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!

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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.

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or we can petition to get this show made! by Hayama Yuujirou

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.

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I wanted to be Rei (Chenbo)

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.

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it’s telling how often Rei is illustrated as wounded (by usually ecchi DanteWontDie)

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.

Worried Rei

27 thoughts on “The Rei Ayanami Dilema”

  1. You know, if you clone something too many times, degradation of the genome inevitably sets in. Each successive clone is less viable. I learned that from Star Trek TNG. Also from The Venture Brothers. And some advance college biology.

    1. Last I read that was still a theory. Current cloning techniques should not lead to any particular degradation unless the source material is not genetically diverse enough. Even then

  2. “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.”

    Three examples immediately came to mind.

    Battlestar Galactic (and yes, I still think of it as the reboot), which proves your point: Kill one Seven, and another takes her place.

    Then I thought about the same series that Dawnstorm mentioned (Farscape), which kinda sorta almost but not quite entirely takes the opposite side. One clone was killed, but the show went out of its way to say both were identical. More like twins than clones, maybe?

    Then I remembered the Dune books, where Duncan Idaho kept getting cloned by the Bene Tleilax — and though they were clones, they were distinct. Some even had hidden abilities. I _think_ that takes the opposite side of the argument, but if there were upgrades, are they really clones?

    Your posts have a tendency to trigger these streams of consciousness!

  3. I remember being a little confused at the reveal. Are we talking memory transplants? Completely new person? Some sort of sould consistency. Later there came another reveal that made that even stranger. It’s certainly one of the more confusing situations (considering Rei seems to have some sort of vestigal memories and relationships, no matter what copy(?).)

    Generally, though, I agree with you: clones are usually treated as expendable. The Star Trek discussion below made me remember the take on that trope by Farscape, where Moya had two Michael Crichtons on board for a while. I don’t think we ever learned who the original was, and – as often – it ended in a heroic death. Playing it straight, but at the same time being aware. And they were identical really; no good version/bad version, which made keeping track hard, especially since both shared the same memories up to a point. The two parter where they eventually got rid to him had them fool a lie detector, which was utterly brilliant in context. I really loved Farscape, but they never showed the third season where I live.

    Clones aren’t all that different from twins, though, are they? Very similar genetics, different people.

    1. As far as I know they are the same as twins. Especially those conceived through fertility treatments.
      I need to rewatch Farscape . i have all the dvds. Not bragging or anything…

      1. @Farscape: I have the first two seasons; the third was never available around here, sadly. (Strangely, the peace keeper wars, were available – watching that while missing a whole season was weird…)

  4. Why should I care if a biological copy of a character exists? I don’t care about how they look- I care about how they feel and what they’ve done. Yuki Nagato is completely different from Yuki Nagato to me, and I wish people wouldn’t act as though one’s happiness equaled the other’s.
    RIP marginalized clones.

  5. Great post! I think a lot of the Eva characters get undersold, most of all Rei. I like your analysis of her.

    If you’re interested in watching an anime that kind of addresses some of the ideas you’ve talked about here, I’d recommend “Kaiba.” While the later half is more plot-focused, the entire series deals with the physical and mental/emotional consequences of body-swapping, consciousness-cloning, and other things that can happen when bodies are ephemeral. While not technically clones, some characters are technically copies, putting them in a precarious (but IMO sympathetic) position.

    1. I’ve never seen it. Interesting! Thank you so much for the tip. I never get enough of good ol fashion sci fi anime

  6. To me, what was and is important about Rei is that she discovers that she is a person. In the manga she has a long talk with Shinji where she describes how she felt each of the five time his hand touches hers, and each time it is different and more affecting to her. To Gendo she’s just a machine, but to Shinji and to herself she grows to be much more, I think.

  7. I love Rei very very deeply! I probably care more for her than all the other Evangelion characters combined. I feel like I can identify with her lack of emotion and I have known real people she could have been modeled upon., Yet I also understand the emotions are in our genes. I would not say she was “repressed”, hers have been artificially denied an opportunity to develop.

    She is dominated by her father in an abusive manner. Daddy is the cause of that repression. He keeps the emotions of the clone of his lost wife undeveloped so he can do as he wishes without consequence.

    She’ll never become as “expressive” of emotion as the other “natural” female characters but with help, over time she could have become the most brilliant character of them all. Despite his general uselessness, Shinji was useful a time or two in this respect.

  8. If a clone is taken to be as close to an exact copy as possible, then s/he is a person and deserves such respect and treatment. I offer for your consideration the crew of the Enterprise (Star Trek): if a crewmember makes use of the transporter–and they do–then that person has had his molecular structure disassembled and reassembled. Sorry, Trekkies, but that spells death for complex living organisms such as humans (and probably Vulcans, too!). So, technically, each time Scottie beams Kirk aboard, the ship gets a replica of its last captain. . .but nobody ever suggests that he’s less human for it (and it certainly never seemed to affect his libido!). And if Star Trek seems a strange reference for this argument, (1) I figured most everybody would at least recognize the reference, and (2) there actually was a 22-episode animated Star Trek series that ran from 1973-4.

    1. That could be attributed to how there’s only ever 1 Kirk at a time. Like with doppelgangers, there can only be 1, so you must kill the other. If the beam malfunctioned and there were 2 Kirks, would one be more human? There was a Naruto episode where he dreamed his clones became sentient. It was a trippy episode, but the Naruto series follows along with the expendability of clones. The clones could spend a long time away from the original and even possibility build a second life, but once they’re injured, they poof.

      1. That’s true – Naruto clones also go through the grinder. I never even thought of them. Bad me! this sort of proves my point

      2. Just to head out on another tangent – there is an original Star Trek episode where the transporter splits Kirk in to two people. One has all his compassion and kindness and intelligence. The other has the testosterone overload of aggression, anger, and fear. The point of the episode was that they were both necessary parts of him and in the end they put him back together as one person. Just sayin’ that at least once there were two Kirks. I’m a trouble maker.

        The theme of clones and how human they should be treated is not uncommon in SciFi and seems to hinge on how human they are – or we perceive them to be. Robots in some series are even treated much the same way. Animals, for that matter… aliens… (right about here people who don’t think animals think and feel just split off)

        I think, as individuals, at some point we simply decide within ourselves where we fall on the issue of sentience and human, and these stories contribute often to our decision as well as cause us to continue to question that judgment.

        1. This is gonna turn into an old fashion trekkie throw down and I am all for it!.
          As someone who has written theses on human cloning for medical purposes the isuue of cloning rights has always been fascinating to me. For the record most jurisdictions believe hunks of unsetient human tissue (organs or skin cells) have more rights than animals.
          But I’m a lot fuzzier on how narratives or plots should treat clones. Especially when they aren’t the central theme of the story…

          1. Well, I’m not actually enough of a Trekkie to jump into a certified throwdown, but I am a fan of the original series. As for the question of rights, perhaps it’s my law enforcement background, but I do believe human clones would deserve the same legal protections as the rest of us. Again, it they’re actual clones–meaning basically the same as the original–then how do they differ from the rest of us?

            Of course, I’ve also argued for recognizing the continued rights of ghosts. . .how do these *sshole stalkers run around making shows about stalking and harassing what they themselves claim are deceased persons? Does death remove one’s basic human and civil rights? Because if you say that ghosts are the spirits of the dead, then you have just suggested that they once possessed those rights by virtue of their humanity–how dare you then suggest that they so easily lose them!

    2. The again, in Next Gen when the ytansporter malfunction made 2 Rikers, the show seemed cool with the idea of sacrificing the second one then shipped him off never to be seen again at the end of the episode. Although the characters in the story didn’t treat the clone as dispensable (well just a little), the plot certainly did.

      1. I don’t remember that episode. But my point remains that neither of them would have been the Riker who entered the transporter–he would have been killed by the process–both would be replicas (so I can’t see either as being more important, myself).

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