Take my hand,
I’m a stranger in Paradise
All lost in a wonderland
A stranger in paradise
If I stand starry eyed,
That’s a danger in Paradise
Mortals who stand beside
An angels like us
Tony Bennett – Stranger in Paradise
Episode 17 of Rahxephon is a fruitless, frustrating buildup to a moment of horrible catharsis divided into two parts that lay plain between them the mysteries of the series. These are mysteries that the viewer knows, or has worked out by inference, but which not all of the characters know to the same extent – and the ways in which they learn these things, in the worst ways at the worst times, set up a grim future for Ayato. The revelations in the episode are not really revelations to the viewer but instead to Ayato, and mark the point where he finally gets what he wants.
It is easy to, when he is flying off the handle, escaping TERRA with Quan to “go home”, see him as entitled and irrational; the viewer knows everything and knows he is being tricked by the Mu, and throwing everything out the window in the process. He is acting, in many ways, as a super-robot pilot would; it is a stock plot to have some misunderstanding. At the same time, though, it is nowhere near as simple; Elvy, and Kunugi, and Haruka, have nothing to offer him. He – as episode 16 has showed – has finally realised how someone is lying to him and it is the harsh truths of TERRA that are easier to reject as base manipulation. His family – the family he has been stewing over ever since a mysterious phone call early in the series – are finally back within his grasp, and he can find “the truth” as opposed to what he believes to be the lies of his new, surrogate family.
TERRA need him to fight, and so it is easier to believe that they will lie to keep him fighting; they have, in fact, withheld information before. The viewer knows they are right, and also knows another thing; the lies have been because nobody can actually find a way to tell him the harsh truths pleasantly. Ayato is believable in this episode, even if at first he does not seem it; it is only easy to say he is in the wrong from a perspective of distance and knowledge that he does not have. Rahxephon has always been focused on characters acting on what they think they know, and this is no exception; the only difference now is the viewer knows everything, and the crucial character does not.
This is made clearest when Elvy confronts him, saying he must surrender or die; all he has to go on is Haruka telling him to do the right thing, and Quan telling him everything will be all right – but at the same time TERRA have nothing to convince him themselves. The Vermilion is not capable of beating a single Dolem at this point, let alone the Rahxephon, and so the threat of its destruction is an empty one. Elvy cannot even offer a good reason why he has to be stopped other than it is “orders” – everything has been said that can be said, and he has rejected it because it is impossible for him to comprehend. This first half offers a very interesting look into how every aspect of power laid down in the series collapses; TERRA is subordinate to the Bahbem Foundation because they have lost control of Ayato. Ayato is in limbo in terms of his rights because, as the Foundation claim, he is not even human. At the same time he is in a position of power over TERRA because he has the Rahxephon, and almost sees his superiority as a way of justifying his actions. Quan, the supernatural figure who is directing him, tells him that Elvy is safe even as a Dolem attacks; she reminds him that he is right, quite undermining Haruka’s efforts to call him back by telling him to do the right thing. What he represents is the self-destructive wilfulness that being lied to brings about; he has convinced himself that he needs to find the “truth” but also that the “truth” he will find is the one he wants to find. Given his choices are believing his mother is the supreme enemy or just his mother, it is hard to argue – with that audience detachment – that he is acting in a way that is illogical or unreasonable.
As Quan brings Ayato back into Tokyo, with Elvy in hot pursuit, she once again sings the melody from earlier in the series that seems tied to her power – a very close facsimile of, if not a direct arrangement of, Stranger in Paradise. The similarity of music – and the lyrics of the song evoked – is so uncanny that it is hard to believe it is not intentional. The song includes the verse: “somewhere in space/I hang suspended/until I know/there’s a chance that you care/won’t you answer this fervent prayer” – and the association between those lyrics and what is happening in the series – an outsider character trying to fit in in worlds that make no sense – is certainly appropriate. This is also the song, though, that is bringing Ayato from one world to another – supposedly, in Quan’s words, helping him find his truth. And, it turns out, it is as prophetic as it is retrospective. From Ayato’s perspective he was the stranger, and he is returning home to a loving family. What follows, in the episode’s second half, is the complete opposite – and marks a very sinister turn in the series.
Elvy and Haruka land in a Tokyo filled with Dolems, but exist in a kind of strange, detached stasis. They land the Vermilion and hide it – quite the reversal from their last visit – and then head into a Tokyo which exists in a sinister stasis. The people seem quite accustomed to the giant alien craft flying above them, and live wordless, uninteractive lives which the visitors from outside are spectators to. Even when they talk about very personal things – like Elvy’s childhood wish to go to Japan mutating into a desire to fight the Mu – in crowded, public spaces, they simply exist.
This being ignored – being outsiders in enemy territory yet apparently being invisible – is perhaps a stronger sense of wrongness than if they had to actively hide and observe. Haruka claims it is a result of “conditioning,” that the Mu have such control over the people of Tokyo they simply do not notice anything outside their lives – and the opening episodes, with Ayato at home, suddenly make far more sense.
But the episode is Ayato’s; it is his decision that has brought everyone together, and ultimately Elvy and Haruka are just observers. Ayato, however, has re-entered the life he was looking for, hoping it is the truth he wants to see. The audience knows it will not be; the second half’s purpose is to show this, and show how inescapable it is. Rahxephon has thus far been often unsettling or uncanny; its enemies are almost purposeless and eldritch, things which act in inexplicable ways and can only be beaten by inexplicable events. TERRA is a broken, secretive organisation and Ayato has been pursuing nothing more unreasonable than certainty – and he seems to get it, finally. He is “home,” in Tokyo, albeit in hospital. Quan is ill but with him. Yet things are wrong, and only get worse; the nurse repeats, glitch-like, that he must answer questions from “the hospital director.” The director offers him “the truth” and suddenly he is, at Reika’s behest, in a vision of his mother commanding Dolems and the letterboxed-screen of the dream world. But this time when he breaks the mirror, there is nothing to get him out of the dream. Only his mother, to take him home. It is everything he could have wanted, apparently; his family, and then his friends – and he is reunited with them in a tearful reunion after a “month” away that can be rationalised as the effects of time dilation.
Except it is here that the really unpleasant side of the Mu’s world – and the “conditioning” Haruka has alluded to – is revealed. One of his friends has clearly bought the “approved” story of Ayato Kamina, that he and his mother Maya disappeared on urgent family business. The other has apparently been “paranoid” and delusional, claiming there is something wrong with the story. She is forced into silence by the status quo, clearly someone who has seen through the conditioning but is still unable to find the truth. When Ayato mentions Reika, the same happens; one feigns conditioned ignorance of any woman named Reika Mishima. The other grasps at a poorly-overwritten memory, aware that someone called that existed but unable to recall anything else – and even unsure if they are even remembering anything at all.
This is the inevitable climax of this episode – the point the audience has been unable to evade. Ayato has made his choice, alienated TERRA, done what he believes to be the right thing – and been deceived, and is now apparently trapped in this Stepford Wives-esque Mu-controlled world of a docile population whose memories are rewritten at will. But one hope remains to be dashed, the self-delusion Ayato has been labouring under from the start of the series – that Maya Kamina is human.
She is not. The episode ends with her cutting herself and smearing Ayato with blue Mu blood, and as he collapses screaming the inevitable has happened – he has finally realised that he has gone very wrong, and may not be able to escape this. This is an exceptional turning-point episode, and a superb conclusion to episode 16’s collapsing web of untruths; Ayato wanted the “truth” all along, and was given it – albeit in censored, palatable form. The tragedy is that he rejected that truth, and demanded something that confirmed his prejudices – something Quan and Maya were willing to give him. What makes the episode so awful to watch is the inevitability that has finally come of the viewer’s knowledge just once being so far ahead of Ayato’s that the entire motivation of a catastrophically bad decision is only visible because of the detached omniscience of the audience.