This series is an episode guide to the Japanese anime television show Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 - 96) and the spin-off films. Each entry includes my own reflection on the episode, followed by a conversation with fellow blogger Bob Clark.
For four episodes, Rei Ayanami has been a mystery. This quiet, aloof, almost inhuman little blue-haired girl has hovered in the background, glimpsed alone in the corner of the classroom, concealed beneath layers of bandages as she shivers on a wheeled stretcher, flashing into view as an momentary vision before she's even been met in the flesh. In all these instances, we see her through Shinji's eyes and she provides an interesting contrast to Misato (as she eventually will, even more strongly, to the fiery third pilot, Asuka) - femininity as ethereal enigma vs. alluring energy. Shinji doesn't know who she is, so neither do we. That finally begins to change five episodes in.
"Rei I" begins weeks before the series premiere, in the first of what will prove to be many flashbacks - widening our view, giving us a bit of distance from Shinji's perspective, and yet corresponding to his gradually deepening comprehension of the strange world around him. Here we see the accident which sent Rei into the nearly immobile state we found her in - during a routine test in Eva 00, the giant robot goes "berserk" and starts bashing the wall and gripping its own helmeted head in a kind of feverish agony. As with the out-of-control Eva 01 in Shinji's first battle, we experience the mecha-psychotic episode externally; as the Eva roars and flails about, we never get a view in the cockpit, so we don't really know if Rei herself is psychologically experiencing this episode herself or if she's merely a helpless bystander, trapped inside a monster she can't control.
At any rate, her pod is ejected and bashed around the room. For the first time we see Cmmdr. Gendo Ikari, who doesn't flinch at sending his own son into battle, show concern for another human being - he races down to the battered pod, rips the red-hot hatch door open with his bare hands, and desperately calls to the woozy Rei within. Shinji will soon find out about this event himself, but by witnessing it firsthand we're allowed a degree of intensity that must reflect his own fascination with this unexpected, concerned side of his father. Noticing Gendo's burnt hands, Shinji asks Ritsuko what happened, and with this his earlier curiosity about his silent peer turns into outright fascination.
Is there lust involved? Love? A mixture of adolescent hormones and shy romanticism? The series certainly teases us with this possibility, as Misato (herself an object of ambiguous attraction) makes fun of the boy for blushing at Rei's mention, and especially as Shinji drops by Rei's lonely, messy room to deliver an ID card. There he finds the broken, half-melted glasses worn by his father when he rescued Rei; placing them over his own eyes, Shinji turns to see a naked Rei emerging from the shower, (barely) concealed by a small towel. Somehow he ends up lying on top of her naked on the floor in one of the most bizarre, perversely (pervertedly?) awkward meet-ups of all time.
And yet, something about their tension/connection transcends sexuality. Anno obviously has fun playing with Shinji's nearly hysterical discomfort with girls but he respects the boy's admission that it is Rei's loneliness more than her breasts which fascinates him. The episode ends with a cliffhanger, echoing the previous two-part storylines that unfolded during the first four episodes. Yet before Shinji is sent out into the Tokyo-3 streets to face the most abstractly un-anthropomorphic Angel (reflecting, in a way, the alien element Rei introduces to Shinji's daily life) he glimpses Rei watching him from the deck overlooking his launch pad. It's one of the first times I can recall her watching him and it offers an interesting reversal following their indifferent-to-hostile interaction over the episode (she's even slapped him for slurring his own father).
This moment also neatly reflects a scene in which Shinji rather jealously (of his father? of her?) observes an unheard conversation between Rei and Gendo, in which Rei displays an almost schoolgirlish vivacity in his presence. Meanwhile Gendo's engaged toothy grin offers an alternate view of the scowling patriarch, a side of his personality which the intimidated son has never witnessed except by proxy. Emotionally and physically locked out from their connection, Shinji represents a humanoid HAL, albeit one not blessed with lip-reading ability. And yet ultimately, as we approach Shinji's latest trial by fire, it is Rei watching him, and we have our first hint of a reciprocated symbiosis. To what extent is Shinji his father's son, at least in Rei's eyes? To what extent can her own age and exposure, so similar to Shinji's, bridge the gap between him and his father? We will find out soon...
me: "Rei I" introduces a new dimension to the show - giving Shinji his first opportunity to find someone he can really relate to, although in this particular episode the encounters are still almost painfully alien and awkward.
me: Not only that, but that that's kind of irreconcilable with the "Shinji must make his home in the world of human interaction" theme. There's a kind of tension between this impatience with immature, adolescent Shinji, wanting him to grow up and become a social person, and a tacit recognition or suspicion that in fact he has it right, and it's the other people, with their continuance of a "normal" life who are ultimately delusional. Because ultimately what is the message of the show? It certainly isn't "Calm down, everything's gonna be ok." Maybe in the original series finale, but definitely not in the film End of Evangelion.
me: Yeah, but what I'm getting at...I'm not even sure it's just saying it's harder work. I think it's kind of saying it's futile. Because Shinji with Rei is less about humans connecting with one another, than connecting with themselves.
Bob: But the general apathy she seems to show for him is something that we already see in contrast with Misato's affectionate teasing of Shinji, and soon to come with Asuka's obssessive tsundere attention. Early on, we see Anno setting up the whole idea of intimacy of any kind, and especially emotional, as something that comes with a lot of conflict and turmoil. Only the lack of connection is peaceful.