After the “invisible” fifteenth episode of Rahxephon, the story returns to its main narrative after some time has passed; Elvy and the Vermilion are conspicuously absent, and the focus is still on the Bahbem children, now adults. Episode 16 is a dense episode, focusing on the delicately collapsing relationships of the main cast and culminating in a series of examinations of how the characters react to arguments and efforts to finally set the past lies aside. There is a constant tension between the expectations of maturity and openness that the younger cast have, and the ease with which adults – being positioned as authority figures – can lie, and need to lie. At its core, the episode’s actual progression of the story is minimal; it does not clarify anything about the conflict with Elvy, and its actual forward motion occurs entirely in the final scene. However, as a more self-contained episode, it shows in great detail the tiny events which all motivate the characters to move the plot on.
What becomes apparent by the end of the episode is that up to that final scene, it has avoided the robot at the centre of the plot as if it is some awkward topic that nobody is prepared to discuss. Given it was last seen in direct conflict with an ally, there is a thematic relevance to this – it has gone from humanity’s saviour to fallible embarrassment and all that can be discussed is cagey theory about what must be done. The Bahbem Foundation are blunt about the cause of the problem, Ayato – the poor “facsimile” who must produce results of be sent “to a concentration camp.” Even if exactly how Ayato ended up being this persona non grata – how the situation left at the end of episode 14 was resolved – is being ignored, and hanging as an indistinct spectre in the narrative, it is raising questions of belonging and the point where tolerance ends. Ayato is not useful any more – his star is fading while the “original” – apparently Quan – is rising. The series has touched on themes of doppelgangers and identity before – Reika and Quan both seem to exist outside of the bounds of what is real and understandable, while the world of the Mu is a carefully constructed fiction to keep its inhabitants content. At the end of the episode, as the scene builds to Ayato’s moment of epiphany which will bring about the climax, Quan’s ethereal nature is emphasised in the visuals. The progression of the scene becomes fragmented and hard to follow, with a simple conversation cut up with quick cuts and background changes that imply movement, but do not show it. At the very end of the episode, this supernatural disjointedness is set against another kind of construction; Itsuki tells Haruka that she “was never there” and that the unexpected events which have just been witnessed will be covered up. Trying to find or hide the truth – and even simply understand events which are witnessed but apparently inexplicable – is key in this episode of myriad collapsing deceits.
The main part of the episode, after the “completion” of the Bahbem subplot’s scene, begins with a much more down-to-earth and apparently trivial take on identity and authenticity. Megumi is looking for support from Ayato for her upcoming examinations to support her application to work at TERRA, and he is unresponsive. She talks of becoming a “real” member, ending her trainee status, as if this will make her fit in better. However, Ayato is unsympathetic; he is more concerned about finding some way of learning the truth about TERRA’s complicity in deceiving him about being a Mu. The Rahxephon, and its pilot, are personae non gratae at the moment within this story. It is thus fitting that Megumi’s examination involves a simulated situation where TERRA loses control of Ayato; contingencies for his failure and schemes surrounding him, precisely the things he is apparently raging against, exist outside of his knowledge – and to be accepted within TERRA, Megumi must become part of them. For her, though, the exam means something else; passing will be the impetus she needs to confess her love to an unknown man, a total fresh start and – as a subsequent scene of her shopping for lingerie shows – a total depiction of maturation both in professional terms and personal ones.
From this beginning the two parallel declines begin; Ayato confronts Kunugi about being a Mu and is faced only with Director Shitow’s non-explanations he will not listen to, while Megumi sees Kim already dating the man she is interested in. Megumi’s personal rejection is mirrored visually in a scene where Makoto is abandoned by his own partner and confidante, with the same motif of the abandoned shopping-bag, containing an outfit intended to seduce and impress. The visuals of the bag of clothes – either held close or left for someone else to find – are a neat visual device to represent solidarity and distance. Yet while Ayato’s conflict with Kunugi is left to simmer and eventually boils over (to form the climax of the episode), it runs parallel with the resolution of Megumi and Kim’s story. Kim is truly contrite about what she has inadvertantly done to Megumi, and it is through this openness that the two women can reconcile. This offers a moment of hope which is then itself destroyed in the episode’s climax, but it is how the aftermath of that initial moment of realisation on the train is played out – through interactions with Ayato and Haruka – that makes this episode so intriguing.
Ayato interrupts Kunugi discussing Megumi’s fate with Souichi in a scene which redefines Kunugi’s “self-awareness.” Rahxephon is a series which engages with the fourth wall in its visuals and metanarrative – good examples include the changing picture size for the dream sequence and the “invisible” fifteenth episode – but whose most self-aware and knowing character, Kunugi, does not show it. A series like Martian Successor Nadesico engages with the audience’s expectations directly in how its characters, like those in its audience it is pointing at, define their interactions via animé. Kunugi, in his acting in a way which apparently predicts Ayato’s moments of stereotypical super robot heroism, could be that character – he could equally be Bright Noa in ZZ Gundam, changing his personal code pre-emptively because it has been so often proved wrong. Instead, he does not; his conversation with Souichi, in which he delegates the matter of Megumi’s promotion because Souichi is so fond of acting on his own impulses, shows self-awareness manifesting as passivity. Kunugi is powerless, and the audience is coming to realise this. He has a pilot who is intractable and only pilots out of a mixture of duty and coercion, an organisation constantly undermined by Makoto and the Federation, and a robot which never acts how anyone expects it to. Faced with this combination of events, knowing, cynical passivity seems the logical response.
Yet in this case – when he for once relies on the secrecy non-engagement offers, and lets Director Shitow try and defuse the situation, he is making the wrong decision. Ayato thinks he wants simple answers, and no more half-truths or analogies – thus he leaves, in the first of several dramatic exits that simply let discontent stew. Ayato is only able to find answers in himself, through talking with Megumi; both of them are at rock bottom and finally realise true recovery and reconciliation can only come through talking out problems. He admits his own fear, and how he is worried that being a Mu will stop him living the useful lie of his new surrogate family – he has almost forgotten his life back in Tokyo, and now has been reminded of it. The fear of everything collapsing that motivates Ayato is being played out across the episode; it has led to Haruka and Kunugi losing control of their plans, the Bahbem Foundation rushing to capitalise on it via Quan (the one agent they can still control closely) and thus Megumi’s love life becomes a secondary problem easily resolved. She turns up to work, and following momentary awkwardness talks her problem through with Kim and that is that. Megumi can do this, and in so doing finds a kind of solace that motivates her to approach Ayato. Ayato, on the other hand, cannot; he confronts Haruka as he did Kunugi, and this time does not even wait for an answer. She tries to offer him reassurance, and all he can do is accuse her – truthfully – of lying and walk out. Each of these scenes has Ayato run further away from his “family” and closer to Bahbem and Quan, until the climax of the episode – Quan encourages him to take the Rahxephon and return to Tokyo with her, leaving, once again, everyone betrayed. Megumi and Haruka have finally tried to seek reconciliation and closeness at the point where Ayato has decided to abandon them.
A scene midway through the episode where Megumi is talking with Haruka nicely addresses the episode’s handling of honesty and sincerity; Megumi sees Haruka drinking and claims adults have it easy because they can “forget [their] worries” with alcohol. Haruka, by now as her confrontation with Ayato will show far too late to defuse the situation, counters by saying that “that’s the lie the grownups tell,” and that the constant efforts to deceive are “harder on the one who lies.” This seems as evasive as Kunugi’s cynicism; Haruka is speaking here from what she perceives as a strong position, one where with platitudes she can bring Ayato down from his anger and reassure him that the surrogate life is good enough. That this fails, and simply drives Ayato further away from Megumi (who really does want to help him reconcile and fit in) makes the scene one that sticks with the audience after the episode is over.