It’s pretty rare for me to lead with the visuals when blogging an anime episode, but they were really off the charts on Rozen Maiden this week. There was no doubt in my mind at the time that Sankarea was the strongest DEEN series visually since the Trust & Betrayal Samurai X OVAs (whatever you think of the story, they were pretty damn beautiful). I’d like to see what Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen can do over 13 episodes before I make a call, but it has a chance to equal or better Sankarea visually, and it’s no coincidence that it has the same director.
I’ve made some observations about Zurückspulen’s look already, but this ep was a standout for me. Especially beautiful was every sequence in the hospital room where we’re introduced to Kakizaki Megu (Kawaragi Shiho). She was a part of Traumend and she’s back again as the medium for Sugintou (Tanaka Rie, in her usual stellar form). I love so many individual moments here – the closeups and facial expressions, the use of shadow and moonlight, broken glass… The music, minimalist as always, suits the somber mood perfectly. The animation itself is very good here, but it’s Hatakeyama’s cinematography that really elevates the material to greatness. The scenes at Jun’s apartment are excellent as well – I love the way the director transitions between close-ups of the dolls’ very human faces and Jun’s, and perspective shots where the gap on their physical dimensions is striking. It’s absolutely first-rate.
This entire enterprise could hardly feel more different than earlier adaptations. Gone is the lush, fetishistic wallowing in the Rozen Maidens and their lavish costumes, and (mostly) their grandly stylized interactions with each other. What we have here is somber, spare and (I can no longer avoid using the word) minimalist. It’s an evolution of the franchise, a grown-up and somewhat dark take on the mythology in a world where loneliness, dead-end jobs and financial hardship are the real problems every day brings. There was always a sense that Shinku’s proudly archaic pretentiousness stood at odds with the real world, but it’s so much more stark in this series. The sense is that she’s working hard at trying to fool herself into thinking she really is in charge, and that her pretensions really make a whit of difference. More than ever before, she plays as a tragic character here – as does Jun, truth be told. It’s not going to suit everyone’s taste, but I find it pretty engrossing.
If anything, both Sugintou and her human “property” have always tragic figures anyway, so it makes sense that their shared story would be even darker here. Sugintou comes into this world driven and ruthless, desperate to win the Alice Game and happily willing to use and throw away Megu’s life to accomplish it. But in meeting the supremely messed-up Megu, she ironically begins to develop empathy herself. If “wound” Jun changed Shinku for the better, there’s no question Megu did the same for Sugintou. Alienated from her father (a notion wholly abhorrent fro Sugintou, for whom father love is the driving force of everything she does), longing openly to die, abusive to those who are kind to her, Megu is a hard girl to like. Somehow in the ruthless and vain Sugintou a chord is struck here, a spark of empathy that she’s never allowed to even smolder before.
We don’t know yet, in context, why Sugintou has passed through the mirror and entered the unwound world. Her meeting with Shinku goes pretty much as you’d expect it to, which results in quite a mess being made of Jun’s apartment. Here he reminds Shinku that dealing with a young adult isn’t the same as a child, showing real anger and then forcing Shinku to actually clean up the mess herself (a big heap of garbage after burnable trash day is something anyone living in Japan lives in terror of). There are growing signs that things in this world are “off”, and I was especially struck by some of the weird headlines in the newspaper Shinku was reading (“Hammer’s Spawn Discovered in Hiroshima”, “Capybaras at the Onsen”). As well, Jun finds the storybook Shinku has been reading from on the shelf of the bookstore, and is immediately drawn to it. There’s also the delivery of another “How to Make a Girl” publication – one which Jun is anxious to try, but Shinku forbids on the grounds that it might be a trap set by Kiriakishou.
The look on Jun’s face when Shinku says she only has six days before she most return to her world and “her” Jun is very telling – for all his irritation at the nuisance she can be , it’s clear he likes his life better with Shinku as a part of it. Something has to give here – even if both these worlds are equally “real” (and I’m not convinced) it doesn’t seem possible that the Rozen Maidens themselves can exist in both places simultaneously, at least in spirit. Perhaps this Jun’s fate is to help Shinku to fix things in “her” world and to save his younger self, and hers is to push him out of his self-imposed exile from the human race and into a relationship with Saitou. Or perhaps this world faces a darker and more sinister fate, and Jun and it are fated to be sacrificed for a larger purpose.