As of episode 9 of Rahxephon, it seems that the established traditional super-robot arc is coming to an end; the mysteries about the supernatural, anti-technological aspects are coming to the fore and it is reveals there is something significant about Quan as well as Reika. In some ways the dream episode just seen could be unsatisfying; there is a mixture of pouring new mysteries onto those that are still not fully known, and almost-straightforward expository revelations. Yet this ambiguity – the way in which simply explaining something has been subverted by the cast – is ultimately the driving force of the plot.
A common theme in super-robot animé is that of the voyage of self-discovery, or the coming-of-age story; this is in essence a holdover from its more superhero-esque roots. What the duty of fighting in a robot achieves is providing structure and responsibility for the pilot, who often begins as rebellious or unsuited to fighting. This comes with their learning both about the machine they pilot and its conflicts – the enemies and so on – but also about how important their job is and how they must develop as a person. In the simplest sense this is a kind of bravado or machismo, the archetypal “fighting spirit” theme where determination and aggression wins out over trickery. Yet Rahxephon quite opposes this; Ayato is never given the chance to improve via teaching because there is no knowledgeable base for him to start from or learn from. TERRA keep him as in the dark as possible because it suits their agenda, and as Episode 9’s scenes involving Makoto and Kisaragi suggested, humanity simply does not understand the Rahxephon. Ayato is pressing into unknown territory in piloting it and so his relationship with it – and its relationship with society – is skewed. The scientific, technological super-robot, built perhaps with not quite understood science but nevertheless designed, is something that can be developed and controlled. It is when the provenance of the robot is unknown, and its abilities are secret, that the pilot’s journey is redefined.
Consider Rahxephon in the light of The Ideon; they are remarkably similar in how their protagonist’s machines are found in unusual circumstances and appropriated in the face of an overwhelming threat. As a result each revelation about their power and purpose is presented as a surprise to the characters – and in The Ideon this has fatal consequences. The Rahxephon is in a similar situation; it is shown as symbolically emerging from an egg and latching on to Ayato, before joining TERRA. It acts at its strongest when Ayato is not controlling it, or is losing his grip on it. Ayato’s narrative journey is not one of self-improvement via his job of piloting the robot, it is two journeys – self-discovery via his interactions with Quan, Haruka et al and a personal quest to understand the Rahxephon and the Mu. This is perhaps summed up best by the closing lines of the credits theme, Maaya Sakamoto’s Hemisphere; “I just defiantly face the utterly unpredictable world/I want to know about myself.” Musically, Hemisphere is an interesting song; its end-point in the opening credits of Rahxephon is unusually paced, with a long melodic section between the two final lines. This is the opening to Mazinger Z, one of the very first super-robot animé:
It ends, like most TV themes, very clearly and definitely. The credits end (in this case with a recapitulation of the title as was common in a lot of older animé) and the song reaches a melodic stopping-point. Hemisphere, on the other hand, dies away; the melody is broken and the long gap before the distinctly inconclusive final line suits the lyrics – and by extension the tone of the series – well.
Episode 10 itself, though, begins with a straight return to super-robot visuals and themes; a Dolem is attacking and fighter planes are engaged in a fruitless battle with it. This kind of a one-sided battle is a visual cliché of super-robots, used (as shown above) in Mazinger Z and so many series thereafter. The battle is short and decisive; Elvy and her wingmen distract the Dolem, and Ayato kills it in one sword-blow. Immediately there is something unusual here; Ayato is operating the Rahxephon heroically and in an atypically confident way. Even the operators comment on this (and in some ways comment on the entire arc that has built up for this, calling it “the guest Dolem of the day” in reference perhaps to the “monster-of-the-week” episode structure trope common to super-robots), while Haruka and Kunugi admit Ayato is improving as a pilot. After an episode dedicated to showing how little anyone knows, and how this ambiguity precludes traditional forms of development, Rahxephon is apparently defying expectations. Their conversation continues in this interesting vein; Haruka claims Ayato’s doubts about fighting are all but gone, while Kunugi reminds her that no soldier is ever without doubt. All the inference is that off-screen, in the ill-defined time between episode 9’s hallucinations and this episode’s efficient combat, Ayato has undergone some stages of a typical robot-pilot’s journey.
Another passing of time occurs; after the title card it is revealed a month has passed without many attacks, and once again (evoking a past episode’s crisis) Kunugi delegates command of TERRA to Souichi. Everything about this is setting up a typical super-robot crisis of the kind Rahxephon has done before; the commander is absent, there is an attack of some kind (and thus the apparently easy fight pre-title is redefined in super-robot cliches to be a possible setup for an ambush like the snowstorm episode) – yet apparently the focus will be Kunugi. Today is apparently a memorial service for victims of the Mu, and his distrust of the Federation is restated as he questions the motives behind it. Each character in turn is given a little focus in this time of peace – Ayato is shown to be finally comfortable around Megumi, Quan is off on an errand and the operators are joking about. Everything depicted is predictable for a super-robot animé and this slavish predictability is uncanny. Even in the most formulaic episodes there have been the ongoing mysteries of the series to complicate things, but this episode’s opening is too idyllic. Their joking about continues until Makoto enters the scene, complaining that nobody at TERRA takes their duty (saving the world) seriously enough. As soon as he is gone, however, everyone returns to their human side; two of the male operators talk about their feelings for Quan and find Ayato’s revelation that she is on an errand surprising; when Kim points out the mysterious “Jin” she is headed over to is Kunugi himself the absurdity of it all is shown. It has been established he is taciturn, but that none of the junior officers actually know his name is presented as utterly ridiculous. Indeed, this entire scene – which began with Ayato speaking of how it was “a day for strange things” is much more reliant on exaggerated style, animation smears and caricatures than much of Rahxephon. Visually the series is mostly quite stylistically plain, with muted colours and unassuming character designs. Exaggeration and stylisation is used sparingly to accentuate scenes of levity, and so an extended use of it as here stands out.
By the end of the scene, when Ayato, Souichi and Megumi are inordinately excited about basic things like phone calls, the humour has begun to become unsettling in a way; it has a kind of falseness to it from being so incongruous with the general tone of the series. While Rahxephon is undeniably a very human super-robot story, and indeed has much humour in it, this scene in TERRA is particularly heightened and absurd. It is, arguably, an evocation (like the pre-title fight, for example) of the genre’s roots – playing into the general theme that since the setup of the episode is so predictable the payoff will be too. Yet what follows is a very sudden change of tone; Kim and Souichi talk about Quan’s status in a very unusual way, saying her role is similar to Ayato’s. The phrasing here of the dialogue is interestingly ambiguous; Souchi says Ayato is “a civilian with special status” because “he can pilot the Rahxephon”, while Quan is “similar”; since so little is known about Quan – save that in times when the Rahxephon has been in trouble she has acted unusually – there is an interesting ambiguity here about her exact relationship with it and TERRA. This is followed by a scene of Kunugi listening in a darkened room to a recording of a girl, apparently his daughter, talking about how much she misses him – which then fades to static.
Thus begins the episode’s real crisis setup; Kisaragi has discovered Quan’s violin-playing (alluded to in a very brief scene pre-titles) has strange effects on plant life, causing plants to mutate. Immediately the episode is tied into its preceding one; that talked of an “instrumentalist” who could “retune the world” and suddenly that is happening in a literal sense. Ayato comments on how the music is unnatural, making him feel “sadder and sadder”, and containing “a sense of dissonance.” As the viewer finally hears the piece, the action returns to Kunugi’s movement around the city; he is buying a new watch and this sociable act – the first we have seen him do on his day off – brings the now-predictable interruption of Futagami. His consistent presence at exactly the right place at the right time has gone beyond the suggestion of simply being a spy and is now in a strange position between running joke and evocation of the supernatural elements of the series. The idea of an obnoxious, inquisitive man keep turning up in other characters’ plot arcs would be amusing, but by this point in Rahxephon the amusing, human parts of the series have begun to be associated with ulterior motives. The juxtaposition of this amusing scene with a return to Quan – now apparently frantic that her music is not perfect – brings the action back around. Kisaragi points out that Quan’s ranting is essentially the same as Ayato’s criticism of her music, picking up on the Olen name that has been alluded to. Her response is interesting – “Because Olen and Quan are alike.” It evokes Souichi’s unusual phrasing earlier, and makes the possible connection much stronger.
Yet what follows is the kind of expositional break in action that defines Rahxephon; the viewer has got close to understanding something and now, to mimic Ayato’s constantly frustrated journey of development, the goal-posts are moved again. Futagami talks about the first Mu attacks with Kunugi, claiming humanity fired first and paid a grave price. A series of conspiracies followed – the commander responsible framed another officer for the attack, and then ensured that that fall guy was also held responsible for a subsequent futile attack against the Mu with illegal weaponry which cost thousands of lives. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the officer was Kunugi, and the “truth” of his past is now known – this expository moment has clarified much about TERRA’s past. Futagami’s role is now quite clear, really; he seems to very much be an unnaturally knowledgeable and powerful figure who moves at random and exposes the “truth” about the past. What the interlude has done, though, is brought an end to the seriousness of the scenes with Quan and Kisaragi; the humour is back in fine style as Haruka and Elvy tease Ayato and Megumi, leading into the conclusion of this story arc. Haruka accidentally reveals how much she knows about Kunugi’s past while trying to hide it from Megumi, while Elvy asks Ayato plainly how long he will continue to pilot the Rahxephon. Interestingly, his answer is left blank, and Megumi’s subsequent desire to be constantly moving onwards to new things suggests both are uneasy with their short meeting. Here again comes Futagami, still the uncanny, omniscient figure. He provides the last piece in the puzzle that is Kunugi – the identity of the mysterious girl from earlier. She is his daughter, and it is her birthday.
The limitations of Futagami’s viewpoint are then shown as the viewer sees Kunugi’s meeting – his apparent daughter is all but estranged as he ignored her while she was young, and has long ignored him. The only reason they have met this time is because it is the final time – she is leaving Japan and her father and taking on a new identity. Yet even so it is still a strange scene – Kunugi’s daughter is the one who wrote the music Quan is playing, and provides the missing page that completes the melody. Megumi, watching from a distance and speculating wildly, claims that her woman’s intuition lets her guess what happened, while Ayato claims that family issues can be more complex – another reference to his life back in Tokyo. As the episode ends with Kunugi giving Quan the music and the piece being completed, we see one final aspect of the story; the person who had previously been framed as his estranged daughter was, in fact, not. He is standing in front of the grave of a Michiru Kunugi, who died aged 10 at the time of the failed attack he presided over. What this final tragic revelation does is set into one final new context all of the mood-swings and surreal scenes before – this has been an episode about coping with grief and trying to hide secrets. Rahxephon is almost at its best when the robots are completely absent – episodes like this demonstrate how the adherence to genre staples can be just one of many misdirections in a series founded on ambiguity.