Teenage, angst-ridden male protagonist? Check. Plucky girls and female characters? Moody adults? Check. Apocalyptic imagery? In-spades. Giant robots and crazy looking “monsters”? Check and check again. Is this really not Evangelion?
Let’s get this out of the way first: RahXephon is not Evangelion. Yes, there are lots of similarities between the two and RahXephon cannot escape the influence of one of the titans of anime. Both have a reluctant teen “mech” pilot, invading creatures and unique mechanical designs to include some of the similarities of which there are a lot. There are however enough differences with the story and visual style that RahXephon can stand on its own and of the two, whilst I appreciate the importance of Evangelion (and I know it is way more than the reduced description above), I enjoyed RahXephon more.
I saw the trailer for RahXephon on another ADV release from the early 2000s and it intrigued me. I saw giant fighting machines that looked quite organic, conventional tanks and aircraft and some pretty large scale destruction. I visited my local DVD retailer of choice at the time and saw an odd winged “thing” on the cover, bought it (it was very cheap at the time) and sat down that night to watch it. The trailer was deceptive. True there was some destruction and chaos but the trailer was only showing me a small fraction of the story. There was much more to the series but to the credit of the trailer, it worked and I bought the rest of the DVDs. What initially started out as a mecha show became much more of a romantic drama with some giant robots and science fiction.
Watching this again many years after I first saw it I was a bit unsure of what to expect. Yes I knew what was going to happen but would it still hold my attention and would I still enjoy it? Would I still care about the characters? How would I feel about its character design and general look? Would the animation hold up? I was ready for disappointment but it never came.
The story of RahXephon centres on Ayato Kamina a high school student who has a normal life with his friends (Hiroko Asahina and Mamoru Torigai), an awkward relationship with his frequently absent mother, has an adult woman stalking him and is someone who has the feeling that all is not as it should be.
RahXephon is set in 2027 in a version of Earth that has suffered a war with an alien race, the Mu. During this war a weapon was launched that encompassed Tokyo in a sphere looking like the surface of Jupiter. Humanity outside calls it Tokyo Jupiter. This barrier has created two different areas of space-time; inside the barrier time runs slower than outside. Within the barrier the Mu are in control of everything with their people in all levels of society. For those inside Tokyo they only know the world within the barrier and as far as they are concerned all is good, apart from the occasional invasion that is dealt with.
It is during one of these invasions Ayato is drawn, or perhaps led, to Shrine of Xephon where an egg floats surrounded by water. The shrine has the feel of an Escher painting. Somehow Ayato awakens what is in the egg, the RahXephon, and once he pilots it his life is definitely not the same again.
As for who the Mu are, they are an inter-dimensional race who look exactly like humans but, we are helpfully informed, they carry a genetic marker called the Mu-phase that humanity has been able to identify. When an individual who carries the Mu-phase reaches a certain age or “matures”, this gene turns their blood blue and causes degrees of memory loss. A mature Mu can control dolems, giant creations made of living clay that they use to attack humanity.
RahXephon was created and produced by Bones (who gave us other great shows including Space Dandy, Wolf’s Rain and Fullmetal Alchemist). It was directed by Yutaka Izubuchi and released in 2001 over 26 episodes. The story in RahXephon, is a blend of Japanese folklore and Mayan mythology, romance, drama and science fiction. There is a lot going on so is quite tricky to articulate effectively. When you start to describe the show to other you realise that it is really about relationships, having to make choices and growing up. Rather than describe the story I’ll go with some of main characters because they very much drive the story.
Our lead character is Ayato Kamina, a carefree teenager when in Tokyo who when thrust into conflict, becomes the pilot of the RahXephon. He's an artist and we meet him finishing a very personal picture of a girl wearing a yellow dress looking away from him. This is an image we see time and again so it has some deep significance to him. He is loyal to his friends and wants to get back to Hiroko and Mamorou so that he can protect them. Somehow he is connected to the RahXephon and is one of the few who can pilot it, albeit reluctantly at first. Thrust into a new life he struggles to find his place to fit in navigating the perils of building and sustaining relationships.
In Tokyo Ayato has two best friends, Hiroko Asahina and Mamorou Torigai. They are a link to Tokyo for him and therefore a source of conflict in his emotional state. It is clear that Hiroko has feelings beyond friendship for Ayato and he doesn't notice. Mamorou on the other hand plays the jokey best friend and is far more emotionally aware than Ayato, almost a rival. Although separated by time and space Ayato's thoughts are never far from these two and he would do anything to protect them that causes emotional conflict for Ayato. It is this bond with his friends and his mother (who knows what Ayato's future is and what the RahXephon is for) that causes great conflict within him, driving a wedge between him and his "new" friends.
In Tokyo, before it all gets a bit complicated, Ayato is stalked and he seems to be the object of some mission. When he first witnesses someone with blue blood she is there and later offers to tell him "everything" and reveals the existence of the Mu. This lady is Haruka Shitow an agent of TERRA (an organisation fighting the Mu). When Haruka and Ayato are in Tokyo together there is something amiss with their relationship from her side. It's part professional, part playful but most definitely personal for her as if she knows him. When they depart Tokyo Jupiter in the RahXephon, she seems to change and her relationship with Ayato is again off. It is as if she can't decide what the nature of the relationship is. For someone who works for TERRA she definitely steps over the professional line when Ayato is in danger. She always tries to do what is right by Ayato but you're never sure how selfish she is being and what her motivations are, a bit like a love-struck teenager.
After Ayato and Haruka escape Tokyo Jupiter they board the Lilia Litvyak, TERRA's aircraft-carrier. Here Ayato meets Quon. Quon is a strange individual. Her actions and behaviours are that of a young girl but she is clearly much older. She speaks at the level of a whisper and often in riddles that tend to suggest she knows the future. She knows a lot of Ayato and it is like she knows him from somewhere and what his purpose is. You get the feeling early on that their lives are tightly bound together. Quon is heavily in-tune with the world around her with her emotional state being impacted by the events around her. She appears to be a member of TERRA (wearing their uniform) with her life maintained in some fashion by a life module that looks like a life-jacket, She has many examinations by Itsuki (as does Ayato) but is never clear what they are for.
Dr Itsuki works for TERRA and appears to be Quon's guardian and physician. He is an arrogant and aloof character that likes playing games with people, especially his assistant Miss Nanamori. He does however appear to care deeply for Quon (which is not reciprocated) and has an inferiority complex linked to Ayato.
Miss Nanamori (Sayoko to her friends) is the research assistant of Itsuki and it is very clear that her feelings towards him are more than that a colleague would have. Sadly these feelings are not returned so she feels very much like a tragic character. Where Itsuki is cold she is far more emotional. Initially she came across as a bit of a fan-service character (from her design and demeanour) but as the series progresses, enters into a dangerous pact to further her own agenda and fuel her needs.
Once Ayato has proven his use to TERRA by piloting the RahXephon to destroy dolems, Ayato meets Megumi, Haruka’s sister. Their initial meeting was frosty to say the least. The RahXephon was beginning to petrify and it was felt that this was linked to Ayato's state of mind. Moving in with a family, and him being part of a family might help. Slowly Megumi grows to accept Ayato as one of the family and plays the part of the frustrating sibling. At the beginning I found her a bit annoying but by the end of the series she had grown up, mirroring the emotional path that Ayato had been on.
Mecha shows need to have good designs. The machine the hero pilots needs to be unique and iconic whilst the enemy needs to look oppressive and can be way out there in look. Does RahXephon deliver in this area? The RahXephon has wings on its face. This should look silly but somehow it works and is definitely unique. It has an organic feel to it - not quite machine but also not quite alive. It is quite slight and spindly but has immense power. Its cockpit is sparse and it seems to react to what he thinks and does with his body as much as what he controls it to do. The seat looks like two hand trying to catch something against a night sky. Again you get the feeling this mecha is not quite what you first thought. It looks like he provides the brain or soul and that the RahXephon is alive when he is piloting it.
As for the dolem, they are great to look at. Sometimes I was not sure if they skimped on the design effort or they were carefully crafted. The first one we meet (Allegretto, above) is like a stone statue of an angel ... with a beam weapon for a halo. This was followed by Fortissimo that looked like a half-finished, menacing child's doll crossed with a tuning fork. My favourite was Vivace (below right), a cross between an elegant fish and a bird. Its method of attack was psychological warfare directed at Ayato. During this encounter we are taken into the scary mind of a teenage "boy". He is presented with situations and images showing his conflicting emotions for both Asahina and Haruka. Both actively encourage him to give in and succumb to his desires for them. Needless to say he does not know what to do, where to look or how to react (generally running away and screaming a lot).
The landscapes are pretty to look at. Tokyo looks like a worn city with its bleached colour palette. The Shrine of Xephon is fun to look at and the rules of physics do not apply there but you wonder how and where it exists in the world. The "real world" is much more vibrant and the colours are crisper. For the landscape around Tokyo Jupiter we see much destruction and life having been abandoned. Where Ayato lives is verdant and rich, the complete contrast to his life before. It is like the landscape matches the life he has at that time. There is definitely the sense that life has progressed with purpose outside of Tokyo.
You can certainly see that the design effort when into the machinery and landscapes. The designs of the people are serviceable as expected for a series like this. All of the characters are distinctive within the show but I would not hold them up as examples of what can done. Their designs do not detract from the story so they do the job, but nothing more (Below are a sub-set of the characters so you can see). Miss Nanamori feels like one of the fan-service characters along with Quon to an extent.
The animation is fluid. There is a good amount of movement in the fight scenes and you can see that a lot of money was spent in the final episodes. There are some interesting "power up" effects for the dolem and the RahXephon early on but these get lost later in the show. Conflict in the last half is more physical. There are some great scenes of the dolem healing and being repaired early on. These scenes have a blocky feel but I think that the point. The animation of the humans is fine. It does not jar or take you out of what you are watching. Everything looks like it fits in the world.
Whilst RahXephon is considered mecha anime I think this is a misleading label. It is more about the relationships and the emotional journey. The combat scenes are fluid and it is clear what is going on. These are just not the main bits of the story. It feels very much like a story about growing up, maturing and ultimately realising your potential on your own terms.
This is why I say that the trailer was deceptive. At the beginning Ayato, although a teenager, acts like a child. He does what he wants, when he wants and has no real responsibilities. When he joins the “real world” outside the barrier he finds life more complicated. He doesn't get what we want, he is feared, feels threatened, he can’t express himself and he is told to do things he doesn't want to do. He has to make an effort with people, to make the relationships that will sustain him. For the human race the RahXephon is the ultimate anti-Mu weapon. For the Mu it is a device that will change the world. How does he fit in with all of this and make the difficult choices? He is at a turning point in his life that he can't run away from any more.
You get a sense that music is a big part of the show, and not just from dolem names or Quon's rambling. At times the score is more in the foreground than normal. It opens with the orchestral delight "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg", a piece that certainly foreshadows the upcoming imagery and sets the tone for the whole series. The score veers from string-heavy melancholia to jazz-inspired, to all out jazz (the kind that people associate with the genre) via electronic trance. Strings and the piano are used to great effect to suggest tension an unease, whilst the orchestral percussion creates a sense of the cataclysmic. It really does enhance the viewing experience. In addition to all of there are some repeated themes used throughout the show that reinforces the emotion and links the events to a wider story. Where the themes are played starts to tell the story more than what you see or is said.
This is a a story of growing up and finding your place in the world, how you handle the expectations that others have on you for your life and what you will achieve (in this case, Ayato was to change/re-tune the world). These elements of the story are something that everyone can get behind and can empathise with irrespective of gender and age.
RahXephon will be compared to other giant robot shows and there is an obvious comparison to Evangelion. For some it will not have enough of the machines but where they appear they serve to take the story on rather than derail it. I found it to be a very entertaining show that could stand on its own merits with its own mythology, universe and design aesthetic. I enjoyed how they weaved together Japanese folklore, Mayan history, growing up, racism, the power of friends, family and loving relationships into one coherent story that I wanted to see to the end, with characters that I liked. It has a great soundtrack that serves and enhances the story unfolding on the screen. It still looks good and I still cared about the characters and what happened to them.
RahXephon is available on DVD from 101 Anime in the UK or on DVD and streaming in the USA.
P.S. I am still happy to dip into this world and be taken on the emotional journey for an episode or two. Should I need a pick me up I can watch the final episode as it has a positive, uplifting finale.