It’s funny, but for a series that seems to have failed spectacularly in important respects – certainly in terms of commercial success and impressing fans of the Nomad anime – it feels to me that Rozen Maiden Zurückspulen is narratively succeeding on every level. As a story, as part of the series canon, as a character study and as a work of visual and auditory art, this is approaching masterpiece levels. It’s a fully realized whole – a complete and structurally sound creation that plays as if it sprung into life fully formed and was filmed in the act of of actually happening.
While there is another episode next week, this one in many ways feels like the spiritual finale of the series. There’s a good deal of emotion at play here, and it’s the kind that’s hard-earned through serious character development and realistic progression in the on-screen relationships. Perhaps the most surprising element of Zurückspulen for me is the way that it’s managed to turn most of the dolls into complex, layered personalities that I care about in a way I rarely did in the earlier anime versions.
The irony here is obvious: while the Rozen Maidens were on-screen virtually nonstop in the Nomad series’, they mostly resembled the artificial people they are rather than true characters. Real character development took second place to affectation and caricature, each filling their assigned role in the same way idols each take on a fake personality as part of the identity of a girl group. Here the dolls were largely absent for much of the series, yet they’ve made far more emotional impact in that limited screen time. Even minor players in this series like Kanaria and Hinaichigo are much more relatable and recognizable for the essence of who they are as characters, and as a result it’s much easier to feel empathy for them. It’s a remarkable display of good writing at work.
As for the dolls who did have major roles in Zurückspulen, it’s been a real delight to watch the relationship between Shinku and Unwound Jun evolve, and to see Sugintou wrestle with her inner demons. What a great character Sugintou is in this version of the story – fiercely proud, tough as nails, but ultimately undone by her own compassion for a kindred spirit that chance led her to meet. While the Nomad Sugintou wavered between being a cliche ojou-sama and a cartoon villain, this one is a real anti-hero in the best sense, in many ways the most complex characterization among all the sisters. I don’t see a happy ending in play for Sugintou and Megu, but for them it’s never been about a happy ending – it’s about dignity and snatching a few moments of companionship in a universe in which each has always felt desolate and alone.
With Sugintou having granted Souseiseki a reprieve (having seen that her own beliefs about the Alice Game might be contradicted by the realities of how the Rosa Mystica behave) the field is basically cleared for the main trio of the series to play out their own conclusion. It always seemed likely that the dolls would end up in the world of Wound Jun, because if there’s any theme at the heart of this series it’s that the past cannot be changed, only the future. Unwound Jun made his choice and while he regrets it, clearly, his place is to make the best of the world he created for himself with that choice – and his experience with the dolls and his younger self has shown him that there are elements of that world that he treasures. Still, the moments of parting were some of the saddest of the season. Dignified, strong Souseiseki giving Unwound Jun a kiss on the cheek in parting was a great moment – there was no judgement or irony there, as befits her character. She simply expressed her gratitude and affection, and ultimately offered Jun an endorsement of who he’s become as a person – whatever choices he made, this Jun, too, was someone she was proud to call “Master”. And coming from Souseiseki, that really means something.
As for Shinku, this was surely the hardest parting of all for Jun – yet at least his younger self made sure to give him the opportunity to properly say goodbye. Their relationship was one of the best elements of Zurückspulen and cast her character too in a different light than the one we knew in the earlier anime versions. While Shinku surely realizes her place is at Wound Jun’s side, it feels as she’s invested much of herself in his older persona in the short time they spent together. Shinku knows Jun the boy perhaps better than anyone else in the world, even his sister, and that gave her a unique perspective on the way Unwound Jun was suffering in his isolated existence. Much like the presence of the dolls in Zurückspulen itself, Shunku made a huge impact on Unwound Jun in a short time.
The finale then, as it should, seems likely to focus on the older Jun and his journey towards finding a place in his world. There are hints of further drama down the road – certainly the presence of Kirakishou’s vines is an indication that the Alice Game is still playing out – but I sense that Unwound Jun’s role in that story has largely been written. For him, the next step is surely to make his feelings for Saitou clear and to fully embrace the world he’s living in, as it’s the only one he’s got. But as Shinku has told him, everyone has a choice of an unlimited number of worlds, because every choice they make changes the world of their future. Armed with this knowledge I suspect Jun has come to realize that the regrets of life are rarely what we’ve done, but mostly what we haven’t done and wish we had (exemplified quite literally in his decision not to wind the key). The heart’s desire can’t be gained by wishing for it, but only by hard work and self-belief, and that’s surely the lesson that Unwound Jun has learned from Shinku and from the boy who made the choice to wind the key.