From the Birth of a Queen to The END: Female Foils in Mecha Anime
There are two sides to everything, even robots. In fact, especially robots. They are pleasingly geometric.
Mecha anime and manga are a goldmine for series about political intrigue, the powers of love and friendship, and the giant robots that tie stories and characters together. One trend I’ve noticed across this genre is the female foil: two female characters who fit a similar profile yet directly oppose one another in almost all characteristics—logical versus emotional, distant versus affectionate, combative versus sidelined.
The dynamics of female foils are often less confrontational than those of their male counterparts, if they interact at all. More than putting them at odds with each other, these parallels reflect the overall themes of their series, and so looking a bit more closely can bring us a whole new understanding of our beloved giant robots.
Please note that my discussion contains spoilers for Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Eureka Seven, Code Geass, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.
In the year After Colony 195, the United Earth Sphere Alliance uses military force to oppress Earthen space colonies. In retaliation, scientists of the colonies implement Operation Meteor, in which they send five child soldiers to Earth piloting Gundams to exact revenge. While the series’ focus is on the five male pilots, much of the plot revolves around Relena, a seemingly average girl who, after encountering protagonist Heero, learns that she is actually the long-lost princess of the Peacecraft family. With a name that prophetic, it’s no surprise that she eventually adopts her new role as a political figure as one rallying for a peaceful end to war between Earth and the colonies. Initially, this isn’t her plan, as Relena tracks her adoptive father’s murderer to threaten at gunpoint. When her naïve plan of revenge fails, Relena must be rescued by an ally of her long-lost brother’s and is forced to rethink her situation.
Following this confrontation, Relena educates herself on galactic news and realizes how bad the front lines of this war have become. Now understanding the importance of her family’s mission, Relena travels to their homeland; though she is embraced as the rightful Queen, she instead names herself the kingdom’s Chief Representative. Relena’s humble nature contrasts those of members of the Alliance and the colonies alike; her character mirrors the show’s theme that pacifism is a standpoint of equality. Instead of a leader or savior, Relena designates herself only as a representative of peace. Pacifism is a policy anyone can assume, she argues. Her faith in humanity’s ability to come together popularizes her among the people of Earth and the colonies, including the Gundam pilots, and designates her as an enemy of OZ, the military faction of the Alliance.
Relena’s foil Dorothy Catalonia shares her privileged upbringing, education, and beauty, but in the face of Relena’s pacifism, Dorothy is a lady of war. She comes from a long line of military members, including the original leader of OZ, and so she acknowledges war as an inevitable part of human nature. As opposed to Relena’s openness, Dorothy’s nature is duplicitous. She treats Relena with mocking respect, particularly in the original script, in which she continuously uses the honorific sama against Relena’s wishes (roughly “Lady Relena”); in Japanese culture, using the incorrect honorific, even a more polite one than required, is considered rude.
Dorothy herself is highly skilled on the battlefield, being an astute tactician whose piloting even rivals that of our heroes, the Gundam pilots. Her strategic nature extends to all aspects of her life; Dorothy reads people easily and is a powerful speaker. She acts as a spy for Relena’s political opponents and argues that peace must be maintained through military reinforcement. When Relena comes face-to-face with her brother again and tries to convince him to rally for pacifism as well, Dorothy offers her a gun to shoot him. Relena refuses in favor of resolving their issues without violence.
Fencing is another skill of Dorothy’s, which she exhibits in the series’ final arc against pilot Quatre. During this fight, Dorothy says how much she loves warfare, even claiming that she will die fighting. In the Ocean Group English dub from 2000, she tells Quatre, “War is not to blame for destruction and massacre,” placing blame instead on human nature, bringing her into stark contrast with Relena. She describes war as “beautiful” and “magnificent,” though it soon becomes clear through her dialogue with both Relena and Quatre that her feelings towards war aren’t what she claims. Though she suffers from losing her father and grandfather on the battlefield, Dorothy stands by her belief that Relena’s mission for world peace is unrealistic. Where Relena is defined by faith, Dorothy embodies doubt; ultimately, Dorothy’s actions are motivated by an inability to believe that humanity can forsake war.
With the series’ emphasis on pacifism, one might think that the antagonists would be ignorant warmongers; however, Dorothy exhibits a more insidious, yet realistic, reason why people might embrace war. Her belief that war will always be a part of human interaction isn’t unfounded, which even Relena must acknowledge. Over the course of the series, Relena develops from a naïve girl to a pacifist princess, and her relationship with Dorothy tempers her ideals with realism. Relena’s influence on Dorothy, on the other hand, helps her come to terms with how her worldview and personal experiences collide. Perhaps no relationship in the series exemplifies the contrast of war and peace better than Relena and Dorothy’s; they coexist, though neither is satisfied with the other’s way of thinking, and while their relationship isn’t without its clashes, the connection they share is undeniable.
Hideaki Anno’s mid-90s series chronicles an emotionally unstable boy forced to pilot a mecha and protect earth from monstrous Angels. The characteristics of its female cast have so permeated anime tropes that even a casual viewer would recognize the archetypes of Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Soryu. In all aspects, the two are at odds, from physical appearance (perfect inversions: Rei’s short blue hair and red eyes versus Asuka’s long red hair and blue eyes) to temperament. The similarities that link them, such as their age and piloting, set up more obvious opposition to one another. Both are potential love interests for Shinji, but between his own love/hate relationship with women and their responses to his behavior, ultimately such a connection with either girl is not achievable for him.
Rei, emotionally distant from Shinji for most of the series, is a soft-spoken pilot whose behavior—and, in fact, genetic makeup—is alien. Her blue hair, red eyes, and emotionless personality were intended to disturb audiences and communicate that Rei was no ordinary human; however, viewers embraced her to the point that Rei continues to be imitated in media today and even inspired her own trope. Rei is a guardian figure who actively protects the hero and comes to his aid, even going so far as to sacrifice herself to keep Shinji from harm. In an interview, Anno admitted that he often forgot about Rei’s character, growing bored with her early on and feeling that she didn’t have much potential for development. Perhaps Anno’s disinterest translates to the screen in a way that emphasizes even further Rei’s conflict of feeling that she is easily replaced.
Asuka, on the other hand, is a violent-tempered girl who longs for praise and recognition. While it becomes clear to viewers over time that Asuka doesn’t dislike Shinji as much as she claims, and in fact seeks his recognition, her expectations of him are as unrealistic as his are of her. Asuka wants Shinji to like and admire her and becomes angry when he shies away from her brash nature. In truth, her violence is a façade for crippling self-esteem issues that began when she discovered her mother’s suicide. Asuka’s desire to be deemed important and worthy of love motivates her showy behavior and insistence on being recognized. As Shinji’s piloting skills improve and her own success rate falls, Asuka falls into depression.
Shinji bears an Oedipal desire to be loved unconditionally, heightened by his war trauma. It’s easy for viewers to sympathize with him, wishing that Rei was less distant or that Asuka was less cruel. As the series progresses, however, he becomes resentful of the women in his life who don’t fulfill his needs. In response to Rei’s aloof nature, Shinji becomes more attached to her, appealing to her and being disappointed—but not surprised—when she doesn’t respond with open comfort and affection. Conversely, his relationship with Asuka is steeped in violence, whether it be her physical and emotional abuse of him throughout the series or his built-up desire to return that abuse in the finale. While Rei is literally deified by the series’ end (a discussion in and of itself), Asuka faces frightening violence, being both psychologically invaded by an Angel and then ripped limb from limb and devoured by Mass Produced Evas. Shinji’s final interaction with Rei is a conversation trying to understand the world post-Instrumentality; with Asuka, it is an attempt to strangle her.
Even at face value, the parallel Rei and Asuka fit summarizes major themes of self-actualization in Evangelion. Rei’s arc follows her learning to view herself as an individual, while Asuka’s allows her to discover that she isn’t alone. The series’ progression into darker tones ultimately prevents these developments from ending happily, as the Rei and Asuka of the series proper are killed. Though they both resurface in End of Evangelion, still neither can provide the love Shinji craves. The final word spoken in the series in an observation of our protagonist, courtesy of Asuka: “Disgusting.”
A decade after Evangelion made its mark on the world of anime, Rei and Asuka’s characters were re-envisioned in Studio BONES’s Eureka Seven. The story follows Renton, a young boy with glamorous dreams of lifting—sky surfing, since this is 10,000 years after humanity spreads out into space—and ends up aboard the Gekkostate, a spaceship of anti-military radicals who publish his favorite lifting ‘zine. Inspired heavily by the music and culture of the 60s, the plot of Eureka Seven, much like its mechas, is powered by love.
Renton’s dream girl, Eureka, takes the Rei Ayanami trope to the next level of humanity—ironically, as she is actually an alien known as a Coralian. With her blue pixie cut and tenuous understanding of human emotions, Eureka nevertheless acts as an adoptive mother to three small children she herself orphaned while in the military, and eventually reciprocates Renton’s feelings. Eureka learns to smile and laugh, and though she is an alien, her character development humanizes her to the audience. The strength of Eureka and Renton’s love powers the Nirvash, the emotionally-tuned mecha they copilot.
Asuka’s successor is Anemone, a military-engineered human-turned-Coralian (kind of, and to disastrous repercussions) who pilots a mecha known ominously as TheEND. Rose-haired and maniacally violent, Anemone smiles and laughs in combat, but can’t overcome the Nirvash, especially once Eureka and Renton’s love strengthens it. When Dominic, a soldier and Anemone’s caretaker, leaves the military behind, Anemone realizes she loves him and spirals into despair, even accepting what she knows to be a suicide mission.
Unlike Rei and Asuka, Eureka and Anemone aren’t regularly in direct opposition. Though they face off a few times throughout the series, their stories are largely parallel to one another. Eureka becomes more human over time as she discovers love and happiness, she is treated as a valued member and equal of the Gekkostate, and she is able to communicate with the Nirvash and understand its feelings. Anemone becomes less human as she receives lethal injections to try to make her more Coralian and power her up, is treated as a disposable tool by the main antagonist of the series, and fails to understand that TheEND could be anything more than a weapon until it connects with her feelings for Dominic and accepts its own destruction to bring them back together. Eureka and Anemone do arrive at the same place—abandoning the role carved out for them in favor of love and a future where they make their own choices—though, separated again, they continue to live parallel lives.
Lelouch Lamperouge, prince in hiding, manipulates a Japanese terrorist group known as the Black Knights into rebelling against his Brittanian father’s tyranny, while his childhood friend Suzaku Kururugi joins the military and hopes to make strides for equality from within. On either side of the series’ main foil are female characters who mirror them.
Lelouch’s right-hand woman and benefactor is C.C., an escaped government weapon. Like a modern-day genie, C.C. grants Lelouch the power to make his wish of overthrowing his father a reality in return for his word that he will fulfill her wish as well. The relationship is that of business partners, though the two regularly make snide comments to and about one another and assist each other usually for personal gain. C.C. pilots a mecha and is recognized as a leader in the Black Knights along with Lelouch; however, she spends a fair amount of time lying around Lelouch’s apartment eating pizza and cuddling a large stuffed animal of the restaurant’s mascot. Camera angles focus on her figure and form-fitting one-piece suit. C.C. is a desirable commodity to Lelouch, as her powers factor into his master plan to overthrow his father, and he guards her jealously.
By Suzaku’s side is Princess Euphemia, Lelouch’s naïve sister who believes everyone can come together peacefully to overcome Britannian oppression of Japan. While Lelouch views C.C. as a partner at best and a tool at worst, Suzaku and Euphie see each other as like-minded companions and openly care for and defend one another. Euphemia dresses like a traditional princess in a pink ballgown; the angles whenever she’s on screen focus on her face and hands, and her portrayal is much more romanticized than C.C.’s. Like Relena more than a decade before, Euphie is a pacifist princess beloved by the people; however, where Relena was championed by the Gundam pilots, Euphie stands in direct contrast to Lelouch’s plans. In order for our protagonist to triumph, she cannot exist. After an accidental loss of control over his Geass, Lelouch brainwashes Euphemia into embracing violence, the catalyst for his ultimate plan. While it is notable that Euphemia is the only character to put up resistance to the Geass—even Lelouch points out in awe how strong her opposition to war must have been to fight it—her will is inevitably overpowered. Her death crushes Suzaku’s idealistic goals and paves the way for a somewhat-repentant Lelouch.
C.C. and Euphemia fall into the category of female characters with minimal agency outside of the male characters they interact with. Euphie is given little characterization outside of being an obstacle to Lelouch and motivation for Suzaku, and her death perpetuates the trope of a female character being more plot-relevant dead than alive. C.C.’s back story was supposed to be addressed in Code Geass’s second season, but, along with a number of other unanswered questions the first season presented, her history was scrapped in favor of giving her amnesia and a fanservice-fueled wardrobe. Though the series features a number of female characters in positions of political power or as mecha pilots, their portrayal is frequently sexualized and always secondary to male characters. As with Gundam, Code Geass uses the female foil to explore its theme of war versus peace, but with the reversed perspective of violence being the victorious means to the end. In many ways, the reversal is an interesting exploration. It is particularly worth noting that, unlike the rest of the female characters discussed here, C.C. and Euphie have no relationship, suggesting a complete divide between the natures of war and peace. While Gundam Wing, on the side of pacifism, shows the ability of war and peace to influence one another, in Code Geass, there is no room for dialogue.
Powered by outrageous antics and a world where coolness trumps logic, Gurren Lagann is a visual experience that follows young Simon and his bro Kamina on their journey to the face of the earth, where giant robots (and universes) collide.
Yoko, the feisty leading lady, fights alongside men as an ace sniper able to defeat a mecha without piloting one herself; however, she may very well be one of the most sexualized character designs in all of anime, her outfit little more than a bikini top and short-shorts despite being on the front lines of battle. While male characters around her make note of her attractiveness, they’re often put off by her aggressive nature and quick temper. Following the time skip, Yoko inexplicably takes up a career as a kindergarten teacher, donning more conservative clothing and demonstrating growth as a person through a traditionally female profession and maternal role. Aside from her original costume, Yoko is (in?)famous for her fan-named “kiss of death,” as both of her love interests die immediately after sharing their first kiss with her.
Nia, who joins the team following Kamina’s death, dresses modestly, speaks softly, and possesses an agreeable nature. An artificial being manufactured by the primary antagonist Lordgenome, Nia knows little of the world. She initially lives with her father as a princess, but when she develops curiosity and ideas outside of her father’s thinking, Lordgenome has her thrown into a pit where Simon finds her. Despite a promising start as a royal who rejects proper princess behavior, Nia’s arc does largely revolve around Simon’s development as a character instead of her own. Male characters observe her beauty and grace and praise her femininity, and Nia possesses a number of endearing faults typically assigned to female characters to establish that they aren’t perfect, such as clumsiness and poor cooking skills. Following the time skip, she is kidnapped and brainwashed, becoming a variation of an ironic trope: the princess in need of rescuing. Nia’s arc culminates when she accepts Simon’s proposal, marries him, and passes away with a smile on her face. Nia, while a difficult character to dislike, is frustrating on a narrative level as a character who sees little development outside of common princess and love interest tropes.
Not only do Yoko and Nia foil one another, they also continue the alien/human parallel from previous mecha series. They also subvert the previous examples by having a close friendship after a rocky start. It’s refreshing to see this kind of female relationship in-series, though as a viewer it’s hard not to view the contrast between their characterizations as a variation of the Madonna-whore complex. Yoko comes from a small village and seeks to move up to the surface, while Nia was born to be a princess and is sent down to the earth. While Simon harbors a crush on Yoko initially, it’s Nia he wants to marry. Yoko, the more aggressive and less covered of the two, experiences the death of two love interests, while demure Nia, who only ever shows romantic interest in Simon, dies after they are married. Love and death seem to be linked in this series, and loved ones—Kamina and Kittan for Yoko, Nia for Simon—all die in sacrificial ways for the people they care about; their deaths are portrayed as noble acts that other characters may be incapable of achieving. The selfless nature of love is a major theme of the series, demonstrated through Nia’s sacrifice, but also through Yoko’s acceptance of what was and is and her choice to move forward no matter what the outcome.
The princess and the soldier, the alien and the human, the Madonna and the whore—they may be common tropes across the mecha genre, but the female characters who fill those roles still bring their own flavors to their respective series. Simply labeling two sides as “good” and “evil” is boring compared to the more nebulous political and social issues many of these shows address. Looking more closely at the female foils across mecha anime brings to light those curious comparisons. When our protagonists make morally ambiguous choices and our antagonists are sparing lives, when the power of love comes at a price, and when humanity becomes a difficult term to define, look to the leading ladies. Royal and rebel alike will welcome viewers into a closer understanding of what mecha anime hopes to communicate with its audiences.