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.
Yet it is only one side of the coin; as much as many of these series focus on the desperate struggle of society against an enemy that defies usual tactics, there is also the recurring shadow of inscrutable and incomprehensible power which offers an easy way out if it can only be harnessed. The most iconic scenes in Evangelion are those where the protagonists have no control; it is ultimately a series based around an enduring sense of powerlessness with the most “traditional” victories in genre terms – the one-sided inevitable beatdowns of the enemy – not at all the results of the protagonist’s actions. Indeed, this brutality being anything but controlled becomes a key plot point as the organisation NERV seek to remove the pilot completely from the equation, resulting in an utter loss of control at a key fight. Themes of power being hard to control, and of heroes coming to terms with their abilities, are central to any superhero narrative but Evangelion takes it a step further; the users of the power are told almost nothing about what they are dealing with in order that those controlling them can hide the gaps in their own knowledge.
The series Rahxephon, heavily inspired by Evangelion, plays this quasi-mystical side of the subgenre up in the same way Fafner bogged itself down in stressing the technological disparity. At its core, it has a similar structure; protagonist Ayato encounters a mysterious almost-sentient machine which gives him the power to challenge alien creatures that threaten a society on the back foot. Yet the machine, Rahxephon, has no human or technological component; as Evangelion progresses, the machines are shown to be awkward and incomplete attempts to harness sentient creatures as weapons by combining them with man-made elements and giving them weapons. Rahxephon has instead a machine that exists outside of human technology, capable of fighting its enemies by using their own technology. All humanity can do is simply look after it. In this way, the atmosphere of the incomprehensible and uncanny becomes the main focus – even in the direct analogues in character terms between the two series (Rei Ayanami and Quan Kisaragi, for example), the difference in setting is visible. Rei is shown, in time, to be the product of human science and ultimately an experiment. Quan is instead more literally supernatural, as by the end of Rahxephon all semblance of actual science has failed and become superceded by the mystical and supernatural.
In this way, every fight in Rahxephon has the uncertainty and uncontrollability of the most memorable of Evangelion’s. In the latter series, there were encounters that relied on human ingenuity and those that relied on the berserk fury of the Eva Units. The former, however, has a more physical nature; the fights are a matter of waiting for the Rahxephon itself to do something. On a fundamental level, this can be seen as unsatisfying fight choreography; many of the battles are slow-paced and end in quick climaxes of unrestrained carnage with far less of the inventiveness and insane secret weapons of Evangelion. Similarly, there is less scope for ensemble combat as the unit is shown to be completely unique and impossible to compare with anything man-made. Yet these decisions are intentional ones that can equally easily be seen as the series’ strength; if Evangelion was the first step in rejecting the structures of the super-robot genre, Rahxephon is the culmination of this process into a series of battles where even the pilot is essentially a spectator.
Here, one of the most obvious points of comparison between the two series becomes significant. In both series, there is a sequence where the protagonist’s machine destroys one which leads to a friend of theirs becoming either killed or seriously injured. In Evangelion, it occurs when an Angel (the recurring enemies) possesses a prototype Eva Unit with the pilot still inside; protagonist Shinji hesitates as he fears for the pilot’s safety and so NERV use an untested autopilot system to bring out the machine’s brutal side and destroy the enemy with no concern for life. The pilot, who has been unable to make a hard decision, is thus a spectator to the same kind of unrestrained combat that has become a constant background threat throughout the series, except this time there are immediately visible consequences.
Rahxephon‘s use of the moment is almost a structural opposite; it comes at a time when Ayato has been having doubts about his role as a pilot and finally, upon the arrival of an enemy, toughens up and goes to do his duty. However, the viewer knows information he does not fully understand – that the enemies are all linked to a host human and killing one will kill the other. In this case, the host human is Ayato’s former girlfriend who has, just before he decided to fight, been building up to admitting this fact to him. Thus the battle begins as Ayato fights with full agency and brutality – for once accepting the Rahxephon’s inherent desire to destroy its foes – against an enemy who does not want to fight. As he demolishes the enemy, it tries to communicate to him what is happening but he fails to realise what has occurred until it is far too late. In this case, in a series which has hitherto been about Ayato unwillingly being a spectator in the Rahxephon, the moment where he chooses to fight as hard as he can is the time when he kills a close friend by doing so. It is thematically the same kind of reversal of fortune as when Shinji balks at fighting his own friend and for once the contingency – the uncontrollable violence of the Eva Unit – comes off at the right time.
With this example in mind, a better picture of the underdog-robot genre emerges; it effectively is divided along a line between emphasising the inadequacy of technology in a fight against a superior enemy, playing on traditional superhero narratives that go back in the super-robot genre to the very opening sequence of Mazinger Z in which modern jet fighters die in droves to a Godzilla-like monster and between framing its protagonists as spectators in a fight they do not understand and are cursed if they meddle in. The former theme, one can argue, is a kind of “dark” spin on the traditional alien-invasion narrative; the Evangelions and Fafners are shown as mankind’s decisive weapon to fight the enemy, and still not quite enough – as was shown a decade or so earlier in Baldios. The latter theme is more drawn from series such as Ideon, where the action is methodical and violent because the machines involved are simply so powerful that mankind is necessarily sidelined. Arguably this latter comes to a kind of culmination still beyond Rahxephon’s divine machines in Bokurano, where every single fight has a horrific human cost as a simple prerequisite to operate the machine.