Time to move on to Act 2.
Being a 3-Act series, Act 2 is where everything starts escalating, especially towards the end of the Act. Act 2 spans from Episode 8-19. If Act 1 introduces Shinji's fantasies, Act 2 is where we get to see him struggle with reality. A couple new characters are introduced, namely Asuka Langley Sorhyu and Ryouji Kaji. The stakes with the Evas and Angels are also raised dramatically, as we learn about Adam (the First Angel, who caused the 2nd Impact that wiped out half the world 15 years ago, and who, unlike the other angels we've encountered, is still alive in some form).
Shinji's relationship with Asuka: If Rei represents Shinji's fantasies of womankind, then Asuka represents the reality. While Rei is obedient, Asuka is utterly uncontrollable. While Rei seldom expresses any emotion, Asuka is louder than life -- and not in a cute, quirky way; but in a self-centered, self-righteous, narcissistic, arrogant, volatile way. She manages to pull of the whole pseudo-sweet, subtle bitch thing that makes me nauseus when I see it for all of about 1 episode when she first arrives at school. Beyond that, she doesn't even normally feign being a pleasant person (except, perhaps, for when she's trying to seduce Kaji, which is still less creepy than what I flagged between Rei and Gendo last time).
When we first meet Asuka, her and Shinji end up piloting Eva Unit 02 together, which is generally considered a bad idea (initially the Eva doesn't even activate properly due to having two people thinking inside it), yet seems to work out in the end. Against the next angel, Shinji and Asuka have to learn to do everything together (aww, how cute), including dancing, eating, sleeping, brushing their teeth...if they didn't hate each other so much, this would be such a sweet romance. All of that amounts to the battle being won, though. Later in the Act, they even kiss. Shinji almost dies of asphyxiation in the process, and Asuka runs away afterwards to wash her mouth out. It's so beautiful.
Oh yeah. Did I mention they have a penguin as their "other roommate?" Yeah, they have a penguin.
As Shinji's relationship with Asuka develops, his sync ratio with Unit 01 improves, which in turn makes him a better pilot.
The first few times I watched this series, I didn't see any connection between how proud Asuka appears to be in Act 2 and how she turns out in Act 3. As I grew older, the connection and the build-up became obvious. Asuka is a deeply insecure, broken, psychologically frail, emotionally weak teenage girl. Sound like any other characters in the series we've been getting to know? The difference between Asuka and Shinji is primarily that Shinji's response to being so fractured is to curl up and hide from the world that's hurt him, whereas Asuka's response is to elevate herself over the world and try and stomp the world down underneath her so that it can't hurt her again. Neither of these options work.
Shinji's relationship with Kaji: Shinji and Kaji don't do much in the way of getting close throughout the series, although they have their exchanges. Kaji appears upfront as a shallow character whose sole purpose in life is to be cool and hit on any similar-aged human with a vagina. He's a slick salesman type superficially, who's described as "that cool guy who never shaves," but I suspect that he carefully spends an hour each morning going to excruciating lengths to make it look like he doesn't care about his grooming. He has a history with Misato, and unveiling that fact petrifies everyone except for himself and Shinji. The two have a few deep and meaningful moments, but mostly Kaji's focus is on rekindling things with Misato (while pretending not to care) and digging into all of Nerv's secrets. But it doesn't take long for us to find out that there's more to Kaji than his too cool to care exterior. At the end of Episode, we discover that he's got some secret VIP status and the shipment of Unit 02 from Germany to Japan was largely to protect him -- and more importantly, to protect his luggage: The First Angel, Adam, in chrysalis form, which he has delivered directly to Nerv, and to Gendo specifically.
Kaji's charisma isn't all cheap talk. In the climactic final episode of Act 2, it's Kaji's words that encourage Shinji to step up and finally be a man.
Shinji's relationship with Rei: Emphasis on Rei takes a backseat once Asuka enters the picture. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that the quiet girl gets less attention when the loud girl is demanding full attention.
Rei and Shinji attempt to synchronise with each other's Evas in one episode: Rei succeeds, but feels strange in Unit 01; Shinji fails and Unit 00 girls berserk, in a scene that parallels the failed sync test that Rei did to get her injuries at the start of the series. One theory arises that when Unit 00 goes berserk, it's trying to kill Rei.
When Shinji and Asuka first start training to synchronise with each other in everything, Asuka is just about ready to quit until she sees Shinji and Rei work together in flawless unison.
Towards the end of Act 2, Shinji and Toji visit Rei's apartment, which reflects Shinji walking in on naked Rei in Act 1. Shinji cleans up some of the mess in her room, and when Rei walks in, she thanks him, which is apparently a new achievement unlocked for Rei.
In one awkward moment, Rei is cleaning, and as Shinji watches her, the way she rings out a cloth reminds him of how a mother would do it. How his mother would do it. Hey, remember all that stuff between Shinji, Gendo and Rei? It gets worse.
Shinji's relationship with Toji: As we know, Shinji and Toji's relationship started with Toji punching Shinji in the face. Shinji eventually punched him back, but felt wrong doing it. While Toji is consistently Shinji's friend from then on, he's still not a fan of the Evas. Eventually, he's recruited as an Eva pilot, which he agrees to only on the condition that his sister be moved to a better hospital. When Toji undergoes his first sync test, Eva Unit 03 activates and immediately reveals itself to be the 13th Angel.
Shinji, Rei and Asuka in Units 00, 01 and 02 go up against Unit 03. Asuka/02 is the first to be taken down. Unit 03 then attacks Rei/00, and starts leaking its angelic goodness into Unit 00's arm. While the nerve connections are still active, Commander Ikari orders that 00's arm be cut off. Rei clearly enjoys this experience. Finally, Unit 03 approaches Unit 01.
And it. Is.
Shinji doesn't know that Toji is the pilot yet, but he knows there's another child like him trapped inside that thing, so he refuses to fight, even as the 13th Angel is killing him. Commander Ikari orders the immediate shut down of all synchronisation with Shinji, and diverts all control to the Dummy Plug System. And now...
It. Is. On.
I considered putting some pictures of the actual fight here, but I'll leave that for you to see for yourself. Instead, enjoy these screenshots of the Nerv staffs' expressions as they watch the battle unfold.
We get to hear Shinji crying out as he tries in vain to reclaim control over Unit 01: "Stop it! Father! Stop this goddamn thing for God's sake! Please! Please, just stop it! Make it stop! Dear God, make it stop! Stop! Stop! Stop!"
After all this is said and done, there's still one lingering issue. Remember how this all echoes Shinji and Toji's initial conflict, and Shinji wasn't really behind himself hitting Toji back? Remember how that resistance on Shinji's part thematically led to this? And notice how Shinji's really against it this time? In case you can't see where I'm heading with this, there's going to be one more installment to this in Act 3.
Shinji's daddy issues: This is the Act where we start to see Gendo as a human being, not just an order-giving device. Don't get me wrong, he's still a gruff arsehole, but he becomes a gruff human arsehole.
We have a couple moments in this Act in which Shinji and Gendo actually appear to be moving in the direction of a positive relationship to oneanother. In one such moment, Gendo praises Shinji's work after a battle. Earlier in the episode, Shinji said he didn't know why he piloted the Eva. After this, he realises that he's been piloting the Eva to hear praise from his father. In the other moment, Shinji and Gendo are together at the memorial place of Shinji's mother, Yui Ikari. The moment is brief, and ends with Gendo getting whisked away in a helicopter...with Rei. Hmm.
Just as how Shinji's developing relationships with Asuka and his friends leads to personal growth that pushes up his sync ratio, his brief moments of closeness with his father contribute to his growing sync ratio.
All the positive vibes go out the window in the battle against the 13th Angel, however, and afterwards Shinji refuses to pilot Eva again. That is, of course, until Unit 02 gets decapitated against the 14th Angel, and Rei does more damage to herself than to the angel as she attacks with an N2 mine. We now get to see a scene between Shinji and Gendo that reflects Shinji's initial decision to pilot Eva. But this time, instead of Shinji conceding to pilot the Eva, he abandons his "I'll never pilot that thing again" mentality and, in the series' climax, he mans up to save the world.
Shinji's mamma issues: We've already touched on Shinji visiting his mother's grave, and him being reminded of his mother when watching Rei clean.
The battle against the 12th Angel in episode 16 is the official turning point of the series where things get weird. I mean, yeah, they were weird already. You already got the from Act 1. But this is where we stop getting little glimpses of weird and get full blown w.e.i.r.d. This is also the battle where fights stop being primarily cool scenes with some hidden meanings in them, and every battle becomes immensely meaningful. This is the beginning of the rapid escalation into the climax of the series that concludes Act 2.
In this battle, Unit 01 is swallowed by the Angel, so Shinji is trapped inside the Eva, inside the Angel. In minimal life support mode, Shinji has 16 hours to live. And so he spends 16 hours losing his mind through what might be described as claustrophobia on steroids. As he waits to get rescued and at the same time prepares to die, the last thing he sees before all power in the Eva shuts down and life support terminates is his mother.
Back in Episode 1, before Shinji even agreed to pilot Unit 01, it activated itself without any power to protect him. At the time, this seemed like a silly Chosen One moment. But this happens once again in this battle. Hmm, Eva activates itself when the tech guys say that's impossible, to protect Shinji, and from inside Eva Shinji sees his mother before this happens? That sure is...interesting.
The climax: What do we know so far?
- Eva is not a robot, but a living being, cloned from Adam.
- Eva has the occasional tendency to go berserk.
- Eva Unit 01 has the occasional tendency to activate without a source of power to protect Shinji.
- Shinji's mum is popping up everywhere.
- Adam is the First Angel. All other Angels come from him and their goal is to be one with him.
- Adam is inside the depths of Nerv.
- Shinji has spent this entire series so far being moved from child to man, with everything dialed up to epic proportions.
- Sync ratios between the pilot and the Eva are kind of a big deal.