Episode 6 of Rahxephon was perhaps the first to properly follow the structure of a super-robot animé episode, with its setup of an enemy showing its power, the creation of a plan to fight it and then the fight itself, in which the enemy’s unique ability caused setbacks which had to be overcome with special abilities from Ayato’s machine. Yet it was something more than that formula mostly due to the history within the setting ascribed to the enemy. Most super-robot series have a new monster each episode created at its start by the enemy to do battle with the hero, but the Dolem from episode 6 was shown to be a seasoned weapon of the Mu which had previously destroyed much of Australia. The episode was thus as much about Kim’s coming to terms with this and taking part in the fight as Ayato’s continued quest for acceptance and understanding his position.
In the first of my series of articles about how GAINAX approach the traditional cliches and tropes of super-robot and space opera animé, I talked about Gunbuster‘s use of heroic sacrifices – and quite specific evocations of Space Battleship Yamato – to juxtapose a personal story and a traditional genre one. As Gunbuster progresses it takes the genre archetypes larger in scale with each battle; first Noriko’s desperate first fight in which Smith dies, then her first launch in the Gunbuster itself, culminating in a final battle where the super-prototype and the unified fleet come together to fight a last stand defending a yet greater superweapon. The escalation of the odds each time reflects Noriko’s development and her personal journey to excel.
The first two episodes of Rahxephon built its setting up through continually changing the goalposts of what information the viewer had; each answered question so significantly changed the perception of the setting that it created new ones in turn. Yet finally the viewer has the best possible picture of what they are dealing with; the Rahxephon itself is a superweapon similar in kind to the Mu’s other terror weapons the Dolems. Securing it – and its apparently chosen pilot Ayato, the Olen who the Mu are eager to track down – is the mission of a human strike force sent into Mu-occupied Tokyo.
In the previous article in this series I focused on one of the two main features of what I called the “underdog-robot” subgenre of super-robot anime – the technological disparity between mankind and its enemies. The genre is based on the subversion of the traditional inherently superior hero archtype – while traditionally in the superhero or super-robot genre, the protagonist is at least able to fight on an even technological or power footing with the enemies (setting them ahead of the “ordinary” characters who cannot), a series like the previously-mentioned Evangelion takes a different approach. In it, the “best” that can be put forward is generally shown to be inadequate in some way, or unpredictably effective. While in a series like Fafner this balance of power is skewed too far against the heroes to make their continued success and survival seem likely, when done well it forms the core of a genre based around innovative action and a different kind of dramatic tension to the norm.
Note: This article contains significant plot information about Rahxephon, especially Episode 19.
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.
The question of whether new media and popular culture can be usefully studied, or is in some way relevant beyond the superficial, is an apparently endless debate and one which is often used as a stick with which to attack academia; universities are accused of devaluing their courses by expanding them to include new media, or studying works of fiction not sufficiently “serious”.