I am writing this post in the hope of ending a needless and futile debate. I’m writing it knowing that I’m talking about the anime community, and unnecessary and futile debates have been their bread and butter since Harmony Gold first licensed Super-Dimensional Fortress Macross.
But I’m writing it anyway because I feel like I’ve stepped around it several times, and now I’m going to step into it.
RahXephon is not anything like Evangelion.
The converse is true, but the RahXephon folks are my people. You Evangelion folks can stuff it.
The first time I ran into this debate was when I stumbled onto the ANN forums in the early 2000s. That was even before I watched Evangelion.
When I finally did watch Gainax’s masterwork, I completely disagreed. RahXephon was a superior show. It was hopeful, and the characters communicated and behaved like ordinary people. Or at least what I expected out of ordinary people in anime.
Evangelion ends with everyone suffering from mental breakdowns, a world full of goo and a message that nothing will ever get better.
I was one of those RahXephon > Evangelion people.
In 2019, shortly after I revived this blog from its long slumber, I started a project to watch Evangelion to write a series of posts about it. My goal then was to follow this up with watching RahXephon and show how it was a refutation of everything Eva held dear.
I was going to prove that RahXephon was the Carl Rogers to Eva’s Albert Bandura.
When I watched RahXephon, I discovered I was completely wrong. It had as much to do with Evangelion as 08th MS Team has to do with Mazinger Z. Sure, they have robots in them, but everything else is different.
This post is my attempt to put all of my thoughts into one place and show how the two shows are entirely different and should be treated as such.
But to do that, I have to define some terms that I made up.
Structure and story
I will admit, not for the first time, I am not a literary or film expert. I am sure, somewhere out in the ether, there are actual terms for what I will describe, but for now, I’m just going to call them story and structure.
Structure is perhaps the easier of the two terms to talk about. It is most easily understood as the shell that the story is put into. For instance, if you watch an episode of Law and Order, you know certain things will happen and will happen in this order.
- Someone will find a body.
- The police will investigate and likely will find one or two suspects.
- Somewhere between the first and second commercial break, the police will arrest someone.
- The prosecutors will be introduced to the case.
- They will need to deal with some social or legal issue in the course of prosecuting the case.
- The jury will return a verdict.
Now there are times when they will break from this structure, but overall, you can be sure that most shows will hit those beats. In fact, when they break from the structure, it feels unusual.
I know it sounds like I’m just talking about the plot of an episode, and in some ways, I am. These are the plot beats of an episode of Law and Order. But it doesn’t include whatever the episode’s conflicts are. These are just the events that will occur no matter which characters, conflicts or setting appear. If it’s an episode of Law and Order, we know these events are going to happen.
This pattern holds with genres. When you’re talking about a traditional high fantasy, you know certain events are going to occur. You know a hero is going to be given a quest against a dark implacable foe. You know they are going to encounter people who are going to help them fulfill that quest. You know by the end of the second act, things are going to look dark. Then the hero will find some hidden reserve, fight back against the darkness and win.
Everything else that your pour into that structure is what I am going to call the story. For let’s go back to that example with Law and Order, and I will show what I mean.
• Someone finds the body.
A jogger going along the alleyway discovers the body of a young construction worker.
• The police will investigate and likely find one or two suspects.
Brisco and one of the other officers first start getting suspicious of one of the guy’s business partners, but they soon find out that he has a solid alibi. They then discover the wife shot him in a fit of rage.
• Somewhere between the first and second commercial break, the police will arrest someone.
The police get enough info to arrest the wife, and maybe she says something incriminating.
• The prosecutors are introduced
This scene reiterates what we know up to this point and may help introduce the next part.
• They will need to deal with some social or legal issue in prosecuting the case.
The defense attorney argues the woman has been emotionally abused by her husband for months. She was defending herself shot her husband. Now McCoy and Assistant DA will need to figure out a way to argue that she is guilty or decide not to press charges.
• The jury will find a verdict.
The jury found that the woman wasn’t guilty of killing her husband because he was a jerk.
All of the dialogue, character moments, themes and conflict between the prosecuting attorneys, cops and defense, are all part of the story.
OK. Hopefully, that is clear, and I haven’t mucked it up too much. And I haven’t lost anyone.
Traditional and non-traditional
Now, it’s helpful to look at structure and story in terms of tradition. That is more useful when you’re looking across a genre or story-telling in its entirety.
For instance, a non-traditional structure in a fantasy novel might start with the hero already on the quest or a hero in the middle of fighting the big evil. Or maybe, the whole thing is a PI story structure placed in a fantasy setting.
A non-traditional story might use anti-heroes, or the conflict might not be a struggle against an evil force but a battle with themselves.
It’s also important to note that a story might have non-traditional and traditional elements. For instance, it might feature an anti-hero, but he is paired with a hero striving to make the world better. Or maybe the quest comes in the second chapter.
Instead of traditional and non-traditional, it’s helpful to think of them at more or less traditional For instance, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice is less traditional in its structure because there is no clear hero. He presents dozens of characters, and a story told from both sides of the conflict.
But Ned Stark, in particular, is more of a traditional hero because he wants to preserve the peace and help his friend and family.
Tropes also fit into this discussion. Tropes exist because they apply to a comfortable pattern in our minds. They serve as a sort of story-telling shorthand that allows writers to tap into the traditions.
To provide some frames of reference when we’re talking about what is more traditional and what is less traditional in anime.
I consider Serial Experiments Lain as having a less traditional structure and a less traditional story. Structure-wise, I can’t use my knowledge of sci-fi or cyberpunk to predict what will happen in a particular episode. I can’t do that with the story either. Lain tends to be several different characters depending on what point in the story we’re talking about. I couldn’t tell you who she is struggling with or even if there is an antagonist.
On the other hand, I would say The Big O has a more traditional structure and story. I know each episode will start with Roger investigating a mystery. I know that mystery will lead to a robot fight at 12-14 minutes in. The two robots will struggle against each other. After initially appearing to lose, Big O will surge back and overcome the odds, and Roger Smith will “win.”
Story-wise, Roger is very much a traditional hero. He is trying to defend the city. We know who the antagonists are. We know what they want. They are not some sort of amorphous concept.
All of this fits into super robots show’s traditions, which creators cited when making The Big O.
One final note on this, tradition does not denote quality. Something can be traditional and still be nuanced and subtle and have depth. Something can be non-traditional and be chaotic, confusing and needlessly messy.
Now, let’s get to talking about RahXephon and Evangelion.
I will preface by saying these are my understandings of the genres. Please let me know if I have anything incorrect.
Evangelion has a traditional structure and a non-traditional story
When push comes to shove, Evangelion is built like any other super robot show. Nearly every episode follows a very predictable structure.
The episode will start with Shinji getting into some sort of conflict with another person. That could be as simple as wanting to get to know Rei better because she has a close relationship with his father. Or it could be the knockdown fight he has with Asuka because they lost to the Angel that could split into two.
He will attempt to resolve the conflict during the first half of the episode and not be able to.
Then at 12-14 minutes, an Angel will show up, and Shinji will need to get into the Evangelion.
The fight will typically start with Shinji losing, but somehow he overcomes his initial deficit and wins.
This fight will resolve the conflict that started the episode.
It’s impressive how closely Evangelion adheres to this structure. You can set your watch to it. And if you stripped out the cast and replaced them with Professor Whatchamacallit and his nephews Louie, Ray and Ronnie, you could have a super robot show.
What makes Evangelion unusual is nearly every story element. Typically, when you have a hero in a super robot show, they want to fight the villains. Shinji struggles with this, and while he finally sheds some of his worst anti-hero traits, he is far from what I call the traditional hero.
His “sidekicks” are a golem and a girl who wants to be praised by her parents. Neither is particularly traditional.
And instead of the League of Evilly Evil-doers, the angels seem to be sent by some unknown force. We only have some hints about their objective. They exist just to highlight the conflict between Shinji and whoever he is conflicting with.
On top of this, there are no clear-cut antagonists in this show. Sure, Shinji has problems with his dad, but is he an antagonist? Yui set this entire plan in motion, but are they struggling against her plan?
The primary conflict is Shinji against himself and understanding that he will never understand anyone.
While Shinji steps through this structure in every episode, it’s not what the story is about. The story is about his relationships with all of the other characters.
The structure serves to provide a comforting element to the audience. Viewers know what to expect from every episode, and it soothes away the uncomfortable aspects of the story away.
RahXephon has a non-traditional structure with a traditional story
It’s hard to tell what genre RahXephon is in according to its structure. Each episode is structured differently. There are no patterns that are easy to pick out.
If this were a super robot show, Ayato would get into the robot at 12-14 minutes. He would fight with a dolem that involved some level of back and forth.
Nearly all of the fights in RahXephon involve three “hits.” The dolem hitting RahXephom, RahXephon hitting the dolem, and the dolem hitting the floor. None lasts more than two minutes, and often the bulk of the action takes place inside the cockpit and not between the combatants.
There is one exception, and that is done purposefully to show the horror of what happens. I won’t spoil it here, but here is my opinion if you want to read it.
If it were a real robot show, we would see more robots. The hallmark of a real robot show is that the robots are ubiquitous. That is not the case here. The robot is very much singular, and when others are brought in, they are considered unique.
Again this doesn’t mean the show doesn’t have a plot, but the episode’s events aren’t predictable. And they aren’t comparable to any other show. At least not one that I’m aware of.
The story elements, though, are very traditional. While Ayato is torn between Tokyo Jupiter and the rest of the world, he tries to help people. He may reject the call from time to time, but he’s always the hero.
The rest of the cast could be transplanted into another other sci-fi show and fit very well. Haruka is a traditional love interest. The commander feels like he could easily replace Alex Rowe from Last Exile.
Now again, I want to clarify that being traditional does not mean they are less nuanced or deep, just that they fit a general shape that I’ve seen in other shows.
Also, this show has clear antagonists. Maya and Tokyo Jupiter are trying to kidnap Ayato and bring back the RahXephon to get him to serve their ends. Bobhem is manipulating everyone in the situation to get his result.
While Ayato ends up choosing Haruka and a third option, the conflict is built around whether he will fight against the Mu or decide to return to them.
In this case, the non-traditional structure turns this show into something of a war epic. This would typically have a looser structure.
Which one is better?
Well, if you learned nothing from this point, my answer is neither.
But I think RahXephon tends to get overlooked because it’s not telling as much of an action-filled story. So much of the story happens in the quiet moments of the show.
While the characters are just as complex in RahXephon, they are not as challenging. It’s easy to tell what Haruka’s motivations are because we’ve seen other romantic leads in other shows. We can say the same about So, Elvie or Megumi. Their reasons are clear, and we don’t need to be let into the secret.
That is what is appealing about RahXephon. We feel a sense of connection with them because we recognize a shared experience. Whether that is true or not.
Evangelion’s characters are more challenging because they don’t always know what motivates them. We are faced with constructing puzzles based on unfamiliar pieces.
More than anything, I believe this is why Eva ends up appealing to so many. They discover something in the characters that they connect with.
The problem is that the differences make the shows hard to compare.
I prefer RahXephon because it’s a story about hope, but I can respect the people who want the goth girl outside the party to like them.
So have I done it? Have I shown that these two shows are too different to be compared? Let me know.
And, as always, thanks for reading.