Episode 25 of Rahxephon begins with Ayato having “become” the Rahxephon, its true form being a giant version of him with design elements of the machine itself attached. This is, one could argue, the “mid-season upgrade” of the machine, its point where its true power is unlocked for the final battle – and there is definitely a final battle at hand, with the Mu controlling earth, TERRA in ruins, Narai-Kanai destroyed and the moments of love-confession and resolution passed. Rahxephon has toyed with becoming a super-robot anime at times, but never committed; some combination of events has always subverted or prevented action catharsis. In a way this is the ultimate in the robot representing the pilot – Ayato has never been particularly comfortable in his identity or at home in this unusual world, and TERRA has never really understood what it is doing – and so the “message” being pressed home is that there cannot ever be proper catharsis. When he tries to be decisive, he misunderstands the situation. When he vacillates, people die.
The emphasis of episode 14 of Rahxephon is – despite its opening with more cryptic conversations between Haruka and Futagami – almost entirely on the arrival of the prototype of a mass-production super robot, bringing together two sets of expectations. In mecha animé the prototype is generally the ace unit, and the new Vermilion unit lives up to this cliché with its red colouration and the fact it is piloted by Elvy, a character shown to be the most capable of the TERRA support pilots. Yet Rahxephon, being a super-robot animé, has its own set of cliches surrounding the arrival of a human-made robot – the viewer will likely expect it to be doomed to fail simply because it is piloted by a side-character.
The Yuusha franchise of super-robot animé has something of a limited presence outside of Japan; comparatively little of it is subtitled and it remains largely unlocalised. The most well known entry is probably GaoGaiGar, the final series of the franchise and one which has significant popularity among genre fans for its development of classic plot formulas into far grander spectacle than most series. It has all the recognisable elements both of a Yuusha series and of a good super-robot story; a gang of young relatable protagonists, a mysterious hero and a team of fighting robots that challenge ever-greater threats. Yet being the last series in the franchise, it represents a culmination of ideas that were experimented with in prior entries, a kind of distillation of what might be the secret to a series’ popularity. In many ways, its most memorable aspects are those points where it differs from the franchise norms and returns more to wider genre traditions. For starters, the lead robot is piloted by a character who is not really the protagonist, as opposed to being a fully independent machine or one controlled by the character at the centre of the story. Many of the Yuusha series make the interactions between the machines and the humans a key story element – perhaps most clearly in J-Decker, a series whose main aesthetic conceit is robots acting like people in incongruous ways – yet GaoGaiGar relegates this to the sidekick machines, and even then downplays it compared to other series.
1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam is usually considered the first in the “real” or military subgenre of mecha animé; it took the still-developing mecha genre into a new direction intended to be more grounded and science-fiction based, rather than its usual superhero roots. The usual themes of exceptional people standing as heroes in the way of non-human enemies (giant monsters, alien empires or mutants, for example) that were seen in series like Mazinger Z, Getter Robo and Combattler V are changed into soldiers fighting against a separatist state that has started a civil war in space. Yet the original series – much more so than perhaps the more “grounded” reimaginings and continuations that followed – is aesthetically and conceptually very founded in the roots of the genre.
As of episode 9 of Rahxephon, it seems that the established traditional super-robot arc is coming to an end; the mysteries about the supernatural, anti-technological aspects are coming to the fore and it is reveals there is something significant about Quan as well as Reika. In some ways the dream episode just seen could be unsatisfying; there is a mixture of pouring new mysteries onto those that are still not fully known, and almost-straightforward expository revelations. Yet this ambiguity – the way in which simply explaining something has been subverted by the cast – is ultimately the driving force of the plot.
Every moment of combat in Pacific Rim is the visceral, heavy action that makes the climaxes of Gunbuster or Getter Robo Armageddon so satisfying; the enemies have the body-horror surrealness of the Invaders or STMC, the machines are breakable yet visually heavy and powerful. It captures well the ritual and tradition of its genre – the launch sequences that take the real-world idea of preflight checks and turn them into elaborate mechanical ceremonies to venerate incomprehensible technology.
Note: This article contains minor plot details for Pacific Rim, Aim for the Top! Gunbuster and Shin Getter Robo vs Neo Getter Robo.
Rahxephon episode 8 begins with perhaps the expected endpoint of the story-thread established previously; Futagami is observing the Rahxephon itself under the supervision of Dr Kisaragi. As before, he jokes about in a way which implies he may be knowledgeable of it – comparing it to an idol in a shrine (as, of course, it was when it was first activated). He then sees the remnants of the Dolem destroyed in the previous battle, and is reminded of his actual status – a pure observer who must know what should be kept secret. The interaction between Futagami and Kisaragi is a welcome levity not based around Ayato’s outsider nature, a more comic take on the oppressive bureaucracy of TERRA.
Episode 6 of Rahxephon was perhaps the first to properly follow the structure of a super-robot animé episode, with its setup of an enemy showing its power, the creation of a plan to fight it and then the fight itself, in which the enemy’s unique ability caused setbacks which had to be overcome with special abilities from Ayato’s machine. Yet it was something more than that formula mostly due to the history within the setting ascribed to the enemy. Most super-robot series have a new monster each episode created at its start by the enemy to do battle with the hero, but the Dolem from episode 6 was shown to be a seasoned weapon of the Mu which had previously destroyed much of Australia. The episode was thus as much about Kim’s coming to terms with this and taking part in the fight as Ayato’s continued quest for acceptance and understanding his position.
Science-fiction animé featuring first contact with alien races, when the focus is on war, often takes a quite particular stance which at first sight seems nationalistic and imperialist. A war for the survival of a species necessitates strong leadership and heroism in the face of impossible odds, and no sacrifice is too great to further the overall cause. This is particularly clear in stories such as Space Battleship Yamato or any super-robot animé, where the rank-and-file soldiers – and even world governments – are happy to throw lives away to buy time for the protagonists to in some way meet their destiny and save the world. Yamato begins in this way, with mankind’s last stand against the Gamilans, and then extrapolates this (more so in 2199, the remake series) into a kind of post-apocalyptic resistance scenario after this is not enough to win.
Tekkaman Blade, an animated series which aired between 1992-3, is technically a reworking of the 1975 series Tekkaman the Space Knight; it shares a basic concept of humanity threatened by alien invaders, and the superhero Tekkaman who fights them with his sidekick Pegas. Yet beyond this resemblance, the later series is very much its own story and is the series which has ultimately proved to have endured. Much changed between the two iterations, including the origin of the protagonist’s powers, the nature of his support crew and most significantly his design; the 1970s iteration drew on early tokusatsu live-action superhero costumes with its bright colours while the 1990s version uses many visual hallmarks of Masami Obari’s style (Obari himself worked on the detailed opening sequences) and is generally more angular and mechanical.