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.

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