In many art-driven works, story content often unhinges itself, in way for stronger, perhaps poignant, abstractions. The feelings are all there. The audience’s heartstrings are toyed with and ripped asunder, while a mastermind watches in glee, cackling from the shadows. Yet on occasion, there’s a lack of plot context which leaves viewers with a sense of confusion instead. The work becomes too unwieldy, where viewers begin to feel that it would benefit from a more solid foundation rather than more psychedelitries. The show ought to have slowed down and established its fundamentals, i.e., background and/or setting, before dabbling in the crazies. Unfortunately, RahXephon falls exactly in this subset of works; it evokes heavy feelings and yet begins to lose its ability to keep itself intact.
RahXephon’s first few episodes immediately peaked my interests. The art direction, the mysteries, the abstract motifs—everything about RahXephon leaves viewers in awe with its visionary-like execution. Yet, as the story pushes forward, whatever fascination exists only becomes frustation. One increasingly feels the need for a more concrete establishment of the show’s surroundings. Everything is shrouded too far in a cloud of mystery, and we never obtain the context for what would make scenes significant, and hence grab viewers by their seat. The story’s pacing stalls, compounding confusion upon confusion. But this is not confusion causing a foreboding atmosphere; this is confusion causing annoyance. More and more episodes fly by, and more and more of that artistic sophistication flies by. But where’s the context? The setting? The politics? The background?
Even Neon Genesis Evangelion—the posterchild for interpretation—leaves context for a majority of its mysteries. For instance in RahXephon, the war background and details are severely lacking. It’s a fine direction should the work enshroud a lot of mystery behind itself (much like NGE), but much of the time this feels like pure inadequacy. For example, NGE’s constant training simulations to indicate how characters’ behaviors are, are a much more realistic alternative than RahXephon’s MC killing random Dolems to illustrate that he’s fine and dandy. In RahXephon we have no idea how many Dolems there are, how frequently they appear, the regions they’re fighting in, etc. What do we know about their organization in relation to the rest of the world’s politics? How high is the organization up on the stratosphere, e.g., is Quon’s brother the only authoritative scientist, or Kunugi the only commander? Who are all those organizations and persons when the writers decide to name-drop so often? NGE also makes it fairly clear on the geographic locations of its events so that we have a clear understanding of the world we’re in. On the other hand, RahXephon gives us a morsel of this with talk of population numbers and countries in the early episodes, but surprisingly oversimplifies this in its implementation of the action. For example, we see no politics nor a sense of particular country cultures, as everything is meshed together and leadership is caricatured (no political figureheads or lashback, budget problems or surplus, or even some form of congress). As such, we never feel as much tension when Ayato is fighting one of the Dolems, as we simply don’t know its significance. It also doesn’t help that he always defeats them through an awkward form of catharsis or via some power-up weapon.
Most of the copying of Evangelion material has been fine, but the resemblances are unnerving. It’s a bit humorous to view RahXephon as nothing but a fan remake of Evangelion (and it wouldn’t be all that far off). RahXephon’s uncanny emulation practically forces the comparison, which makes viewers noticeably spot flaws in RahXephon’s writing. In fact, some resemblances converge to the point where the distinction between a “homage” or a “ripoff” is blurred. In one episode, a Dolem is piloted by (or possesses) one of Ayato’s allies, which forces Ayato into the scenario of killing the Dolem without harming his ally. This is indubitably a parallel of one of NGE’s episodes; it’s difficult not to see the similarities in their implementation. However, scene for scene, RahXephon’s execution is done poorly in comparison—the “gasp!” reactions, the cold “the end justifies the means” response, the overlying angst, the supporting characters in shock, the action scenes, the slow organ chords, and what even happens to the ally.
RahXephon’s level of abstraction has also only glossed over character development. More and more characters are sent into misery over unresolved romances (typical of romanticist pieces), which stalls the growth of most character interrelationships and character dynamics. What’s also poor here is that the harem undertones are blatantly obvious in comparison to NGE; RahXephon even touts more fanservice with beach episodes, perpetual teasing, and Ayato blushing from gawking at lewd things. Whatever character development that occurs has been decent, but doesn’t bode well over the course of the series. For instance, Makoto’s characterzation in his flashback episode doesn’t justify the motivation for his current twisted personality; the pacing was too rushed. Mishima Reika appears so infrequently in the middle episodes that you often forget about her entirely. Megumi’s growth has potential in dealing with her unrequited love, but her story (and her conflict) ends up repeating itself, only to end with an unsatisfactory conclusion. Other supporting characters, even ones who receive development, have been disappointing: Mamoru, Asahina, Kim, Itsuki, Kunugi, the list goes on.
Yet, above all criticisms, RahXephon is a stylistic piece that revels in its art direction. And it shows. The character artwork is wonderfully detailed and has aged well. Characters share the same lanky bishounen and shoujo body proportions for the most part (a fault no less, but nothing compared to most anime’s artwork), and the hair detailing remains one of the best—especially in today’s standards. Few anime go so far as to outline individual strands of hair on key persons, rather than draw a curvy slob as if from the work of a 5 year old, and presuppose that hodgepodge resembles “hair”. Other artwork, such as the mecha, bestiary, and architecture, has been incredibly diverse. The references to classical myths within variable cultures are profound. Landscapes too feel fresh and inviting, often emanating nostalgia during classic romantic postures (Ayato the painter, Quon the violinist, Reika the mystery girl at the end of the cliff). Dolems are seen singing in despair, and Mulian names are often callbacks to musical notation. RahXephon’s world seems literally driven by arias.
If music is such a key feature then, this lends the question of the quality of RahXephon’s soundtrack. Simply put, it’s one of the best. The background pieces are brimming with orchestral ensembles, strings, and piano etudes. Tension is amped excellently, particularly during suspenseful scenes. However, much like the plot elements, certain tracks have an uncanny resemblance to NGE ones. For example, the battle music at one point has the famous highs and lows of bellowing strings, then accompanied by the rest of the ensemble (especially the redundant high-pitched piano chords played in sync). This isn’t to say that this particular emulation is done in poor taste; it’s unoriginal, but still just as effective (if not even better).
Perhaps then, it is the romantic nature of RahXephon that compensates for much of the confusion in its writing. To an extent, I would agree with this. RahXephon has on multiple occasions left me with complete admiration; the delivered atmosphere through its masterful art direction has literally given me goosebumps at times. However, a stronger foothold on reality (in particular, context) would have kept the work not only more relatable but more focused. The two ideas—romanticism and realism—are after all not opposites, and RahXephon would have been benefitted in not distinguishing the two so discretely. Still, RahXephon is a fantastic piece. The work carries a touching tune, however much it leaves to be desired.
Sidenote: Now I know the point of the penguins in Mawaru Penguindrum.