Episode 19 of Rahxephon is the end of an arc – the moment where Ayato’s impulsive heroism is finally put to the test as he must come to terms with what “saving” someone actually means – and whether, in this world, it is even possible.
Note: Episode 19 is a particularly unique episode, and probably one of the best-written episodes in mecha animé purely because of how it sits within the wider plot of the series – as a result, the remainder of this article will be placed after this tag so readers may choose not to read it and see the episode without being spoiled.
The episode begins with Hiroko, “saved” as she is from the Mu brainwashing and the dangerous world of Tokyo Jupiter, being given the narrative voice as she retraces Ayato’s steps back from the start of the series; Ayato’s homecoming, and flight from Tokyo, have been a kind of echo of the series’ opening, and now he is in the empowered position helping someone else come to terms with their new situation. The visual framing is at once similar – with the same scenes of urban decay – but yet also different in the status it affords the characters. The body language of the two is two young people “enjoying themselves” in as much as this is possible – Ayato and Megumi exploring their island, not Haruka and Ayato scrabbling to survive in a dying city. It is as if Ayato has learned from his experiences with TERRA – the world of authority and secrecy he has thrown away quite physically in his flight – and is trying to give Hiroko the complete opposite, a welcoming world of freedom outside a city rather than one kind of perceived captivity becoming another. Her narrative voice, however, expresses doubt; “I’m still confused… I’m scared” – Ayato is all she has at this stage as a reference point, and in his efforts not to overwhelm her he is leaving her as much in the dark as he felt.
While TERRA offered cells and experiments, Ayato’s “freedom” that he offers Hiroko is apparently no more desirable – they are reduced to selling their watches for money to live, and are at the mercy of the authorities being two runaway children in an adult world. A constant thread through the episode is Futagami’s manhunt for Ayato, and how easy it is at every stage for him to find him – Ayato’s actions as a runaway are predictable and obvious and there is an air, throughout their conversations, of forced jollity and keeping up appearances. Hiroko quickly realises Ayato himself is running away and that his saving her is almost incidental – a good gesture, but one which runs at crossed purposes to his own actions. She asks herself “compared to that, what am I? No-one’s looking for me… No-one needs me, I don’t even know what I want” – she is “saved” but completely powerless and exposed and with little hope of receiving answers. Rahxephon has played throughout with ideas of power – how much knowledge gives power, how characters can use it to hide or impart knowledge and whether or not it goes hand-in-hand with authority. Ayato has been given tremendous power in the Rahxephon itself and has finally found it in himself to use it for something other than following orders – but now he is left with the consequences of this, and a situation where his “power” has run out. All he has to inform him is failure; he knows what he thinks he should not do, based on what he did not like about Haruka’s conduct – but at the same time it is very clear to the audience what he is replacing it with is equally potentially harmful. He has left Hiroko indebted to him and reliant on him, as he is her reference point in an unfamiliar world – hardly a “proper” resolution to the “save the girl” plot. His actions are stock super-robot heroism – break the enemy’s brainwashing, save the sympathetic enemy and bring her home – except there is nothing beyond this. He has had to burn all his bridges – and in so doing make rehabilitating her in her time of need almost impossible – to even be able to “save” her and now really has no idea what to do save live for the moment, selling possessions and working part-time jobs to get by on an itinerant life of hotels and sleeping in cinemas.
Of course, this would be a problem if Hiroko was really “saved,” if he had really brought her out of Tokyo and into a new life. The episode reminds the viewer that this is very much not the case. As Ayato’s mother was able to call him while he was outside Tokyo – bringing all his doubts up, and arguably beginning the slow decline which has resulted in this arc – Hiroko is becoming aware of her own “past.” As the pair shelter in a cinema, Hiroko has a vision – similar to Ayato’s visions of Reika – of a Mulian girl very much like her, in a strange mirror-world where who is who becomes unclear. The visions do not stop as the episode continues, apparently unchallenged and unquestioned, towards its tragic conclusion – but nobody can acknowledge them. Ayato was at least empowered – even if he did not appreciate it – by TERRA informing him about the Mu. It meant when he returned to Tokyo, and had the proof of his mother’s alien blood, he knew how to respond (even if that response was a poor one in retrospect). Hiroko has nothing, and no chance for Ayato to give her answers because he is preoccupied with their survival – and so she tries to deal with the issue herself, unable to explain what the problem is.
All of the clarity of the situation is communicated to the viewer, not the characters; Hiroko’s influence over the Mu is reflected in the landscape itself, and the episode is dense with visual reference of red set against blue – human versus Mu. There are no coincidences in the episode’s visuals and framing; Hiroko’s vision of her alter-ego ends with her awakening to see a propaganda film reminding her that “Mulians have blue blood” and are “humanity’s enemy” – and then as they stay in a hotel the welcome mat changes to say HELP ME and I HAVE A PROBLEM – yet the camera angles showing this are purely for the benefit of the viewer, not Ayato. It is never made clear – for in all his actual scenes of agency he does make some effort to listen to Hiroko – but the implication is that he is ignoring her, or at least is blind to what she is trying to say. He is stressed about his own running away, and simply believes Hiroko to be equally stressed – and so misses all the subtlties that would let him help her earlier. This ultimately epitomises Ayato’s flaws – he is finally, he believes, being the hero, the man who saves the girl from the evil empire with his super robot, defies authority and has the life he wants. He cannot comprehend that Hiroko’s understanding of the situation might be different – or that without the bluntness of a harsh education in the world outside Tokyo, someone so closely linked to the Mu might not be able to adapt so easily – and may still be haunted by them. Ayato claims that he will, once he has had time himself to think about his situation, “use the Rahxephon” to save Hiroko’s family – but she is unable to tell him that that is the point where she realises they, too, were constructions of the brainwashing. Her growing uncertainty about her humanity is really little different to Ayato’s – but Ayato had, much as he resented it, someone to keep him focused and to give him answers he could handle. All he can do, without this, is simply confide his own insecurities in Hiroko, and seek her sympathy; among her last words, before the Mu catch up to her, are “all I have now is you, Kamina.” This is hardly romantic – indeed, given the context and what eventually happens to her it seems an almost toxic relationship.
The episode’s climax sees the Mu-Hiroko arrive, and Ayato vow to kill it “for her” so he can come back and learn more about her, and they can have the life “they” (although by this point it seems much more like “he”) want. It is at this point that Hiroko finally realises what her visions have meant, and finally has the words to tell Ayato – yet he is in no position or mood to listen, because he wants to fight to save his woman from the invading aliens, and carry on being the hero who uses the Rahxephon to save others. Previously this deluded idealism has been met with unsavoury truths and a spiral of ever-more-complex revelations. Now there is nothing left – Ayato has not listened to anyone, even the person he claimed to care for and want to save, and all he can do is tear Hiroko apart “for her own sake.” Had the episode ended here it would have been enough; the final scene of the fight has Ayato finally calm down enough to see Hiroko’s last words written large across the city with her power, and the implication is of realisation following equally implied obliviousness. But it continues, at this point not giving Ayato any more spotlight or time to justify himself or even react; he is next shown catatonic and clutching Hiroko’s diary, where she has written her last letter to him, as Futagami escorts him out of the building – straight into the Bahbem Foundation’s arms. It is the ultimate reminder of what exactly this tragedy is, and how this whole arc appears to anyone except the audience with their knowledge of the visual subtleties; Ayato has torn his childhood friend to pieces with his bare hands, and nobody cares because only he knows.