RahXephon

[Spoilers abound!]

RahXephon (2002)

Today I’m starting with a thank you to In Search of Number Nine because I think that without these great posts, I would not have been introduced to a classic mecha show that I’d somehow missed over the years 🙂

As fans of RahXephon certainly already know, narrowing the series down to just a couple of genres, say ‘mecha’ or ‘science fiction’, clouds the fact that the anime is one of those killer shows with variety – and it’s happy to slow down and explore its characters through romance, intrigue and betrayals.

Now, I know I was already pre-disposed to enjoy RahXephon because I like Chiaki J. Konaka’s writing a lot, but also because this series has a mystical/ethereal feel, and I think those elements are pretty interesting to see in mecha. I was quite transfixed by hints of mysteries not explained in the narrative too.

One of the other aspects I really enjoyed was the tension-building throughout – which, unsurprisingly, is linked to the characters, many of whom have motivations that are kept from the viewer for many episodes.

Thinking about the series now, months after I finished that first time, I realise that as much as the action sequences do stand out in my memory (for their otherworldly nature especially) they’re mostly memorable due to how connected they are to the characters who go through them.

Here, I guess I’m thinking mainly about Hiroko’s death or maybe Elvy’s dogfights or even when Haruka is trying to defend and impress Ayato in those opening episodes, because especially upon second viewing, these moments with her strike me as quite sad. It feels like everything she tries in order to recapture the past just falls so flat.

RahXephon can feel down-beat – but there are moments of levity and action and mystery to go with it; and also some great detail to the Mu and the connected world-building. It’s exactly the kind of series that I reckon you’d enjoy even more upon a second viewing.

As I sometimes do, I want to quickly jump to some random dot points:

  • In a great cast, I found Ayato’s mother to stand out – especially when she was speaking the Mu language, as it’s this really disconcerting mix of unnerving and soothing.
  • The Futagami reveal was cool; I should have known he’d be a ‘higher-up’ 😀
  • I’d have loved a bit more time spent expanding upon the villains, as their role in the ending wasn’t quite as impactful, perhaps. On the other hand, it really allowed some of the main cast to take on highly antagonistic roles too.
  • Maybe all of Quon’s dialogue doesn’t land for me… but it’s still an important part of the show’s tone.
  • The design of the RahXephon is one of my favourite mecha designs out there, and the dolems are striking too. Related, I thought the use of song/voice added to the eerie nature so well – those first couple of episodes, where the viewer is just cast into conflict with little idea of who is who, one of my anchors was just how different it all was.
  • Loved Ayato’s 1970s-style outfit in the abandoned department store.
  • The ending theme perfectly evokes the feel of the show and it was always interesting to hear the variations.
  • Useless trivia: My DVD set has really nice illustrations (likely by Akihiro Yamada) on each disc, ones that I think were taken from earlier single-disc releases or maybe posters? But sadly, because my copy is an ‘ex-rental’, glue from the stickers that the store had used on the discs was jamming up my player. I had to use the ‘orange’ cleaner that folks in the retail industry might recall – it’s strong but not insanely so, and deals with sticker residue really well… when used on plastic surfaces, that is. When used on printed discs, it can erode some of the image itself, so a few of my discs now have what look like ‘scrape marks’ 😦

In terms of the production context, obviously Bones was a fairly new studio around 2001 – but having evolved from Sunrise, they had plenty of expertise to draw upon.

RahXephon was maybe their third TV series and they’d had a few films out already, one of which was the Cowboy Bebop movie, so it certainly feels like things were going well. The anime is also the only one (so far) to be directed by Yutaka Izubuchi, who was well-known as a designer. I really wish he’d direct again/be given the chance to direct again – but I’m glad they gave him the chair in those early years.

Back then, Bones had two teams, but I don’t know if any of the current five teams have made anything quite like RahXephon? But that could well be my ignorance at play – and in fact, if anyone knows of something approximately similar from Bones, I’d love to hear about it! [I’ll quickly add that maybe Un-Go and probably more so Xam’d are vaguely close].

It’s now been 18 years since RahXephon was released, and 25 since Neon Genesis changed so much about the genre, and I know the two shows are often compared. There are obviously aspects that are similar in tone and character but I never felt like I was watching a cut-rate clone. And in my reading for this review, I found that other folks mention Megazone 23 and Brave Raideen (1975) as being closer.

(And Yutaka Izubuchi feels the same about Brave Raideen, about wanting to bring a different sense back to the landscape of giant robots.) So naturally, I’m now curious to see a few episodes but that’s a long-term project. My knowledge of 1970s-era anime is pretty much limited to Lupin, Space Battleship Yamato and a handful of films.

Anyway, getting back to RahXephon I’ll try to finish this one with a recommendation. I think, if you’ve seen other works penned by Chiaki J. Konaka then you’ll enjoy this for sure. If you like post-EVA mecha stories with a bit of angst, then yep. Also maybe, if you’re the kind of fan that follows studios, and maybe have a soft spot for ‘early Bones’ productions, then take a look at RahXephon.

And finally, if you’re the kind of viewer who likes to be left with a few questions at the end of a series, then definitely watch this one – not sure who is streaming it at the moment, but it’s still around I’m sure!

5 Stars

Gallery time! I took around 300 screencaps and of course, have had trouble deciding which pics to highlight. Here’s some with the occasional thought here and there in the captions:

We see two shots with a lot of space between characters fairly often, from memory – and it certainly suits all the secrets it seems everyone is holding.
I like the ‘beehive’ kinda look to the edges of Ayato’s vision when he’s piloting.
There’s another shot of Quon which has me half-convinced that they gave her the umbrella (in part) because it would add to a distinctive silhouette.

And finally – the costume I mentioned earlier, which I liked well-enough for a temporary outfit, but Haruka did not:

Un-Go (2011)

Un-Go (2011)

This series was fascinating.

It’s hard for me to accurately describe why I found it so – probably because of the contradictions within.

On one hand Un-Go feels like an uneven detective series and on the other it feels like an uneven philosophical text… and on the other hand it’s aesthetically pleasing, even stylish at times. On the fourth hand that I apparently have, it’s one of those shows that appears not quite able to add up to more than the sum of its influences, yet manages to become compelling.

Now, maybe I’m in a bit of a minority here with Un-Go but by the end I was ready for more cases and more of the interplay between detective Shinjuurou and his ‘boss’ Inga. The series is short (eleven episodes), with one double-episode length OVA as a prequel. I’d like to come back to that OVA actually, but for now I’ll mention that there is an overarching story that I preferred to some of the episodic parts.

While some cases felt rushed into single episodes, once Un-Go passed beyond that establishing phase the multi-part mysteries let the storytelling breathe a little, especially the final half dozen. In addition to what I consider an uneven start I feel like the pacing encourages the viewer to gloss over some plot holes or uneven character beats but the mysteries of the setting, the cases themselves and most of all, the exact nature of the contract between Shinjuuro and Inga were the main draws for me.

Secrets upon secrets

Un-Go is pretty good at drip-feeding it’s secrets too, and that’s another aspect that kept me watching – as did the oddness of Inga, who is basically a mix between Ed from Cowboy Bebop and Harley Quinn but it kinda worked. The anime takes on some big topics (albeit too briefly) around autonomy, privacy, war and finding purpose, and is far more adult in nature than say, Full Metal Alchemist. How’s that for a segue? I mention FMA because Un-Go is helmed by Seiji Mizushima and features Shō Aikawa in the writing chair.

However, I hope I haven’t misled anyone into thinking I believe FMA shies away from difficult themes, but its tone is a fairly different to Un-Go. And related to the question of tone – if you’ve seen this series and notice a reasonably pessimistic streak running throughout, then it might come from what is (to some extent) the source material.

Ango Sakaguchi was a post-war writer who seems to have been understandably struck by strong disillusionment, and one of his works Meiji Kaika Ango Torimono-chō, is the base for Un-Go’s lead, Shinjuuro who can appear to have lost hope at times. (But I think that’s about all that’s used from the source, since among other differences, the novel is set in the Meiji era and the anime is futuristic/alternate Japan.)

The show often gives little name flashes as reminders when we first see a character in an episode.

Finally now, I’m returning to the prequel I mentioned earlier.

The prequel is the most compelling of all the episodes in the series and perhaps even has slightly higher production values too, if that sorta thing matters to you. It also adds a bit of clarity to some of the Buddhist hints throughout.

But more important for me, was that Inga Chapter offered a lot of answers. Earlier I mentioned how I thought the show did a great job of maintaining my curiosity and it was pretty high by the time I saw the prequel. However, there’s a bit of debate out there as to when you should watch it – either before you begin the series or after episode eleven. On my DVD the OVA is on the final disc and so that’s how I saw it, and I liked that approach because it was enjoyable to finally get some back story for the lead characters and solve a few mysteries that had been hinted at since that tiny glimpse at the beginning of episode one.

(As a quick aside, the air date of the prequel was actually during the series itself, which is interesting.)

It’s clearly too late for me to watch Un-Go any other way ‘for the first time’ now, but if you’ve decided to hunt this show down then I guess consider what kind of viewer you reckon you are.

If you don’t mind having secrets held back for a long time, so as to build anticipation, then watch the prequel last.

If you suspect you might be a bit annoyed by a series that takes its time to return to the main concern, or if you like being one step ahead of the main characters and catching all the little hints they sometimes miss, then maybe watch the prequel first.  

Okay, another ridiculously long review! Next time, I’ll aim for a shorter write up 😀

3.5 Stars  

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan)

Sword of the Stranger (Sutorenjia Mukōhadan, Stranger Mukōhadan) 2007

As I’ve probably made clear here on the blog before, I’m most likely going to automatically warm to a series or film if it’s set in a historical period. That does blunt my capacity for critical review of course, but I hope I can still at least outline what I enjoyed about Sword of the Stranger without presuming to claim that it is the best thing ever.

Even though it is quite good 😀

So, Sword of the Stranger has Feudal Japan as its setting and all the fighting and costuming that goes with it, so I was already happy upon learning that for one. It also features a wandering Ronin/quiet hero protecting others, beautiful scenery and a little bit of mysticism too AND Unshō Ishizuka in a supporting role, so once again, the film ticks a lot of boxes for me.

There’s a plenty of action in the film but enough in the way of breaks for character introspection or to build up tension and intrigue again, especially in regard to the servants of the Ming Dynasty who find themselves searching Japan for our hero’s charge, the plucky Kotaro.

No-name (the wandering Ronin) has a typically troubled past and the themes around obedience and honour from that past do spill into the main storyline at times, but I didn’t find the film heavy-handed in that respect. To some extent, the fantastic sword fights and action sequences are probably the stars before the storyline itself, though that aspect of the film was by no means deficient.

And while there are only few characters that act with honour in the film, this fact really sells the desperation of the time period, I reckon. Even the large cast of villains are memorable, along with a lot of the scenery and settings that they battle throughout. Despite a really big finish too, I actually found the duel used to introduce No-Name’s skills to be my favourite – hopefully I can find a clip to paste at the bottom of the review.

Part of what I think I enjoyed so much was that here, Bones worked once more on an original story – and by ‘original’ I mean that the story isn’t an adaptation of an existing manga, as opposed to a samurai film that is completely groundbreaking. Now, I know that a studio will want to mitigate risk by going with trusted works, but sometimes I find myself craving more totally new stuff as a viewer.

That’s probably a bit of a side note though, so I’ll instead finish by saying that I really enjoyed Sword of the Stranger and have no hesitation in recommending it to fans of the genre.

4 Stars  

Jyu-Oh-Sei (Jū Ō Sei)

Jyu-Oh-Sei (Jū Ō Sei) 2006

I felt like I could always see where the storyline to Jyu-Oh-Sei/Planet of the Beast King had been compressed for the purpose of the adaptation, which is a real shame because it missed out on being ‘great’ instead of ‘good’ for me, due to that. Now, I know I’ve said this before (so it’s doubtless getting a little boring!) but if this had been a 20-something-episode series I think it would have been pretty compelling.

Despite this, I didn’t give up on the show because there’s definitely still enjoyable things – there’s a futuristic/primitive new world with an interesting society (one that has been forced into its current shape due to the harsh realities of the planet), there’s a range of nice action sequences too and the series does feature characters with both noble and unclear motives to keep you guessing, along with enough twists and meaningful character development that you’ll probably end up caring about at least some of the heroes.

However, in regards to the main character Thor… too many of the most vital and plot/life-changing decisions he makes are just thrust upon him with no or little lead-up or even foreshadowing. Due to this, such events and actions come across as quite clumsy onscreen – I’m sure the long-running manga didn’t have that problem since it benefitted from the luxury of time. One of the early decisions really gave Thor a psychotic edge which I don’t believe was the intention – it was meant to be something he struggled with.

And without spoiling some of the big reveals at the end, I see where you might argue why his actions actually made clear sense but during the opening stages of a series, show the character struggle so we can empathise, rather than glossing over the tough moments.

Just a final note, the series has a shojo target audience and maybe that feeds into the character designs but I don’t think Jyu-Oh-Sei precludes any one audience (except the quite young of course).

3 Stars

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo)

Xam’d: Lost Memories (Bōnen no Zamudo) 2008

This series from Bones & Sony seems to have had a pretty big budget – possibly in part because it was launched as part of the Playstation Network’s video downloading arm, and so no doubt everyone involved wanted it to succeed – and while it’s visually impressive and a really, really distinctive show with compelling characters, it doesn’t feel like it’ll ever become a ‘classic.’

Doesn’t mean Xam’d is bad either, but some of the elements have never really come together for me. Mainly, I feel like the main antagonist/destructive force was not foreshadowed (or even introduced) early enough and afterwards, I was left with little knowledge or kinda even little interest in the creature. The human villains were more interesting, as were there heroes – but a touch more on that below.

The other aspect that felt underdeveloped was the grounding of the exciting events that take place in the story; there’s war and religious conflict chugging along in the background but with little to contextualise it in place or the history of the world, even (for the most part) when the main cast brushes up again/is pulled into those struggles.

Aside from that I enjoyed the variety of the cast, the setting and the magic – along with the oft-times disturbing ‘humanforms,’ creatures which all benefit from imaginative and bold designs. Probably above and beyond that, there were a lot of intersecting character storylines that kept me going – main character Akiyuki’s personal struggle with being thrust into a role he didn’t seek of course, but the story between his parents or the shifting loyalties amongst his friends, and the mysterious past of Ishuu and her ship’s crew (she’s a somewhat acerbic character whose role hovers between ‘postal delivery captain’ and ‘smuggler’).

Worth watching if you’re happy to let yourself be swept up in the visuals and the characters I reckon, but not a series where you’ll be stunned by big reveals or a thrilling plot, because despite the complexities of the storylines, there’s just something missing for me.

3 Stars

Wolf’s Rain (Urufuzu Rein)

Wolf’s Rain (Urufuzu Rein) 2004

With so much of the Cowboy Bebop team involved here I felt exactly zero seconds of doubt in terms of whether I’d enjoy Wolf’s Rain.

Of course, that shouldn’t be enough by itself – execution matters, right? But Wolf’s Rain definitely works and it’s a great series despite the inclusion of four recap episodes. And while recaps can obviously be useful both from a production standpoint and for the viewers, I was thrilled to be able to skip them 😀 (Supposedly the episodes had to happen due to the production delays re: the SARS scare or perhaps more likely(?), just a temporary budget problem and Bones didn’t want to ‘waste’ the slots they’d already lined up during broadcast).

Well, whatever the reason – you can safely skip the recap episodes and still enjoy a pretty ace show. It covers a lot of ground, dystopian science-fiction, fantasy, action and romance, and looks great, though viewers raised on modern anime might consider the animation dated – though to my eye, it’s pretty much as great as Bebop.

To sum up the story in an incredibly short (and unnuanced) way, Wolf’s Rain follows a small pack of wolves (and the humans who help and hinder them) as they search for a legendary Paradise.

It’s a nice simple premise that allows the ‘quest’ element to shine through, as the wolves slowly come together and learn to trust and work with each other, hounded at times by human hunter Quent, or the menacing all-powerful Nobles, or even their own internal conflicts.

(I especially love this version of the artwork for the physical release)

If you’re familiar with Keiko Nobumoto’s writing style then you can expect a certain amount of sacrifice and tragedy even, so get ready for the heart strings to be manipulated throughout – especially toward the end, though the epilogue should please some viewers at least. You can also probably expect a few surprises about your favourite characters or even the villains, some of which are foreshadowed really nicely too… but I don’t want to spoil any of them here!

Another aspect I really enjoyed was Yoko Kanno’s OST – which is overall really quite lush and orchestral, and one of the recurring themes I especially liked:

Opener Stray shows her ability to once again work with typically western pop sounds, with that 1980s-era Genesis feel to the song, and where the chameleon that is Steve Conte provides another great vocal (with more Tim Jensen lyrics, to reunite the classic Cowboy Bebop musical team).

I know some folks do consider this series ‘slow’ (and even at times dismissive of some its background plot-threads) but I didn’t have that problem myself, nor did I really focus much on the allegorical aspects re: Christianity, they didn’t add to the series nor distract me, as they’re pretty subtle – it’s not like Neon Genesis for example, where it’s very upfront.

With a series like Wolf’s Rain I think the main aspect I really appreciated (aside from the characters and mythology it built, and everything I’ve mentioned above of course) was the fact that it was an original idea (though perhaps that word is a misnomer here) as opposed to being an adaptation, or being set in a school or having only teen leads, which is a nice change compared to a lot of anime.

5 Stars  

(If you’ve never seen this and you do give it a shot, you’ll probably recognise Mamoru Miyano’s vocie (who plays lead wolf Kiba) as ‘Light’ from Death Note or ‘Ling Yao’ in FMA: Brotherhood or maybe where I realised I’d heard him before, as ‘Rintarō Okabe’ in Steins;Gate.)

A.I.C.O. Incarnation

A.I.C.O. Incarnation (2018)

Netflix has allowed me access to a few newer shows in a timeframe that’s about 50% faster than my usual average of something like ‘2 years after a series even hits DVD’ – and so this time around it’s nice to only be about 1 year (give or take) behind everyone else 😀

And thus, I’ve now also seen A.I.C.O and a few others on the platform and they’ve each been typically high quality in terms of animation (and this one by Bones is no exception there) but the series didn’t blow me away. Nor did I feel it was ‘bad’ at all. There were a few elements that maybe didn’t match the level of the animation for me, but the show was still compelling and even tense, at times. (They even split the fan service kinda evenly across the male and female characters).

Where A.I.C.O. Incarnation drops a little for me is the lead character Aiko’s passivity – to some extent, she’s kept in the dark for a lot of the series (so the audience can be placed in a similar position of course) and though she’s generally cheerful and at times full of resolve, it was a shame she didn’t get to take control much. There were a few times where I imagine the manga did a better job of introducing some of the supporting cast and world-building, and perhaps there was also missed opportunity to go a little further into the central conflict of personhood.

On the other hand, aside from the great animation, Aiko herself has a design that seems usually reserved for antagonists/creatures, with her red eyes and dark hair, which was an interesting tweak I thought. The other stand out for me was the Beetle, which is pretty ace – the design of most of the vehicles has a really flexible sorta structure actually, which is a nice bit of attention to detail re: the kind of terrain the characters must traverse in order to save Japan from the encroaching ‘matter’ that threatens them all.

In the end I thought A.I.C.O had a great mix of moe elements, action sequences and twists but also character/weapon/vehicle design, so it’s a good near-future sci-fi if that’s your kinda show.

3 Stars

(Director Kazuya Murata has been involved (in one way or another) in a fair few great projects over the years, from Ocean Waves, Beserk, Eureka Seven, FMA (2011), Porco Rosso, Gunsmith Cats, Xam’d and even Shemnu II for the Dreamcast :D)

The Skull Man (Sukaru Man)

Just a quick review for right now – this one being The Skull Man which is a noir-ish science fiction/horror series with a few surprises.

The Skull Man (Sukaru Man)
2007

When I started this, I wasn’t aware that the anime was based on a one-shot manga by the massively influential Shotaro Ishinomori (who was one of Osamu Tezuka’s protégées) and that the series sort of served as a prequel to Cyborg 009.

Due to that, the ending of The Skull Man fell a little flat for me in that it didn’t offer perhaps quite enough in the way of resolutions while at the same time opening up too many new questions – but aside from that I still enjoyed this, it’s a short series and while the box art might suggest more horror – there are moments of levity. (It’s also an interesting look at an alternate reality where a 1970s aesthetic is clear in the costumes and technology).

Throughout, the writers do a great job of keeping you guessing re: the true nature, motivations and identity of the Skull Man and the various villains within, and while I personally wanted a lot more in the way of screen time for the mask’s origins itself, there was still plenty of other aspects like cults and bioweapons to keep me watching.

Worth a look if you stumble across it, I reckon.

3 Stars (Maybe 4)

Eureka Seven AO

Without having seen the first series I was able to come to Eureka Seven AO without expectations and so I suspect I enjoyed it more than folks who’d seen Eureka Seven and were disappointed with its sequel series.

Eureka Seven AO
2012

I was in the mood for some mecha when I came across Eureka Seven AO and the battles were certainly great, the animation too; but I probably enjoyed the Okinawan setting most. The show did deliver the occasional twist, but something about the characterisation felt a bit ‘off’. Maybe it was because the motivations weren’t always made clear enough for me to ‘go along’ with some of their choices – Naru especially comes to mind here.

What I suppose I didn’t enjoy was the lack of time spent grounding the viewer in the world re: the alien aspects, and one of the main villains ‘Truth’ felt a little generic but near the end, I remember being pretty thrilled by a homage* to the opening of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. (Another fun aspect was the use of some fourth wall(ish) humour.)

Still, even with a great soundtrack and elements I mentioned above, I’ve definitely enjoyed other mecha shows more.

3 Stars

*Below, I whipped up a quick side by side – and even though there are clear differences (and I also changed the sequence of one shot), you can see how Eureka takes time to offer a fond homage to Nausicaa.

On the left, there’s Nausicaa and the right Eureka: we start with an establishing shot of a ruin, then our viewpoint characters burst inside, then they attempt to lift a crumbling toy/notice the corpses of the previous inhabitants (in both texts they have succumbed to a spore-like sickness).