Review: RahXephon (2001)

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Any similarities RahXephon has to another character-driven, mecha-orientated anime are, I’m relieved to say, purely cursory. Of course, commonalities in both theme and execution are there if you look for them, but as I might have argued in other reviews, one of the greatest strengths present in genre is not the likenesses between series, but the key differences. In RahXephon, Ayato Kamina might, like Shinji Ikari, be victim to a mysterious and impersonal system, might find himself piloting what appears to be a giant man/machine and regarding it with mixed feelings, and he might in a similar way find himself facing the sorts of issues any youth might be expected to face as he grows to adulthood, independence and identity.

However, Evangelion focused on the self and its sometimes fragile relationship to the outside world. RahXephon, while maintaining a level of artistic inventiveness bordering on radical, focuses instead on the outside world and how it changes the self within. In Ayato’s initial world, normalicy reigns. He paints, he goes to school, he has a mother who is not there as often as he might wish. He’s about as normal as they come, really.

Ayato soon learns that part of growing up means that sometimes the world outside, in this case literally, has other plans. When he is driven into an encounter with an agent of TERRA, the mysterious muse Mishimi and the godlike RahXephon, he discovers another world beside the one he knew. Suddenly there are more questions than answers and his subconscious begins to surface. His world is not as he thought, and there are parts of himself even he is a stranger to. Even his relationship with the RahXephon is an aspect of this – his first assimilation into it is locked in his deep subconscious, but the ‘machine’ will not let him forget, as if it needs him to realise its own self and place in the world. It is as if they are two parts of a whole in an almost spiritual sense.

Such metaphysical impressions are not accidental. The series’ creator and director Yutaka Izubuchi has drawn from a multitude of classical sources to tell this story, reforging the traditional mecha anime genre until it resembles more mythology than science. The mecha – called Dolem (Dourem) by those powers isolated within the Tokyo dome – appear as gods, almost literally, with mysterious connections to inhuman technology and Ainu legend and with destructive powers which are vocalised in song and controlled by ghost-like muses – Mulians. Ancient mythical themes aside, even the art and mecha design are classically orientated, betraying a mixture of influences from Greek through to European. Combined with this, the genre device of shadowy organizations, governments in conflict and the insignificance of the individual in the greater scheme of things, and this is not a series that could exactly be considered ‘light-on’.

Instead, playing variations on such themes RahXephon resonates with a refined and mature power. It is beautifully rendered and has a lush and dense soundtrack by Ichiko Hashimoto which ranges from techno to jazz, and the opening song by Yoko Kanno and Maaya Sakamoto a jewel in its symphonic crown. More mystery than action, more thoughtful than overt, this is quality from the start, character driven without that sense of psychological crisis, harking back to its genre origins and further. Watching, one gets the feeling that “all in good time” – this is long-term investment anime, setting itself up with some fairly high-art expectations. If it realises its dream it will be nothing short of a classic of mythic proportions.

9 Operatic Gods out of 10.
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