One of my favorite character archetypes in all entertainment (not just anime) is the character that begins with little to no emotion who, through the events of the story they are within, either discover emotion or are forced to confront the emotions they kept buried inside. I have already talked about two of them in my article about relatable protagonists: Shigeo Kageyama from Mob Psycho 100 and Hachiman Hikigaya from My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU.
Arguably the two best examples of this trope in Western entertainment are Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Vision from Marvel Comics and most recently WandaVision. Both of them are androids with humanoid qualities. Data, leaning heavily off the groundwork laid by Spock in the original series, slowly learns how to feel emotion from the people around him, especially Captain Picard.
Similarly, Vision, originally created out of malice, learns compassion from the other members of the Avengers, especially his lover, Wanda Maximoff. Because of the mind stone within Vision, he begins with more emotion than Data, but as a synthetic human, Vision still has much to learn.
Similarly, Eureka from Eureka Seven also begins her story with little to no knowledge of emotion. She has some understanding of kindness due to her relationship with her children and the care shown to her by Holland, but it is not until she meets Renton and then loses him that she truly understands her own feelings. Her love for Renton allows her to recognize the people around her and understand them better as well.
When I initially played Square Enix’s NieR: Automata, I assumed that 2B would experience an arc similar to Eureka’s. When players were first introduced to 2B, she is a strict by-the-books soldier who does not let her emotions dictate her decisions. In fact, all androids working for YoRHa are told to be emotionless. Seeing as they are not human, it would make sense for them not to have emotion. However, this point is contradicted by the introduction of 9S, who appears to act as a foil to 2B, being aloof and wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
Throughout the first chapter of NieR: Automata, 2B slowly becomes increasingly friendly towards 9S and seems to care for him despite YoRHa’s directives. This was until 9S is corrupted by Adam, a sentient humanoid machine, and 2B is forced to kill him, with her uttering the line “it always ends like this” while she cries over 9S’s lifeless body, implying that she has always cared for him and attempted to drown her feelings as if she knew he was destined to die. All along, 2B was just hiding her emotions, as if she was protecting herself from pain she had experienced in the past.
NieR: Automata was far from the first time I experienced a character like this. Rem from Re:Zero is first introduced as an unfeeling emotionless maid who buries herself in her work. She shows very little care for most people around her, with her sister Ram and her employer Roswall being the only exceptions. When she senses the Witch of Envy’s scent on Subaru, she immediately sets out to eliminate him, seeing him as a threat to the Roswall mansion. However, when Subaru cries out, yelling about how much he cares for her, Rem appears confused and shows him pity, albeit for just a moment.
In episode 11, “Rem,” it is revealed that the reason Rem is so cold is due to her tragic past and the joy she experienced when her sister Ram lost her horn, making Rem the stronger of the two in the process. For a split second, she felt like she was free from the burden of being the weaker sister. This brief moment of joy immediately turned into shame, as she forced herself to live for her sister, to do all the things Ram was now unable to. After Subaru saves her and shows how much he cares about her, she learns how to feel again, as if her world was once again filled with color. I assumed that this would be the case for 2B as well, but the second half of NieR: Automata proved me completely wrong.
Through 2B’s memories, A2 discovers that 2B was paired with 9S specifically to kill him if he was ever corrupted, whether literally or figuratively. This confirms what was implied by the endings A and B, that it was far from the first time that she was forced to kill 9S. However, it also revealed that she had always cared about him and was only putting on a cover to keep herself from constantly experiencing the grief and emptiness that was seemingly inevitable. She reacts to the pain she feels by becoming cold toward the people around her. 2B is a tragic character, broken by the world she occupies.
Like 2B, Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion is wrought by a world she was forced into. Originally created as a pilot for EVA-00 by Gendo Ikari, Ayanami is treated like a daughter by Ikari despite the nature of Ayanami’s creation. She feels some form of bond to the man, but does not truly understand why until she learns that she was created from the salvaged remains of Ikari’s late wife. This sense of false attachment, as well as the knowledge that she is only one of many clones of Rei Ayanami, leads Ayanami to conclude that life holds no real meaning, as does the world around her. In response, she willingly joins with Lillith to cause the Third Impact, effectively destroying the world, or forcing it to evolve.
2B easily could have made a similar choice to Rei, hating the world around her and forcing it to change. However, instead she chooses to continue to love, sacrificing herself for 9S the way he had done so for her many times before.
It is interesting that for most of these examples, it is through love that these characters learn how to feel again. However, Ayanami is the exception. She never once received that true unconditional love the rest of them did, which is one of many factors that ultimately led to the events of End of Evangelion. 2B’s story in NieR: Automata may be depressing, but in the end, 9S pulled her out of the darkness she had been drenched in for so long.
Western storytelling often makes characters like 2B and Ayanami too one-dimensional and unfeeling. The complexities that could be present are often shrunken down and simplified. There are exceptions, such as Vision, but even a character like Vision suffers from inconsistency in quality. Japan (and Eastern storytelling in general) seem to have this character archetype on lockdown, with most writers realizing there are multiple different paths they can take an emotionless character in their journey to discover emotion.