Yes, it’s really happening – I’m going to drop the “simple and profound at the same time” bomb again, because Zurückspulen really deserves it. In fact I’d even go so far as to say it exemplifies it, because I think it can be applied to the series both visually and narratively. So many directors could learn so much about achieving broad impact through spare, austere visuals the way Hatakayama-sensei does here – this series is beautiful visually in large measure because it allows the beauty of its simple imagery to shine through without smothering it with needless gimmickry and clutter. Shinku’s smile, a spartan apartment, a children’s picture book with crude but lovely pencil drawings – like the writing in Gin no Saji, this is work that reflects complete confidence in the artist’s ability to communicate what they want to say.
When I trot out my favorite catch phrase, though, it’s usually in reference to the story and characters, and they equally demand such praise here. In truth, we have a pretty complicated story going on, operating on many levels. We have two separate and distinct realities each with their own version of the main characters. We have a melancholy tale of a lost soul trying to find his place in the world, and a beautifully framed and very naturalistic romance developing between Jun and Saitou. And of course there’s the Byzantine power struggle of the Alice Game, going on mostly behind the scenes here but never out-of-mind, even if mostly out-of-sight. But as with the visuals, there’s not a scrap of unnecessary detail in Mochizuki-sensei’s script – he tells exactly the story he needs to tell, and (as in the fashion of Hyouka) let’s us come to understand the changes in the characters by watching how they behave, rather than explaining it for us.
Obviously it’s Jun who operates at the center of Zurückspulen and he has the most pronounced character arc here, but the extent to which this show is different from earlier anime adaptations is most obvious in Shinku. There’s an irony there in that Jun is the character who looks completely different while she looks the same, but I’m struck by just how different this Shinku is from the one we know in anime form (which, so I’m told, isn’t necessarily very faithful to the original manga). This Shinku has matured and mellowed, and her perspective seems deeply clouded with regret. She’s a sadder and much more philosophical doll here, and her relationship with Jun is almost that of a mother or caring aunt. In a very real (though obviously unusual) sense she’s watched Jun grow up, and it’s becoming clear just how deeply she cares for him. Seeing how unhappy he was affected her profoundly, but now we’re seeing something different – a growing sense of hope and even pride as the boy she knew finds his place as a man in this “unwound” world. Shinku knows that Jun is a person with a beautiful soul that’s always longed to express itself, but seeing him this way has given her a different perspective on both the boy and the young man.
Indeed, though the presentation is still elegant and spare, the many threads of the plot are now picking up steam and there’s the sense of big events on the very near horizon. As the date of the premiere of “Practica Dolls” approaches, we’re reminded that it’s the same day that Shinku says she’ll disappear – a fact she hasn’t shared with Jun. Sungintou continues to keep Jun’s secret, for selfish reasons – she’s discovered that the doll Jun is building is indeed (as theorized here, and always seemed likely) a receptacle for Kirakishou. But Sugintou thinks that knowledge gives her the upper hand, and sees the situation as Kirakishou walking into a trap – she even makes reference to avenging Shinku. Sugintou is nothing if not overconfident, of course, and probably unprepared to face the extend of Kirakishou’s powers.
There are some really outstanding moments in the “mundane” part of the story this week, starting with the scene in the bookshop where the manager tries to blame Saitou for his own mistake (or worse) in inventory control. I’ve been down this road with bad bosses before and it’s all painfully familiar – the insistence on unpaid overtime (one of the hallmarks of a truly bad manager), the panic from the bad manager when the good employee reveals that they’re onto their tricks, and the truth of their incompetence (or worse) is about to be revealed. Jun is really Saitou’s knight-in-shining-armour here, just as he was with the play – he stands up to the manager, stays behind to help fix the problem, and manages to finish the job in short order. He’s smart, confident, dedicated and resourceful – yet still can’t imagine a girl like Saitou could possibly fall for him, though she obviously has. This is really the cause of the sadness in Shinku’s eyes, and the true essence of the Jun-Saitou storyline.
Is Saitou’s belief in him – and Shinku’s – enough to allow Jun to rise above scum like the manager and transcend his self-doubts to become the man he can be? This is a major part of the story, no doubt, and there are signs Jun’s resistance may be starting to crack. As Saitou (actually her big brother) says, “no one who hates what he does could ever do it so carefully.” She refuses to be put off by Jun’s petulance and self-loathing, and he eventually relents and apologizes to her for it – seemingly a big step forward for him. But there are more immediate concerns, as the play is about to begin and Shinku has discreetly volunteered herself to take the place of the stage prop that’s conveniently been left behind.
There’s always been an “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” quality to Rozen Maiden – it’s quite prominent in this incarnation’s OP – and the line between “Practica Dolls”, “A Doll in the Palm of my Hand” and reality seems more nebulous than ever. Is the forgetting of the doll a coincidence, or are all of these characters merely players, and “Practica Dolls” merely a play within a larger one? There’s a striking moment (Takemori Natsumi is doing a wonderful job with the character) when Saitou rehearses some of the dialogue on her way home, and the lines about the “purchase of memories” strongly suggest that larger forces are truly providing the stage direction here. Zurückspulen has been a wonderful journey since the second episode, and it’s never been more compelling than it is now, with so many storylines converging and a deep emotional commitment to the characters having been established. Truly, this is one of the best and most underrated series of the year.