I've just finished act 2 of "Journey to Jusenkyou," although my instinct is that it could use significant cleanup and revision (and perhaps some expansion), but given that I had a lot of trouble with it at times, I'll be glad enough to leave this act behind for now and work on the next.
In addition, as a bit of an experiment, Identity is now available on Scribd, where you can read it in a flash object or download the PDF (which I recommend over the flash, as the resolution and overall size restraints suck, at least on my 14:9 screen). The PDF I've put in a 6x9 "ebook" format, so it should be quite readable. And now that I've discovered the \sloppy command, the lines don't overfill, either. Heh.
But, now I'm going to talk about pairings for a bit, and since I'm always cognizant of spoilers, I'll leave that below.
Shipping of characters is insanely, insanely popular. I have to admit I'm not immune. It's also not surprising that what fascinates people are romances that have yet to reach fulfillment. The tension is interesting; rarely does a stable, happy relationship hold interest (although it's a sign of genius when it does).
What stimulates most of this analysis is my new interest in Evangelion regarding Ikari Shinji and Ayanami Rei. This is a case where the relationship isn't romantic in canon although it can be plausibly expanded that way.
Shinji, for his part, is not the typical anime hero. He craves affection and praise, yet despite his critical role in saving humanity, that praise is most lacking, especially from his father, the person he wants most to tell him he's worth something. Shinji is surrounded by people who have mindsets foreign to him: Misato has a deep hatred of the Angels and a sense of duty, neither of which Shinji can bring himself to feel. Asuka takes great pride in piloting Eva, yet Shinji fears it, seeing it as a task he cannot escape from, a job that, in his eyes, is his only unique and valuable trait. And Rei? Rei sees piloting as part of her purpose, her destiny, yet Shinji feels he has no purpose at all.
Rei's particular mindset is shaped by her origin, her birth as a tool to affect Instumentality. And until Shinji comes along, we can't know if she ever feared this fate or resented it. As I said in an earlier post, the focus of the series is really on Shinji and not a bit on Rei. Rei's growth as a person has to be largely taken from small, small scenes. I think a fair interpretation, however, is that her dealings with the other pilots, with Shinji in particular, and her mental violation at the hands of Armisael make her realize how terribly lonely she is, how she could barely comprehend or express that loneliness, but when she does notice it, when she lets it out, it comes out hard. Her outward stoicism comes from a lack of value she places on her own life: she knows she can be replaced. She doesn't have a problem with this. She doesn't have a problem with dying; she doesn't wallow in self-pity the way Shinji might. She's just never learned to value herself outside of a purpose. She's never learned to enjoy living.
In a lot of ways, Shinji is the means through which Rei realizes the dire state of her life. Slowly but surely, he supplants Gendou as the person most important to Rei. Touji noticed, after a fashion, that she cares very much for Shinji, and acts of kindness on Shinji's part are some of the few things that get a noticeable reaction out of her. It's not a hard lock to say that showing someone kindness will make them love you--some discussions I've read call this a Ranma type romance, actually--but with Rei, I think the relationship is much more complex. Rei realizes that her heart might "want to be one with Ikari-kun" (that is, Shinji). Is this something romantic, sexual even? I don't think so. For one, I rather doubt Rei understands sexuality (I mean, really, he falls on her breast and she's entirely oblivious, unfazed), and I think what Rei wants from Shinji is simply more attention, more kindness, more understanding so she won't be alone. I think romantic and sexual desires from that are natural extensions of that drive, but they are not the drive itself. As a writer, I think it would make a lot of sense to explore Rei's desire to be one with Shinji in romantic and sexual contexts, but Rei in this respect I imagine very much a clean slate, and the appeal of such a story would be the process of discovery, of how Rei comes to understand human sexual behavior and chooses her own path.
What Shinji feels for Rei, on the other hand, is considerably less clear. Shinji correctly makes a lot of connections between Rei and his mother. To some, this makes any potential relationship contain a lot of squick factor. I think Shinji himself experiences some of that when he realizes just how deep that connection is. I think he could get over that, if perhaps he decides that Rei is her own person, not his mother, but that's not what happened. That's what could happen. And it's not entirely implausible to suggest Shinji's interest in Rei stems partly from her relationship with his father (he asks her how he should talk to his father on the eve of his mother's death, largely because he saw her talking to Gendou pleasantly). It's also plausible to say that Shinji reached out to Rei (before Asuka arrived) simply because she was the only peer he had in the program, a person to whom he had to entrust his life. Why does Shinji pilot at all? For praise from his father? Yes, but also, consider--Shinji doesn't choose to pilot for the sake of saving mankind. He makes the choice when he sees Rei struggle against grave injuries to pilot in his place. A guilt trip, perhaps, but an effective one, and I think it hits home that time again, Shinji will pilot not to protect the human race but just the people he cares about--Asuka, Rei, whoever. It's an effective strategy that even real world armies use to make people into soldiers. Personal bonds are stronger than ideology in most. That's more an observation on Shinji that an indication that he loves Rei or anything. But I do think that where Asuka is abrasive and downright hurtful at times, Rei is someone Shinji can (and does) approach, someone who has no expectations of him the way other people do. And Shinji's said before he admires Rei's strength, even if I think that strength is partly Rei's own disregard for her life.
Could Shinji and Rei have a relationship? I think so. I think, whether you make it sexual and romantic or just keep it a deep friendship, it'll be a bond based more on emotional support and personal discovery (at least on Rei's part) than overt physical tension. Rei's more likely to find something like sex interesting from an intellectual standpoint, even if she can feel arousal and pleasure. I think she'd want to explore sex simply as a means to explore feelings. She's not like Asuka, who, I think, feels these bodily tensions more acutely. What Rei might get from Shinji is the feeling that she's a human being, that she can want things for the sake of wanting alone. What Shinji gets from Rei is a sense of steadiness; Rei doesn't despair lightly. She would state bluntly and matter-of-factly that Shinji is not as worthless as he thinks he is, and Rei is not (yet) someone who would lie just for the sake of making someone feel better.
But let's talk about something different. I don't want my interest in Ranma and Akane to wane too much as I get involved in other fandoms (that will make writing hard). So let's be analytical.
There's a great difference here between Ranma and Evangelion, of course. From one story to the next, Ranma and company are largely the same characters, where Eva, being a much shorter series, has to develop and grow characters much more quickly. That said, it's true in a lot of works that most growth occurs at the beginning and end, so that's where we'll start.
Despite initial mixups and confusion, Ranma and Akane come to be friends even just a few chapters into the manga. Akane is sympathetic toward Ranma--she contributes a kettle of hot water when Ranma has to flee Kunou after jumping in the pool. She even starts to put up a fight to buy Ranma time, and later, when Tofu gives Ranma a pat on the back, neutralizing his legs, Akane immediately offers to carry him home. Whatever she says to Ranma, she doesn't resent him or hate him nearly as much as other behavior might suggest. If nothing else, while the earliest installments don't say that these two really like each other yet, they do say that despite initial misunderstandings, they're friendly. They try to help each other out.
In all truth, the Ranma and Akane we know almost don't exist before the next of Ranma's unwanted harem enters the picture: Kodachi. Indeed, on balance, I wonder just how their relationship would've developed without so much...competition. Kodachi's attempts to kiss Ranma on the rooftop also mark the first time we see Akane jealous over Ranma (and it's not long before that that Ranma's jealous, too, of Ryouga). This, I think, actually tells a lot about the series: given no outside pressures or competition, Ranma and Akane probably would've been together fairly quickly, and all the little signs of affection in the first two volumes were simply laying groundwork.
That said, I'm cognizant that doing something nice isn't necessarily attraction (again with the "Ranma" theory of romance). There are signs of attraction: how Ranma gets flustered when he's trying to cheer up Akane about her hair, for example. And on and on we're teased with this relationship, one that doesn't really develop or go anywhere, all for the sake of comedy, yet we must still infer what that says about characters (or at least as a fanfic writer, I do).
Perhaps it's just better to look at character personalities. I've said before I think Akane is terribly insecure. Most of Ranma's insults push this button because it's what irks her: she wants to be feminine, but her own personality can't do that all the way, can't adhere to the Japanese ideal of femininity. And we see, also, that Akane doesn't really know what she'd do without Ranma. When she nearly gives him to Nabiki, the cruel irony begins to hit her hard. For whatever reason, she can't or won't admit that she likes him. It frightens her. Like most normal people, she fears how that admission will change things. For her part, she must at times like how her interactions with Ranma go, convinced herself that small measures of affection are enough.
Ranma's much the same. We can see, several times throughout the later manga, Ranma has to consider admitting that he likes Akane (engagement ring, tanabata, battle suit). Sometimes he's interrupted comically (okay, every time). But even still, this idea must be further in the forefront, and it's not unrealistic to infer that he's just as afraid of changing the status quo as Akane is. Admitting he likes her means big changes that he's not prepared for. Worst case, he might have to leave or go back to his own house. Best case, he should marry her, and that's something Ranma just isn't in the mindset to do. Ranma's still a teenager in that respect. He doesn't want to deal with that kind of responsibility. That's my interpretation, anyway.
A lot of Identity is about dealing with consequences of the Phoenix arc. It would be classic Takahashi style not to have any significant growth result from this, but I've always thought growth is not only possible but likely. Akane agreeing to the wedding, no matter how she denies it, is a tacit admission that she likes Ranma. Ranma, for his part, might well look at what's happened, how Akane nearly died, and decide that the status quo cannot stand. I think, in the face of a near-death experience, it's entirely possible these characters would finally stop deceiving themselves, even if they can't stop deceiving each other, and a big thing I tried to convey in Identity was this change in mentality.
A big weakness I see in the Ranma/Akane relationship is the lack of emotional support. As much as they've been hiding from one another, they don't have safe avenues to deal with problems in their own relationship. Akane is very conscious of Ranma's perception of her and needs to be useful (see Hiryuu Shouten Ha arc). I think Ranma feels the same way; though he boasts, at times, of being a stud, it's not a crucial part of him, more like temporary ego-boosting vanity. When Akane seems to reject him, Ranma's reaction while running is, "You're telling me that he's better than me, aren't you?" If Ranma isn't the best, he doubts his own ability to carry Akane's heart. They fundamentally misunderstand each other: they think the other will only love them for what they can do, not who they are, and I think even after any kind of confession, they still will. Ranma and Akane will not be happy simply declaring love for the other. They're going to have to learn to trust each other with their desires, their hearts, and that will take more time.
I dare say that's what Identity is about.