Rahxephon vol. 1
Mike Toole rates it:
BONES went from being an obscure animation unit of SUNRISE to the company's new heroes after churning out the remarkable Cowboy Bebop. In the wake of Bebop's success, the group spun off their own company and started work on their own productions. Their first big product was Cowboy Bebop: The Movie. Their second? Rahxephon. (They worked on Angelic Layer and the kids' show Legend of Hiyou in between, to be fair, but neither were nearly as ambitious as this title.) Accordingly, Rahxephon has a lot to live up to. It starts a bit haltingly, but ends up living up to the promise of its creators, setting up what looks to be a cracking good science fiction tale.
Ayato Kamina is cooler than most anime teen protagonists. He's surrounded by friends, has a supportive (if frequently absent) mom, and boasts some pretty impressive skills as a painter. He starts off one day in the good old year of 2015, a resident of Tokyo, on his way to school with his pals. Then their train quite literally derails, and the kid is plunged into darkness.
When he reaches open air, Ayato is shocked by the sight of heavy warfare in a clean, modern city. This is a really effective scene-- there's nothing like tanks and jets and mysterious aircraft blowing the shit out of skyscrapers in a densely populated city to get the attention of both the viewer and the main characters. The scene is far more realistic-- and therefore much scarier-- than anything that a kaiju film could hope to cook up. Hayao Miyazaki employed a scene similar to this one in the seminal Flying Ghost Ship film, which featured tanks rolling into Shinjuku to take on a giant, destructive robot. It is difficult to imagine a clean urban center in a peaceful country abruptly crashing down in flames as tanks and jets rumble past, for both the viewer and for Ayato. The entire neighborhood is smashed to bits in seconds.
Then Ayato is subject to a rapid-fire series of weird encounters. He meets a classmate, the striking Reika Mishima, in the ruins, and helps her to safety. In the train station, he's stalked and cornered by a pair of honest-to-goodness MIBs (the bad kind, not like Will Smith). A mysterious woman interferes on his behalf and smacks around the bad guys, but not before Ayato notices that they're bleeding blue blood. He dashes onto the train, and an armored shutter promptly slams down behind him. Before he can figure out he's been taken, he's dropped off at a train station he's never seen before-- the Shrine of Xephon-- and that's when things get really interesting for him. Before he gets out, he meets back up with Reika, and triggers some sort of incredible reaction that results in a floating fortress briefly appearing above Tokyo.
Another great trick employed in Rahxephon is the presentation of Ayato's world as a perfectly normal setting, and then the revalation, by hints here and there, that things are really very, very wrong. We're not specifically told that Ayato is in the year 2015 until midway through the disc, but it's easy enough to accept that he's in the very near future. Things seem ordinary and stable, but then the teacher casually reminds his class that America and England don't exist anymore, that English is effectively a dead language. There are only 23 million people left in the entire world. The people who attacked Tokyo with strange, high-tech weapons, only to be repelled by equally powerful (and extremely creepy) flying golems, are some sort of terrorist group. Ayato accepts these things casually, as facts, but he's about to be proven very wrong indeed.
The only problem with director Yutaka Izubuchi's approach is that it's almost too deliberately cryptic. Withholding the proper amount of information from the viewer will breed intrigue, but withholding too much will make for an apathetic audience. When Ayato eventually escapes from Tokyo (with some help from the mysterious woman who tried to pry him away from the MIBs earlier, one Haruka Shitow), he learns that everything he was taught is wrong. Earth has six billion people. Tokyo itself is sealed in some sort of spherical barrier; the area around it (and, indeed, perhaps much of Japan) is strangely abandoned. Ayato coming to terms with this is a nicely creepy moment (old newspapers hint at the public grappling with the sealed-off capital city decades earlier), but as soon as the story establishes itself outside "Tokyo Jupiter" (the surface of the barrier resembles the gas giant's turbulent atmosphere), Ayato and Haruka are rushed off to the group she works for, a paramilitary organization called TERRA. A certain item that Ayato was somehow able to use in his and Haruka's escape from Tokyo Jupiter is taken from him (hint: it's on the cover), which may not be a good idea. He's immediately surrounded by a flood of strangers. Some are weird and friendly, like the magenta-haired Quon Kisaragi. Others regard Ayato suspiciously, wondering if he's an agent of the blue-blooded people on the other side of the barrier. Ayato himself has plenty of time to get confused and angry, and then the disc ends.
BONES don't leave a single thing to complain about, that's for sure. The animation is fluid and vivid, and Hiroki Kanno's character designs are sharp and distinctive. Ichiko Hashimoto's brilliant work on the musical score elevates the quality of the entire series a notch, and the acting is excellent all around. I gave ample time to the English version, featuring a solid Christopher Patton as Ayato, a suitably enigmatic performance from Mandy Clark as Reika, and the always excellent Hilary Haag as Haruka's standoffish younger sister, Megumi. In the end, however, I stuck with the Japanese version, mostly thanks to favorites like Maaya Sakamoto as Reika and Aya Hiskawa as Haruka. Sakamoto also sings the OP, and I never tire of her voice; she's an excellent actress and singer.
There's a weird little flaw in the first episode that I've heard a lot of bitching about. It seems that ADV weren't able to get a 'clean' version of the opening sequence, which features credits over a cinematic introduction that's a lead-in to the story rather than your garden variety musical OP sequence. Faced with littering subtitles all over the screen, ADV opted to softly blur out the Japanese credits and lay their text over them. This is done nicely and unobtrusively, and I don't really get what the hell the problem is with it. As usual, their work on the rest of the disc is also fine.
Rahxephon is the most outright intriguing TV series I've seen in awhile. Most good first volumes of TV series' will really pique your curiousity, but Rahxephon leaves the story so heavily littered with question marks that I'm dying to have some more blanks filled in. That's its fatal flaw-- it's piled too high with mystery. Ayato is surrounded by a lot of people he isn't sure he can trust. The opposition includes people he knew from his life back in Tokyo. At one point, he receives an extremely disturbing-sounding, disjointed warning from his mother via pay telephone. He's also the wielder of a power that he doesn't really understand, and the Tokyo Jupiter folks seem really fond of throwing around ancient Aztec vernacular when they talk about it. The end result is a pile of riddles that are striking, but difficult to track. Rahxephon's excellent music, mechanical design, and character design, along with its frustratingly large cast and byzantine plot, makes it almost reminiscent of Brain Powered. It's a bit more focused than that, fortunately, and it promises a rich, varied science fiction story. I'm thinking it'll live up to that promise.
Added: Saturday, October 18, 2003
Related Link: ADV Films