Last week I received a message from a facebook friend who had a few questions about Evangelion. Being the Eva geek that I am, I immediately jumped at the chance to share my knowledge and personal thoughts on the subject. What follows are my answers to those questions, but be warned that there are spoilers ahead. I wrote this with only the recipient in mind, so if these responses look odd here that's probably why. Anyways, let's take a look at the questions.
A. How important is Mari as a character?
B. When you think of Kaworu and Rei, what type of environment would they be in?
C. What sort of environment would work with Shinji and Asuka?
There's a bit of context you're missing here and I don't actually plan to share it. Suffice to say these questions are relevant to a project said friend is working on, and she requested some insight into these subjects. Here are my responses:
A: With Evangelion 2.22 we were introduced to a new character, one that is neither shown nor named in the original series. Outside of an allusion to the events at Bethany Base, Mari Makinami Illustrious--and what a name that is--seem to not exist within the Neon Genesis Evangelion cannon. Her appearance in the new Rebuild movies has been fairly well received the fan base, but Mari isn't without her flaws. Or, more accurately, it's her lack of vulnerability that is troublesome. In terms of importance Mari is, sadly, forgettable. There are various reasons to dislike her inclusion in Rebuild, and I feel that those who make the argument against including another pilot character have very valid claims.
From the very first moment Mari is on screen we get the feeling that she's very different from the other pilots we've been introduced to so far: Shinji and Rei. She's best described as enigmatic, and seems to take pleasure in fighting Angels. Her personality is closest to that of Asuka, and in fact she does act as a rival to Mrs. "Anta Baka" or, at least, that's how Yoji Enokido (NGE writer) planned to portray Mari. Unfortunately that never seems to happen in 2.0 as Asuka is quickly out of the picture. Mari's involvement in the last scene of 2.0 feel a bit artificial, as if Asuka had been thrown out the window so we could watch Eva-02 back flip through the air in a high-intensity combat scene. Remember the fight against Zeruel in the original? There wasn't nearly as much action in that scene but this is post-Gurren Lagann Gainax. Remember: the fastest objects in the anime universe are giant robots weighing thousands of tons.
Mari would have been a great character in 3.0 had it stayed more true to the anime. I'm not trying to argue that the time skip was a bad direction to take the series--I'm still a fan of the change. Unfortunately, the new setting completely prevents Mari from developing into a character that is little more than a Gurren Lagann-style crowd please. She's the Asuka from End of Evangelion, but without the build-up and seemingly no other facet of her personality. Quotes like " things just work out for him" would have a lot more meaning if we knew a little bit about her perspective. Her biggest, glaring flaw is that she doesn't fit into the single biggest theme in Evangelion: loneliness. Without exception: every major character in the series is dealing with some form of loneliness. Evnagelion is very much a story of how people deal with their isolation. Except Mari. She's just a fighting machine.
She'd fit better into Gurren Lagann, and I'm rather surprised they decided to include her at all given 3.0's storyline. Worst of all: we're probably not going to get any backstory on her in 4.0. In summary: she's cool, badass, and secretive but unlike Kaji she doesn't keep your attention for long. Toji was a better pilot.
B: Kaworu and Rei are perhaps my two favorite characters in Evangelion with Kaji competing for second place with Rei. So the question is: how do these two compare, and in what setting would their meeting be in? Well, in Episode 24: Knockin' On Heaven's Doorwe get a single scene with both characters. Kaworu makes a remark about how similar he and Rei are, and Rei spends the much of the rest of the episode contemplating the meaning of his statement. In reality, Rei and Kaworu are only alike in terms of The Plot. Kaworu is the result of the Second Impact: the forbidden union of Lilin and Adam. Rei is a clone with the soul of Lilith...and 3.0 does an excellent job of screwing up that continuity. It's a little more difficult to determine their origins in the Rebuild series, but hey, that's what sequel theory is for. When comparing The Symbolism, we can look at Kaworu's name being an illusion to the Angel of Free Choice. Recall how Rei is submissive to a fault, and you'll once again see how these characters are two sides of the same coin. A very similar pair until we look at The Psychology.
Kaworu represents the person Shinji wants to be. Rei, on the other hand, is at the other end of the spectrum. Take a step inside of Shinji's shoes for a second: everyone hates you. You know it, because all you ever do is cause them pain. You can't open yourself up to others because you fear being rejected, just like your father rejected you. Maybe it would be better if you did nothing at all? Followed orders, piloted the Eva just because you had to because if you take a step outside of your shell, something bad could happen. For Shinji, his ability to interact with Rei and Asuka is crippled by his own fears. He does a terrible job of expressing his feelings, even though it's clear he has them (in NGE: Asuka, in Rebuild: Rei). He's a lot like Rei in that regard; unable to open up to people properly. By episode 24 he has isolated himself from every other character and can only wallow in his own self-pity.
And then, to the tune of Beethoven's 9th, in strolls Kaworu Nagisa. As much as the Internet loves to label him a Closet Key, I don't necessarily take much stock in supposed romance. Twenty-three episodes of the Neon Genesis Evangelion cast is enough to make you wonder if there's any happiness left in the world, so when someone like Kaworu suddenly shows up very much near the end there's going to be a certain amount of shock involved. The warmth, kindness, and openness of Kaworu is something that I think gets misinterpreted. Still, Shinji's harem more or less adds a fourth member. But this time things are different, no more dancing around and avoiding rejection. Kaworu just flat out tells Shinji that he loves him, and that's that. When everyone around Shinji is in so much pain (NGE) or hates him (Rebuild) it's Kaworu that comes to the rescue.
On the flip side is Rei, especially in Rebuild. She comes across as foreign or alien despite being more human than Kaworu. By the time episode 24 rolls around she is out of Shinji's sight until End of Evangelion and Shinji couldn't care less. In Rebuild she's a much more important piece of the puzzle, but somehow still manages to only have a few lines. That said Rei's character in 3.0 actually causes Shinji to become frustrated and angry. It's a side of him we rarely see, but it's very clear that he disapproves of her in the movie. Kaworu is idealized, while Rei is something to be avoided. This occurs in both episode 24 and 3.0. Even in End of Evangelion, it is Kaworu's face and words that keep Shinji's mind from completely shattering.
Okay, back to the main question: where do these two go together? For me, one of the most impactful scenes of End of Evangelion was Rei and Kaworu's answers to Shinji's question, "Then what are the two of you within my heart?"
Rei: We are the hope that people will one day understand each other.
Kaworu: And we are the words, "I love you".
Understanding others is a huge, widespread theme in anime. Certainly in Evangelion, the ability to understand and love are key to defeating loneliness; which as I've stated before is Eva's biggest focus. Tl;dr - Rei is reclusive, while Kaworu is inviting. Both exist for Shinji's sake, and represent the two sides of his personality.
C: Shinji and Asuka are typically represented in The Psychology as the ego and id respectively. Unit-02's pilot is an untamed fiery tsundere with a serious superiority complex, and Unit-01's pilot is a rather large step away from that and finds himself as the median between Rei and Asuka. In both NGE and Rebuild there is a bit of relationship drama between the two that is the result of their attraction to one another. The pair definitely have feelings for each other, at least in NGE. It's debatable for Rebuild as Shinji spends most of his time in 2.0 trying to interact with Rei. The writers have to hit us over the head with the concept of Shinji+Asuka in Rebuild due to the short amount of time we see both of them on-screen. Asuka's cooking session and Misato's joking comment are about the closest we get in 2.0, and in 3.0 there is another line from Mari that sticks out. That said, the time skip in 3.0 throws things for a loop. I doubt we'll see that part of the story develop at all in 4.0. Shinji+Rei seems to be Rebuild's thing.
The second and third child's romance is, to put it bluntly, a clusterfuck. Despite having mutual attraction the two can't figure out how to communicate their feelings. There's a scene where they share a kiss a god damn kiss. Shinji is about as oblivious as can be, even when Asuka literally climbs in bed with him (it happens during Rebuild too, but she's actually awake). Oh, and we can't forget the time she asks Shinji about what would happen if he grabbed her breasts. Yep, that's our Shinji. There's this rivalry between them as a means of venting their frustration with each other, and with themselves. During the last six episodes Asuka's in a coma, Shinji is borderline insane, and after Kaworu's death we get a great scene where Shinji discovers that hospital doors have locks. It's not pretty, but it does illustrate just how 'fucked up' their relationship is by this point in the story.
End of Evangelion is mostly about Shinji and Asuka. The dream Shinji has during Instrumentality lays bare his cries for help from someone, anyone. He's looking desperately to Asuka and she (in his mind) rejects him. For once, this causes him to lash out in anger. Then there's that infamous scene in One More Final: I Need You. It's a moment of realization for both of them, and it's left open-ended for the viewer to interpret. If sequel theory holds true, I think this would classify as an 'unsuccessful' ending. Shinji doesn't find happiness, which was Kaworu's goal. Instead, you could interpret this final scene as his acceptance that the walls between people's hearts causes too much pain to overcome or something else entirely. It's almost impossible to guess what he's thinking at that point. The same very much goes for Asuka. There are just too many possibilities.
I prefer to see the two of them in the Episode 26: Take Care Of Yourself alternate universe. Evangelion characters set in a modern high school anime setting would have been great, especially with characters we didn't get to see making an appearance (Kaworu, Mari). Asuka and Shinji as childhood friends makes so much sense it's almost as if NGE is a fanfic based on this other setting. Maybe I prefer this because it's more optimistic a broken heart would be the worst to come out of their relationship. Instead, Shinji and Asuka's inability to understand each other leaves him strangling her on a beach set to a background of a sea of blood.