Rejecting the letterboxed world in RahXephon

Way back at the end of December, when I started these posts, I said I would likely revisit the themes of RahXephon.

Well here I am, one month and 11 episodes later, and I am back talking about the struggle between having the world that you want and having the world that is provided for you.

When this show starts, we are shown the world that is given to Ayato — Tokyo Jupiter. He doesn’t really need to struggle for anything, but he’s not necessarily given anything. It’s a startlingly mundane world.

This is contrasted with the world of Ayato’s painting, which is a world dominated by a girl in yellow standing on a premonitory. This is the world of Ayato’s fantasy.

What is interesting is that ever since Ayato escaped his gilded cage, he’s offered several chances to return. In fact, you could say that the dolems aren’t trying to destroy the RahXephon at all, they want to capture it. We’re never directly told this, but it’s fair conclusion based on the information that we have.

Then we get to episode 11 “Kyoja Circuit/Nightmare.” There are simply so many images in this episode that are frankly amazing. But I want to start with the one that grabbed my attention more than any other.

No. There is nothing wrong with that image. The black bar above and below the image are supposed to be there. Yes. We have suddenly moved into a letterboxed world.

To explain why that’s important, I have to talk a little bit about this episode.

To the movies

This episode begins with Ayato screaming and convulsing on the bare ground of the normally water-filled floor of the RahXephon’s cockpit. Meanwhile, alarm bells are ringing in Terra headquarters as people frantically try to figure out what to do.

We see the RahXephon floating helplessly as the dolem wraps it’s wing-like appendages around the it and moves it into phase with Tokyo Jupiter. But it’s not the same Tokyo Jupiter that he left though.

This is letterboxed Tokyo Jupiter.

I may seem like I’m making a big point over something that we take for granted now. The widescreen format is so ubiquitous these days that seeing a 4:3 aspect ratio seems odd. I know I’m talking to people who probably already know this, but just in case, you don’t when RahXephon was made, 4:3 was the norm.

That means the creators of this show made this episode “widescreen” for a reason. It’s an exceptionally clever way to communicate that we have moved into another world, and that world is less real than the world we just left because it looks like a movie.

We have moved into a world specifically constructed for Ayato. This is further emphasized when we see him stand in crowds and the only people with faces are the ones that specifically deal with him.

All the people are grayed out

The episode is divided into three sections. First, Ayato hangs out with Mamoru and Asahina. It starts off feeling real, but first, Asahina flirts with Ayato and then makes a pass at him. He runs away screaming.

Then he meets up with Haruka. They get coffee, and we see him stare at her breasts, and again the dolem seemingly overreacts and makes it so he’s on top of Haruka grabbing her breast. When he tries to reject it, dream Haruka tells him, “This is his world. Why should he hold himself back?”

After he rejects the dream Haruka, he returns to his home. Here the fantasy is that his mother dotes on him and makes him dinner and is there to eat it with him. There is a great scene here where Ayato gets mad and knocks all of the books off of the shelf, but there is nothing written in them.

Then dream Maya tries to hold onto him. She shows him an image of him playing with what looks like a Lego set of what seems to be of their home.

So why are these images important? Well to talk about that, first I have to talk about an old Chinese proverb.

Butterfly or man?

There is an old philosophical riddle that comes from the great Daoist thinker Zhuangzi. The way the story goes, he fell asleep and dreamed that he was a butterfly. When he woke up he did not know if he was a man who dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly that was dreaming he was a man.

This is an idea that is used in science fiction all of the time. The Matrix is probably the best example of it. Are the people in the Matrix living in the real world or are the people who know what the Matrix is living in the real world?

RahXephon rephrases this question when dream Haruka is talking with Ayato. When he ponders if the coffee he is drinking only tastes like coffee because he thinks it does, she answers:

“Is that such a bad thing? Does it really matter at all in the end, if you’re the one that dreams about the butterfly or if the butterfly dreams about you? If you believe what you feel is real, doesn’t that make it real in the end?”

This is the central question of this episode. Does it really matter if he lives in a gilded cage if he gets everything that he desires? The dolem is not holding back. It’s pretty obvious that this world is willing to fulfill any desire he might have.

We are given that answer, first when Ayato knocks the books over. The show is saying that this is all a facade. There is no depth here.

Then when we see the toy that Ayato is playing with we see it’s a proscribed world, but it’s not a creative one. It’s a world we he’s led down a path that is bordered by walls on both ends. Dream Maya seems to hint at this when she says:

“To obtain that true value one must adhere to the score. That is why it is too soon, much too soon for you to improvise: […]

“Here you can live both lives. The life of the RahXephon’s instrumentalist and the life that you desire.”

While I played around with the idea that this dream world is just Tokyo Jupiter, but just more Tokyo Jupiter, I believe it’s more than that.

There is a saying that restrictions breed creativity. Well, I think a world of no restrictions would leave someone without any real vision of their own.

This is why the last scene in dreamland is so important.

The Girl in Yellow

When I talked about this before, I said the Girl in Yellow represented the world the Ayato wanted. It was a dream that he would be willing to struggle for.

What is interesting is that he ends up meeting the Girl in Yellow near the end of the episode. So what does she represent in a world that is pure unadulterated fantasy?

That seems pretty simple. Now she is the reality he wishes for. The show effectively has flipped the script on us for this episode. Now the object of his desires is a way to escape a world that is only made up of his desires.

The girl in yellow

She isn’t a perfect reality though. She might not even be an attainable reality, but being disappointed chasing a dream is better than being given all of your dreams.

Ayato confirms this when he says:

“It doesn’t have to be real, as long as it’s not like this. This place is sick. It’s not right. I feel like there is something hanging over me every single moment. Maybe this is the world I wished for, but I hate it.”

The Girl in Yellow answers him by saying if he is willing to accept the harsh truths of the world then she will help him return to it.

It’s fascinating because the show seems to be saying that struggle needs to be a part of life and that without it we won’t grow to be able to shape our world. We need to reject that letterboxed world and return to our normal fullscreen.

So what do you think? Did you ever notice that shift in this episode, because (like so many things) I completely missed it before? What are some of your favorite visual tricks that storytellers use to convey meaning?

And as always, thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Rejecting the letterboxed world in RahXephon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s