Ayato Kamina is a normal teenager living in Tokyo - he goes to school, misses his mother who works a lot and either sketches or paints pictures when he gets a chance. Indeed he has just finished one painting of a girl in a yellow dress standing on a rocky promontory looking out at a confusion of geometric shapes as the series starts. Rushing to school it quietly becomes clear that while Ayato and his friends, whom he meets on the train to school, seem normal enough but that things are decidedly off.
It might be the headlines on the train talking of how invaders attacked leaving Tokyo by itself, or the strange fighter planes now dogfighting in the skies, the men in black suits with blue blood following him or the giant egg suspended in water inside a stone temple that he is led to by a girl who bears a striking resemblence to the one in his painting. Probably it is the giant floating weapons that sing to defeat their enemies. Whatever it is Ayato's world just isn't quite the world we know but it is strangely familiar. By episode three the series opens up to show us that the rabbit hole is going fairly deep and Ayato discovers that he quite possibly may know absolutely nothing about what is really going on...
In a nutshell RahXephon is the telling of Ayato's journey to discover precisely what is going on and what his place is in it all as the pilot of the RahXephon itself. But what is the RahXephon for? Why has Tokyo been isolated and spared from the crushing attack the rest of the world has suffered? Not to mention why does the RahXephon itself, the floating city that appears over Tokyo Bay briefly and the other floating mecha called Dolems all seem so tantilisingly familiar? RahXephon asks several questions like this and almost immediately begins answering a few while also raising new ones as it answers the old ones.
But such a simplistic breakdown of the series does it little to no justice. While Ayato's journey is the core of the series there is a rich diversity of backstory and secondary characters who all have fairly well developed histories, personalities and story arcs of their own. As a result while being a mecha show with the core staples that genre features (namely large robots being piloted by teenagers who proceed to destroy things in ever increasing numbers and inventive ways) RahXephon stands out by being an epic character drama where the mecha are important but take a back seat to the people piloting them and those around the pilots who are supporting or manipulating them - depending on your perspective.
This character driven focus seems to inevitably invite comparison between RahXephon and Neon Genesis Evangelion. Something that while superficially tempting does both series an injustice. Neon Genesis Evangelion is an intensely psychological series that used religious imagery to try and question the fundamentals of life. RahXephon does not have such lofty goals and while it does have a great deal of psychological exploration it's primary aim is to tell a love story set against a sweeping war. RahXephon as a result plays fairer with the viewer and relies less on quite such intensely neurotic central characters. It simply wants to tell you, in classic science fiction tradition, a grand story about what if. What if history was a little more complicated than ever we had understood?
Tieing into actual history RahXephon carefully explores the thought that maybe a certain little noted British author who published a barely remarked on book early in the 20th century was actually right. Care and attention to detail has been spent making this linkage throughout the series. It is one of the hallmarks of the series that a great deal of attention to detail has been spent allowing for casual comments to be made in, say, episode two that don't fully pay off till series end. Or the outstanding use of visual imagery and symbology to give you strong clues so that those paying attention can often predict plot points that are coming. This detail work means the series plays fair with the viewer the whole way through obeying Chekov's rules for scriptwriting - the gun is very definitely laid on the table in Act I Scene I so that no unfair surprises are pulled. All the same the series is deftly written so that it misdirects enough that you often are surprised anyway.
One of the pleasures of watching the series is spending time pondering an episode and trying to predict where the story is going. It is especially gratifying when you get a significant point revealed only to go back and marvel at how you missed the often easy to spot foreshadowing. Series' that pull off fairly misdirecting the viewer are rare animals indeed and RahXephon is special on this count alone. It helps that RahXephon also has very entertaining characters who while flawed are usually only mildly so and mostly are good people. A quite impressive feat is that even one of the more difficult to like characters, Motoko Isshiki, has time spent that elevate him to an almost tragic figure - one who just happens to still be a bit of bastard.
For a first time directorial effort by Yutaka Izubuchi (who previously worked on Gasaraki as mechanical designer) the series is simply amazing. With strong art work and such dense but not distractingly complicated plotting he seems to have marshalled the animation team to produce an exceptional piece of work. The feeling engendered when episode twenty six ends is akin to that of finishing a particularly good book. Sure there are questions left over that it would be nice to answer further but they aren't important ones. Mostly you just have the hankering that it would be nice to spend a little more time with the characters to see where they go next.
While the series itself is 4:3 formatted, it would have been interesting to see what the team could have done with a 16:9 canvas to work with, this doesn't slow the visual impact down with a variety of quite beautiful scenes featuring - usually several exceptional ones per episode. With it's strong almost primary colour toning there is a crisp boldness to the imagery such that when the series mutes the colour palette it is a very obvious stylistic touch that lends gravitas to the events unfolding. This has been encoded onto DVD with a solid transfer that lets the gorgeous colouring come through.
Musicly Ichiko Hashimoto provides us with a score that ranges from delicate piano or flute pieces to jazzy tunes up to more strident and modern instrumental work for action sequences. The music is a strong component of the series, so much so that one particular scene which consistants of two slow pans over still characters is remarkably tense and exciting thanks purely to the score accompanying it. Yoko Kanno lends her talents to the title theme, sung by Maya Sakamoto, which while it isn't one of Yoko's best efforts is still a very catchy piece. One of the standout pieces is the ending theme which captures the right note of dreamy wistfulness.
This leaves the vocal work and again it is very strong in both the English and Japanese dub. ADV have done a wonderful job with both a smart translation as well as good interpretive casting of the vocal artists giving the series a very strong English dub. Mixed in 5.1 sound a lot of care has been lavished on it. While sub purists may well be upset that the character voice styles are different between the English and Japanese dub the key plot points are preserved. It makes only minor difference to listen in either language and certainly the 5.1 mix allows the musical score a good deal of room to breathe.
Rounding out the seven disc package is a healthy dose of extras. Each disc comes with a booklet featuring production sketches and artwork along with interviews with a variety of the animation staff who worked on the series. Along with the, now fairly standard, creditless opening and ending sequence each disc has an animated display of production sketches relating to the episodes on the disc set to an alternate version of the opening theme. A variety of other extras complete the set with interviews with the English dub cast as well as interviews with a variety of the Japanese production staff. It is a solid set of extras that helps to compensate for the slightly stretched out seven disc release which is a 5/4/3/4/3/4/3 format.
All in all if you want a mecha series that never loses sight of the people driving the technology whilst also telling a story in classic science fiction terms then RahXephon fits the bill. In many ways the series can be favourably compared to Cowboy Bebop - it gets in, tells a good story with fun characters and then winds up in such a way that a good conclusion has been reached. There is also a movie now that adds to the series but it is a little unusual in that it tells an alternate and quite different retake on the series as a whole.