Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Legacy of Rei Ayanami

Pic 01If Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the Big Bang of music in the 1960s, then Neon Genesis Evangelion was the equivalent of anime in 1990s. Eighteen years since its release and we are still trying to analyze every single aspect of the series (and Gainax is still making huge amount of money out of it with its Rebuild of Evangelion project). Even academic scholars have written articles about it, something unimaginable to non-anime viewers. Here, I want to focus on the popularity of one character and her influence in the anime industry: Rei Ayanami.

Rei is an anti-heroine, much like all the other characters in the series. She is a beautiful, mysterious fourteen-year-old who shows no emotions and acts more like a robot than a human being most of the time. She is very quiet makes only pithy remarks, if she speaks at all. The female characters in Evangelion are adorable in their own ways – the tardy but motherly Misato, the feisty but insecure Asuka – but it is Rei that changes the rules and revolutionizes the anime industry.

Warning: Spoiler ahead, as it’s impossible to discuss Evangelion without spoiling the content.

Enigmatic character

When referring to a ‘mysterious character’ in the pre-Evangelion era, it was usually about someone with a twisted and often tragic past that would be slowly revealed as the plot progressed. What is mysterious about Rei is that she has no past. We learn in episode five that all records of her past have been erased from the database of NERV, the organization that develops the giant mecha known as evangelions. This generates the sense of mysteriousness surrounding the character, and has become a major talking point as the series goes on.

The "Ayanami Rei's smile"
The famous “Ayanami Rei’s smile”, from Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone

Personality-wise, she is socially detached, talks to nobody, and carries a dull expression all the time. Unlike traditional female protagonists who are usually strong, caring and charismatic (like those we see in productions of Studio Ghibli), Rei is the complete opposite. It is a different kind of charisma that makes her popular. She gives fans plenty rooms of imagination on what she really thinks and feels. It also makes fans sit on the edge of their seats whenever she makes an appearance, since it is hard to predict what she will do. After all, who knows what she is thinking?

Then there is the famous “Ayanami Rei’s smile” scene at the end of episode six. We learn that it is not the case that she cannot feel emotions, but she just does not know how to express them. Facing a crying Shinji who is glad that she is alive after a big fight, she says, ‘I don’t know what to feel at times like this.’ Shinji replies, ‘with a smile’, and smile she does, after a minute of hesitation. The scene is so powerful and iconic because that is the first time she has deliberately shown an emotion, and one of the handful of times she has done so throughout the whole series.

Scream not. She doesn't care if a boy is lying on top of her when she's naked.
Scream not. She doesn’t care if a boy is lying on top of her when she’s naked.

Rei can be considered as the prototypical ‘mukuchi’ character, meaning ‘mouth-less’. It is a term used by anime fans to describe characters who do not speak unless necessary and show no emotions when speaking, and is considered to be a moe element. They have a monotone voice and speak to-the-point, avoiding unnecessary conversations. Rei has popularized this moe element, and we later see characters like Yuki Nagato from The Melancholy of Haruhi Sumuziya, Lain from Serial Experiments Lain, Eve from Black Cat, and Ai Emma from Hell Girl all fitting into this ‘mukuchi’ category. Mukuchi characters sell, and they are immensely popular among anime fans.


Sex sells. It is a very simple rule in business. Rei is a fourteen-year-old school girl with a pretty face and a well-developed body. Along with her mysteriousness, she is a character that can give viewers lots of rooms to fantasize about. Developers hence can create many Rei-related products for sale. Her image also printed on stationary, posters, shirts and various accessories. Figures of Rei and many characters (in swimsuits and/or suggestive postures) are manufactured in huge amounts. These products sell really well. Before Evangelion, anime merchandises were not considered a big market for producers to profit on. However, it changed when Evangelion came out. Rei expands the market, and Gainax capitalizes on that.

Pic 44One thing that I think Rei popularizes is the bandage look. In the first episode she is seen being wrapped in bandages as she is badly injured, inducing a sense of sympathy in Shinji. It also creates an image of her needing protection from others, in a way inducing protectiveness mainly among male viewers, the target fan base of Rei. Gainax, for sure, will not let such a fat chance go. Author Kazuhisa Fujie wrote that “figures of Rei, in her bandaged beauty, sold like wild fire”, and that the bandaged Rei figure outsold all other merchandizes. The bandage look has now become almost a trademark image of her, and a common feature in cosplays.

Evangelion is a very doujin-friendly series, for many scenes are not explained in details that fans can create their own versions of what the scenes entail. Rei’s mysteriousness definitely helps in this aspect, as she allows fans to write about many ‘what-if’ scenarios, especially her relationships with other characters. The last episode of Evangelion also contains an alternate universe plot-line where Rei is an outgoing girl, almost as if Gainax is making a doujin out of its own work and encouraging fans to make their own. Furthermore, Rei is a common character used in hentai doujin (fan-made comics with erotic content). A simulation game called ‘Ayanami Nurturing Project’ allows gamers to take care of Rei’s daily schedule and develops romantic relations with her. Sex sells, and it sells really well.

Die and Let Die

All characters in Evangelion have encountered their own existential crisis during the series. They all struggle with reality and ask themselves what they are fighting for. Rei faces no such problem. In fact, she does not wonder why she is alive, but question why she does not die yet. An anti-climax for an anti-herione.

A rare showcase of emotions, right before her death
A rare showcase of emotions, right before her death

Throughout the series she has dropped hints of her indifference to living, and has engaged in drastic acts that could have cost her life. Unlike other characters, she does not care if she dies. In a way one can say she is very nihilistic, but viewers only understand why she embraces death by episode twenty-three. In that episode, Rei self-explodes her evangelion to defeat an angel. (Coincidentally, the background music being played at that scene is titled ‘Thanatos’, a Freudian term that refers to the death drive propelling humans to engage in life-threatening acts.) When she miraculously ‘survives’, it is explained that Rei is actually a human clone of Shinji’s mother, Yui Ikari (who ‘died’ when Shinji was young), made to activate Gendo’s Human Instrumentality Project. That’s why she does not care, as she could be easily replaced by a dummy if she dies. To a certain degree, she embraces death, as if dying is the only way to prove that she has lived.

If we boldly put this into context of 1990s Japan, known as the ‘Lost Decade’ after the economic bubble burst in the decade, it is not hard to see why Rei is so popular among Japanese teenagers, as they could relate to her: there were no goals for them to pursue, and they were severely damaged psychologically. Living or dying did not seem like a big concern when they thought they were living lifelessly anyway.

Interestingly, the name ‘Rei’ also means ‘zero’. It’s almost echoing the nothingness she feels.

Oedipus complex revisited

Being the clone of Ikari Yui explains and complicates Shinji’s affection towards Rei, which shows a degree of Oedipus complex in his case. In Freudian psychoanalysis, Oedipus complex refers to the young boy’s desire to have a sexual relation with his mother, and sees his father as a competitor for her affection. From the beginning, Shinji has a very strained relationship with Gendo, and if Rei is the clone of his mother, then Shinji fits perfectly into this Freudian case. In episode six, when Shinji wakes up he thinks he sees his mother by his side, but it turns out to be Rei, who is watching him.

Rei 'talking' to Shinji as he struggles with his existence
Rei ‘talking’ to Shinji as he struggles with his existence

The role of Rei then becomes ambiguous. She now not only is a friend and a potential love interest, but also a motherly figure that Shinji lacks when growing up. Much of this relates to Shinji’s tension with Gendo, who sends Shinji away after Yui’s death. During the Lost Decade many fathers were seldom home as they had to work or pretended to work (to avoid the shame of others knowing they were unemployed), and the mothers became the children’s support. In The End of Evangelion, Shinji explores his existential crisis with Rei, a scene that can be seen as a mother-to-son talk as Rei asks Shinji what he really wants. She is almost guiding him into making his decision on accepting the Human Instrumentality Project or not. Rei and Yui could now be seen as one.

Much like Radiohead’s Kid A, Evangelion and Rei have been discussed so thoroughly and obsessively by, well, everyone that it is hard to find something totally original to say. I can only try to, perhaps unjustly, narrow the reasons and impact of Rei’s popularity into the mentioned categories. Obviously, there is a lot more to say about them, but I’ll refrain myself from turning this into a 30-page essay.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.

Want to write about Anime or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. christ whit

    I believe that everyone should watch through Evangelion at least once, it arguably one of the most influential anime ever. The only thing that I could say about the anime is that the last two episodes are very “abstract” and could alienate the audience or ruin the entire show for some, but luckily the creators had found this out and released a stand- alone movie titled “End of Evangelion” which makes the last episode understandable and personally helps you enjoy the entire series. I support anyone who writes about the best anime ever. Nice job!

    • I actually really like the last two very abstract episodes. While of course the other characters deserve more screenplay, the whole idea is how Shinji sees himself and/in the world. It is an extraordinary way to end a series. Of course “End of Evangelion” is also a good way to show what really happens when HIP was implemented.

  2. Not This Time

    Many people like to compare Neon Genesis Evangelion to modern culture, whether it be religious, philosophical or what have you. But ultimately, the best comparison I feel is back to around 500BC and the birth of Greek Tragedy, where theoretically EVA would’ve won several awards at the Theatre of Dionysus at the foothill of the Acropolis.

    EVA contains absolutely everything that makes Greek Tragedy so god-damn epic, the plot composition including twists and turns that you either don’t see coming at all (unlike most mainstream anime today) or adapted in such a way where you feel real -athy’s (emp/symp) for the characters at hand. It contains the superb Oedipal Complex notion, and with many hints towards the Bacchae and The Oresteia as well as countless others.

    • I don’t know enough Greek Tragedy stories in details to know if it’s a fair comparison, but I definitely see your point. It’s just so epic and contains a lot of twists, and that’s why it’s a classic anime

  3. This has to be one of the top overrated anime shows ever made. And yes, I have even seen the End of Evangelion and that still made me hate it even more. Not to mention the countless rip-offs of this show!

    I don’t mind psychological and philosophy undertones, but Evangelion drags it out into the mud like nothing else! Not many of the characters seemed to be very interesting. The only ones that seemed to be interesting were Asuka, Misato and Pen-Pen. Other than that, mostly everyone else were a bunch of whiny crybaby losers. Sorry, but, my opinion.

    • I can see your point since Evangelion is the kind of show that people either absolutely love or hate. I agree that many of the characters are whiny crybaby, but that’s what makes the show interesting to watch, as it shows they are just ordinarily ordinary people. They aren’t some superheroes who are determined to save the world, but ordinary people who have doubts and questions in a post-apocalyptic world. It also echoes the psychology of the people at the time, with the depressing economy and when things did not look like it’d get better.

  4. z-leverton

    I blogged about Evangelion for a few years ago encouraging all men to watch it. This is a truly real and frank coming of age tale. All men should watch it. They really should. By the end of episode 26, they’ll have bore witness to something that relates to all young men, deep in their subconscious- a story of self. And what it really means to be self. What our true desire and true nature is, and not just as a species, but as a being with a soul, a creature capable of both creation and destruction on both a physical and mental level, introvertiably and extrovertiably. There is a woven web that is our mind, from the people we know and their perception of us, which is always changing, and our true selves, which hesitates to change, but often must, in order to survive. The two selves. I’m ranting.

    • It is a great coming-of-age story with a lot of philosophical questions to ponder about. What does it mean to exist? What does it mean to be ‘me’? This show is my first exposure to existentialist thoughts, and Shinji’s struggle is still relevant to us nowadays.

  5. Sara Roncero-Menendez

    The ironic thing is that Hideaki Anno, the creator of Evangelion, grew really disgusted with otaku culture, including the hyper-sexualization of Rei, and yet now she’s almost like an anime sex icon. I think this is a great discussion of the character, especially the loneliness and emptiness.

    • To be fair he did receive many death threats when the final episode was aired. Maybe that prompted him to become disgusted with otaku culture?

  6. Well-written article; as a character she is much more complex than a sex doll. Throughout the show I thought on questions along the likes of “Is Rei an actual human being, or no? But how could one even go about explicitly defining humanness?” These are questions I’ve still yet to answer.

    • People can come up with their own definition of what it means to be ‘human’ – some could argue a physical appearance, some for a biological set-up, some for the idea of having a ‘mind’ that can think. Although after reading your comment, my question is actually ‘how should we define Rei’ – should we consider ‘Rei’ as all of Rei I, Rei II, Rei III and all those clones, or should we treat them as separate entities?

  7. I loved this post (just like anything telated to evangelion) And i loved the way ypu wrote it

    But i have a question: where can i found that “ayanami nurturing project” game, hahahah

  8. uiorra

    Reading this article took me back to a thought I always had since I watched Evangelion – what about Kaworu, that mysterious ‘Angel’? How would we define Kaworu, and what would it be like if they decided back then to include Kaworu in the ‘chair’ scenes? I’ve thought about it, but not enough, and I think Kaworu is a very complex character that deserves analysing, and could have many similarities with Rei. Though I’m afraid one episode appearance could possibly not reveal enough to answer these question; and should we consider the third Rebuild movie as a qualified source? That requires some thinking.

  9. In an odd sense, Shinji serves as an interesting foil to Rei.

Leave a Reply