Spoilers? Of course!
Rei Ayanami is the fourth important character to be there from the very beginning. She’s the pilot of the prototype EVA Unit 00 and the backup pilot of the other EVAs. Rei has the honor of being the archetype and virtual definition of the kuudere character type; the person whose emotions are never expressed. (Kuu from a Japanese version of “cool” and dere for “love”.)
Kuudere can be people who either don’t have emotions (like a robot), they can be people who have emotions but suppress them (like a Vulcan). You can see that Gendo and Shinji both fit the type. However, the Queen of the Trope is Rei Ayanami.
We flash back to the accident that almost killed Rei. Her EVA goes berserk due to mental instability and her plug is ejected in the confined space, leading it to bounce around violently inside. Gendo charges into the room and his hands sizzle as he manually opens the still-hot plug to rescue her. His relief that she is still alive is obvious. It is the only emotion we’ve seen from him in the show and it is the sort of thing we’d expect from someone who loved the plug’s occupant very much. She is deeply moved by his concern.
On the floor, we see Gendo’s glasses, cracked and partially melted from the heat. Gendo’s trademark glasses behind which he hides his real self.
This may have been inspired by an actual incident. Early in the US manned space flight program, we were sending men into near space in a craft designated the X-15 at 4000+ mph. Normally when it would land, the ground crew would wait for the skin to cool and then the pilot would open the hatch. In one instance the pilot was gesturing at them and they took it as a sign of an emergency. They leaped into action, opening the hatch from the outside with their bare hands and receiving severe burns. The pilot had only been waving hello. Once they started trying to open the hatch he was wildly waving them off. They interpreted this to mean the pilot was in extremis and redoubled their efforts.
Back to Shinji. Now we see it isn’t just Misato’s sexuality he’s disinterested in. The boys are watching the girls in bathing suits. Except for Shinji. He’s gazing at Rei. The other boys get on him about fantasizing about her breasts and hips and such but he says: It isn’t like that. It is just that she’s always so alone.
What gets Shinji worked up is her relationship with his father. They like each other. There is real affection there, almost like between a father and a daughter. Why can’t Gendo show some love for his own son? He’s doing the job. He’s piloting the EVA. Why her? What is wrong?
Misato and Dr. Akagi sense that Shinji has some feelings for Rei, so they set him up with the excuse of delivering Rei’s new ID card. He heads over to her place. Gendo’s favorite does not live in a nice place like Misato but rather alone in a hovel in an industrial part of town. The door isn’t locked. (No doors in anime are ever locked it seems.) Curtains are pulled for a darkened interior. The bed is unkempt but most shocking are the bloodstains on the pillow from her prior injuries. She has never changed the sheets. Clothes are laid out on the bed. A wastebasket is full of used bandages.
Everything in the rooms speaks of depression and isolation. Shinji tries on the odd pair of glasses on the desk and… out steps Ayanami from the shower. She moves rapidly towards him. He’s convinced she’s going to attack him but it is only to remove the glasses.
There is stumbling and the kind of pratfall anime is famous for. A drawer gets snagged and is pulled open. Rei’s undergarments cascade onto them. He lands on top of the nude girl with his hand gripping her breast. He apologizes but Rei seems not even slightly disturbed. She calmly dresses, puts the glasses in a case – which gives her some satisfaction – and leaves without taking the ID card Shinji had brought.
It would seem that Rei is also broken and it is much much more than just being a hedgehog.
He follows her to NERV HQ and they talk on the escalator. He asks her if she isn’t afraid of dying. She questions his faith in his father’s work and he responds by saying with some strength: Have faith in a father like him?
Shinji has never seen anything but coldness from Dad. Somehow Rei has penetrated that reserve. Probably the only love she has ever seen from anyone was from him and she remembers the risk and the pain he went thru to rescue her and his obvious relief when she was OK. Both have equally valid but wildly different evaluations of the same man. Neither knows the experience of the other.
She becomes visibly upset and slaps him. This is the only emotion she’s revealed to Shinji in the entire story so far. I suppose that is progress.
Another day, another monster. Sigh!
This time it is an octahedron shape that has a monster AT field and a powerful long-range beam weapon. EVA Unit 01 gets a hole blasted thru it the instant it pops out. Shinji is knocked unconscious. The new angel sets to work drilling a hole thru the geofront to get at NERV HQ.
The good news is that it will take some time to get thru and that means time to plan for a counterattack. They only have to fix the EVA unit and send the entire electrical output of Japan through an experimental weapon. It will also require Shinji and Rei to work together, him to shoot and her to shield. This will be the first time we’ve seen her in action.
Rei comes to visit him in the hospital with food and a fresh uniform and gives him his new orders. Once again Shinji forgets that he’s not wearing any clothes. As she leaves, she bids him farewell. Not goodbye, not see you later but farewell.
That is something you say when you don’t think you are coming back.
They do meet again just before action and talk some more. Once again there is that “farewell”. The anime has the pilots suit up together with translucent screens between them specifically to heighten Shinji’s (and our) awareness of her body. Watching the shadow of someone dressing can be as arousing as the real thing.
Piloting EVA is the only thing in her life that gives her meaning. It is her link to Gendo as well as the entire world. She promises Shinji that he won’t die because she will protect him. (They give her a big cross-shaped shield to do this with.) At this point she has
accepted the likely hood of her death in the line of duty.
Shinji will fire an experimental supergun that has to have fuses loaded into it like a bolt action loads bullets. If he misses the first shot it will take time to cool, recharge reload and aim. Rei’s job is to block the beam weapon of the angel long enough to get a second shot. Of course, in true anime style, this has never been tested.
Almost as comic relief, Shinji’s entire high school class is lined up on the roof of their shelter to cheer their hero on. They don’t realize there’s a second EVA involved in the action. What kind of teacher leaves a class of early teenagers to do what they will during a conflagration of this magnitude? Obviously, Toji and Kensuke didn’t learn the lesson that the environment during a battle can turn lethal very quickly and don’t mind putting everyone at risk. And how the hell does a 14-year-old “hack” into NERVE classified files to find out the tactical details?
Shinji’s first shot came off simultaneously with the angels’ shot. The two bursts do a weird dance around each other and miss their targets. Shinji must cool off and recharge for the second shot. The angel fires again and Rei must position her EVA and shield to take the blast until he can fire again. Second shot scores. The drill has stopped and the angel is down.
But Rei’s shield has melted and Rei’s EVA is also down. Shinji rips the door off her EVA with his own and jumps down to open the sightly melted plug hatch manually. At least he’s wearing gloves but we can still hear flesh sizzling.
Rei sees the father’s goodness in the boy. She knows he cares for, maybe loves her. And she smiles for him for the first time. Shinji has fixed a tiny portion of the broken Rei.