This is a comment I wrote on Reddit when questioned why Rei was listed alongside Shinji as my favorite characters. I felt like it was good enough for its own post, and put it here as well. I realize not everyone will share this opinion, and my goal isn't to change your mind necessarily, just to share what I see when I look at the character:
I could write for ages about all the reasons I think Rei is awesome, but here's a few main points. This is a comment I made about her recently:
"Alternate perspective: she's a time-traveling superhero for Taoists and introverts.
I actually think Rei is the most admirable character in the story. She suffers the most but complains about it the least. She regularly demonstrates the highest levels of emotional intelligence and compassion. And she solves problems with single definitive strikes (verbal or physical) rather than protracted battles or arguments."
Rei's character development is subtler than the others, so it's easy to miss, but I feel like if you look close at her, she's the most nuanced and interesting of them all.
She is unfailingly kind to everybody. When Shinji cries out for someone to be nice to him, Rei is the only one who answers "I'm nice to you." She even offers friendly advice to Asuka, whom she dislikes, and gets a slap in the face for her troubles. She is the only main character to not vent her frustrations on another person with physical violence. In the end, she and Kaworu represent "the hope that people will understand each other, and the words 'I love you'", making her the literal symbol of the show's entire point. This is demonstrated in one of my favorite moments of the franchise- when Shinji pulls Rei's hand out of his chest and holds it instead. This is him finding a safe distance for interaction, a la the Hedgehog's Dilemma. There is so much hand imagery in Eva, and during Third Impact Rei asks Shinji what his hand is for. That moment is Shinji realizing the answer she was getting at- that we are meant to interact with others.
Everything about her is graceful and elegant, yet at the same time she is not weak. She will stand up for those she cares about. She is greatly under-appreciated as one of Evangelion's greatest heroes- she defeats the final three and most powerful angels (killing Arael and Armisael and destroying Kaworu's AT field), single-handedly derails the plans of both Gendo and SEELE, and walks Shinji through the implications of Instrumentality, undoing it when he decides against it and giving humanity a future. Her powers are the central plot device, and she is at least tied with Kaworu for the role of most powerful being in the story, if not surpassing him. When they merge, her mind is in control.
She's also not a Mary Sue, dealing with just as much pain, loneliness, and self-hatred as everyone else in the show, if not more. She's the first to actively state that she wants to die. Yet she handles her own shit, and still finds the time to help other people with theirs. She brings out the best in Shinji, as many of his more compassionate and heroic moments are centered around helping Rei. She in turn helps him, creating one of the franchise's most interesting and heart-warming dynamics.
I'm deeply interested in mysticism, which I feel Eva runs on, and she corresponds to so many interesting concepts. It has been suggested that she is Shinji's anima. The moon and water imagery surrounding her connects her to lots of different Goddess figures and spiritual ideas. I feel like she is strongly tied to the concept of Yin, as in Yin and Yang, and Taoist philosophy. I also associate her with Dante's Beatrice, as someone with an almost impossibly beautiful soul who saves the hero from himself.
She goes on the greatest character arc in the show, starting as a zero, a ghost, a nothing, and ending it as literally God, the source of all human souls. It's noted in original episode 25 that she fears regaining her true nature "because she might not have human form", and form is associated with mind. She fears she will no longer be human. Yet when she overcomes her abuser and returns to her true body, it transforms to look like her human self. So when I say her arc is great because she becomes God, it's not because she gets big and powerful, it's because she goes from someone with no strong connections to other people and no real sense of who she is, to actually being all people, as well as herself. She has mastered both self-love and connection to others. It's awesome.
Same for Kaworu. They are both gods who walked among mortals, and learned that humanity, despite being full of pain and sorrow, held a beauty they hadn't previously known, and were left forever changed by their experiences. Holy crap that is literary, and to me it's one of the most powerful moments in the series. While her ending is still sad, because she is to some degree separated from Shinji, she ultimately achieves nearly every one of her personal goals and overcomes every obstacle, which is more than can be said for any of the other characters.
I also think it's worth noting that she is given way more screen-time and development in all Eva media post-the original show, where she has countless more great moments. I think they regretted under-utilizing her.
And finally, on a personal note: I connected with Eva, and with Shinji and Rei, because I am very introverted and deal with lots of self-esteem issues, many of which came from my relationship with my highly emotionally abusive father. Thus the immediate connection to Shinji. But Shinji was mostly just abandoned by Gendo. Rei is the one who was raised and abused by him all her life. She was dehumanized and told that she only existed to fulfill the goals and aspirations of her creator. Which is exactly what my childhood felt like. And she beat it.
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