Key art for RaXephon that depicts the titular robot standing among rubble as two people stand in the foreground.

Niche

The Death and Rebirth of RahXephon


Neon Genesis Evangelion began as an old-fashioned super robot pastiche. It ended as a mess: part conspiracy thriller, part Freudian character study, part horror story. Nobody could agree on what the show meant. But that just made it more intriguing. Fans argued on internet message boards. They bought merchandise featuring the main cast. Evangelion became a phenomenon, and then a legend. Nothing could escape its impact. Yet, new and strange flowers grew in the crater it made, casting seeds to the wind. 

No other series has benefited or suffered as much by comparison to Evangelion as RahXephon, an early Bones mecha series created by some of the most talented storyboarders, designers and scriptwriters of its day. Fans and critics have argued over its relative quality since its 2002 debut. Some blasted the show as a photocopy of Evangelion. Others preferred it. In a 2004 review for Anime News Network, the late Zac Bertschy praised RahXephon as “a competently executed, intelligent, adult version of Evangelion.” For all of Evangelion’s charms, the series became “a confusing, muddled hodgepodge of nonsensical references to long-dead religions” by the end. But every piece of RahXephon, Bertschy wrote, fit perfectly together.

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a woman in white looking upon a ruined field of crosses.

Twelve years later, Bertschy changed his mind. He still admired RahXephon as “a flawless execution of adult Evangelion.” But time had rendered it sterile, while the rawness of Evangelion had only become more appealing. “If Evangelion is the dingy-ass record store,” he said in a 2016 podcast, “RahXephon is the Crate and Barrel.” The latter might be cleaner and less claustrophobic but, if he had a choice, Zac said, he would always choose the record store. The anime community at large seems to share this sentiment. Neon Genesis Evangelion still generates appreciation, frustration, and argument to this day; by comparison, while it has its fans, the footprint of RahXephon has steadily eroded.

One reason for this is that there is much more Evangelion than there is RahXephon. The Rebuild of Evangelion films kept the series alive in the public imagination, if only because (in addition to merchandise and advertising opportunities) they gave fans something new to argue about. RahXephon is compact by comparison. There has been no “new” associated media since the release of the film in 2003. While the backstory of RahXephon is a mess of time dilation, clones, and ancient civilizations, enterprising fans can “solve” RahXephon on their own if they pay close attention. It makes for a tighter narrative, but one that fades more quickly from fandom imaginationand from media and marketing attentionthan a series with a steady supply of sequels, spinoffs, and alternate retellings. 

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a red-haired woman talking to a distraught grey-haired man.

In its simplest form, RahXephon is a love story between a teenage boy, Ayato Kamina, and his time-displaced girlfriend. In between, there are giant robots, references to surrealist art, giant singing weapons made of clay, and an enemy civilization of blue-blooded Mulians. Ayato is made to pilot a giant robot by forces outside of his control. He’s taken under the wing of an older woman named Haruka, who has her own past traumas to work through. Haruka works for an organization called TERRA that has assembled to defeat the Mulians and their powerful Dolem technology.

The similarities should leap out to any Evangelion fan. Ayato is Shinji, Haruka is Misato. TERRA is NERV, with its own SEELE equivalent in the Bahbem Foundation. Shinji hates his father Gendo, while Ayato fears his Mulian adopted parent. Multiple candidates fill Rei’s role, including Ayato’s ghostly friend Reika and TERRA’s resident mystery girl Quon. There’s even a recurring train motif. Case closed, RahXephon is an Evangelion rip-off, end of story.

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a line of chairs arranged in front of a sign that reads "XEPHON-SINDEN"

Or is it? Rather than leaping fully formed out of the Evangelion zeitgeist, there’s evidence of many different inspirations in this series’ DNA. RahXephon fans insist that the series modeled itself on Brave Raideen rather than Evangelion. Like RahXephon, Raideen features a protagonist carrying the blood of Mu who “phases” through his robot’s cockpit to pilot it. He fights stone “fossil beasts” to defeat the Demon Empire. The first half of Brave Raideen was directed by Yoshiyuki Tomino, who would transform the anime industry four years later with 1979’s Mobile Suit Gundam. Watching RahXephon again recently, I couldn’t help but notice that Ayato has as much in common with Gundam’s original protagonist Amuro Ray as he does with Shinji. All three begin their stories by stumbling into war zones, have complicated relationships with their parents, and inevitably learn that while they might try to run from their responsibilities they cannot escape their respective fates.

Yutaka Izubuchi spoke candidly about his creative process in an interview with Hideaki Anno, published in the book Rahxephon Complete and made available at Gwern.net. Izubuchi began his career as a mechanical designer. The giant robot genre allowed him to build his reputation and expand into other fields like tokusatsu. Nobody starts from scratch,” Izubuchi said, “but we all relay down what we have inherited from the ones before us.” RahXephon was a means for him to pay respects to the genre that, in his words, “brought me my livelihood.” It was also a gift to a future generation of artists, who he hoped would carry his torch forward. 

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a close-up of a person's glowing red eye.

Rather than ask whether or not RahXephon borrows from Evangelion, it’s worth examining how Izubuchi’s team pays homage. In the show’s eleventh episode, the titular mech is absorbed by a Dolem and Ayato is trapped in a dream world. It’s a riff on Evangelion’s classic sixteenth episode, where Shinji is absorbed by an Angel of darkness. Both are “Jissoji episodes” that pay homage to surrealistic Ultraman director Akio Jissoji. Izubuchi gave the episode’s script to Chiaki Konaka, a talented and prolific Ultraman writer. Rather than simply imitate Evangelion, the staff skipped directly to Evangelion’s influences. 

RahXephon also benefited from Evangelion’s success. Producers doubled down on Evangelion’s surface qualities in their own projects, leading to series that could be slower and denser than Evangelion itself. As an example, Evangelion’s first episode tells its audience everything they need to know: Shinji hates his dad, he hates fighting, he pilots a robot anyway to save a girl he feels sorry for, and that robot has a life of its own. By contrast, RahXephon takes three full episodes just to establish its premise. The viewer has no idea until the second episode that Ayato’s adopted mother isn’t human. They don’t learn until the third episode that time in the sealed city of Tokyo Jupiter passes six times more slowly than in the real world.

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a brown-haired woman with a gash on her face. Blue blood is streaming from the wound.

This would never fly in today’s anime industry. Modern series sprint through their 12-13 episode counts in order to fit in as much plot as possible. That’s not to mention the fact that nearly all anime produced today are adaptations rather than original works. RahXephon is a slow-paced, ambitious science fiction series that prioritizes atmosphere, characters, and slow-burn mystery. It could be made in 2002 because (or so people thought) Evangelion proved a mass audience would sit through anything if the cast and world were compelling enough. Yet Evangelion still flourishes, while there is no place today for original, stand-alone works of science fiction like RahXephon. It might as well be sealed away in Tokyo Jupiter.

RahXephon isn’t just a child of Evangelion, though. It’s also a child of Studio Bones. While Bones is best known today for adaptations like Fullmetal Alchemist and Mob Psycho 100, its leading producers preferred original science fiction series. They began at Sunrise with Cowboy Bebop, which was produced to sell toy spaceships. If you look closely, you can see the bones of Bebop in RahXephon’s various fighter planes.

Reading RahXephon’s credits reveals many young artists and animators who would go on to become foundational to Bones. For instance, the nineteenth episode, “Blue Friend,” is praised by fans as the show’s high point. It features the show’s most sympathetic Mulian: Ayato’s friend Hiroko, whose life force is tied to a Dolem. Despite her best efforts to communicate with Ayato, the RahXephon destroys her Dolem and effectively murders her. This episode was directed by animator Yasuhiro Irie, who would go on to become one of Bones’s top talents. He directed Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood as well as Soul Eater’s excellent opening credits. Later, he would become an advocate for improving working conditions in the Japanese anime industry.

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a woman in yellow standing in front of a painting of a landscape. The grim grey color is broken by a cutout in the shape of wings that appear behind her.

Another key talent is Tomoki Kyoda, one of RahXephon’s two assistant directors. Kyoda was a prolific storyboarder and episode director who assisted Irie on the show’s 19th episode. Just a few years later, Kyoda directed the work that remains the highlight of his career: 2005’s Eureka Seven. Much like RahXephon, Eureka Seven is a pastiche that combines elements of other popular mecha and science fiction series like Gundam, Evangelion and Macross. Unlike RahXephon, though, Eureka Seven puts its romantic relationship front and center rather than leaving it as a surprise for the end. The result was an accessible story that retained Evangelion’s headier elements. Despite its flaws and rather heteronormative outlook, it remains my personal favorite Bones science fiction series.

One RahXephon artist had worked on Evangelion beforehand. The animator Mitsuo Iso drew Asuka’s fight with the Eva series in End of Evangelion, and was promptly acknowledged as a genius. For RahXephon, though, he decided to challenge himself by tackling a whole episode on his own. This fifteenth episode diverged entirely from the show’s plot to relate the shared past of three side characters. Iso directed and storyboarded, wrote the script and even dealt with the digital effects. “By handling it all,” quotes Kevin Cirugeda at Sakuga Blog, “he was actually making things easier on himself.”

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a panicked man with brown hair.

Years later, Iso’s original anime series Den-noh Coil premiered in 2007. The show represented another evolutionary leap forward for Iso as a storyteller. At the same time, there are intriguing similarities between Den-noh Coil and Iso’s RahXephon episode. Both center on believably bratty children, feature mysterious creatures, and carry an air of melancholy and nostalgia. Den-noh Coil could have been made even if RahXephon had not existed. But Izubuchi’s generosity gave Iso a platform to experiment before staking his name on an original work.

RahXephon set a high standard as one of Studio Bones’s first original productions. Izubuchi’s approach of “relay[ing] what we have inherited” was replicated by artists like Tomoki Kyoda. Even free spirits like Mitsuo Iso, though, found ways to express their ideas on RahXephon’s stage. Izubuchi’s even-handed approach may be the show’s greatest strength and weakness. Despite its reputation as being a sensible, stolid Evangelion variant, RahXephon is even more willing to riff on random ideas whether or not they contribute to the whole. 

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts a man with grey-brown hair running through an abstract black-and-white scene.

While the children of RahXephon were successful, the children of those children have had a much harder time. Tomoki Kyoda and Bones have spent the last several years struggling to follow up Eureka Seven. These efforts aren’t without their charms; Ao has an excellent soundtrack, and the Hi Evolution films feature great 2D mechanical animation. In every other respect, though, the Eureka Seven sequels have only succeeded in making the original worse. Meanwhile, Mitsuo Iso struggled for years to produce a successor to Den-noh Coil despite his reputation in the industry. The fruits of that labor, the Orbital Children film duology, are so overstuffed with (excellent) ideas that they nearly asphyxiate.

Oddly enough, the most successful of these creators has been Izubuchi himself. In 2012 he directed Space Battleship Yamato 2199, a remake of Leiji Matsumoto’s influential science fiction saga (Hideaki Anno did the opening credits sequence). Yamato 2199 captured the appeal of Matsumoto’s original even as it fleshed out the cast to appeal to a modern audience. Even better, certain episodes bottled the same thick atmosphere that made RahXephon a standout. In this way Yamato 2199 was a double throwback: to the larger-than-life science fiction sagas of the 1970s, and to an era of high-concept early 2000s sci-fi that had long since gone out of fashion.

Screenshot from RahXephon that depicts the silhouette of two people against a harsh orange sky.

Izubuchi’s newest project, Metallic Rouge, is set to premiere in January 2024. Izubuchi will collaborate with Motonobu Hori, who has worked with the likes of Shinichiro Watanabe in the past. I don’t know whether Metallic Rogue will achieve the impossible, and become a successful anime series despite being based on an original (though derivative) science fiction concept. It may instead be forgotten, as RahXephon and its children were forgotten. But I admire that Izubuchi is still out there paying it forward. As he said to Anno, “genre movies only have power when they are continued.” RahXephon was always meant as an act of revival, not plagiarism. Its progeny held the same spirit of love in their hearts. So RahXephon endures, as a song whose reverberations can still be heard if you know where to put your ear.

About the author

Adam Wescott

Adam Wescott is a bookseller and features writer at Crunchyroll News. He sometimes blogs at Isn't it Electrifying, and you can find him on twitter at @wendeego. He also maintains the online newsletter AniWire at aniwire.ghost.io.

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