The voice of Rei Ayanami and singer Yoko Takahashi reflect on joining the franchise, its legacy, and working with creator Hideaki Anno
Many anime series and films have interrogated the relationship between human and machine, but Neon Genesis Evangelion was perhaps the first to imagine the human as machine. Ever since the series first aired in 1995, Hideaki Anno’s groundbreaking anime went beyond the immediate scope of the mecha genre, characterised by war, teen pilots, shadowy organisations, high tech gadgetry, and rock-’em-sock-’em robots.
His ambiguous depiction of humans, technology, and the end of the world would pose questions about what it means to exist in a society increasingly dominated by technology. Inspired by Anno’s personal experiences with depression, later episodes would adopt an increasingly postmodern approach to identity as fluctuating, the rapid and sometimes inconsistent narrative pace serving as an exploration of the characters’ inner worlds and the nature of reality itself.
Set in the post-apocalyptic world of Tokyo-3, Evangelion follows 14-year-old protagonist Shinji, who’s recruited by a shadowy organisation NERV to pilot giant cyborgs called Evangelions (or EVAs), and save the world against mysterious Angel attacks. Blurring the lines between man and machine, the EVAs aren’t simply machines, but living creatures too: they must fuse with their human hosts in order to function. Beneath the technological armour, the teen pilots struggle to define themselves as anything other than NERV soldiers. They experience breakdowns and contemplate their self-worth; they fear the EVA’s destructive power and autonomy, yet feel worthless without it. In doing so, Evangelion reveals the existential uncertainty of the human experience, raising questions like: Do humans define machines, or do machines define us?
As the legendary anime turns 25, voice actor Megumi Hayashibara (who plays Rei Ayanami) and vocalist Yoko Takahashi reflect on joining the franchise, its legacy, and working with creator Hideaki Anno.
ON JOINING NEON GENESIS EVANGELION
Megumi Hayashibara: There was an audition when the TV series was announced. It’s a famous manga in Japan, so I auditioned for both Misato and Asuka. I initially responded more to the cool persona of Misato, or the cute and energetic persona of Asuka, and had hoped for those roles. So, when I was casted, I was surprised that it was for Rei, who is a silent character. Especially since I was known for playing cheerful roles previously.
Yoko Takahashi: Originally I made my debut as a ballad singer, but four years after the (Japanese economic) bubble burst (in 1992), sales weren’t good, so got involved in anime instead. I think my encounter with Neon Genesis Evangelion is a gift from heaven. It restarted my career. Not only was it a great show to work on, but it’s also the strongest anime in every way.
I was first introduced to the show by Toshiyuki Omori, who arranged ‘The Cruel Angel’s Thesis’. Originally, I was going to sing the ending track, ‘Fly Me To The Moon‘, but the producer asked, ‘Why not sing the opening too?’ I will never forget the excitement I felt when the theme song (‘The Cruel Angel’s Thesis‘) was aired on TV.
ON WORKING WITH HIDEAKI ANNO
Yoko Takahashi: I met Anno on the day of recording. I entered the studio before anyone else to get ready. A man dressed in black and wearing sandals suddenly appeared. I didn’t know who it was at the time, so I said hi, and it turned out to be Anno. It was a shocking encounter (laughs).
The first song I sang, ‘The Cruel Angel’s Thesis‘, was recorded without me knowing anything about the show or content. The only previous information I had was that it seemed to be for a great anime (laughs). Even so, the song and lyrics were difficult, and I thought to myself, ‘Angels are cruel?’. I remember being really worried about where to put the breath. Luckily the song came out okay, but the recording made me nervous. I didn’t practice enough. I couldn’t afford to at all.
When we recorded it, it had not been decided which song would be selected as the theme song. The lyrics (for ‘The Cruel Angel’s Thesis‘) arrived by fax on the day of recording and Omori’s assistant hurriedly copied them in with the score. It was all very last minute.
Megumi Hayashibara: When it came to Rei’s emotions, director Anno would tell me to ‘suppress, suppress’. He explained that ‘it’s not that Rei doesn’t have emotions, but just doesn’t know how to express her feelings’. I remember thinking, where do the emotions come from? What if I don’t know?
”Rei Ayanami was born by cutting out all the feelings of gratitude, mood, and sarcasm, and by riding on words alone“ – Megumi Hayashibara
I searched for the connection between how to use my mind and my voice together. I decided to use ‘words as a means of communication’ and cut out all reactions and intonations, like the sounds you make when exhilarated, or those muffled expressions when you’re in a bad mood. Rei Ayanami was born by cutting out all the feelings of gratitude, mood, and sarcasm, and by riding on words alone.
I (remember) I did a lot of takes for the line, ‘Shinji-kun, come here‘. The balance between the sound and emotion was different to normal, even a little off. It was a struggle to figure it out. When filming, Anno would say, ‘Oh, just a little more like this, just one more time’. It felt like I was in a labyrinth with no way out. I had no idea what he wanted and I couldn’t measure the distance between our hearts. But gradually, I began to understand the differences and shifted my approach towards the role.
ON THE 25 YEAR ANNIVERSARY
Megumi Hayashibara: Although I only consider myself a minor part of Rei – I was just trying to express what was explained to me by Anno – I’m proud of embodying her complex character. Taking on the voice of a character is like having someone’s soul in your hands. Through my work on Neon Genesis Evangelion, I learnt how to see and understand things from different angles. I learnt that a person does not consist of only what can be seen and captured on the surface.
Yoko Takahashi: I have two feelings: ‘Is that so?‘ and ‘That was quick‘. Over the last 25 years, my relationship with the work has become very intimate. Every time I see Evangelion I discover something deep. I think everyone should spend time with it and develop their own perspective.
Evangelion Finally, a collection of vocal songs performed by Yoko Takahashi and Megumi Hayashibara, is out now via Milan Records