Asuka and Rei: Why Their Conflict Matters
Note: This will be primarily focusing on the original anime series plus End of Evangelion, not the Rebuild movies.
Asuka Langley Sohyru and Rei Ayanami are very polarizing characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion. They are also two of the most important characters. Since Shinji, the protagonist, is such a passive character, Asuka and Rei are often required to pick up the slack at Nerv, a shadowy organization that uses teens as giant robot pilots to fight other-worldly monsters called angels to save the world.
The approaches of Rei and Asuka to having to do this job of piloting the giant robots (called Evangelions) defines them as characters.
Rei is obedient and passive, but in no way weak or cowardly. She does what she is told, no more, no less. In battle, she has no self-preservation instinct and will not ignore orders to save herself. If Shinji represents flight and Asuka fight, she represents a "freeze" response to danger. For example, when Shinji accidentally trips and touches her breast, she doesn't react angrily the way you'd expect a girl to, the way a girl would react in most anime. She simply looks confused and stares silently at Shinji until he moves and apologizes.
On the other hand, Asuka is combative and aggressive. She is similarly sexually embarrassed when some boys see up her skirt on the day she is introduced, but she responds by getting angry and hitting one of them. While Rei ignores Shinji unless she has to work with him, Asuka constantly confronts Shinji for every mistake he makes as a pilot.
So, in many ways, these two characters who hate each other are best understood in terms of their differences from one another.
I am neither false nor fake, I am simply me.— Rei Ayanami
Rei Ayanami is a character who makes the audience think about the nature of humanity. Since she's a clone, she challenges us to wonder what makes a person a person. When she discovers that she is not a unique individual, but just one of a series of clones made by Nerv, she questions her identity and authenticity. Other characters confront Rei out of irrational fear, hatred, and jealousy. Naoko Akagi killed the first Rei out of a jealousy of her that lives on in her daughter, Ritsuko. Rei is a clone of Yui Ikari, Gendo's wife, and both Naoko and her daughter ended up falling in love with Gendo, though he only seemed to care for Yui. Rei is seen as a stand-in for Yui, which is why Rei becomes the target of both women's jealous rages. In one of the most tragic scenes in the anime, Ritsuko has a complete nervous breakdown and kills all the "dummy plug system" backup clones of Rei that Nerv was hiding underground.
Rei is also hated by Asuka, and also over jealousy, but not in a sexual or romantic rivalry. Asuka really doesn't seem like she's jealous that Rei might be a rival for Shinji to her, but she is jealous that Rei is seen as a better pilot. She is calm and rational, and always does what she's told, so she wins praise from Nerv. Asuka hates this because she wants that praise and attention for herself.
The thing is, Rei gets affection from Gendo and praise as a pilot that she doesn't want. There's this tension it seems like with her where she clearly just wants to be left alone and hates getting any kind of attention, even positive. It takes her a long time to warm up to Shinji because to her Shinji is just a fellow pilot. It seems difficult for her to even comprehend the idea of friendship. This is because she's only focused on piloting and seems to care about nothing else. It could be said that the rivalry between Asuka and Rei builds up because they both desire to be the best pilot. But for Asuka, this means desiring external validation, whereas Rei seems to seek perfection for her own reasons.
Rei is an introvert who lives in her own mind and is driven by inner feelings other people cannot understand. She appears emotionless and depressed only because she acts that way as a defense mechanism. While Shinji retreats physically from fighting, Rei seems like she retreats socially and emotionally. Why she acts this way is up for speculation. Care is taken to make the viewer sympathize with her suffering, even though she gives very little of herself away to others.
Asuka Langley Sohryu
No, I'm not mama's doll! I'll think for myself and live for myself!— Asuka Langley Sohryu
When Asuka is introduced to the show, she brims with confidence. As a foreign girl in Japan, and a hot redhead at that, she gets a lot of attention from the boys in her class. She takes great pride in being a genius prodigy and makes fun of Shinji for being stupid. Her greatest pride is her Evangelion unit number 02.
She seems to hate Japan, making loud, rude comments about how there is no privacy because of screen doors, sleeping on the floor is strange to her, and complains about the lack of space. She thinks of Rei's coldness as weird, and thinks Shinji is a wuss. Initially, Asuka and Rei don't get along well, symbolized by the fact that Rei is a vegetarian and Asuka thinks that it's stupid to be vegetarian because animals eat other animals. So from day one, she projects this air of smug superiority to almost everyone she interacts with. And from day one, her personality is contrasted starkly to that of Rei.
But her pride takes a few serious blows later down the road, and we see her mental state come gradually unglued. In one episode, she fails to launch a synchronized strike on an angel because she cannot work well with Shinji. In that episode, we see her becoming very jealous of Rei. Rei could probably do what Asuka is training for better, but Asuka refuses to let Rei take on the mission. She wants to train to do the attack, but just isn't good at coordinating her movements with other people. She spends a lot of time bitching and arguing and not a lot of time doing the work an Eva pilot is tasked with. (Why do you make adolescents do important things all the time, anime, why?) She might be intelligent, but she lacks the maturity necessary to work with people.
And then it gets even worse, when an angel is able to make Asuka confront repressed memories of her traumatic past. Apparently, her mother committed suicide, and her step-mother (who had been her father's mistress) didn't want a damn thing to do with Asuka as a child. So lacking a stable mother figure, Asuka wanted to be strong and independent. But that explains why she has such a hard time socially and why she bullies others. She's actually deeply insecure, and projects confidence to hide her fears. She's basically the female version of a guy projecting a macho tough-guy image to hide his insecurity.
From the moment they cross paths, Asuka and Rei are bitter enemies, even though they have to work on the same side. Asuka asks if she can be friends with Rei, because it would be "convenient", but Rei declines this invitation, saying she would only be friends with Asuka if ordered to. This exchange starts both of them on a path of jealous, bitter rivalry. It also shows that their characters are written in such a way that one is usually characterized in contrast with the other.
In literature, these are called foil characters. A foil is a character who is not necessarily an antagonist or enemy, but who does oppose another character because they disagree due to some kinds of fundamental differences. These differences are used to highlight the characters' traits. By calling attention to what makes these characters different from each other, the author is showing their characters rather than simply describing them. Things and people are often described well using comparison. That's all this is.
From the contrast of Asuka and Rei, we can see a lot of things about each of their personalities (as I illustrate using a table below). And, because they conflict with, and argue with each other, we see another literary phenomenon; the antithesis. With antithetical characters, writers not only use contrast as a device for characterization, but they highlight the meaning of the conflict of the story. For example, in Evangelion, the conflict of Asuka vs. Rei captures a lot of conflicts thematic to the story. Rei represents unity, harmony, the Japanese way, coolness, logic, and conformity. Asuka represents the opposing views of Western ideals like individualism and independence. There are many Red and Blue Oni characters used in anime, to show contrast this way. But Asuka and Rei do the most in terms of making their interactions center around meaningful, philosophically poignant, conflict.
Even if Asuka is a conceited, arrogant bitch, or Rei is a cold, soulless automaton, both of these characters contribute a lot of psychological and philosophical weight to the events of Neon Genesis Evangelion. They open up a dialogue about east vs. west, feminine vs. masculine, and harmony vs. individualism, among other important philosophical conflicts. There's always more to say about these two fascinating, and similarly troubled, adolescent girl characters.
Rei and Asuka: Personality Differences
Wants to be Best
Bonds With Others