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.

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