feels compelled to protect humanity.


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