Neon Genesis Evangelion has returned to Western audiences, introducing a whole new generation of fans to its collection of brilliantly written characters. These are characters that fans have dissected and discussed since the series' initial release back in the '90s. For many fans, though, two characters stand apart as series icons: Rei Ayanami and Asuka Langley Sohryu. Many fans will initially find Rei's enigmatic nature and ambiguous past incredibly fascinating, but, as they continue, they will likely begin to realize that the most interesting character in the series is Asuka.
Asuka's descent from haughty "confidence" into profound depression remains one of the most fascinating character arcs in anime history.
With Evangelion, a lot of the characters are not what they first appear to be. Asuka is no exception. When we first see Asuka, she is this force of nature -- loud, arrogant, haughty. She is a breath of fresh air after dealing with Shinji's insecurities for seven episodes. This invigorates the series with a great deal of joy. She changes the show, offering a diversity of perspective that livens things up.
But then there's the nature of her relationship with Shinji. It's clear Asuka sees him as a rival, but there are hints that she may feel attracted to him, despite also holding him in contempt. This self-contradictory nature makes more logical sense as the series goes on, as it is clear that Shinji is one of the only people who treat her as a person... and the arbiter of her eventual fall.
The tragedy of her character, however, manifests as Shinji surpasses her as the best. Up until this point, Asuka prides herself on being the best. That is how she defines herself. When that definition is no longer relevant, she nosedives. This is even more true when she fails to defend NERV multiple times while Shinji manages to save everyone.
This further pushes her out of the limelight, and she simply cannot deal with that. While Evangelion deals with many emotional and mental issues, what happens here is akin to what would happen to other anime rivals in other shows. Asuka's pain and depression is oddly akin to, say, Vegeta going into a rage upon being surpassed.
However, while in other shows the rival would pull through and be stronger than ever, the reality of Evangelion is a little different. At every turn, Asuka fails to prove herself. Despite audiences being immediately intrigued by this energetic, attention-grabbing character, most of the cast seem indifferent to her. In most other shows, the hot-blooded ace pilot would be hugely popular in-universe. This contrast subverts expectations.
There is something so profoundly disturbing about the histories of every character in Evangelion, but in particular, Asuka's. Her mother's insanity and eventual suicide is bad enough, but the idea of the doll is haunting. The idea that her mother replaced her with a doll that she then hung next to her would break anyone's emotional state, especially a girl who increasingly was only valued for her ability to perform.
It's even more troubling when, in End of Evangelion, you realize that Asuka's mother's soul was in Unit-02, which means that she was closest to her mother only when piloting. Which, up until the finale, she is incapable of doing because her mental state has deteriorated so horribly. The cruel irony here is that, the more depressed she became, the more incapable she was of seeing the love she received from her mother. The pain of her existence drove her farther away from her bliss.
Let's Talk About the Coma Scene
But arguably the most telling sign of Asuka's complex characterization is the infamous coma scene and her eventual reaction to it. Throughout the series, Asuka's relationships, with the exception of her friendship with the class rep and how Misato worries about her, appear superficial in nature. They see her as an object to further their goals.
In the haunting opening to End of Evangelion, Shinji comes to Asuka in a desperate attempt to connect to someone, only to accidentally tear open her shirt, exposing her breasts. He then masturbates over her comatose body.
Later on, when Asuka melds with Shinji's mind in Pre-Instrumentality, we learn that Asuka knows Shinji did that. She trusted Shinji with her feeling and fears, only for him to exploit her like that. And while there is anger and disgust in her actions, there is visible hurt there, too.
In essence, this scene sums up how her character has functioned throughout the whole series. She opens herself up to tons of characters, presenting herself as confident. However, when things break down, it's clear the majority of the cast just wants to use her for their ends. To them, she doesn't matter... until she can service them.