Due to the sheer volume of anime and manga produced in Japan every year and the large number of characters appearing in these series, it’s certainly not uncommon for a lot of anime and manga characters to wind up sharing the same first or last name – especially when it comes to names relatively common in the real world. But when you stop and consider (1) the relatively short time period in which Sailor Moon and Neon Genesis Evangelion took place and (2) just how uncommon a name like Rei is in the first place, it’s a little harder to write it off as pure coincidence. So what exactly is the connection between the two?
First off, it’s important to note that Rei Ayanami’s first name is rendered only in katakana. This means that it can have a variety of different readings and nuances, depending on how the reader chooses to interpret it or if the author wants to get across a certain wordplay. This is the same way that Rei Hino’s name is rendered in Sailor Moon,1 which is meant to make it stand out.
You see, since Japanese lacks uppercase letters and it doesn’t look so good in bold or italics, so one Japanese strategy to emphasize a word or text is by writing it in katakana. For example, this strategy is often employed in video games or manga when robots are speaking. It gives the reader a sense of unease and draws attention to the text, the same way an English writer may put something IN ALL CAPS.
There are actually quite a few kanji that could be given for the Japanese reading of rei, each of them with a different meaning and which could add a subtle nuance to the character. To name just a few:
While it’s pretty rare for a creator to openly admit what their intention was when naming a character (especially when left ambiguous, as with Rei Hino), we can say without a doubt what the intention was for Rei Ayanami was thanks to a series of essays written by Hideaki Anno, director of Neon Genesis Evangelion.6 Though kanji has never been tied to her name in any official works, from Mr. Anno’s essay we learn that her name was intended to be in reference to the number zero, probably in reference both to Unit-00, which she pilots, as well as the World War II fighter plane.
Interestingly enough, the World War II connection doesn’t end there. Mr. Anno goes on to further state that her last name, Ayanami, is in reference to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Fubuki-class destroyer, the Ayanami.7 The ship itself doesn’t seem terribly remarkable so I’m not exactly sure why he chose to reference it, but if anyone has any ideas, I’d love to hear it!
As for the Sailor Moon connection, we’re once again lucky in that Mr. Anno clearly spells it out for us:
[Her name] comes from Rei Hino, of Sailor Moon. At the time, I put this as a carrot to lure Iku (Kunihiko Ikuhara) to join my staff, but unfortunately that carrot was just taken and ran off with. Hahaha.
It’s hard to say how serious he’s being here about having actually tried to use the name to lure over famed Sailor Moon director Kunihiko Ikuhara,8 but it’s at least clear that he pulled the inspiration for the name from the series.
No matter how much anime I watch, manga I read, or names I may come across, it never fails to amaze me just how many additional layers of meaning the creators are able to conceal just in the names they give their characters. It’s both a wonderful extra level that the Japanese language provides as well as a curse to translators who hope to bring these series to the Western world, since you’re left either writing the name phonetically as-is (e.g., Rei) or localizing it by meaning (e.g., Zero), which doesn’t come across as well in English. At the end of the day, I guess it just provides more things to research!