The emphasis of episode 14 of Rahxephon is – despite its opening with more cryptic conversations between Haruka and Futagami – almost entirely on the arrival of the prototype of a mass-production super robot, bringing together two sets of expectations. In mecha animé the prototype is generally the ace unit, and the new Vermilion unit lives up to this cliché with its red colouration and the fact it is piloted by Elvy, a character shown to be the most capable of the TERRA support pilots. Yet Rahxephon, being a super-robot animé, has its own set of cliches surrounding the arrival of a human-made robot – the viewer will likely expect it to be doomed to fail simply because it is piloted by a side-character.
Super-robot animé are focused around a heroic protagonist and sidekicks whose mission is to facilitate their victory; for whatever reason, only the hero is usually capable of ultimately defeating the enemies that attack them. In Rahxephon‘s case this has been made clear from the start – Ayato is the only pilot for the machine, and it is the only machine even remotely comparable to the Mu’s weapons. This has been in some ways reflected by the story; the standing military of TERRA have all but been written out of episodes, and this tension was reflected when Elvy was present. In episode 14, the opposite is the case – Ayato is absent from the Vermilion tests which begin the episode, and his absence has been noted in a way Elvy’s sidelining has not apparently been. Yet something else is missing from the tests – any kind of opposition. It tests its strongest weapon against an island, a stationary, inert target – and that weapon is presented visually as operating similarly to an atomic bomb. This can be seen in two ways – either as a total missing of the point of a super robot, or a too-slavish adherence to the design ethos. Super-robot combat is based around ponderous, almost ritualised attacks and the long wind-up on the Vermilion’s beam cannon is really no different to the very slow bow-and-arrow the Rahxephon uses. Similarly the visuals of its machine-gun firing across the ocean’s surface are framed very clearly in mecha animé visuals – but the visuals of missed shots and ineffectual gestures. Even in tests – which are apparently impressing the people of TERRA – the Vermilion is apparently flashy in its uselesness for actual combat. Yet the truth of it is made clear after the test – its aim is not specifically one-versus-one combat but instead formation en masse to annihilate Tokyo Jupiter and carry out a genocide against the Mu. Here pseudo-nuclear weapons and a strong ground-attack capability are vital – the beam will punch through the barrier around the city, and then the gunnery will aid in destroying buildings. It offers the sidelined pilots a chance to be useful through indiscriminate killing.
This tension between aggressive units and defensive ones is very in keeping with the cliches of super-robot animé; other good examples include Kokubogar from Terrestrial Defence Corp Daiguard and even the Dragoons from Metal Armour Dragonar. The first of these is particularly interesting – Daiguard is a show parodically self-aware in its handling of super-robot cliches, yet very different in execution to Rahxephon. It exaggerates the bureaucracy and idiosyncracy of the genre – the protagonists are a employees of a private company that operates in open conflict with the public-sector alternative of the military, meaning they are simultaneously hyper-accountable for their actions (in the eyes of shareholders) but also theoretically possessed of significant latitude in how they approach a problem (compared to the military, which is answerable to the government). Daiguard‘s “Rival Robot” arc begins from the start with Kokubogar shown to be superior in every way to the outdated Daiguard and built – much as the Vermilion is – to attack the enemy head-on. The difference is that it has pilots who are purely good at theoretical combat and operates within too limited an environment; Elvy in the Vermilion operates under the same mandate as Ayato in the Rahxephon, and where that mandate does not suit the needs of the Bahbem Foundation who built it, it will be changed. She has been shown to be a skilled pilot in an outdated machine now being given the chance to be a hero. To turn to the second example, the Dragoons – Dragonar‘s analogue to the GM from Mobile Suit Gundam – are when used by the protagonists powerful machines, combining all the best aspects of the D-series robots. Yet fielded en masse they are useless because they are piloted by a demoralised and untrained force. The unifying factor here – and other examples could be provided such as Aquarion‘s Assault Aquarion, Evangelion‘s Jet Alone or Dummy Plug system (taking the trope in two directions in one series) or even Energer Z from Shin Mazinger – is that for whatever reason, a “Rival Robot” must have a failing. In order that the protagonist can have redemption, or a moment of victory over a rival, the supposedly “superior” unit must not be superior. Usually – and here extrapolating the cliche’s progression invites obvious speculation for Rahxephon – this comes as a result of the “authorities” failing to understand what makes the super-robot effective. The supernatural, or super-science, aspect is misused or used without knowing how to control it. The crucial weapon is absent or poorly implemented. The rival must fail. Notably, Evangelion considers this quite interestingly by implying strongly that NERV sabotages Jet Alone even though it is obviously useless in its stated aim – precluding the inevitable defeat that comes from the complacency created by a successful test.
Yet what this does is create a conflict – both for a genre-savvy viewer, and for Souichi who alongside Kunugi acts as the audience-analogue in TERRA. Firstly there is a major blindspot in the plan – the Vermilion is not being shown as designed to fight Dolems (thus requiring a Rahxephon or some other unit for dealing with strong single enemies), and is in fact being shown to be a purely offensive unit. Its raison d’etre is the annihilation of the Mu, not the protection of humanity as the Rahxephon is currently serving. Souichi raises this issue to Elvy, and their differences of character are made clear. He is not – even if this is how the other characters see him – a principled pacifist, that exaggerated anti-war voice particularly common in Gundam series or in Lynn Kaifun in Macross. Instead, in his uncertainty about the idea of a fleet of Vermilions annihilating Tokyo in nuclear fire, he is a principled soldier, wary of indiscriminate destruction of non-combatants. He appreciates the Rahxephon as a defensive weapon and TERRA’s role as a protective organisation, happy to let the Federation deal with the moral quandaries of winning the war against the Mu. On the surface this is quite a noble stance – he knows Ayato is a Mu (as becomes clear) and thus has seen that they both have non-combatants and also have the capacity for co-existence. In contrast, Elvy (who up until now did not know Ayato was a Mu) is appalled by the idea that Souichi – and TERRA more generally – could have any sympathy for the “enemy.” She has been, in her appearances throughout the series, increasingly opposed to TERRA largely as a result of Haruka’s less-than-perfect operation to extract Ayato from Tokyo and the revelation that he is not even human is too much for her.
Souichi operates on a different definition of humanity to her – he asks if she really thinks “Ayato’s less human” despite being an alien. After all, he has acted in humanity’s best interests. Yet this scene can be considered from the opposite perspective; Souichi makes a principled stand for the humanity of the Mu in order to justify TERRA not adopting the Vermilion as a frontline unit and to rationalise the use of the Rahxephon defensively. He is completely in favour, it seems, of the Federation prosecuting an offensive war – and it has been shown throughout the series that Souichi and Kunugi have dealt enough with the Federation to know their methods. Thus his principles seem hollow; he personally does not want to be involved in a war, yet would not apparently object too strongly to the decisions being made by someone else. Elvy’s response is thus similarly interesting; she is as enraged at Souichi’s equivocation at the idea that she has protected an “enemy.” She sees him – perhaps rightly – as a hypocrite, someone who wants both to take the moral high ground of having reached out to the Mu via Ayato but also who wants to be a hero and saviour of humanity. This argument concludes with Ayato having overheard it and running out – ostensibly shocked at Elvy’s words. However, Rahxephon once again wrong-foots the viewer. Ayato, in a subsequent conversation with Souichi, reveals he didn’t know he was a Mu. He was aware his mother was, but had not fully comprehended what that meant. His acceptance of his own reason for existing being to pilot had become so complete he was the compliant hero that TERRA needed, and had become used to this. Ayato and Souichi compare their failings – Ayato has nothing, apparently, to live for now he has lost his faith in his duty, while Souichi finally admits he is a coward (in line with what Elvy has said). In this way the episode touches on another genre staple – what could be called the “alien prince” stereotype, examples including Duke Freed in UFO Robot Grendizer and – in fashions far closer to Rahxephon’s handling of it – Marin in Space Warrior Baldios and Loran Cehak in Turn-A Gundam. The alien defector leading humanity’s resistance, and the conflict this creates with those who want humans to be supreme, drives character development in super-robot series. This revelation and the inevitable fallout could have been their own plot arc in Rahxephon – yet by combining it with the “Rival Robot” storyline, the focus is quite changed. Ayato’s nature being revealed provides the catalyst for attempts at reconciliation between the Vermilion and the Rahxephon failing, and also drives forward Elvy’s desire to see humanity grow stronger. In many ways the sidelined side-characters are brought sharply back into the spotlight by their justified alienation of the previously-considered “good” characters. There is less scope for a natural catharsis – while the Vermilion exists and is competent, there is not the need for the moment of realisation that without the “alien prince” humanity is doomed.
Come the episode’s climactic battle, against a pair of moth-like D1s, the viewer is likely to be watching for two things – the Vermilion’s inevitable failure and the moment where Ayato and Elvy will come to confrontation and end up resolving their differences. Neither happens. The Rahxephon is proved to be almost powerless against the Mu, bursting onto the scene, missing its shot (resulting in both units being trapped) and then failing to kill the D1 even after helping escape the trap. The Vermilion kills the D1 – and it is suggested, had Ayato not interceded (to try and reconcile himself with Elvy by helping her) she would have not been on too bad a footing. Furthermore, Ayato’s method of “escaping” the trap is by apparently shooting the Vermilion, making their conflict worse. Thus the episode ends with Elvy and Ayato in a standoff, guns primed at each other – there has neither been the inevitable comeuppance of the Bahbem Foundation resulting from the Vermilion’s destruction nor Elvy’s being saved by Ayato to iron out their differences. The episode has built up to this scene throughout – the overwhelming sense is that despite attempts to reconcile, nobody actually wants to. Elvy’s perception of the Vermilion has changed from a chance to relieve Ayato from the stress of duty to a chance to put victory back in human hands from Mu ones.