Episode 23 of Rahxephon is a very, in many ways, typical episode of mecha anime and yet as a result, for this point in the series, a very atypical episode of Rahxephon. As a result, it is disarming, and poignant, and a very strange counterpoint to the crushing anticlimax of the previous two-part story about Makoto’s failure to implement his plan. It closes off a character’s arc in truly heroic style, yet constantly undermines the aesthetic expectations of the audience to make it less simplistically hot-blooded. Furthermore, it hints at tragic ironies but never makes them clear, not spelling out how one character’s doubt and inaction could have prevented another’s tragedy and leaving the doubt in the viewer’s mind of whether or not what happened could have – or should have – been prevented.
The action begins directly where episode 22 ended; Makoto has destroyed Tokyo Jupiter and allowed the Mu to invade Earth. Mu cities are appearing above major Earth cities, with a stereotypical parade of news footage reminding people to remain calm and that these are “highly unlikely to be offensive weapons.” This line is given an additional irony after having seen the episode – both from how events with the Mu invasion plan pan out, and with hindsight of how subtle and incomprehensible some of the Mu strategies have been. But nevertheless, there is some hope. Kunugi is back from his exile and once again in command of TERRA, bringing back the self-aware competence that has previously defined operations. Ayato has found his place within this new world, it seems, and there is both an invading alien force and a superweapon to fight them with. Almost as an aside, there is a little visual irony in Kunugi picking up his caged songbird while Quan – still apparently a prisoner of the Bahbem Foundation – sings for them.
The episode’s crisis is introduced quickly – the Rahxephon is dormant once again, and TERRA must work to deal with it before the Mu attack. Indeed, the setup – for episode 23 of 26 – is effectively that of episode 1 of most super-robot anime. An ancient evil has quite literally been unsealed by the hubris of authority, and the only solution comes in the form of a military man and an eccentric scientist’s pet project – in this case Kunugi and Kisaragi needing to (once again) find the pilot of the Rahxephon. Even the Mu “emissary” sent to TERRA is a strangely simplistic, cartoonish threat on the surface – Kouki, one of the humans who made first contact with the Mu now fighting for them. He greets TERRA with a theatrical speech and exaggerated movement, acting the part of an overconfident lieutenant of a typical robot anime invader race:
“At long last we are free from the prison of time, and for your aid to that end I extend our gratitude. But having done so, we must now order you to disarm yourselves at once and hand over the Xephon. You have 24 hours in which to comply, and refusal will bring only calamity upon your heads. Witness this example of the wrath that will await you…”
His “plan” is simply to take a two kilometre long flying fortress and start bombing cities until TERRA gives up. It is simple almost to the point of inanity compared to the direction certain previous fights have taken, and – with how it pans out – superficially contributes to the sense that this is an “introductory” fight for the Rahxephon, an enemy with capabilities beyond human science but which is not much more than a conventional threat. Obviously, the Earth authorities panic, and are met with the hot-blooded heroism of TERRA – Souichi claims all that is needed is to “fight to the end, of course!” Yet behind the scenes there is fear and resignation, something that too often is lost in the fetishisation of last stands and heroism in super-robot series among their fans. The conversation between Souichi, Kunugi and Kisaragi after Kouki’s ultimatum is probably one of the best scenes in Rahxephon because it – in very human fashion – totally embraces how the people in robot anime are humans first and heroes second. Souichi is afraid of dying, scared of the impending Mu attack, and complains it is “not fair” to have to be a hero to no real purpose. Kunugi, the old man who has already lost almost everything, sees it as a chance to atone, and tells Souichi that he needs to succeed where he has failed. Trying to save mankind against impossible odds – being the people who will stand up to an unstoppable enemy to buy time for civilians to escape – is the duty of the super-robot team, but now, 23 episodes of combat in, when things have reached their hardest point (and yet, to an audience, the point that feels most like a typical straightforward starting-point of a gimmick-free enemy), the characters are finally free to talk about their fears. Souichi “won” his plot arc in episode 22. He put up with Isshiki’s evil and turned it in his face, found his confidence and was the hero. All that has allowed him to do is die a heroic death or run away. Nevertheless, what follows is the expected heroism. The civilians – including, it turns out, the TERRA crew – escape Narai-Kanai while the military make a last stand against Kouki, with an entirely – superficially – predictable scene of ships being destroyed by his attacks. Except, after having seen Souichi’s genuine fear of death, there is no heroism in this sacrifice.
It is small-scale, hardly a glorious last stand for humanity as three ships go up against a huge, indestructible machine and are destroyed in a few seconds of stock footage. Yet after the repeated shots of missiles and cannon fire, and ships being destroyed by lasers, the final image of that scene is the terrified faces of the last ship’s crew just before Kouki kills them. All the while there is no music save the unearthly Mu singing, which totally subverts the human-centric last stand aesthetic being evoked.
The remainder of the episode tells two stories – Ayato’s finding himself by meeting Reika, and eventually (too late to take part in the battle of Narai-Kanai) reactivating the Rahxephon, and Kunugi’s last stand as he stays behind on the island to fight Kouki. This is shown heroically, with him co-ordinating unmanned drones and weapon emplacements to fruitlessly attack Kouki’s aircraft – indeed, that his craft are unmanned, and he is not dragging others with him (even allowing Souichi to escape alive) makes this, in as much as it can be, a “responsible” heroic sacrifice. Kunugi and Kouki are shown to have been rivals in the past, and this fight is a personal one – and Kunugi is depicted nobly, ignoring Kouki’s contast taunting before finally, after all his weapons and traps have failed and he is dying from Kouki’s attacks, recreating Tokyo Jupiter over Narai-Kanai to trap Kouki at the cost of his own life.
Kunugi talked big about duty throughout the series, and now he lives up to his demands of others,not selfishly killing his underlings to fight on but taking personal responsibility and doing what he can. Rahxephon has traditionally been light on heroic sacrifice, or, indeed, heroes – that the first such is the old base commander taking his archenemy down with him is given additional poignancy by how unexpected it is – and how prior to the fight it has been so built up with pathos and emotion.
Of course, that just after Kunugi dies the Rahxephon reactivates – and that Ayato has apparently been vacillating in self-doubt with a vision of Reika while the island is destroyed – places the seeds of doubt in the audience’s mind. If he had had more confidence, if he had not needed the reassurance of conversation with Elvy and Reika, and had acted faster could he have reactivated the Rahxephon and killed Kouki before Kunugi died? The series does not ask these questions; Ayato is unaware of what Kunugi is doing as much as Kunugi and Kouki are unaware of what Ayato and Reika are doing. Yet the series presents these scenes in a way that means a genre-aware audience cannot help but ask those questions. There are almost parallels here with the fight in Evangelion against Zeruel, where it takes seeing Rei and Asuka incapacitated for Shinji to finally reawaken the Evangelion to fight – in both cases, the heroes’ home base is directly threatened and well-loved characters are taken out before the hero finds themselves. But Evangelion hammers its point home. Shinji sees what is happening as Zeruel attacks, and is spurred into action. Ayato’s self-doubt and conversation with Reika take place in a dream world completely separate from Kunugi’s fight against Kouki, and his motivation for acting is nothing to do with his commander’s sacrifice. Reading Ayato’s inaction as in some way responsible for Kunugi’s death in Rahxephon 23 is a reading, I think, that only becomes viable if one has already seen the Zeruel episode of Evangelion, or the other similar robot anime episodes it evokes.