After the revelations of episode 19 of Rahxephon, the expectation – the anticipated progression of a traditional narrative which has just reached its tragic mid-point climax and is surely beginning its turnaround to eventual victory – would be that there would be some focus on Ayato’s response to the tragedy he has experienced. It would be catharsis, after the fight that has just occurred, a clear sign that the story is unlikely to go lower and will begin its narrative upturn. Losing someone close to them is usually the catalyst for a protagonist to toughen up and get some vengeance, but this is shown in narrative terms by showing how they respond to their grief – it is their story, and they response matters. There is no catharsis in episode 20 of Rahxephon. It glosses over, in explicit terms, Ayato’s response to episode 19. He has got over it. How and why is not shown.
Yet it is an episode about grief, and accepting that life is not the same after a tragedy. TERRA itself is the grieving party, and all of its staff have been affected by what has happened. That the episode begins proper with a dialogue-free sequence of Ayato, alone in his room with uneaten food by him, being taken to see Isshiki by Souichi – the first dialogue being Isshiki launching into a particularly unpleasant tirade about how “human relations are nothing more than common interests” and Ayato is only alive because he is useful – says as much as needs saying given how the series has previously communicated emotion. The viewer’s access to TERRA, and other places, as a voyeuristic audience has given them vital information about the story – they could foresee Hiroko’s death before it happened, for example – but now TERRA is run by Isshiki and he does not consider Ayato to be human. Thus, Ayato’s human plot is sidelined – Isshiki does not care and so the audience, whose empowerment comes from their position being closest to those with authority, must not care. As much as the privileged audience position provided information, now TERRA is under new management it withholds it – the audience are as surprised as Ayato to see, apparently, Reika working for Isshiki. It has not even been made clear how much time has elapsed since the last time the audience saw these characters, only the extent of what has changed.
What this sense that the new status quo is almost wholly accepted does is what Rahxephon does so well – create something uncanny from cliché. The operations staff messing about and talking about how attractive “Haruka” (the woman who resembles Reika) is – and how this is “betraying the Miss Quan Fan Club” is how the viewer learns that Quan is missing – and possibly being held by the Foundation. Later in the episode, Megumi is so excited to meet Ayato again that she skids on the floor in comic, moe, style – but the sense is one of desperation and her own grief at being separated rather than endearing ineptitude. What levity there is is not exactly innocent human interaction, but is set against scenes such as Kim calling Souichi a traitor, or talking about how the actual Haruka is apparently Isshiki’s “favourite” – the overwhelming sense is that it is being done to hide actual concerns and insecurities.
In turn, this supposed “favouritism” – Kim’s cynicism in action, trying to be above the mere tolerance of Isshiki’s control that the other crew are showing – is undermined in a scene where unvoiced communication is key; Isshiki blackmails Haruka into apparently sleeping with him to keep her job and life, and all Haruka can do the following morning is try and brush it off to Elvy as her having seduced Isshiki. TERRA is by now broken – and it is the people who are most vulnerable and powerless who know it. Elvy responds to Haruka’s blasé dismissal of what happened the night before by saying “does it just prove you’ll do anything to protect the one you love?”
Dialogue has never more been a sign of power and self-confidence; the people who need most to speak have no-one to speak to and say nothing, while the conversations of those who must simply tolerate an unpleasant status quo are forced and artificial. A scene with Donny, a young Vermilion pilot, talking to Elvy is itself mixing the humorous occurrences of a mecha anime’s off-duty periods with an inability for people to properly come to terms with their new sitation. Donny is carrying on as normal, flirting with Elvy to try and make her feel more relaxed after she has been grounded for her role in what has previously happened – but Elvy, the character who clearly needs some kind of help taking stock of what has happened, simply has to put up with other people acting normal and not really listening to her own problems.
The sense that power lets one talk at others and expect them not to respond is picked up when Mamoru, Ayato’s other friend from Tokyo, arrives unannounced with a bizarre story of being rescued by TERRA, subsequently escaping and deciding to go and visit Ayato in his home. Mamoru was shown before as being fanatically loyal to the Mu, and there is no sense of a change of heart that makes any sense. He goes on in subsequent conversations to apparently twist the knife about Hiroko in a way that at face value is simply innocent ignorance but – given what knowledge the viewer holds from the last time they saw him – may be (and is proved to be in time) malicious intent.
The most sincere conversation in this episode comes from an unlikely source – Megumi’s uncle talking to Kunugi, who is under house arrest. It is an understated scene, with Kunugi looking dishevelled and worn-out, visually a run-down version of his usual self, while Megumi’s uncle still looks rustic (in his traditional dress) but composed and relaxed. Much of Rahxephon‘s tenderest and most sincere scenes come, in fact, from old men talking about life – mostly involving Futagami – and this one is no exception. Kunugi asks how Megumi’s uncle has been so unaffected by everything that has happened, from the revelations about Ayato onwards – and how he can so easily accept Ayato’s being a Mulian. His answer is simple – all that is needed to accept Ayato, whoever he is, is to “eat dinner with him” – treat him respectfully. This sincere conversation can take place because Kunugi is an exile, with none of his past responsibilities to TERRA or to humanity – he is simply a man who needs advice. Megumi, of course, has accepted Ayato outright – showing perhaps that the younger generation are quicker to forgive and accept than the older one – but Kunugi’s contrition in this scene adds nuance to Rahxephon’s treatment of the previous generation.
Too often, older characters in mecha animé are either paternal or fraternal figures who, even if they have insecurities, exist to be motivators and catalysts for the protagonist. Consider South Burning in Stardust Memory, who effectively exists to die in action-film style. Or Roy Fokker in Macross, or Kamina in Gurren Lagann for more examples of the mentor as martyr. Their development is a tool for the protagonist’s greater development – so a scene of Kunugi, the older mentor, seeking advice from someone more pragmatic so he can be a better leader is a quite wonderful one. Rahxephon has eschewed, for great swathes of its plot, traditional families; it is unsurprising that it should eschew traditional mentor relationships. The micro-plot of Elvy and Donny is similarly handled as a twist on traditional roles; it is built up briefly that Elvy, the experienced ace could be Donny’s guide as a pilot, but in the end she is simply grounded and powerless and he is slaughtered by the Dolems while she is unable to even launch.
Episode 20 of Rahxephon is an insight into its characters’ abilities to cope with tragedy, even if it is not about Ayato’s immediate response to Hiroko’s death. Ayato’s efforts in episode 19 to gain some agency – running away from TERRA, fighting the Dolems because he wants to – were dashed. He alienated those with power, and so they no longer care about him in any way beyond the utilitarian, so it is thematically appropriate the the viewer be denied knowledge of his personal emotive life.