“Her character was locked in as translucent — like a shadow, or the air. The kind of girl you can’t touch. The girl you long for, but there is nothing about her that you can hold.”
– Yoshiyuki Sadamoto on Rei Ayanami’s character design in Neon Genesis Evangelion
So many have followed in her footsteps that it’s now difficult to believe that Rei Ayanami’s design was unique. While her specific character has stood the test of time, her appearance, along with her more superficial character traits, has not. Plastic Memories’ Isla is one of many expys attempting to capture the elusive allure of the original “premium girl.”
“Rei is someone who is aware of the fact that even if she dies, there’ll be another to replace her, so she doesn’t value her life very highly. Her presence, her existence, “ostensible existence,” is ephemeral. She’s a very sad girl. She only has the barest minimum of what she needs to have. She’s damaged in some way; she hurts herself. She doesn’t need friends.”
This outlook on Rei’s character from series director Hideaki Anno paints a similar picture of what Plastic Memories wants its audience to feel towards Isla. As a giftia android, her personality and memories – both false ones of a time before she came to be Isla and the memories she makes while living as Isla – have a distinct expiration date of 81,920 hours. There will be another to replace her, so to speak, when she expires. While speaking to one of their clients, she expresses the wish to never have memories at all. At work, she shows a distinct lack of self-preservation. Her character design fits the Rei Ayanami mold down to her striking red irises.
Yet Isla fails on several levels where Rei, and others who have also followed in the original premium girl’s footsteps like Haruhi Suzumiya‘s Yuki Nagato, did not.
Countless essays have been written on Rei Ayanami’s characterization, her role within Evangelion, and even the process in which her most basic character traits spawned an entire archetype. For the sake of brevity, Rei’s personality is intrinsic to the narrative of Evangelion and is additionally informed by other characters in the series who are equally emotionally distraught. One of her key moments involves looking back on her own memories within the series’ timespan, asking herself what she is, and reflecting on how the people she has met have shaped her unique experience. Throughout the series, changes in her expression are slight as she grows into her own emotions.
In Haruhi Suzumiya, Yuki Nagato is an alien observer, sent to gather data on Haruhi Suzumiya. She hardly has a past as tortured or significant to the narrative as Rei Ayanami does in Evangelion; however, she shares a similar visual progression through facial expressions. Every tic and lingering moment counts, culminating in emotional buildup so powerful that it alters reality.
As an aforementioned giftia with limited time to be the unique entity of Isla, Plastic Memories‘ heroine certainly fits the Rei Ayanami mold. Unfortunately, the series spent more time on stereotypical romantic comedy mishaps than showing nuances in Isla’s character. While Plastic Memories has hinted at prior struggles that she has had – to the point where other characters remark that she’s trying to be a machine in order to avoid the heartbreak that accompanies the end of a giftia’s life – every other giftia in the series acts like a normal human. Within the Terminal Service where Isla works, there are three giftias, all whom blend in easily with the staff. Additionally, the giftias they meet while working are all fully functioning human personalities no different than the average person on the street.
So what makes Isla different? Why does she alone act like a robot?
One can make the argument for Rei, whose existence is significantly different than the humans she meets, that retreating into a nebulous shell under the realization that she is expendable, makes sense, especially within the context of Evangelion as a whole. Likewise Yuki’s detached coldness, within the context of Haruhi Suzumiya, is understandable. Haruhi’s protagonist, Kyon, even comments off-handedly that Yuki’s superiors should have given her more of a personality following his encounter with a similar being, Ryoko Asakura. The Haruhi franchise also offers an alternate, human Yuki Nagato in The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya and The Disappearance of Nagato Yuki-chan timelines. In these iterations, Yuki is a shy and quiet girl, but lacks the cold detachment of her alien counterpart.
Isla is a completely different case than either Rei or Yuki, because Isla’s circumstances are not unique.
Unless Plastic Memories follows a similar path to Chobits, making Isla a prototype of some sort, Isla is simply another giftia, much like male protagonist Tsukasa Mizugaki is just another human male. The series reveals that Isla’s expiration date is swiftly approaching, but also makes it apparent within the same episode that giftias aren’t programmed to forget or decline. In further episodes, it is revealed what happens following the end of a giftia’s lifespan, and while it’s not pretty, it is also completely different than Isla’s remote personality.
There are two primary reasons for Isla to act the way she does. The first is for the benefit of an audience who gravitates towards the Rei Ayanami archetype. The second involves Tsukasa’s role as a potential romantic partner for Isla.
Every other giftia in the series acts just as the in-universe humans do. In the words of one of Tsukasa’s co-workers, you wouldn’t know a giftia from a human upon meeting them. That is, unless the giftia is Isla. Her circumstances aren’t unique but her actions are, and the dissonance it causes while watching Plastic Memories is striking.