Sunday, September 12, 2010

On Bones and Gainax

Not to be confused with 'Boners and Gainax,' which is a different subject entirely.

Studio Bones and Gainax have been having an ongoing conversation for a while now about giant robots.  I know that the roots of angst and metaphysical examination in the giant robot genre are extremely deep (hi, Amuro!), but I think that we can jump into this particular discourse when Neon Genesis Evangelion came out, earned boatloads of money for Gainax (150 billion yen to date) and left anime with psychological scars that haven't healed a decade and a half later.

Here's a timeline of the conversation, as it has played out (between these two studios) (Here there be mild spoilers):

Neon Genesis Evangelion - 1995
Evangelion was not the first series to deconstruct Super Robot tropes.  Still, NGE so relentlessly took apart Shinji, the world he lived in, and in the end, the viewer's expectations, that its deconstructive aspects shouldn't be overlooked just because it wasn't the first to have giant robots cause giant collateral damage.  NGE is about unmaking.  This theme meshed very effectively with the Judeo-Christian imagery of the series - NGE is certainly an apocalyptic tale.  However, the incomprehensibility of its ending(s) left the series without any sort of conclusive recreation of the world.  There is an apocalypse, but is there a better world beyond the veil?  The series and the films leave this too much to the viewer's interpretation for most people to be really satisfied.  I certainly wasn't.

Neon Genesis Evangelion also helped to propagate the popularity of the Unlikeable Passive Male Protagonist in Mecha series.  This is a subject of much RAGE for me, I admit.

RahXephon - 2002
 To say that RahXephon is merely a clone of NGE is to simultaneously state the obvious and entirely miss the point.  The fact that cloning, and the anxiety of identity that it creates, is a major theme of RahXephon should be a pretty good tip-off that RX knows what it's doing.  RahXephon repeatedly recreates not only aesthetics (the plugsuit, for one thing), but also entire scenes, nearly shot-for-shot, from NGE.  But it does it with NGE in mind, and uses the viewer's knowledge of NGE to twist expectations.  The seemingly evil director of the secret government giant robot program (the Gendo Ikari surrogate, if you will) takes an odd interest in the strange girl with an odd hair color.  Seems familiar.  But, as the series progresses, Bones takes the time to reveal his real motives, and they are quite different from what one would expect, given the formula that NGE set up.  In fact, many characters whose obvious or even explicit counterparts in Evangelion remain largely inscrutable are fleshed out to a far greater extent, in usual Bones style.  They do love them some secondary characters.

RahXephon behaves much the same way with its protagonist - Ayato Kamina seems a great deal like Shinji at first (though he has a different NGE character's looks).  Like Shinji, he remains largely passive until the end of the series.  But, in the very end, when he does finally act, things go quite differently.  The apocalypse still takes place, but beyond the clouds of one reality lies another, better world.

Also, he fights giant face-robots.  This will be important later.

(Thanks for the image, TheSoviet)

Eureka 7 - 2005
Eureka 7 is in many ways Bones' second crack at Evangelion.  While the first time, with RahXephon, Bones took on the universe, this time it takes on Shinji more directly.  There is little to like about Shinji in classic NGE, but there is little not to dislike about Renton when Eureka 7 begins.  Renton is immature, irritating, and largely useless to the rest of the cast for the first half of the series.

But that's the point.  Unlike Shinji, Renton learns, grows, and matures, mostly without backsliding, as the series goes on.  By the second season, he has reached a point of confidence and competence as to be likeable.  By the end of the series, he's damn impressive.  This is the classic hero's journey, but to set it along side the trappings of NGE (emotionless blue-haired girls, giant organic robots, government conspiracies to end creation, inscrutable aliens seemingly hell-bent on wiping out humanity) makes it all the more poignant.  Unlike Ayato Kamina or Shinji, Renton is given some agency from the start - when he chooses to use this agency roughly half-way through the series, he has a real impact.  Much of Eureka 7 is Renton's story, not the story of things happening to him.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann - 2007

Ah Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann - Gainax's rejection of Neon Genesis Evangelion, in which the initially mild-mannered and passive Simon becomes the kind of hot-blooded badass who can literally drill a hole in the chest of Eva unit 1... I mean... the Rasengan.

Aside from spiritually slaying Shinji, however, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann significantly features a Christ-figure named Kamina whose actions begin the process of recreating the world (by fighting giant face robots), which I simply cannot believe is total coincidence, given RahXephon's similar use of an extremely different character with the same name.  The idea of the Spiral Nemesis - the over-abundance of energy that threatens to consume the universe, also resonates with the problems of Eureka 7, especially those pertaining to the awakening Skub Coral.  Additionally, Eureka and Nia, although different in personality, are two examinations of the same idea of a heavenly messenger in mortal form - an idea that can also be traced back to Ayato Kamina in RahXephon and even further back to Kaworu, the 17th Angel, in NGE.

Star Driver: Radiant Takuto - 2010
This is the latest contribution to the dialogue, apparently (thanks for the link, GG).

So, where is the conversation going?  I admit that I've hardly scratched the surface of where it's coming from, and now we're already looking ahead!  I'm actually tempted to watch Star Driver purely because I'm curious about this - Bones seems to have a lot of interesting things to say about Gainax, and I'm sure Star Driver will be no exception.  It looks like they're going full-on Gurren Lagann here, ridiculousness and all (but perhaps with a larger dose of fabulousity).  That said, I suspect that this academic curiosity won't be enough to get me over the two major humps of it being a Super Robot Show, and, far worse, a Fanservice-Driven Harem Series, which is my Red Kryptonite (that being the kind that drives Superman into an unstoppable RAAAAAGE).


P.S.:  In writing this post, I realized that perhaps FLCL and Xam'd of the Lost Memories should be on this timeline.  However, I ultimately decided that they're more on their own (inscrutable) wavelength than the specific threads I was following, and, honestly, I don't really want to write about either right now (or, in FLCL's case, ever).  I do think they have some interesting parallels, though.


  1. You were right, I didn't read anything except TTGL, mostly because there still is the potential I'll watch some of those shows and I thus had my Spoiler-o-vision™ on.

  2. Damn. If my tastes in media weren't so lulz-centric, this post would probably inspire me to watch Evangelion. Mostly so that I could understand the references in TTGL, admittedly.

  3. Star Driver looks like it's going to be lulz... though whether it's the good kind of lulz or the bad kind remains to be seen.

  4. Call me a Philistine, but your remark about Kamina brought to mind a question I have about Christ figures in media: why? What exactly is it that we're getting out of the characterization of certain characters as Christ figures other than foreshadowing that said figures are going to be instrumental in seeing the story to a happy conclusion despite being beaten down? How does this help thematic elements? I suppose in TTGL, it sends a message akin to:

    Simon: Hey Kamina, hey Kamina! Be my savior!
    Kamina: Simon, you are the savior.
    Simon: *Uses drill to pierce heavens*

    but what about literature and other media forms in general? What's up with this trope?

  5. I suspect if I could sum that down to a single blog post, I wouldn't be taking a class on "The Bible as Literature."

    That said, remember that Christ is interpreted in a plethora of different ways, even (especially) within the Bible itself.