Action films and TV series have a secret...to work well, they have to incorporate other genres. It simply doesn't work on its own very well. Romantic comedies don't need action and thrillers don't need humor, but action pictures must have something else compelling going for them. Even if you think about films that are almost nothing but action -- 300, The Raid: Redemption, and so on -- if they work, they exude style. But for action programming to really work, it must make us care about why the action is happening in the first place. We have to connect with the characters so that, when they are put in peril, it matters to us as an audience.
So what happens when the characters are more interesting than the action plot that envelops them?
That wraps up the key strengths and weaknesses of RahXephon, a 2001 entry by BONES that capitalized on the runaway success of the neo-mecha-psychodrama Neon Genesis Evangelion. There can be little doubt that RahXephon was significantly inspired by Evangelion, but that matters little now ten plus years out of the gate. What matters is, does it work? As a character piece with a supporting cast with deep backgrounds as interesting as the leads, absolutely. As a mysterious mecha show that conceals more than it reveals? Not as much. While a good watch, RahXephon is not unlike other BONES shows like Wolf's Rain and Eureka Seven -- all three contain players so intriguing and relatable that they conceal genuine problems in pacing and plotting that would destroy lesser shows.
Ayato Kamina lives in Tokyo. Following a cataclysmic disaster -- or so he's been told -- he lives in the only part of the world still remaining. He goes about his days attending school with his friends Hiroko and Mamoru. But everything changes when a vicious battle rages in the skies overhead. Led through the confusion by a mysterious girl named Reika, Ayato winds up coming face-to-face with a gigantic mecha known as the RahXephon that has a unique attachment to him. Eventually, he is led beyond the city by Haruka, a woman who he once thought was stalking him.
As Ayato learns from Haruka, the rest of the world still exists. Tokyo has been taken over by an alien race known as the Mu, who encased the city in a Jupiter sphere that slows down time for those inside of it. The Mu have erased the memories of most of Tokyo's inhabitants, so they have little knowledge of what their lives were like previous to the invasion. Haruka works for TERRA, a human organization dedicated to stopping the Mu and perhaps taking back Tokyo from its captors. Ayato must pilot the RahXephon against Mu ships that appear in the outside world...even though he's not sure he's fighting on the right side. Ayato becomes comfortable with Haruka and her family on the island of Nirai-Kanai, but conspiracies and military assignations abound, and everyone wants a piece of this teenage boy who may be the key to "re-tuning the world."
I'm going to start with the frustrating parts of RahXephon first. I liked the show and want to give my best impressions last, but its problems are hardly insignificant. You need to know that the animation is just OK, perfectly fine for early 2000s TV anime but nothing impressive. The show's pace is never lackadaisical, but it feels like we should accomplish more than we do each episode. Another issue: action fans will be disappointed. Yes, it's a mecha show, and yes, it looks like Evangelion, but no, the battles are not that interesting. Much of the time, it comes down to one mecha blaring a single note at another. This does get better as the show progresses, but don't expect the kind of brilliant showdowns that characterized Evangelion's battles. There's also an unnecessarily large cast that can be difficult to follow and rather uninteresting villains.
And that leads me to my biggest quandary: RahXephon is confusing enough to make you run for a Wikipedia explanation shortly after watching the whole thing. Now I need to be clear...unlike its predecessor, RahXephon is logically coherent. All the pieces do fit together. While there is some technobabble, it is internally consistent. While there are some concepts stolen from various religious archetypes, it isn't a bunch of blather.
But -- and this is quite serious -- RahXephon is not narratively coherent. There are so many characters to follow and so many concepts explained obliquely that when I reached the ending, I was not honestly certain I understood what had just happened and to whom. Admittedly, I watched the dub, which while not perfect certainly wasn't uncomfortable to listen to; maybe I missed a few things in translation. But more than one underlying conceit was totally lost on me until I did my homework afterwards. Now honestly, when I did that and saw the pieces come together, I had a few "aha!" moments. I was pleased with the resolutions. But frankly, any show that requires me to go to the Web to understand it -- not just to compare notes on symbolism but for it to actually make sense, especially after I've paid close attention throughout the whole -- has some issues.
With that kind of laundry list, how can this show possibly get a good grade? It's character, character, character. When the plot was creaking along and the mecha fights were stale, it was the characters that made it for me. Ayato may not be the most striking lead, but his story arc makes sense of a young man thrown into circumstances he doesn't understand. He neither shows incredible bravery or cowardice; he simply does what he has to do. I was glad to see a teenager who, though confused, was not angst-ridden or emo. His cluelessness about women was also another strength -- most of the time, anime guys are just too stupid to understand the fairer sex. Ayato's missteps with the female cast are realistic to his age and made him more relatable to me.
BONES wisely surrounded Ayato with a solid cast of companions. Though they included too many supporting players, RahXephon has some of the strongest secondary characters of any series of its type. At times, the interactions reminded me of the original Macross. There's a mix of comedy, pathos, and heartbreak found in each person that graces the screen. When tragedy does strike, then, it makes it all the more a gut punch. I felt I knew these folks.
While I did complain about the unnecessarily obtuse plot, the intelligence of RahXephon is not to be dismissed. Many shows have nothing interesting to say, so they dress up the language and say the same thing twenty different esoteric ways. RahXephon doesn't have a statement to make, but it does present us with multiple timelines, crossovers between worlds, and concepts few shows would even attempt to introduce. The fact that they failed to explain everything properly is unfortunate; however, I far prefer a little too smart than a lot too dumb in my anime.
An easy way to note the lack of pandering across the board is the lack of overt fan service. It does appear on occasion, and there's brief nudity at the ending; there is an episode that includes a trip to the beach, and one endowed character is showcased with a nod to the pervy. But when was the last time you saw an anime where a female character is in the shower and the images of her getting out were intentionally and artfully obscured? There were many points where RahXephon refrained from the objectification of women (sadly too common in anime). It showed that they expected the audience to be perhaps just a little more grown up.
Another high note was the music. While the opening theme didn't do much for me, a surprise considering it came from the pen of Yoko Kanno, the ending theme ranks as one of the most haunting in anime. Echoes of it appear throughout the series, and in general, the score is a key element. Since music does play a role in the conceptual nature of the series, that's only right.
I wish RahXephon wouldn't have had as many missteps as it did, but it also got a lot of things right. I must admit that I watch anime at odd hours, typically when the family is asleep or otherwise occupied, and I easily fall asleep. Yet despite the program's pacing, that didn't happen. It suffers from being too packed, having too many characters and too much plot in a timeframe inadequate to do it all justice, and a somewhat lackluster approach to its action sequences. Yet its memorable characters and soundtrack, along with an intelligence not seen in many anime these days, make it one I can recommend.