In the Shinichi Hoshi short story Bokko-Chan (which, for those interested, can be found in The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories), a “bar-master” constructs an emotionless robot girl, who soon becomes the object of many of his patrons’ affections. A sort of futuristic folk tale, it combines dark humour and wordplay, with a clever and totally unexpected ending. While this isn’t the first appearance of a robot girl in fiction (Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman featured a similar gynoid character), Hoshi’s does seem to have been one of the predecessors to an archetype that would end up becoming quite popular in Japanese comics and animation.
Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of the most well-known anime series of the nineties, as well as one of the most influential. The character of Rei Ayanami fascinated so many viewers that many of her clones began appearing in other series, to the point where she’s almost become a stock character. (There’s even a chapter of It’s Not My Fault I’m Not Popular where Tomoko attempts to imitate one, with little success.) Rei is not a robot, but she does bear some similarities to Bokko-chan, if only on the surface. With her blank face, bluish-white hair and inexplicable behaviour, Rei is a beguiling character.
The interesting thing about Rei is that she is more than a human who acts like a robot. She also embodies aspects of the kind of mysterious waif character who often appears in fairy tales and mythology. Rei’s true nature is never fully revealed, and there is always a hint of something otherworldly about her. Unlike those fairy tale characters, however, Rei has no knowledge of anything supernatural, and she seems almost as ignorant of the source of her otherness as everyone else is.
Despite her popularity, Rei was not my introduction to this kind of character. For me, it was Echo, from Pandora Hearts. She ended up becoming my favourite character in the manga, but it was only with a series I later watched that I started developing a proper interest in the archetype. (Though when I started reading Pandora Hearts, I had only a vague idea that this archetype existed.)
Serial Experiments Lain (the greatest work of fiction ever made) came out in 1998, a few years after Neon Genesis Evangelion. Its protagonist, Lain Iwakura, has a lot in common with Rei, though the creators of the series claim that they hadn’t seen Neon Genesis Evangelion when they first began working on the series. Serial Experiments Lain is my biggest obsession, so when I found out about this, I became interested in Rei, and other characters like her. The similarities between Lain and Rei are undeniable, but there are differences, too. While both have extreme problems with social interaction, Lain’s comes more from shyness, while with Rei it appears to stem from her upbringing. I see Lain as being what someone like Rei would be in real life, though she also has that same sense of otherness about her. Both have mysterious origins, and both blur the lines separating the artificial and the human.
Despera, a kind of thematic prequel to Serial Experiments Lain, is supposed to be released sometime in the future, though sadly the director, Ryutaru Nakamura, died of cancer. Luckily, they plan on continuing it with a new director, though it will not be the same without him. With a protagonist who, like Lain, has a strange aptitude for computers, it will be interesting to see what sort of character Ain will be like.
Rei was not the first socially inept, robotic girl to be featured in anime, anyway. Tokiko, from Key the Metal Idol, came before both Rei and Lain, and it’s difficult to imagine that she didn’t have an influence on either character. The show, with its experimental nature, paved the way for both series to follow. While I didn’t think it was as good as either of them, it’s still interesting watch, especially if you like nineties Science Fiction anime.
Even before Key the Metal Idol, characters of a similar nature existed in anime. Ami Mizuno from Sailor Moon is a quiet girl with blue hair, and Naoko Takeuchi had even planned for her to be a cyborg at first. Like the Zashiki Warashi from CLAMP’s xxxHolic, Ami shows that it’s possible to have a shy character who isn’t extremely troubled or dysfunctional.
Interestingly, Rei Ayanami was named after another Sailor Moon character, Rei Hino, in an attempt to convince Kunihiko Ikuhara, a friend of Hideaki Anno, to work on Neon Genesis Evangelion. Ikuhara’s own series, Revolutionary Girl Utena (which is often seen as the shojo counterpart to Neon Genesis Evangelion, a shonen anime), has two characters who resemble Rei: Anthy Himeymiya and Miki Kaoru (who is male). So far though, I’ve only seen two episodes of Revolutionary Girl Utena, so I still don’t know how far their similarities go.
While I do love this character type, there is one thing about it that unsettles me. Though I did not know about it at first, I later learned that there are some people who sexualise this sort of character. While there’s nothing wrong with feeling attracted to fictional characters, turning them into sex objects is not a good thing. All it shows is that you don’t have any respect for the character, and it reflects how you see people in real life, too. (And it’s also really creepy.)