A stock-in-trade plot device in alien invasion stories is the inadequacy of modern technology in the face of a superior foe; notable examples include The War of the Worlds, where the invading Martians effectively outfight the humans only to die in time to common illnesses, and even stories like Independence Day where the patriotic ending is only possible after human guile undermines the aliens’ shields. This subgenre of science-fiction is picked up in anime, as well, but given a slightly more hopeful spin in the super-robot genre with a single effective weapon paving the way for resistance. The heroes are painted as the people capable of fighting back against superior enemy forces with cutting-edge weapons, ultimately a patriotic view of superior technology and willpower winning out in the end.
Various series up to the 1990s toyed with this archetype; Space Warrior Baldios explored what would happen if a single machine was not enough to win, or the enemies reacted too quickly for mankind to keep up. Space Runaway Ideon took an almost Lovecraftian look at mankind playing with technology it did not understand while Invincible Superman Zambot 3 considered how the enemy could easily undermine a single figurehead by switching to underhanded terror tactics. Yet arguably even these still were based around the conceit that human technology could in time outstrip that of aliens. It was the 1995 series Neon Genesis Evangelion that really departed from this staple; it used many of the traditional aspects of a super-robot anime in establishing its world and then consistently undermined them in making the heroes never quite in control. It is not as simple as the need to pull out a new weapon in order to win – in many cases there are no adequate weapons and a completely new strategy is required for victory.
By making the heroes thus so out of control – both in direct terms as their machines are never exactly suited for the job and more indirectly as their insecurities destroy them as people – Evangelion arguably was a fresh look at its genre from an action as much as a narrative standpoint. Much of the appeal of its fight scenes is in seeing how elaborate contingency plans and desperate innovations are used to overcome enemies – and indeed how by the end of the series direct combat is pretty much impossible. It clearly painted the super robot as the underdog and then as a further kick in the teeth robbed it of the will to win from the pilot and as a result is an interesting show; fully half of it or more adheres closely to stock super-robot episode structures and enemy archetypes, only without the breaking of setting rules through willpower and determination that usually follows.
This underdog-robot subgenre in turn would inspire other more cynical looks at both the super-robot genre and other genres, arguably leading in part to Madoka Magica many years later. Of these derivative works the two most notable are Rahxephon and Fafner of the Azure – one of which takes the subgenre somewhere interesting and the other which arguably misses the point of it entirely. This pair of articles will begin with the reasons why Fafner fails. As mentioned above, a key part of Evangelion‘s appeal was in that it downplayed the power and inherent superiority of the super-robot. The machines were barely understood, fallible, reliant on pilots who had no desire to pilot them at times and often completely uncontrollable and it was this which made the series so interesting; the victories came easiest when the machines acted on their own in a way which transcended the expected genre elements – the first fight ends with Eva Unit 01 rejecting its pilot and fighting literally in self-defence. Rather than the pilot having a last-minute epiphany and mastering his role, instead the machine takes over and does what the viewer expects, decisively winning. What makes these moments in Evangelion more interesting is that the machine then carries on – rather than the usual win and happy ending, these last-minute saves end in utter carnage. Moments of competence and power are thus negatively portrayed from the start.
By contrast, Fafner loses even this arguable subtlety. Its machines are presented from the start as mass-produced units (with variants up to Mark XI already existing) owned by a professional organisation with the clout and resources of its inspiration, Evangelion‘s NERV. Yet while the Evangelions both have the capacity to win with some strategy and also the fallback of their uncontrollable sentience, the Fafners have nothing. In concerted attempts to built pathos and present humanity as on the back foot they are shown under-equipped in combat despite the appropriate weapons being available, their core weaponry ultimately useless against their enemies from the start (whereas Evangelion has its machines’ weapons begin effective to a degree and has the enemies adapt to avoid them) and their pilots irrepressibly stupid.
The result is a completely unsubtle and contrived situation which evokes more than anything a conspiracy to get as many Fafner pilots killed as possible, thus destroying much suspension of disbelief in how mankind has survived to this point. The enemies are shown to be well-known to the force established to fight them, the program of building Fafners and training their pilots is shown to be well-established and yet the organisation is still presented as completely inept at doing its job. This goes beyond simply being an underdog situation and straight into awkward emotional manipulation; inadequacy simply turns into convenient stupidity. The Evangelions carry weapons which may or may not work against completely inscrutable foes and it is that uncertainty that makes the fights interesting; the Fafners go into battle with weapons that definitely do not, strategies that are completely unsuited to fighting enemies with known capabilities. As a result, a supposed emotional sequence when a pilot self-destructs her machine to protect others, notwithstanding the overbearingly saccharine setting of the scene itself, seems to epitomise Fafner‘s failing as a work inspired by Evangelion; it is clearly shown only six episodes into the series that self-destructing your robot is more effective a weapon than anything it is equipped with.
As a final note, it is worth contrasting that sequence with a similar one in Evangelion, which comes much later on in the series. The scene in which taciturn and enigmatic Rei self-destructs her own Evangelion to try and destroy a rampaging enemy is melodramatically framed but set within the plot as the last possible option after all else has failed; strategies that usually would work have not worked and the protagonist is out of action.
In the second of these articles I will consider Rahxephon from a different angle; while Fafner shows the limitations of the underdog-robot archetype, Rahxephon instead plays up the mysticism and inscrutable power of the protagonist and its terrifying potential for carnage.