"The Dreaming Stone" - RahXephon's Take on Christmas

Happy holidays! It’s that time of year when people make over-elaborate dinners for their families, frigid weather compliments the excessive snow and ice outside and stores are filled with shopaholics getting into debt because “they have to get something for everyone, themselves included.” For some, it means Christmas. For others, it means Chanukah. And, above all, this is the time for arguing, guilt-trips and a complete misunderstanding of what the holiday season is all about.

Kidding aside, I have a soft-spot for the holiday season. Not because of the weather, but because it really is a time when I’m obligated to feel a little extra joy in a rather depressing month. I don’t celebrate Christmas, for example, but I love its music. And while I think the whole “consumerist culture” aspect is absurd, a nice gift here and there makes for a nice conversation piece. Also, let’s not forgot the great dramas that come out in theatres, usually the best of the year.

I mention all this because, surprisingly, today’s topic deals with the holiday season, albeit in a twisted and Nippon-centric fashion:

RahXephon is a 26-episode series produced by Studio BONES in 2002, before they’d made a name for themselves. The show’s animation is rather dated, it was made during the transition period from hand-drawn cels to digital painting, but the story, penned by mech-genre favourite Yutaka Izubuchi, is littered with enough bizarre imagery and symbolism that its writing and themes are still relevant. And for good reason, as Izubuchi wasn’t one to shy away from controversial statements about theology, race and human nature. It’s also subtle and cryptic, making it a show that requires several viewings to really understand. Regardless, it’s a weird show, and nowhere is this more apparent than with its quirky-yet-somewhat-unnecessary Christmas episode: “The Dreaming Stone”.

The episode begins where the previous one left off: Ayato, the protagonist, had recently fought a Dolem that’d crystallized as its final act, and now his companion, aka “RahXephon”, was in a cryogenic chamber healing from its wounds. As a side-note, both Ayato and RahXephon were being examined by researchers to see what set them apart from the other Mulians, i.e. the main enemy in the show, and figure out if they could be harnessed to win the war. During one of these tests, Itsuki, the head of TERRA’s science branch, discovered a loose crystal protruding from the chrysalis, which, thinking it was harmless, he decided to give to his assistant, Sayoko, to wear as a necklace for Christmas. Sayoko took it, but felt she wasn’t worthy and started to become depressed, something amplified by this strange crystal.

Around that time, Japan, which hadn’t seen Winter in ages, had its first snow. Initially, the TERRA Corps were delighted, thinking it’d be timely for their annual Christmas party. However, as time went by, the snow turned into a flurry, and Sayoko, still consumed by depression, became a prisoner of her new crystal and turned into a Dolem herself. Only Ayato could break her free, but there was a catch: he was too concerned to fight the Dolem without injuring and killing Sayoko in the process. His superiors kept insisting that hesitation was a weakness Ayato couldn't afford, but Ayato wouldn’t compromise. It was only through the help of his guardian angel, Nishima Reika, that Ayato freed Sayoko, killed the Dolem and ended the Winter weather. The episode concludes at the Christmas party.

If it seems like I’m giving the cliff-notes version of the episode, it’s because I am. In truth, a lot of side-threads occurred, like Megumi trying to outdo her sister by wearing high-heeled boots, Haruka’s history with the gloves she gave Ayato as a Christmas present and a scene involving Megumi sleep-talking, but they felt irrelevant to the main conflict. In fact, the whole episode feels irrelevant, as 85-90% of it could’ve been cut and still worked. Nothing would’ve been lost, the theme would’ve remained and, save one or two details that would’ve resurfaced in later episodes, the show could’ve worked without it entirely. In that sense, it’s filler: cute, touching and with a good message, but filler nonetheless.

Which is all the more reason to discuss this episode more fully, as, despite being mostly detached from the series, it actually has something significant to say.

In case you’re wondering how something so trivial can also be so poignant, think about what RahXephon as a series is about: greed, discrimination, the instability of the human psyche, etc. It’s a show, much like Wolf’s Rain or Revolutionary Girl Utena, where the outward appearance is really a metaphor for something deeper; heck, if one of its side-characters, a psychic named Quon, is indication, clearly there’s more going on than petty fights and characters interacting with one another! But what could this episode, such a bizarre story about Christmas, have to say about humanity?

Well, I didn’t know initially. It seemed like nothing more than a weird Christmas episode. It even felt like Izubuchi didn’t want to write it at first, as it’s never mentioned again. But then I re-watched it, and I got this strange vibe. It seemed anti-Christmas, as if it didn’t like the holiday at all (there’s even a conversation in the episode about how distorted Christmas has become, if that’s an indication.) In that sense, the message could almost be that Christmas is an evil holiday.

“But wait,” I thought, “maybe I was on to something, but was going about it the wrong way.” And you know what? I was: the episode doesn’t hate Christmas, or else the party at the end wouldn’t have happened. Rather, the episode hates a specific aspect of Christmas, the one that was right in front of my nose the whole time: consumerism. “The Dreaming Stone”, presumably like Izubuchi, hates how Christmas has become a season of spending money on shallow, meaningless presents that no one will care about in a month.

The evidence supporting this is even prevalent in the way the episode is structured: Itsuki hands a really beautiful and fickle gift to Sayoko, thinking it’d make her look pretty. Sayoko, so distant from her boss, feels unworthy. Her depression causes snow, normally thought of as beautiful, to fall at an alarming rate, all the while turning her into a monster. And once she’s a monster, the higher-ups, which I can presume are a metaphor for consumerist culture, don’t care about her: there’s no time for doubt, sulk later!

Cogito, ergo sum, I guess you could say.

I also find it interesting that, given her self-conscious personality, Sayoko’s reaction once freed is bewilderment and confusion. As she states herself, it felt like she was “in a dream”. A twisted and disturbing one, but a dream nonetheless. That alone speaks volumes about the illusion of joy we feel from spending money over gifts. Considering the original meaning of the word “gift” was “to give”, it’s as if consumerist culture has forgotten that. There’s an irony in feeling joy from receiving a gift, when in reality it should be about the giving part. Because giving is what creates the bond, not receiving.

How fitting that the English translation of this episode was “The Dreaming Stone”. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but gemstones can also put you in a dream-like trance from staring at them if they’re beautiful. However, like consumerism, it comes with a catch: if you’re transfixed by its outer beauty, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s underneath.

Still, in the end, the whole “filler” aspect really does come back to bite this episode in the foot. Yes, the first half of RahXephon had plenty of filler episodes, but they usually tied into something grander. This episode…doesn’t, at least, not fully. It has a few ideas that it brings to the table, but they’re scattered, casual and generally not important. Also, the whole “lovey-dovey” aspect bugs me, especially since this is the point where Megumi started becoming a catalyst for pointless love triangles. *Sigh*

So yes, fascinating episode, interesting ideas, but overall pointless in the grand scheme. Have a nice and safe Christmas/Chanukah/whatever you celebrate, and I’ll see you in the new year.


Popular Posts