Sunday, June 24, 2012

Game of Thrones 2-10: Valar Morghulis

(No, this is not a change of format.  My randomizer has just served me alternating RahXephon and Game of Thrones episodes for the past four weeks.  Believe me, I'm as baffled as you are.)

"Valar Morghulis" is basically the structural opposite of the previous episode of Game of Thrones, "Blackwater".  That episode narrowed down the scope of the series to one event and location and greatly benefited from it, producing the best episode of the series thus far (although one that was still affected by some of the show's other flaws).  What's more it was a distinct episode of television, separate from what came before and what came after but still in continuity with them.  It was a sign that this show could be, if not brilliant, at least moving.

But in the finale things revert to form.  As I mentioned many moons ago, a season of Game of Thrones often feels like a ten-hour movie chopped up into one-hour chunks for the convenience of broadcasting, which kind of goes against the whole point of serialized TV.  Part of this is the ever-expanding scope of the series: as the characters scatter to the four winds, we have to follow every one of them, resulting in more and more plotlines.  This is an extended episode, but even so it feels like it's in a desperate rush to touch base with every plotline just to set it up for a cliffhanger going into Season 3.  Jason Mittel counts 12 main stories in this episode, which is off the charts as far as TV episodes go.

It's tempting to compare this expanding universe to that of The Wire, which was constantly adding new layers to its portrayal of Baltimore.  But the major difference in my mind (besides sheer quality) is that The Wire envisioned all of these as part of a complex societal machine.  In Game of Thrones the various stories are certainly connected, although some of the more far-flung adventures -- like Jon Snow's travels beyond the Wall or Danerys's troubles in Qarth -- are rather isolated.  Still, there's the implicit promise that even those will pay off in time.

It's hard to know really where to begin, then.  Giving a fair amount of consideration to each plot would make this post a lot longer than I have the time or effort for, and to scale back and try to cram everything in would more or less reduce the post to recap.  Perhaps this is why episodic bloggers, already a breed given over to recap and thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluation, love Game of Thrones so much.  It may not give you the best stories or characters on TV, but it certainly gives you the most. (But this is probably just me being bitter.)  This may explain why, even more than usual, I'm going to ignore big parts of the episode and focus on the implications of just a couple of events.  It's not like it's an unified whole in itself, after all.

In particular two one-off scenes highlight the economy of sexual violence in Game of Thrones, as well as the economy of just plain violence.  In an early scene we have Joffrey swapping out his fiancee Sansa for a more politically prudent model in that of Margery Tyrell, the kind of deal that is brokered very carefully behind closed doors (although this is never explicitly shown) but has to be performed before the court so it appears spontaneous and cinematic at the same time.

(It's hard to make out in this reduced image, but that's the happy couple in the background, dwarfed by the ceremony surrounding them.)

The idea of romantic marriage, which didn't really exist in actual medieval times, appears to be an ideal in Game of Thrones, if a seldom-reached one.  Margery and Joffrey make shows of confessing their improbable love for each other, even though it's an obviously political marriage, and Robb marries Talisa in a small and politically impractical ceremony because he swears he's in love.  It's hard to say whether or not this is a conscious change from the actual beliefs of medieval Europe or simply a misunderstanding of them.

This marriage frees up Sansa, who was previously one of the many recipients of Joffrey's sexual violence.  His violence is obviously supposed to mark him as a villain, but the show also seems to take pleasure in displaying it cinematically, even when it doesn't seem to really add anything to the story or the character (the peak being the scene where he makes a pair of hookers beat himself).  Sansa suffered this violence quietly, always pledging her love for Joffrey, and it was hard to tell whether she actually believed what she was saying or not.  Sophie Turner deserves a lot of credit for her acting this season, and the broad smile when her engagement is broken, finally showing her true feelings, is the most joyous moment of the episode and maybe the series thus far.

But of course, this is Game of Thrones, so her happiness lasts a matter of seconds.  She is immediately offered protection by Littlefinger, an offer that is hard to refuse but nevertheless has sinister undertones -- not least because Littlefinger owns a whorehouse, and has just been given a big spooky castle.  Sansa is a near-constant  subject to sexual violence, or what Sady Doyle bitingly refers to as the game of "Who's Molesting Sansa Stark?"  In part this is because of how determined she is to traditional gender roles, which makes her vulnerable to the power of men above her as well as the rage of white male authors

On the other side of the equation we have Brienne, who embodies non-femininity.  Her sole scene begins with Jaime light-heartedly threatening her with gang rape.  They then came across three girls executed for "laying with lions" or prostituting themselves to the wrong side of the war -- a harsh enforcement of the restrictions on female sexuality.  They are set upon by the three men who killed the women, who promptly laugh at Brienne and imply that they raped one of the women.  Despite being on the "good" side of the war, fighting for the Starks, this establishes them as worthy of the violence which Brienne shortly visits upon them.

I've mentioned this before, but it's still a troubling idea that the series presents.  In the world of Game of Thrones, sexual violence is a currency and a tactic, and certainly commonplace.  It appears in both subtle forms (arranged marriages for political ends) and blatant ones (rape by random soldiers).  But the series suggests that violating traditional femininity, or simply being powerful and strong-willed enough by Danaerys, is a way of protection against this culture of rape.  Such acts certainly have the capability of subverting the patriarchal ideology that justifies such sexual violence.  But they also put the onus of this violence on the women -- after all, if they were all as cool and strong as Brienne, they wouldn't be in trouble all the time.  And queer or otherwise gender-non-performing women in the real world certainly have no special resistance against rape and violence -- if anything, they're more frequently targeted for it.

Sansa and Brienne may be the most obvious targets, but the threat of sexual violence seems to hover constantly over every young female character, whether it be a momentary obstacle to be cut down (as Brienne does to the implied-rapists) or a long-term danger that proves harder to escape (as with Sansa's many engagements).  Certainly this is part of Game of Thrones' intended commentary on gender roles in its society, and our (possibly just historical) society by implication.  But it's hard not to wonder if the narrative isn't also using sexual violence as a kind of currency, providing at once vicarious thrills and the exhibition of simplistic justice.

One final, aesthetic note.  In my first Game of Thrones post I mentioned that it used different colour schemes to differentiate between its far-flung locations.  It still does that to an extent -- the barren whiteness of the North -- but overwhelmingly the mise en scene is dominated by black and orange.

(See also the above King's Landing pictures.)

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this shift -- possibly it's just a change from day to night, with the torchlight providing the orange glow.  But it seems symbolic of a greater tension within the series.  As the scope expands and expands, the range of possibilities in Game of Thrones becomes smaller and smaller.

Next week: "I came to fight, you know, I wanted to get bloody, have fun..."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

RahXephon 5: On Earth As It Is In Heaven

As I mentioned in my last post on RahXephon a mere two weeks ago, it draws undeniably on the influence of Neon Genesis Evangelion, although pretty much any mecha series produced in its era has to deal with living in a post-Evangelion world.  For instance, we now have to deal unavoidably with the fact that mecha pilots have feelings, and sometimes those feelings aren't burning passion.  Sometimes they just want to act like the teenagers they are.  Weird, eh.

"On Earth As It Is In Heaven" is a cool-down episode which seemingly concerns itself entirely with the mental state of Ayato.  Ayato is refusing to fight, which petrifies his giant robot, as always a massive symbol of his psyche.  There's nothing especially new about this plot.  The refusal to answer the call of heroism is a trope older than print, and it serves a very specific narrative purpose: to ease the adjustment of the reader-surrogate (or here the viewer surrogate) from the ordinary to the fantastic.  RahXephon explicitly eschewed this in favour of a confusing rush of plot points to open the series, but perhaps now it is doubling back for a slower approach.

There's definitely some generic need driving this plotline, because there doesn't seem to be a clear diegetic reason for it.  Ayato doesn't provide a reason for not fighting, although the stakes of his battles with monsters are so clouded that it would be hard to really articulate any side of such a debate.  I think rather we can see this storyline as the series's attempt to justify its own violence.  Monsters are narratively useful because we can wage war against them, or enjoy the violent spectacle of war being waged against them, without the ethical issues of killing a person with thoughts and feelings.  We can watch our heroes killing a monster with the kind of visceral joy that we can't when they're fighting other humans.  This is, perhaps, the only reason why Ayato's refusal looks foolish and a little cowardly instead of heroic.

The estrangement of monstrosity, however, isn't enough for RahXephon.  This particular aspect of the refusal of the call is perhaps not uniquely Japanese but still can be related to the strand of at least surface pacifism imposed on the culture in the postwar era.  To make acceptable fodder for a cartoon, war must not be war, because war is wrong and our children need to learn this[1].  This is why every Gundam series has a convoluted political rationale that allows its heroes to "fight for peace" and so many shounen series, after hundreds of episodes of entertaining fisticuffs, come around to lecutring about the evils of violence.  Of course, RahXephon wasn't really aimed at kids, but it stems from a genre that largely was, and so is indirectly influenced by these concerns.

The answer to "why should I kill these people (or monsters) I don't know?" has traditionally been country, but RahXephon doesn't take this tact.  Its heroes belong to TERRA, an international agency that frequently clashes with the national Japanese self-defence force.  The appeal, then, is something more similar to the recently popular excuse of humanitarian intervention.  But that's not really it either: it's missing the paternalistic tone and essential Othering of the nation to be "saved".  This is, after all, a global problem.

The general strand between all of these excuses for war is, however, something that RahXephon ultimately cottons on to.  That is the idea of belonging to a collective whose needs are greater than yourself, and which you are compelled to sacrifice yourself for.  Ayato's objections to piloting RahXephon are entirely personal and individualistic: the war doesn't concern him, he finds battle unpleasant, and he generally doesn't want to suffer for the benefit of others.  The genre conventions exaggerate the ramifications of this personal choice: Ayato is The Only One Who Can Do It, by virtue of being the main character, and so his refusal is a much more significant blow to the TERRA war effort than anyone else's hesitation would be.

His commander tries to undo this hesitation by making him establish connections with this larger collective.  Ayato is introduced to the personalities of TERRA's man-made island, most of which seem to be supporting the war effort in some way.  They're also all kind to him, save for his new housemate Megumi, who comes around by the end of the episode in classical tsundere fashion.  It follows the usual pattern of these things -- the unfriendly and argumentative girl has her vulnerability exposed, and eventually becomes kind to the main character.  In this way the aggressive female is disarmed of any troubling potential she might hold and is made into an acceptable sex object.

After Megumi becomes friendlier to Ayato, she shows them the trick of ramune bottles: they contain a marble which you have to slide aside to get at the drink.  The show takes a similar approach to both characters: once you place aside the stubborn blocking mechanism, they flow freely towards their purpose.  Ayato isn't fully convinced to fight in this episode, but becoming familiar with the people he's fighting for goes a big part towards "unlocking" him.

Once again, Ayato serves in many ways as a substitute for the audience.  Just as he's being made to care about the conflict, so are we, through the age-old tactic of introducing appealing secondary characters that can then be put at risk.  What separates RahXephon from most is that the hero is experiencing this narrative manipulation at the same time as the viewer, and the narrative is thus at least a little self-reflective.  The characters don't know that they're in a mecha anime, but they know how storytelling works and are able to deploy it effectively.  The show's interest in Jungian archetypes suggests that this will not be the last of such self-reflexivity.  Whether this makes the conventional core of the show any more palatable is an open question.

This is something that is probably true of all genres and mediums, but seems especially visible to me in Japanese anime (possibly simply because of its foreignness).  Tropes are less of an easy fallback and more of a language that we use in meta-fictional conversations.  Through their use of tropes series align themselves with and differentiate themselves from their predecessors.  For instance, by spending an episode on Ayato getting to know his housemates RahXephon differentiates itself from the more episodic super robot series, both by serializing the story and by incorporating tropes from harem anime.  In this very maneuver it's also drawing itself closer to the "new wave" of mecha like Evangelion and Nadesico, both of which did the same thing.  In this way it negotiates its position in the ongoing dialogue of the mecha genre and, ideally, notches a place for itself in the canon.

But ultimately every series, no matter how derivative, must differ from its models a bit.  "On Earth As It Is In Heaven" is distinctly not a Nadesico episode -- it's too low-key and earthbound for that -- and doesn't really match the rhythms of Evangelion either.  It has a broader world than either of these series, and it shows in episodes like this and the next one, both of which develop a minor character who will remain a part of the series space.  We're beginning to see TERRA develop as not just another shady, conveniently-acronymed military organization but as a community bent towards a collective mission.  And, as someone who wants to like this show a lot more than he presently does, that makes me optimistic.

Next week: "Maybe I told the Great Stallion to go fuck himself"

[1]I'm phrasing this snarkily, but I think it's a genuinely healthy message to convey, and probably more healthy than the messages in most American cartoons.  Even if it's somewhat contradicted by the content of the shows, at least there's something complicating the otherwise enthusiastic embrace of violence.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Game of Thrones 2-08: The Prince of Winterfell

This week marks the one-year anniversary of Episodist, a testament to the determination in my madness.  Hopefully I've got the hang of this by now.  A big thanks to all of the readers, who (judging from my stats) mostly stumbled here looking for "Archer Pam porn" or "incest in Suburgatory" but maybe stayed for a moment before backing out and looking for something that would actually satisfy their carnal cravings.  Speaking of weird sexual stuff, here's Game of Thrones.

The central metaphor of Game of Thrones is right in the title: it's all a game, a view of politics as a strategic struggle that can (and has) been rendered into a boardgame.  This means that the series takes a gamer's perspective: it is not a question of morality, but rather of competence.  The characters that can succeed strategically are glorified: they get all the best lines, have things turn out their way, and win every argument.  The characters that fail are verbally (and sometimes physically) beat up at least once an episode.  Game of Thrones is not really morally nuanced, as its fans argue, it just has a morality that runs parallel to the one we usually think of.  It's the morality of competition: the central sin is weakness and stupidity, which the whipping-horse characters of Game of Thrones are constantly accused of.  This is why the series is almost entirely unconcerned about the mass of people that live in this fantasy world.  They aren't nobility, so they've already lost the game.

The biggest example of this in this episode is Theon, the titular false prince.  He's captured the central castle of the Stark family, but is unable to get respect even from the young children he captures, who are incredibly nonplussed and easily escape.  Later in this episode, his sister stops by to spell out for him and the audience why he's being dumb and will be unable to hold the castle.  The whole conversation has the air of somebody writing a political screed disguised as a dialogue: his sister is hyper-rational and sympathetic at the same time, taking Theon's beliefs apart piece by piece, while he responds with only increasingly emotional blurts.  It's a strawman dissection, but the strawman isn't really a political position, but a strategic one.

Joffrey, the young king, is another example of those pilloried characters.  He's basically a sociopathic, cartoonishly evil ruler, but this is not enough to earn the series' condemnation.  Instead, as Tyrion (often an authorial voice) argues in a previous episode, he's mad and an idiot.  We only have one scene of his in this episode, where he proposes leading the charge himself, which confirms his vainglorious nature that goes against the show's belief in realpolitik and dirty, effective strategizing.  Joffrey accrues negative personality traits like an evil Katamari, all of which stem from his strategic ineptness, which began (the series suggests) with executing Ned Stark and starting this whole messy war.

Finally, we have Catelyn Stark, who in this episode lets her camp's prize prisoner, Jaime Lannister, go free in exchange for the possibilities of seeing her captured daughters again.  Her son Robb upbraids her for her sentimentality bordering on treason and takes her prisoner.  (You could probably do an interesting Freudian reading of this whole scenario, but it would be a bit of a stretch).  True to form, Cat isn't given much verbal ammunition to defend herself for this strategic blunder, and comes off as an idiot for not being willing to sacrifice her daughters for strategic value.  We don't even see the release, a scene that would require us to enter her perspective at least a bit.

But daughters are so often sacrifices in the Game of Thrones universe that it's hard not to feel a bit for Catelyn, and I don't think the series is entirely unsympathetic to her either.  In an earlier episode Tyrion married off Cersei's daughter for her own safekeeping as well as a good bit of strategic advantage, and last season Catelyn had no issue with promising the absent Arya (along with Robb) to the disturbing Frey family in exchange for a momentary advantage.  Even if the girls' lives are not literally consumed, their lifetimes are used as fodder for political gain through marraige.  Seemingly every female character (except the masculine Brienne and Arya, whose lack of interest in girly things makes them immune from such degradations) uses sex to get their way, usually on behalf of some male power.  Catelyn's act is an ineffectual, desperate rebellion against the patriarchy of the world, a patriarchy which Game of Thrones does not hide despite its distaste for all things feminine (besides breasts).

An interesting point of comparison is Robb's love affair with the nurse Talisa, which conflicts with that whole marraige-for-a-bridge thing again.  This is strategic foolishness, but once again the show views it as more acceptable, and it receives far less condemnation than Catelyn's plot to rescue her daughter.  (Although that may just be because nobody knows about it).  The whole thing is played as a standard romance plotline, with the earlier marraige as the genre-required obstacle between the lovers, and their sex scene in this episode is shot as a victory, not a mistake.  This relies on the generally assumed supremacy of not just male desire over female desire, but of romantic love over familial love.

I should stop to add a sidebar here.  To a certain extent Game of Thrones is consciously critiquing value judgements like this, and it's highly critical of the restrictions of its patriarchal setting.  But that's not incompatible with believing in a more modern kind of patriarchy, in which girls are cool as long as they play with the boy toys, and the sexual objectification of women is a mark of seriousness and sophistication.  Its would-be feminist critique is estranged from the world we live in, and it seems unlikely to do anything but make the viewer remark about how bad things were back then.  On the other hand, its patriarchal pleasures are immediately accessible to us.  This may be imparting too much intention to the text -- certainly you can make a feminist reading of it (as I've tried to do in the paragraphs above).  But if there is a feminist voice within Game of Thrones, it's a voice that's always displaced and counteracted.

(Even if we do take its feminist argument seriously, it has to be noted that it's the most mainstream, priviledged, and liberal type of feminism, more concerned with the self-expression of a white nobleman's daughter than the brutal lives of the prostitutes the camera lingers over.  But that's a rant for another time).

Speaking of Arya, her adventures are interesting mainly for existing in a significantly different genre than the rest of the series.  Of course, most of the show's scattered plotlines are somewhat generically different, offering up a basketful of different pleasures for its broad viewership.  We have Danaerys's orientalist fantasy, Jon's survival horror story, the main war narrative, and all of it occasionally giving way to sporadic bouts of romantic comedy or softcore porn.  But Arya seems to be existing in a children's adventure story, albeit a particularly dark one, which operates according to different rules than the rest of the broader narrative.  Abigail Nussbaum has suggested that Martin's novels follow a lot of YA conventions, and this seems like the most obvious example.

Take her bargain with mysterious pronoun-adverse criminal Jaquin, in which he offers to kill three people in exchange for her freeing him from a burning cage.  This is a grimdark riff on the classical genie story, a story that abides by the logic of fairy tales: if you do a good thing, magic will reward you.  In the rest of the series, doing a good thing is likely to get you killed, and have Tyrion show up and wag a finger at you for your idealism.  Arya uses her first two deaths on local bullies rather than the big bads of the series, another sign that she seems to be existing in her own dimension with child-sized stakes.  The scene when she escapes Harrenhall with her friends[1] (a hunky love interest and a chubby comic relief right out of central casting) seems like a gang of misfits sneaking out of the house with her friends, although the hanging body does put a bit of a damper on things.

There's a strange contrast between these adventures, which are not light-hearted but certainly seem more innocent than the generally cold perspective of the rest of the series, and that of the setting in which they take place.  Harrenhall is a supposedly invincible castle that was burnt to a husk, and its presence suggests the ultimate doom of all the mythology that the kings and lords wrap themselves around.  What appears to be mythical -- an invicible castle -- is vulnerable to the mortal.  Its hollowness represents the hollowness of power, even the brutal, fly-by-night power of the Lannister army camp.  In the opening credits, it isn't even animated, a formal death.

So the question remains -- is the brutal realpolitik that the series professes to believe in, its gamers' view of the world, the fire that burns away the pretensions of nobility?  Or is it (and this would be more interesting) another facade, another invincible palace, tha is as doomed as Harrenhall?  I doubt the series will ever answer this in a way that satisfies me, and a completely coherent thematic answer would be too pat anyway.  But in the meantime I'll be sitting here, waiting for more idols to go on the fire.

Next week: "Perhaps a good woman will become a better friend for him than a good person."

[1] And that's another thing.  What other Game of Thrones character can refer to someone unironically and unreservedly as their friend?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

RahXephon 3: City of Two

(Imgur is not working right, so no screencaps for you today.  I may go back and add them at a later date.)

Why does popular culture so often seem like a form of mysticism?  To be more precise, why is it that the overabundance of symbols any hazily defined connections that make up occultism also make up a kind of perenially popular genre?  As I mentioned in last week's post, it's easy to dismiss the public as only caring for things that cater to their baser instincts and that they don't have to think about, but that doesn't explain why some shows that are so complex as to be baffling become mega-hits.  Some examples are Lost, which forms its own mythological web of symbols that resists any attempt at understanding, and The X-Files, which engages with a more familiar American mythology but does so in a distinctly paranoid register.  The DaVinci Code was a huge phenomenon and it based itself on an especially strange branch of conspiracy theorists.  To hit a bit closer to the subject we're dealing with today, Neon Genesis Evangelion is a show that's alternately under- and overwhelming, delving headfirst into a forest of Freudian imagery and Biblical apocrypha without slowing down to parse anything for the viewer.  Of course, the strange and mystical can also be artifacts of the counterculture -- think The Illuminatus! Trilogy or The Invisibles or, for that matter, the foundational beliefs of any cult or conspiracy theory.  But in any case, what we don't understand has great cultural power.

A cynic would suggest that this is simply because, in the face of the inpenetrable, we assume that the text must be intelligent and it is us who fail to understand its genius.  (As an initiate in the cult that is academia, I don't think this is entirely off-base.)  But there's also a kind of power that the inexplicably dense[1] has on us.  Maybe it's that the image that we don't know the referent is becomes the perfect simulacrum.  Maybe there's something we enjoy about incomprehension.  Or maybe it is precisely because the mystical, through obscuring its mortal origins and analogies, seems like something bigger than us, something due more reverence.

In case you couldn't tell from the tangential first two paragraphs, I'm having a very difficult time grappling with RahXephon, and I think its mystical nature might be why.  The pieces of it that are comprehensible, written in a generic language I'm used to, are all very generic indeed -- lifted from Evangelion or a host of other mecha series.  They are generally not impressive.  The characters in the series are undefined, especially the personality-less hero, and the plot is mostly obscured.  All that leaves, then, are the archetypes, the overabundant symbols.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh.  There are certainy interesting images in RahXephon -- the monster that Nayato battles with the titular giant robot looks pretty crazy, and the unexplained images of women in strange masks in tubes, looking like what would happen if H. R. Giger opened an opera company, are plenty striking.  It's later implied that these women are controlling the enemy Dolems.  But images cannot redeem narrative issues, although they can certainly be a pleasant distraction from them.

Or maybe what I'm feeling now is intentional (though this seems like a bit of a cop-out).  The first three episodes of RahXephon seem to be designed to disorient the viewer.  This is a common enough way to begin an anime series, and Evangelion does much the same thing[2], but few series stretch out the disorientation quite this long.  The viewer stumbles through darkness, sure that there will be light just around the next tunnel, but never finds that light -- they simply learn to see in the dark.

"City of Two" seems to disorient mainly by drastically slowing things down from the frenzied pace of the first two episodes, which mostly consisted of Ayato being knocked back and forth between various catastrophes and oddities.  This episode begins with the culmination of those, the battle between Ayato in RahXephon and the mysterious monster later identified as a Dolem.  What's notably here is the distinctly embodied style of fighting between the two mecha, who instead of preferring the usual military weaponry go at each other like a street fight, with the fight ending by RahXephon wripping out the other one's throat.  This is another bit of Evangelion's influence, and it represents a decisive break with earlier mecha shows that centred arount scientific and mechanical advancement.  In RahXephon, the mecha aren't technological at all, and the series could best be described as a fantasy instead of science-fiction.  The fight is just a brutal way of demonstrating that.

After that, however, we have a bit of down time.  Ayato is stranded outside the city with Haruka, a still-mysterious (of course) woman who acts as his guide to this new world.  This focuses on the idea of estrangement -- Ayato was literally unaware that a world outside Tokyo still existed, so the sudden reintroduction of a global society comes as a bit of a shock.  The outer city that he and Haruka wander seems to be empty, but the world is far from apocalyptic: a radio broadcast mentions the skateboard event at the upcoming Olympics.  He even learns that the year is different than he thought it was.  In a way, this is an universal experience[3]: part of coming of age involves leaving your home town and learning just how big the world can be, and that there are people who perceive it completely different than you do.  This is, like the best fantasy, an exaggerated circumstance that lets us gaze directly on a real commonplace.

It's here that RahXephon runs into a problem.  Its characters are finally given an opportunity to talk without things blowing up around them, but by its nature the series wants its mythology only to come out at a trickle, and Haruka knows a lot more than Ayato.  (Call it the Lost syndrome.)  Reasonably, if the purpose of these scenes is to show the two of them becoming closer, she would be truthful with him at one point.  So instead of exposition, what we get are some awkward fanservice scenes (Ayato accidently grabbing Haruka's boobs, which happens all the time IRL).  And Ayato, for all he's dumbfounded by this strange new world, seems actively incurious about it, rejecting Haruka's offer to explain the year difference.

 The harem comedy antics aren't completely throw-away filler -- they're part of RahXephon's genetic makeup, although it's probably akin to that weird inbred section of your family tree that you can never figure out how to draw.  This series (once again, like Evangelion) is mediated mainly through the feaureless protagonist's relationships to many women.  Here the women seem to stand in for almost archetypal ideals, most notably so far the virgin (the innocent-looking but powerful Reika) and the mother (Haruka).  Ayato's apparently adopted mother is revealed to be some kind of alien in the last episode, so she becomes the false mother, the empty of negation of the archetype, while Haruka (who has no real-world clame to motherhood over Ayato) fills that role by taking care of him and introducing him to this new world.  In one scene she picks out clothes for Ayato once he proves himself incapable of not dressing like an idiot, literally teaching him the most basic of tasks.
This is something that is really unique to anime -- the complex messages and ideas spelled out through the arrangement of stock characters, usually female ones that also sometimes act as fetish objects for the viewer.  This can be alienating for a lot of viewers, and I'm not going to praise it as secretly genius, but it does become a kind of fascinating symbolic language.  The message here will take a bit longer to unravel, and it may turn out to be a wild goose chase, but in any case after watching enough of these series one gets the impression not of endless regurgitation but rather of mythology, where the same characters in different iterations are repeated through countless stories, altering a bit each time like a game of telephone.

RahXephon is one of those series that comes from such a great pedigree that when they fail to immediately impress there's a feeling of betrayal.  This one is written by cyberpunk scribe Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain), and is one of the early works of the usually-great studio BONES (Fullmetal Alchemist, Eureka Seven, etc), but both entitites leave their trace here only in the obscuritanism that they have a tendency to indulge in.  (There are a couple moments where it seems like the precursor to Eureka Seven, in particular a couple of things that look like trapar flows, but that's about it).  Maybe director Yutaku Izubuchi, who made his name as a mecha designer and not a series director, can be blamed for RahXephon's failure to gel.

Still, even if I haven't been overly impressed, I'm willing to delve further into the series just to figure out what the heck is going on.  That's the power that mysticism holds, even over those who know better: you can't help wondering if there are actually some profound secrets at the bottom of that rabbit hole, and once that thought gets into your head you can't really turn away.

Next week: "Why are all the gods such vicious cunts?"

[1]"Inexplicably" as in "not able to be explicated" -- we can't take apart the images to understand them.

[2]Sorry, but the Eva comparisons have to be made.  I'm not willing to say at this point that RahXephon is an Evangelion rip-off, as has been argued by some, but there's no denying that there's a clear influence, and also it probably wouldn't have been made if Evangelion hadn't come before it and been such a hit.

[3]"Universal" is, as always, an exaggeration: there are plenty of children, especially diasporic ones, who have always been aware of the largeness of the world.  But it's still by and large globally relatable.