Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m finding this new adaptation of Rozen Maiden to be a truly marvelous thing. Superlatives practically leap to mind as I watch it – beautiful. Elegant. Minimalist. Profound. Unsettling. This is a series not only quite different from earlier adaptations of Rozen Maiden (which are really pretty good for the most part, even if I undersell them occasionally) but from most anime, period. When incredibly gifted people like Mochizuki Tomomi and Hatakeyama Mamoru work on a show, the end product is simply more distinct – it reflects the confidence and distinctive vision behind it – and I think that’s why it demands to be described in distinct terms.
There’s so much about Zurückspulen that’s fascinating, not least of which that it’s a series by talented artists about the trials of a talented artist. Jun’s conflicted, troubled soul has always been the most compelling element in the RM mythology for me and in Zurückspulen it truly commands center stage. We see in this episode how the Unwound Jun (“Is this really my life? Why do I have nothing?”) resents the way the world has treated him – in effect, starting with the incredibly stupid outing he received at the hands of his teacher in middle school, he’s been ostracized for having an artist’s sensibility. Or that’s how Jun sees it anyway, as he justifies the way he’s punished himself for his own perceived failures in life.
Where things got really intriguing this week was with the re-introduction of Wound Jun back into the plot, after a lengthy absence. It’s quite interesting to compare the young adult and the adolescent here: for all that we think of boy Jun as being a mess, a hikikomori, when viewed side-by-side with the man he became after choosing “Do not wind”, he’s by far the more proactive and positive of the two. He’s the one who took action to save Shinku and the other dolls; he’s the one still trying to fight his way out despite being trapped in a dimension of junked PCs. In fact that Jun makes quite a welcome presence because has has a certain snark and spark that his older self has already had beaten out of him by his struggles with life, and it’s quite clear that the impact becoming involved with the Rozen Maidens had on Jun’s life was a net positive.
Wound Jun performs a more obvious function too, of course, and that’s to provide some exposition to a plot that’s full of mystery. He tells us that he was rescued by Kanaria (Shimura Yumi, making her first appearance of the series) and hidden in this lost dimension, and that while he sent his Unwound self the parts to make Shinku’s vessel, he has nothing to do with the more recent deliveries, and that he’s not sending the mails his older self is receiving. The only person he can communicate with is Kanaria’s master Micchan (Kawase Akiko, also her first appearance), and thus he has no way to warn Unwound Jun that the new doll parts and emails are likely a trap – which of course is exactly what Shinku has been telling him as well. Could this be as simple as Kirakishou manipulating Jun into making a vessel for her?
Meanwhile, back in unwound world, we’re treated to some of the best moments yet between Shinku, Jun and yes, Sugintou. I like this version of Shinku – her resigned and even fatalistic turn has given her a humility and vulnerability that makes her far more appealing than in her earlier incarnations. She’s the wise elder here – she sees how unhappy this Jun is and it clearly breaks her heart, even if she has larger concerns on her mind as well. This is now how she hoped the boy she knew would grow up, and while it may be too late for her to influence him it’s clear that at least a connection has formed between them. Jun buys her a copy of “A Doll in the Palm of My Hand” from the bookstore, and it leads to a series of wonderful moments, starting with the way Shinku viciously claws the gift wrap off it after slyly commenting that Jun’s “charming girlfriend” must have wrapped it. She then sits on his lap as he turns the pages for her and muses on the fragile nature of existence, gently touching Jun’s hand, seemingly trying to prepare him for the moment when it becomes clear that the reality they share isn’t a place where she’s supposed to be.
And then there’s Sugintou, who’s suffering also seems to touch this humbler Shinku. The younger sister seems to feel like a lost soul, and recognizes a fellow traveler in her masterless sister, even for all Sugintou’s hostility. She even deposits Sugintou in her case to recover after the older sister collapses on the roof. Sugintou tries to pull one over on Jun, who sees through her bluff and bluster (there’s a wonderful visual of her villainously nibbling on a pocky stick that’s as long as she is as she tries to con Jun) – but agrees to be her medium anyway, provided she promises to take care of herself and to keep her nose out of his business. It’s obvious that Sugintou isn’t accustomed to being treated with this sort of kindness and doesn’t know how to respond, but the irony is that she’d seemingly be doing Jun a favor by snitching on his secret project to Shinku, from whom he’s managed to hide it so far.
One thing I noticed with Sankarea that’s also very much the case with Zurückspulen is that Hatakeyama-sensei is rarely content to present an image in an orthodox way. This is a series that’s relentlessly interesting to look at, from the way the perspective shots with the dolls are framed to the way he presents a scene like Wound Jun’s email communication with Micchan or his phone call with his sister Nori. This is a show that’s positively overflowing with style, as Sankarea was – not the obtrusive sort that overwhelms the material (I don’t need to name names here) but something that communicates the mood of the story in creative and interesting ways. The suffocating closeness of Unwound Jun’s world dominates the mood, but there’s also great beauty here – the dolls have never looked lovelier or more fragile than when Hatakeyama presents them with Jun or the furnishings of his apartments, and in every scene with Saitou she lights up the world like the morning sun. This is anime as art, the work of people serious about their craft and blessed with brilliance at communicating their vision.