So far I’ve managed to stay pretty far away from Neon Genesis Evangelion on this blog. I’ve mentioned it in passing but I’ve yet to dedicate a single post to any of its many themes, characters or legacies. Love it or hate it, you cannot deny that the series has had an important impact on the anime industry and its perception internationally. As far as ambassadors go, you can do worse.
The fact is that even though I remember it astonishingly well, I haven’t watched NGE in over a decade. I don’t think I’m quite up to reviewing it without a refresher. This is a weird way to start a post. Telling you I’m inept to write it. Actually I start a lot of my posts this way…. Readers are beginning to make fun of me. You guys are patient! Oh Also SPOILERS for a decades old super popular show!
It’s all good folks. This isn’t really a post about NGE. I actually wanted to have a little chat about the inherent narrative problem of clones. To this end I’m going to choose one of anime’s best known representations, Rei Ayanami.
Do you like Rei? I do. Stoic characters have a soft spot in my heart. Besides, in a series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, where everyone is more or less a walking talking nervous breakdown, a calm and quiet character is not only a breath of fresh air, but a necessity. I remember when I first watched the series (so young and fresh), I kept thinking that Shinji should just go for Rei instead. Or better yet, the show should push the other characters to the background and just concentrate on Rei’s story. Considering the reveals later on, solution 2 quickly became my favorite.
Unfortunately, neither was ever a real option. Because Rei was never a real person so she can’t be an actual character. That’s the clone dilemma (that was going to be my post title but spoilers!). In order for imaginary conflicts to mean anything, and the audience to get invested in them, there need to be some stakes. Consequences that stick. Or else, why bother. But in most stories, clones are somewhat impervious to consequences. The only reason to make them a clone in the first place is to be able to play with the idea of copies and dispensability.
Clones don’t matter. Regardless of how lovingly the narrative develops them, in the end they are an easily replaceable commodity. If one breaks, heck even if one is too sad or is going through a rough puberty or something, you can just throw it out and pop in a fresh new one into your plot. Sure your audience may get a bit bummed out but they’ll get over it. Clones aren’t special, they’re literally identical to someone else. And that’s why, they can’t be your main character. The audience will never seen themselves in them. No one *wants* to be the copy.
From a narrative standpoint, clones bring up a lot of similar problems as time travel. Actions and consequences get trivialized due to lack of permanence. In order for viewers to get really invested in the story, without feeling cheated, you need to get creative with your outcomes and structure. Or you need to use the device sparingly. You need to really create an amazing character, or give up and acknowledge it’s just a prop.
As such, that’s what clones often become. Plot devices rather than characters. A certain Magical Index can afford to violently kill off armies of Misakas while remaining generally bloodless otherwise because it doesn’t count as long as there is at least one more Misaka left standing. It’s a cheat you see. The show is now gritty but doesn’t have to worry about alienating more sensitive viewers.
You can write stories that are cruel to your clone characters while still passing off as generally harmless and even happy in tone.
As for Rei herself. I am not so deluded as to call Neon Genesis Evangelion a happy show by any stretch of the word. However, if you take the original series ending as canon (which I do), it is surprisingly hopeful. Those characters went through figurative hell in order to learn something from the journey and came out the other side better and stronger for it. Shinji started coming to grips with profound insecurity and guilt caused by his abusively neglectful father. Asuka finally has a chance to start putting behind her the trauma of a devastating childhood and mentally unstable mother. (Parents…am I right?). Humanity as a whole is given a second chance….
And poor little not a real girl Rei gets to watch. Rei endured the hardships of piloting an Eva longer than anyone. She didn’t have the benefit of a parental figure to fall back on like Misato (flawed but comforting). Rei was expected to shoulder the burden alone without so much as a helpless friend to confide in. It’s a lot to ask. You would think she would be particularly rewarded.
Of all the unfortunate souls trapped in the end of world nightmare that is Neon Genesis Evangelion, no one suffered greater psychological or physical trauma than Rei. She’s the only one of the main cast that actually died. And what does she have to show for it? An extremely creepy and uncomfortable relationship with her only child and estranged husband? That’s about it. Rei doesn’t even get the benefit of personal growth.
And of all the very many things fans of the franchise got extremely mad about, her mistreatment wasn’t even a consideration. Because clones don’t matter…
I disagree. It’s time we started respecting imaginary lives even if they are visually similar. I mean all the sailor scouts are clearly clones wearing different wigs. We care about them. Clones do matter and so did Rei.