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Understanding Asuka and Rei in Evangelion Through Contrast and Conflict

Rachael has PTSD from being bullied herself. She likes certain anime because they offer some emotional solace and show great friendships.

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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 two of the most important characters in Neon Genesis Evangelion. They can be polarizing characters, with many fans often hating one and loving the other. Because of the main character Shinji's many moments of doubt, fear, and weakness, Asuka and Rei often have to pick up the slack when it comes to their shared mission of piloting giant robots (called Evangelions), and saving the world from alien beings called Angels. Asuka and Rei have different attitudes towards this job, which define 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.She will always follow orders, even if told to sacrifice 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. In many situations, she will not act on her own, but waits to act until being ordered to. She even says to Asuka when Asuka asks to be her friend, that she'd do it if it was required. This makes it seem like Rei doesn't have much of a will of her own. Although, later in the series and in the End of Evangelion movie, she does become more assertive.

Asuka is combative and aggressive. She is similarly embarrassed, when some boys see up her skirt, 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. She lives with Shinji, and so has more direct confrontations with him in everyday life. Asuka sees glory in piloting the Eva. She does follow orders, but will complain if told to do things she does not like. She likes being a pilot to boost her own self-esteem. She likes being praised, and relishes every victory.

These two characters hate each other, but can be understood through contrast with each other.

Rei and Asuka: Personality Differences

AsukaRei

Introvert

Extrovert

Emotional

Cold, Logical

External Motivation

Internal Motivation

Wants to be Best

Bonds With Others

Confrontational

Avoids Confrontation

Complains

Silently Follows Orders

I am neither false nor fake, I am simply me.

— Rei Ayanami

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Rei Ayanami 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 she 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 backup clones of Rei that Nerv was hiding underground.

Asuka also hates Rei, and also over jealousy, but not in a sexual or romantic rivalry. Asuka doesn't seem worried that Rei might be a rival for Shinji, 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.

What's interesting is, Rei doesn't want the affection from Gendo, or the praise that she gets as a pilot. She clearly 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. A lot of 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 its own sake.

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, even though she can be enigmatic, not sharing much of her interior life, especially in the earlier episodes.

No, I'm not mama's doll! I'll think for myself and live for myself!

— Asuka Langley Sohryu

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When Asuka is introduced, she brims with confidence. As a foreign girl in Japan, and a hot redhead at that, she gets a lot of attention from boys. She takes great pride in being a genius prodigy, and makes fun of Shinji whenever she thinks he's said or done something stupid. Her greatest pride is her Evangelion unit number 02.

She hates Japan, making rude comments about how there is no privacy because of screen doors, sleeping on the floor is strange to her, and she complains about the lack of space in Misato's small apartment. She thinks Rei's coldness is weird, and thinks Shinji is a wuss. Initially, Asuka and Rei don't get along well. Their first personality clash is the fact that Rei is a vegetarian, but Asuka thinks it's stupid to be vegetarian, because animals eat other animals. So from day one, she projects this air of smug superiority. 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. 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 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 Shinji. She spends a lot of time complaining and arguing, which takes away from her ability to work at the assigned task. She might be intelligent, but she lacks the maturity necessary to work with people. Again, this is in stark contrast with Rei; for her, cooperation comes easily.

Asuka later suffers a depressive episode after unexpectedly, she is no longer able to synchronize her mind with her Eva, making her unable to pilot. Piloting the Eva was such a huge point of pride for Asuka, so not being able to do it anymore is a crippling blow to her self-esteem. She becomes catatonic, stops going to school, spending days playing video games at the class representative's house. She also lashes out at Rei in an argument in an elevator.

It gets even worse. An Angel makes Asuka remember repressed memories of her traumatic past. 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. So lacking a stable mother figure, Asuka wanted to be strong and independent. 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 a female version of a guy projecting a macho tough-guy image to hide his insecurity in his masculinity.

So, Asuka's character arc is about her going from arrogant to humiliated and depressed, but in the End of Evangelion movie, she regains her fighting spirit when she wakes up from a coma, and regains her ability to synchronize with Eva Unit 02.

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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 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 shows their personalities, rather than simply describing them. Things and people are often understood well using comparison.

From the contrast of Asuka and Rei, we see a lot of things about their personalities. 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. In Evangelion, the conflict of Asuka vs. Rei captures a microcosm of the story's larger thematic conflicts. 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 in anime, used to show personality contrast. But Asuka and Rei's interactions center around meaningful, philosophically poignant, conflict.

Even if one thinks that Asuka is a conceited, arrogant bitch, or that Rei is a cold, soulless automaton, both of these characters contribute a lot of psychological and philosophical weight to the events of 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.

Questions & Answers

Question: Who do you think Shinji likes romantically in Evangelion?

Answer: If EoE is anything to go on, he likes Asuka, Rei, Misato, and Kaworu. But all of them do things that are confusing to him. And he feels guilty for being forced to kill Kaworu by Nerv. He seems to have trouble making decisions in general, and you could see him as loving any of the four main candidates equally, exclusively, or not at all, but a lot of Evangelion stuff is up for fan interpretation.

© 2016 Rachael Lefler