It is impossible to talk in too much depth about the plot of Fafner of the Azure at only three episodes in; it is a series that, like Rahxephon, holds its secrets close and plays on the characters’ and audience’s different levels of knowledge for dramatic effect. At this point the viewer knows next to nothing about the enemy, or even about the status quo. Using implication and secrecy for dramatic effect is something an awful lot of anime tries to do, and with highly variable amounts of aptitude; I abandoned my weekly write-ups of Macross Delta because it became apparent that it had reached a kind of stasis of plot; very little happened to progress the story, and the progress of the characters in discovering mysteries was not interesting. Currently it is too early in Fafner to comment on this aspect in relation to the whole series, but there is something its third episode does which I feel stands out as taking the technique in a fruitful direction.
This is my third attempt at watching the series. I have in the past been frustrated by what I feel is unconvincing melodrama surrounding a character’s death and the general air of hopelessness and brutality in its military aspects. Compared to Rahxephon, which I feel is the natural point of comparison, it is much more of a harsh series in what happens to the characters; while there is undeniably an air of desperation, confusion and hopelessness in Rahxephon it is one based around not knowing how to make the machine start or stop whatever it does, and not knowing who should be fought with it. By contrast Fafner‘s first fight sees a pilot and their superior officer thrown into a black hole, a significant chunk of the island damaged and a family of civilians erased as they enter an air-raid shelter. Maybe that is too much despair. It is not as gratuitous as Muv-Luv. But that nihilism or desperation and whether it is a good or bad thing is also not the focus of this article, because it is ultimately a fictional contract that you enter by choosing to watch Fafner.
A small detail well-executed is enough to make me give a series more of my time and I feel episode 3, the fairly formulaic training and induction episode, has this. There is, of course, the grim irony of seeing the children sent to pilot giant robots in daily life and in wonder at the idea of an underground military base with cool uniforms – the same children who have been seen reading giant robot comics, and playing about after school. They fail amusingly at training, they look in awe at high-tech weapons, they are children. And they will probably die, that much is obvious because the tone has been set from episode 1 as one where people die unfairly. On its own that would be formulaic and mildly diverting. The fact it comes after a couple of episodes where they merely react to seeing the protagonist, Kazuki, fight – and seeing the island attacked – adds more sympathy. But what made me convinced that this was a good take on this formulaic episode was the sequence of the base commander and his aide visiting the parents of the children.
The visibility right from the start of parents in apparently established relationships with their children immediately sets Fafner apart from Evangelion and Rahxephon. Evangelion is about parental abandonment and expectation and a very toxic family relationship. Rahxephon is about surrogate parent figures and the inability of someone to cope with finding out their family life was a construct (and that they may need to kill their own mother). It focuses intensely on isolation and the need to find someone trustworthy and something resembling a family and does an extremely good job of showing a variety of broken homes and surrogate families. Fafner on the other hand lays out from the start that it is going to – at least partially – be interested in how hard it is on the parents to have children who pilot robots. It begins with a fighter pilot – the husband of one of the base staff – killed in action. Thus the first focal family is set out for the development of episode 3 – the scene where the base commander has to break the news to the parents that their children are being conscripted. How they react is powerful – it is implied that they knew this would happen when they moved onto the island base, but it shows, fairly convincingly, how hard that news is. The widow of the fighter pilot is told her child will have to follow in her late husband’s footsteps fighting. The mother of a sickly girl is told that even though her daughter is physically frail she must nevertheless accept the draft notice. Even the commander has accepted his own son will have to go to war.
But perhaps the most subtly devastating scene is when Makabe visits Koyou’s family; after scenes of despair and pleading for the children to be spared (and after having seen two episodes showing how terrifying a war this is), an elderly couple are celebrating that their son has been granted the honour of fighting while he isn’t even present. When every other parent either can’t accept or can’t find the words to tell their children what has happened, to see people celebrating – not telling their son, just happy that they have had some good fortune – is a shocking juxtaposition. That is how the series introduces its cast – before you see the enthusiasm of the children you see the mixture of horror and callousness of their parents. And this is doubled down upon, for as the children are shown around the base they meet some of their parents – who cannot share their enthusiasm.
Put bluntly this is a fairly formulaic sequence. It is a reasonable way of building pathos and sympathy. But it is well-timed, coming after the first terrifying fight that these characters witness, making it very clear that this is a war that nobody in their right mind would enjoy fighting – and then implying that those witnessing it helplessly did so knowing full well that they had signed their children up to that fate and now the time has come to pay for it. Just this moment of inevitability is a much more interesting form of drama than a lot of mecha anime achieve.