Any concerns I had about Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen after the middling premiere have pretty much evaporated. The last two episodes have been truly excellent, with the talent of the writer and director asserting themselves in a big way. This is a series that puts my long-standing contention that the director and writer of a series are the most underestimated component if its quality to the test – it’s from a studio that has an inconsistent track record, and it’s part of a franchise that I’m only moderately fond of.
There were two things I was pretty confident of when the staff of this series was announced. First, that it would end up as the best of the Rozen Maiden anime adaptations. And second, that it would prove the least popular among hard-core fans of the franchise. The reasons are far from unrelated, and while it’s far too early to tell if either of those predictions will come to pass, I’ve seen nothing to make me reconsider them. With Mochizuki Tomomi writing Zurückspulen figured to have a lot less vamping from the dolls, and a lot more introspection. And with Hatakeyama Mamoru directing it figured to have less revelling in lush goth-moe visuals and more austere, surrealistic imagery. And so far, that’s certainly the case.
If I were to choose a word to encapsulate the last two episodes (and really, in my mind I’m pretty much looking at episode 2 as the premiere) it would be “elegant”. There’s just no fluff here. In terms of music, dialogue, backgrounds, and story we’re seeing exactly what needs to be there to create the atmosphere and communicate the direction of the plot and character development. We’ve waded into the serious RM geekery with terms like “N-Field” and such being referenced, but basically this series has been telling a very different sort of story – the journey of Sakurada Jun from the middle-schooler we remember to the young man he is now. And doing so beautifully, even venturing further into the past this week to show us how “our” Jun ended up the way he did.
Speaking of that, I have no idea if Jun’s backstory is manga canon (if it made it into the earlier anime, I’ve forgotten it), but it was frighteningly accurate and true to life. It seems remarkable that teachers – people who spend their entire working lives immersed among and observing kids – should sometimes be so tone-deaf when it comes to what kids are really like, but sadly in real-life this often proves to be the case. Just as it was depressing watching the college-aged Jun listlessly stumbling through his bleak and meaningless existence, so it was to see Jun as a smiling and outgoing child with friends (human friends). Indeed there was only one thing really unusual about Jun, and that was his interest in sewing and designing girls clothes – one which he, quite understandably, kept a secret from his classmates. It’s an unfortunate series of events that leads to his downfall, but ultimately it’s the sheer stupidity of a teacher that brings about the end of Jun’s school life – effectively turning him into the hikikomori he was when we met him.
We have two stories effectively playing out side by side now, though we’re only seeing one of them. It’s hard not to worry about the “wound” Jun, given that he’s told his elder self that he’ll be killed by Kirakishou if he’s discovered texting him – which he clearly has been. “Unwound” Jun is meanwhile continuing to live his half-dead existence, though he seems to have accepted that his younger self is, well- his younger self. Saitou-san, meanwhile, continues to make quite an impression on me if not on Jun – she’s an appealing kind and subtly strong girl, and she’s clearly developed feelings for Jun. He’s in a near-trance though, seemingly oblivious to her feelings (for now) as he focuses on following little Jun’s directions on finishing up Shinku. That involves repeated dream visits to the N-Field – the last of which being after Kirakishou has indeed discovered him and ensnared him in her white rose vines. But that doesn’t stop big Jun from finding needle in a haystack – Shinku’s head and right foot in a sea of mismatched heads and right feet.
There’s a very effective creepiness to these episodes – something Rozen Maiden at its best always displayed – but there was some deft humor this week as well. I especially enjoyed Wound Jun’s snarky comment to Unwound Jun about dying his hair and getting contacts, and the reveal of his last direction to his elder on the completion of Shinku – “Defend yourself!” It seems as if this series isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at the Rozen Maiden brand, which is a welcome development. I suspect two episodes of dark character study with almost none of the dolls themselves isn’t what fans of the series were expecting and hoping for, but for me they’ve been extremely effective at setting both mood and premise. There are exceptions, but generally speaking quality will show itself sooner or later – usually sooner, and that seems to be the case with this series. It’s on-pace to be the subtlest, darkest and most challenging Rozen Maiden adaptation yet.