Friday, December 13, 2013

RahXephon as a tortured metaphor for filmmaking

(Author's note: I will assume that you have seen all of Evangelion and RahXephon. I will assume that if you haven't, that you don't particularly care about spoilers. I may well introduce something you consider to be a spoiler about some other film, too. If you're that sensitive, go fuck yourself; you have no business being on the internet without having watched to the end of every obscure movie in existence. Have a nice day.)

Films as a metaphor for film-making have a long history in the west, and film-making metaphors in film (intentionally or otherwise) are even more common. Even when the metaphor is fairly direct (as in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive or Epic), there is an element of the surreal that muddies interpretation: films about film are strange loops, particularly when they cover topics like artistic integrity (Mulholland Drive) or advances in special effects (Inception, The Thirteenth Floor, FX, F For Fake). Further confusing matters, any film about illusion or trickery can be interpreted as a film about film (because the trickery in any film is implemented via film trickery -- something audiences are fully aware of, and something that often gets lampshaded). On top of this, inversions of the rule of film trickery are themselves reinforcements of the maze-like nature of illusion, even as they are laughed off as fourth-wall gags (Freakazoid).

Evangelion is an interesting (but probably well-worn) case, insomuch as it's widely acknowledged that the surreal content in the original series rose at approximately the same rate as the extent to which events in the series mirrored political and financial circumstances surrounding its production. It's also a paradoxical case in that, when our sound stage and filming equipment are revealed (in the last two episodes of the series, and again in the movie), the iconography of filmmaking equipment is purely metaphorical -- no such equipment was used in the making of the series itself. In fact, this reveal is a kind of joke; in addition to being a reference to the french new wave films that inspired some of the unusual cinematography (Anno is a fan of unusual camera positions, which he admired in live-action new wave films -- which in some notable cases broke to showing a sound stage with lighting and filming equipment), it's an acknowledgement that (like the psychodrama that accompanies it) there is a second layer of illusion. A straightforwardly cheeky use of this gag would be to show pencils drawing the characters, and show frames degrading into cells (as was done in Gainax's earlier Otaku no Video -- also semiautobiographical); instead, they show a simulacrum of filming equipment surrounding their simulated characters, with the implied simulated pencils and inks still hidden.

But, what about RahXephon?

To the extent that RahXephon is discussed, it's often dismissed as a rip-off of Evangelion. This is at least somewhat reasonable: both take the giant mech genre and deconstruct it by painting an unflattering picture of the kind of organization that would employ such weapons; both add a great dose of surreal imagery and psychodrama; both put a largely unwilling and cowardly protagonist in the pilot position, surround him by more dominant female characters, and take away his agency almost any time his actions have relevance to the plot; both even employ secret societies of german origin, dream sequences involving trains during late afternoon, episodes wherein the main character unknowingly kills a friend who has been transformed against his or her will into an enemy, and episodes wherein the pilot and the mech are trapped alone in an isolated pocket universe where time moves differently; furthermore, both contain the crucial point that both the protagonists and their enemies are puppeted by a single organization toward a larger goal. On the level of aesthetic decisions, both contain soundtracks that lean heavily on slightly modified classical works in the public domain, and both have opening themes featuring a female vocalist whose performance is broken up with staccato backing rhythm.

I see one other similarity, but one that probably does more to legitimatize RahXephon on its own: where Evangelion introduced its filmmaking metaphors late, RahXephon was always and entirely about the medium of film.

RahXephon begins by introducing us to the main character in what we take for a representative portion of the world in the near future. He lives in Tokyo, has a pair of close friends, and goes to school on the train. We learn in the first episode that most of the world has been destroyed, and only Tokyo is left. Everything aside from this reveal seems quite normal, so as viewers we accept it: this is a science fiction show set in a world where only Tokyo survived some cataclysm that destroyed the rest of the world.

The first indication that anything is abnormal from our main character's perspective is when the city is attacked -- but this is a normal reveal; after all, there would be no mech if there wasn't a threat to the city. We get a second revelation of abnormality, when our main character's friend spontaneously disappears. A third revelation occurs when an unfamiliar figure knows our main character's name, and a fourth occurs when it is revealed that the mysterious men in black who are attacking her have blue blood (probably both a reference to Blue Christmas and to Evangelion's "pattern blue" -- signifying an angel). By the end of the first episode, the worldview that both the main character and the viewer had has been built up and already systematically subverted, and every cliche reveal hides another behind it: when the attack first occurs, the audience expects an Evangelion-like sequence (supported by the physical similarity between Haruka Shitow and Misato Katsuragi, the similarity of the unexpected appearance and disappearance of Mishima Reika during the first attack in Rah Xephon to the unexpected momentary appearance of Rei Ayanami during the first attack in Evangelion, and other structural and cinematographic echoes); when we first see the men in black, we may connect them to Section 2 in Evangelion, but once they are revealed to be nonhuman we can link their fight scene to similar fight scenes in X/1999, The Matrix, and the Animatrix between a mysterious character and shade-clad non-human MIBs. But, those expectations are again dashed -- Kamina misses the train (another inverted Evangelion reference, probably), and we later discover that the cold, distant mother figure is the orchestrator of the attack (and in a position of power within some government organization, unbeknownst to her son). Then, we get entirely into surrealist territory (quite literally), and the Xephon awakens.

This is all to say that the entire first episode is about trickery, allusion, and the systematic creation and frustration of expectations. While any film or tv show has some of this, Rah Xephon is extremely heavy-handed with it during the first episode (and far less so for most of the remainder of the series). While it may seem initially as though the complexity of plot during the first episode is a systemic flaw on the part of the writers, it becomes clear in retrospect (as many episodes pass that are not so cluttered) that this was a conscious decision.

In the following episode, we discover that Ayato and Haruka have broken free from Tokyo Jupiter. Our entire first episode, which focuses on trickery and deception, is a pocket universe formed for an unknown reason and ruled with systematic deception. The world outside Tokyo has not been destroyed -- instead, it has been made artificially inaccessible by the very people who teach that it has been destroyed.

A second piece of information is revealed about this pocket universe (one that fans of Inception may latch onto): time moves differently there.

A film, for practical reasons, must operate outside the realm of real time. Otherwise, films whose events did not take between one and two hours would not fit in the feature film format, and films whose events take place over days or weeks would be impossible to watch. Films are an artifice, created by a group of people, exposed to an audience in an artifically isolated setting (a movie theatre), relying upon trickery to immerse the viewers in a false but internally consistent world.

Later, Ayato is told that he is an 'Orin'. It's unclear to me what this means -- it is never translated. It may be a pun; one of the recurring symbols is a bird (and 'orin' is the greek root meaning bird). However, he is told that an Orin by definition has artistic talent, and that The Orin is destined to "tune the world". As much as this mirrors End of Evangelion, X/1999, Ideon Be Invoked, and other similar works to which Rah Xephon could be unpleasantly compared, I don't think this is another throwaway cliche. A running theme is that both Mishima Reika and Quon talk to Ayato about the abilities and duties of the Orin in musical terms, and he replies that he doesn't understand because he is a visual artist with no musical talent. The relatively derivative (albeit striking and formally excellent) visual style of Rah Xephon is in contrast to the spectacular sound design in the series; in addition to being formally superior to other shows of the time and having a much better sense of detail (in both the use of BGM and in sound effects), there's an intense classical influence that makes Evangelion's musical references seem poseurish, and the knowledge that the creators had about the physics of sound and about music is reflected in the content of the plot (particularly in Quon, but also in the in-show descriptions of how Dolem attacks operate). At the end of every episode, where Evangelion told us to expect "more fanservice", Rah Xephon informs us that "the world is saturated with sound".

The themes of artistic ability and its effect on the world come to a peak at the end, when Ayato fulfills the prophecy, ascends to godship, and re-creates the world in his ideal image. The leitmotif of Mishima Reika, Quon, and the tuning of the world is a portion of the melody from Poltovsian Dances, which became popular in the 1950s after it was used as the melody to 'Strangers in Paradise', a song in the movie musical 'Kismet'. This melody appears in several variations in the soundtrack, including a distorted and discordant version called "Way to the Tune". It is worthwhile to point out the title of the most famous adaptation, because the goal of the entire Xephon project was to create a paradise. As Ayato approaches this, the artificial structure of hostility between Terra and the government of Tokyo Jupiter breaks down; characters that had been formerly communicating only in secret now met in the open, and the old man who always appeared to be in charge reveals that this was his plan all along.

It is my hypothesis that Rah Xephon is wholly about the production of a film or TV show. Tokyo Jupiter resembles the world of a film in more ways than I have mentioned, not even going into the philosophical arguments about film and dream that drove Inception. Our shadowy governing structures, bifurcated but with personal connections joining them even as they are artificially separated, resemble the red tape network of unions and responsibilities familiar to filmmakers and students of film. Our old man, the producer, funds the whole thing. Thrown out of his imagined universe and artificially kept outside of it, our Orin/director fulfills the prophecy that he must edit the world to his liking, using his aesthetic sensibilities, while semi-incomprehensible sound designers (Quon and Mishima Reika) speak riddles past him. A bit player breaks down over the artificiality of his role (D is for Designer Children, D is for Defective). Crazy social and family ties are suspended for the duration of the production, explicitly in order to play artifically adversarial roles.

You could probably even argue that Rah Xephon is about the creation of Evangelion.

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