SPOILERS: Discussion of the entire Evangelion franchise.
Twenty-six episodes, two movies, a yet-to-be-completed remake/sequel(?) film tetralogy, and a whole lot of fan-wank later, Neon Genesis Evangelion continues to reign as one of anime’s most lucrative, most groundbreaking, and most perplexing works. There are a million-and-one ways we can interpret Evangelion, but as you’ve probably guessed, this article will be looking at it (the original series and The End of Evangelion) from a feminist standpoint. Girls, women, and female-aligned celestial beings play central roles within the series, threading issues of motherhood, female ambition, and sexuality throughout.
The gender politics of Evangelion see the male-controlled, militarized institutions of NERV/SEELE and the fearsomely patriarchal commander Gendo Ikari vying to construct a new world order catered to their (male) desires, the process of which relies on their use of female-subjects as disposable tools for their plans. It can be said that NERV and SEELE’s goal of bringing about Human Instrumentality is a manipulation of the life-giving powers typically associated with female reproduction, hence all those allusions to Genesis and Lilith. More directly, Gendo leaves a trail of women in his wake, using Ritsuko Akagi for her mind and her body the same he did to her mother, Naoko.
At the center of this scheme is Rei Ayanami — Evangelion’s most iconic character — whose “ostensible” existence is defined as being a replaceable flesh-vessel for Lilith’s soul, a position Rei knows all too well. As the final episodes of the anime reveal, Rei is a series of clones created from Shinji’s dead mother (and Gendo’s wife) Yui Ikari.
Rei was created as a tool to help Gendo initiate Third Impact and carry out his version of the Human Instrumentality Project, one which would reunite him with said dead anime wife. Hence, Rei is a “doll” who’s denied her own subjective agency in order to further the ambitions of a man who exercises complete control over her existence; in other words, she’s a constructed, fetishized image of womanhood made to serve a man’s selfish wish-fulfillment fantasy.
The irony that Rei Ayanami has become “the model for the central female characters in Japanese anime for the past decade” [Editor’s Note: Content Warning, this link discusses suicide] and the best girl/moe queen of anime fans isn’t lost on me. Whether Rei was intended to be subversive criticism or just made to appeal to GAINAX’s straight male audience is a question that inevitably follows any feminist-aligned analysis of Evangelion.
But considering this is Evangelion we’re talking about, we’ll likely never arrive at a single, definitive answer to Rei’s mystery. What I’m mainly interested in discussing here is the idea of Rei as an object of straight male desire, an analysis which extends beyond examining Rei through the lens of feminist film theory to include Hideaki Anno’s greater conversation with the psychological condition of the otaku audience.
The desiring otaku audience and the illusionary image of women
It’s fairly well-known that Hideaki Anno developed Evangelion out of a four-year long period of clinical depression wherein he “did no work and spent most of his time alone in his room.” Anno’s been clear that Evangelion is his most deeply personal work, one which reveals “his own problems of the heart” through the underlying theme of “not running away” from one’s problems.
But if Evangelion is Anno’s effort to confront his dilemmas as an individual and a creator, then Rei’s character is something of an unresolved issue for him. As he stated in a 1997 interview, “Rei is probably [the character] closest to my deep psyche. I don’t really understand her. The truth is, I have no emotional attachment to her at all.”
In an interview with The Atlantic, Anno describes Rei’s popularity amongst otaku “as the product of a stunted imaginative landscape born of Japan’s defeat in the Second World War,” On the surface, this statement doesn’t seem connected to the anime and manga industries’ gender politics.
However, this “stunted imaginative landscape” is said to play a key role in the social condition of otaku and the culturally unique reception of female anime characters, as observed by psychologist and media critic Tamaki Saitō, who similarly states that otaku are the result of “the interactions between the modern media environment and the adolescent psyche in Japan” (Beautiful Fighting Girl 9).
This “stunted imaginative landscape”/“adolescent psyche” can be tied to significant changes in Japanese gender roles following World War II, wherein women experienced gains in social freedoms outside of the home (particularly marriage choice) and men, who had benefited from the nation’s strongly patriarchal social order prior to the war, are said to have undergone a sort of crisis of masculinity in response to the nation’s defeat and subsequent American militarization. Combined with women’s (minor) social gains, the perceived loss of patriarchal power was felt as a national emasculation, a sentiment which can also be found in Anno’s recent Shin Godzilla.
Concurrent to these social changes was the growth of anime and manga throughout the 1970s and 1980s. For men like Anno coming of age in this era, anime and manga became a fantasy safe haven from the pressures of post-war society, which still expects greater levels of conformity and social responsibility amongst citizens (30). Otaku were thus seen as “fleeing from reality” and adulthood through their vested interest in anime and manga, hence the crossover between the otaku lifestyle with hikikomori isolationism (17).
It’s this escapist tendency to “cut [themselves] off from society” — not otaku themselves — that Anno criticizes, a perspective intricately connected to his descent into clinical depression. The Instrumentality scheme is essentially a male-fronted effort to “run away” from the pains of human reality through the construction of a wish-fulfilling fantasy world. But as End of Evangelion goes to show, the path to this utopian hivemind is ironically paved with death, abuse, and a whole lot of screaming.
So where does Rei fit into this? One of the major means of escapism amongst otaku is through the fictional images of girls and young women in Japanese media. Tamaki Saitō argues that the fixation on female characters like Rei is a psychological process of projection and possession, a reactionary phenomenon to Japan’s post-war gender roles which relieves contemporary male anxiety through the “illusion of women” as a comfort object (Otaku Sexuality 227).
Because fictional images of women lack personhood (i.e., aren’t real), they are ready-made to project our own meanings and desires onto, completely dependent upon us to give them significance. In psychoanalytic terms, this “lack” of subjectivity makes her an eligible — and most importantly, a safe — object of desire. The simple logic here is that she can’t hurt us (and vice-versa) because she isn’t real. Sure, Rei may never be able to hold your hand or say “I love you,” but as a fictional character, she can be whatever we want her to be.
Obviously, the projection of straight male desires onto images of women is a cross-cultural issue, the observation of which is the basis of feminist film theory. As detailed in Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, film offers men the powerful pleasure of voyeurism (scopophilia) by providing images of women that can be objectified and consumed. The oppressive power of the male gaze manifests as the association of “scopophilia with taking other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (61).
The male production of the fictional female image thus sees her depicted as a “signifier” and an idealized fantasy onto which “man can live out [his] phantasies and obsessions…by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (59). Fictional or not, when girls/women are presented and perceived as objects whose meaning is dependent on straight male desire, we’re left with heavily skewed concepts and sexist depictions of girls/women that spill over into reality like toxic runoff. From a feminist perspective, the painful irony about Rei is that this is what her character partly deconstructs.
To tie this back to the boatload of theory I’ve just laid out, Rei’s immense popularity largely owes itself to the very fact that — to borrow a phrase from Mulvey — she is “an illusion cut to the measure of desire” (66), a “silent image of a woman” whom others can project onto. Justin Wu argues that Rei’s reserved personality “gives fans plenty rooms of imagination on what she really thinks and feels.”
Much of what we associate Rei’s character with is purely visual in nature; she’s a girl of few words and even fewer expressions (even a smile is foreign to her), lacking the charismatic catchphrases and quirky verbal tics of her female peers. Her earliest scenes in the anime orient around her bodily presence and the reactions of those confronted by her image — her bleeding, broken body inspires Shinji to get in the robot (insert booing here) and in Episode 5, we have Shinji walking in on a conspicuously nude Rei, who responds in what can only be described as total indifference:
It’s easy to dismiss these scenes as mere fan service, but Rei’s presentation as a visual spectacle to fellow characters and the audience is ultimately tied to the limitations of her existence as a receptacle for male desire. Her aesthetical appearance invites the fetishistic male gaze, as remarked upon by lead character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto; “Her character was locked in as translucent — like a shadow, or the air. The kind of girl you can’t touch. The girl you long for, but there is nothing about her that you can hold.”
Of course, the reason why she’s so markedly different owes itself to the inorganic origins of her creation. As Sadamoto’s comment suggests, Rei’s pale complexion, shock of blue hair, and blood-red eyes aren’t just meant to draw our gaze — they’re meant to signify her fleeting nature as a clone. And what else is a clone other than a living, breathing replicated image?
Rei’s existence as an image and a body that’s denied human autonomy is expressed through the fragility of her form. It’s suggested throughout the series that there’s something physically (never mind mentally, and I suggest this analysis on her psychology) wrong with Rei, emphasized through shots of mysterious pill packs and bloodied bandages. From what we can assume, Rei’s health problems are a result of the cloning process — i.e. the fact that she’s an “image” and not an organic person.
She lacks a natural female biology, particularly a menstrual cycle (“a woman who never bleeds”) [Editor’s Note: please see some important discussion about this line in the comments], and the disconnect between Rei’s biological age (14) and her chronological age (10, as Episode 21 suggests) implies that Gendo has some control over manipulating her growth.
As a result of all this biological intervention, by the time we get to End of Evangelion, Rei’s body is literally falling apart, her corporeal image collapsing just as her meaningfulness to Gendo is about to end. With the amount of control Gendo holds over Rei’s autonomy, it’s fair to say that their relationship resembles the dynamic between the desiring male creator/spectator and the female image he projects his fantasies onto.
As previously mentioned, Gendo’s efforts to orchestrate Instrumentality are carried out through his subjugation of various female-aligned subjects, from his manipulation of Rei to his underhanded affairs with the Akagis. Now, I won’t argue with the notion that Gendo is a bastard more than worthy of his fate, and I’ll even go as far as to say he’s an infinitely WORSE anime dad than Shou “My Science Project is My Daughter and Her Dog” Tucker.
However, beneath Gendo’s controlling gaze — the oppressive power of which is symbolized through, what else, his glasses — is a man trying to “run away” from his anxieties and traumas by constructing a new, wish-fulfilling reality. As he lays dying in End of Evangelion, it’s revealed that he too is terrified of the “invisible bonds” people form, admitting that his neglect of Shinji stems from his own self-loathing and fear of being hurt by others.
I’d hesitate to make any direct comparison between Gendo and the prototypical male otaku fan/creator (you can take Gendo’s uncanny resemblance to Anno as you will), but it can be said that to Gendo, Rei is a comfort object cloned in the image of what he ultimately desires — his wife.
Along with being the linchpin in Gendo’s plans, Rei acts as a receptacle for his emotions; we only ever see Gendo drop his steely facade and show anything resembling empathy around Rei. She replaces the familial voids left by Yui and the son he pushed away, and because Rei’s more “image” than “human,” Gendo can project onto her all he wants without fear of being hurt. And as Rei’s creator, he assigns her existence a meaning that’s entirely dependent upon his desires, like all those horrible manic pixie dream girls.
So when the moment comes for Rei to finally initiate Gendo’s version of Instrumentality, what does she do? She rejects him, stating, “I am not a puppet.” The core of Rei’s character development is her progressive realization that she has a right to her own existence (“Because I am not you”); she’s not just some pretty image or a doll to be manipulated, but a living, breathing individual who’s been isolated, abused, and confined to a bleak room like a madwoman in the attic all her life.
Anno notes that Rei’s supposed passivity and willingness to sacrifice herself are not solely sourced in her having “the barest minimum of what she needs to have” (a body and consciousness), but in the acute awareness that she’s a clone, that “even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly.”
Rei was never happy with the fact that her existence depended on how useful she was to Gendo, because living as the “bearer of meaning” and the signifying object of desire essentially means being nothing in and of itself. To be an image of desire is to be the recipient of, as qmisato on Tumblr observes, an “objectifying love instead of a humanizing love,” entirely dependent upon another’s wants and without a subjective existence of their own.
And yet the ultimate tragedy of Rei is that, with her ascent to godhood in End of Evangelion, she becomes the “bearer of meaning” for all of humanity, reduced to a ghostly spectre with no ability to exist on her own terms. Similarly, this reflects Rei’s status as an anime icon in the real world, doomed to an eternity as sexy figurines, body pillows, and wall scrolls.
Intentional or not, Rei holds a mirror to the escapist projection of straight male anxiety onto idealized images of girls and women. However, this is a large, complex and much contested topic, and has been for decades now, meriting further discussion.