The portrait of an artist as a young man in RahXephon

The longer I watch RahXephon, the more I become convinced that this is not a show about the human condition.

Sure. There are elements in the show that speak to the human condition especially when you look at how the trauma of the war affected various characters, how Ayato reacts to being lied to and the shows overall message of “accept yourself and accept others.”

I would have made a different argument even a year ago. I would have said, “This is a show about based around a humanistic psychological theory.” It is a show about reaching self-actualization.

While I think those threads are in the show, I keep coming back to the first time we see Ayato. We see him alone, facing a painting of a character that I’ve been calling The Girl in Yellow.

The world he desires

In all fairness, I’m calling her that for spoiler reasons, but I think this image itself is important.

The Girl in Yellow keeps reappearing on sketch pads throughout the episodes. While I’ve always found the drawings poignant (again for spoiler reasons), I never thought of the drawing itself as important.

Until I started thinking about Ayato as an artist.

The RahXephon as instrument

While I don’t think that the giant robot is important, I do think people’s misunderstanding of the RahXephon serves the plot. Everyone thinks the giant is a weapon of war, so it gets used and treated as one.

There are characters that seem to understand what the robot’s use is, but for the most part, they dance around it, so I can’t be 100 percent sure who knows how much.

The only person who is very clear about what the RahXephon’s purpose is or isn’t is Quon.

Girl in the painting

When Ayato produces his first weapon in Episode 7, she looks out of her window and says “Time, the guiding timbre, not the fire of war. You are so wrong Ollin.”

Then later in Episode 13 when the RahXephon develops a bow, she says in a worried voice, “Ollin, that is the path to destruction.”

This later gets confirmed at the end of the show, where we learn the RahXephon is not a weapon of war, but an instrument of creation.

So now we have these two pieces. We know that the RahXephon is a paintbrush, and we know that Ayato is a painter. These two points are necessary to understand what the show is trying to say about art and artistry in the modern world.

Art as product

Throughout the modern era, there has been tension between art and commerce.

Art draws its meaning from being shared. That isn’t to say that all art is for everyone, but for art to reach its truest potential someone else needs to view, read or listen to it. A painting in a darkened closet is just pigments on cloth. It’s only through perception combined with experience that it becomes something more than that.

Even more, art is an intensely personal creation. It is the product of, at most, a handful of people pulling an idea out of some nebulous ether and shaping it with their own experiences and vision.

So art requires talent, vision, discipline and drive.

What art doesn’t require is money.

The girl reappears

Now, I can hear people say, “Well, paintbrushes/notebooks/instruments aren’t free.” That is true, but assuming that all of those things are available, the actual act of creating art doesn’t cost money.

What, or more accurately who, needs money is the person making the art. A piece of art can exist completely independently of anyone paying for it, but the artist can’t. There is rent that needs to be paid. Supplies need to be bought. Food purchased, and clothes acquired. Without money, none of this happens.

This is where the conflict comes in. The people with money want art that meets their ends. This can be as innocuous as wanting clean text so a story that can be understood or it can be as sinister as creating propaganda.

So for the sake of this argument, let’s say there are two sides to this equation. On the one side, you have someone with the talent, drive, training and discipline to create animation.

On the other side, you have someone who wants to use those abilities to have that person create a piece of animation to rouse the populace in support of a war.

Well assuming the artist and the person paying the artist agree on the outcome then there is no conflict. If the artist and the patron can’t agree, then either you have a resentful artist or an unhappy patron, and likely you have both.

That’s the conflict at the center of RahXephon.

Portrait of an artist as a young man

I accidentally stumbled into this train of thought when I was writing one of my first posts on the show, and the more I kept watching the more I became convinced that this is a story about an artist trying to figure out how to navigate around patrons who want him to serve their ends.

We see this at first when Ayato flees Tokyo Jupiter. He is escaping from a patron that he learned was lying to him about who she was. I can’t say that he even really understood the reasons behind his actions, but he lost trust that his patron, in this case his mother, and had to find out the truth for himself.

After this, he goes through an entire arc where he first uncomfortably settles in with a new patron, this time Terra, and starts to learn what they want of him. What they want, obviously, is for him to create the music of war.

Yes, I’m taking some metaphoric license there.

The girl in the sketchbook

The arc we see Ayato go through is one where he chafes at what they want at first, then he accepts it and even enjoys it.

This is what Quon is upset about. The art the RahXephon is supposed to create is meant to be transformative rather than reductive. It’s meant to unite the world of Mu and Earth (or perhaps reunite.)

We see this relationship transform when Ayato learns that he is a Mulian. It rocks his relationship with his new patron, and now he needs to go back to Tokyo to learn what his former patron’s reasons were.

When he returns to Tokyo in Episodes 17 and 18, what he finds is that he left a gilded cage. Even Maya tells him this when she says that the world existed for him, and when he left the world it began to change. We see other signs of this too. Haruka tells Elvy the mind control has gotten stronger since they were there before.

Overall, Tokyo Jupiter has morphed from a pleasant sandbox dedicated to keeping one artist happy into a totalitarian state.

There are plenty of other places where there is commentary about being true to your art and the power of art comes up. In particular, the letterbox episode says art has to be based on truth. The episode with Jin Kunigi’s daughter says that art can capture a message.

Throughout all of this Ayato is trying to decide what art he’s going to create.

RahXephon’s answer

All of this begs the question, “What does RahXephon say about the struggle between art and commerce?”

It’s obvious that the show acknowledges that the struggle exists. That is what the conflict between Terra and the Mu is mostly about for the first half of the show. They both want to control the artist.

The answer I think lies with The Girl in Yellow. The one piece of art that Ayato can’t escape from. We’ve seen it be both a symbol of fantasy and a symbol of reality, but more than anything else it’s the one piece of art that is uniquely his and not in service of anyone else.

What Quon sees

The show seems to be saying that the artist needs to be true to themselves before they are true to anyone else.

While it’s a pleasant answer, I’m torn about its usefulness in everyday life. If you are unable to compromise, then it’s possible that no one will pay for your art. On the other hand, there are people who’ve stayed true to their art and created beloved things.

I’m not sure where I stand here, but at least it’s left me with something to think about.

What do you think about the line between art and commerce? How true should an artist stay to their vision? How much should they change it so others can enjoy it? Is the answer just to stay true to yourself?

As always, thanks for reading.

10 thoughts on “The portrait of an artist as a young man in RahXephon

  1. That was really interesting to read though I will say the title gave me really bad flashbacks to my attempt at reading the novel by James Joyce.
    It’s an interesting question about art and commerce and how much the artist should please the audience. I think I’d agree with Wilde on what je said about art. It’s about the artist, the sitter is a mere tool through which the artist expresses themselves and what they think to be beautiful. The observer will take from it what they will because we all see things differently. Art is subjective but it’s also about the individual so I think the artist should always strive to express themselves rather than please an audience.

    1. Well the flashbacks were unintentional, but I was trying to make the allusion that this is similar journey to Joyce’s, but infinitely more digestible. 🙂

      1. Haha of course :’) Yeah I caught onto that. Shame I never actually finished that novel but I definitely believe this is more digestible than Joyce. 😊😂

  2. I myself am an artist in profession and soul, although I subscribe more to the art of words. I’ve pondered on these questions many times as I began to face demands and expectations from fans. My work has begun to be about art itself, focusing on the struggles that artists go through.

    Although I’ve been watching Rahxephon for the past 15 years, I hadn’t thought about it as a struggle between art and commerce.

    I posit that it might be broader than that – I think, having been in this position and observed others who also have been – that Rahxephon may be more about staying true to your art, finding your own voice, despite the demands of anyone. Because it’s not just commerce or capitalism that affects our art. It’s wanting to please others. A lover, a fan, a friend, a family member, a coworker. We see the demands of these people on Ayato too.

    In episode 11, we see a world made up of his desires, and we see the Mu and the people trying to force him which way and that to partake of it. But he doesn’t want it. Because while it might be a world made up of his desires, it isn’t a world of HIS making.

    Rahxephon, above all, in my current opinion, is about self actualization through coming of age, and how by only through becoming our true selves, seeking out the truth for ourselves, and growing through experiences, while avoiding temptation and demands, can we truly mature, and stay true to ourselves. It is only when we ourselves seek to shape our world, do we create the world we want to see. Rahxephon does this in both an artistic sense and a literal physical manifestation sense.

    As to your questions, I think essentially we artists need to follow Ayato’s example with the girl in the yellow dress painting. He was influenced and inspired by the world he saw around him. But he painted it because he wanted to. He wanted to capture that image in the way he saw it, as something beautiful. Ayato wanted to capture his vision and perception of that single moment, that was shaped by his own eyes and experiences.

    In other words, we artists may allow ourselves to be influenced by the world, but we should never do something just because someone else demanded it, and never create anyone else’s vision but our own. This extends to both creating art and to the way we create and shape our entire lives.

    That is what I believe Rahxephon was trying to teach us. Thank you for the thought provoking post! I think it’ll help my own writing and view on art a lot!

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