Middle-school kid Jun Sakurada is a shut-in, a prisoner of his own bedroom due to social ostracism and crippling anxiety. When he answers a bizarre invitation he is catapulted into a world of knee-high living dolls who mess up his room, watch detective shows, have tea parties and engage in a deadly fratricidal battle royale. But what if he had not answered that invitation?
Jun Sakurada is a college student watching life pass him by - he hates his course and fellow students, his boss at his part time job is a clueless ass, and he wonders how it all came to this. Then one day he happens across something that should not exist in his world - another chance to answer the invitation and pull himself out of his rut.
Writing a review of this series of Rozen Maiden feels weird. This is a franchise I dearly love getting another shot at an animated adaptation, this time of material that I have previously had no recourse to read and have now become resigned to never seeing made available legally. I’m over the moon that I get to watch this series, to see the characters again, to once again dip into its themes of isolation and social anxiety. Also the whole “Living dolls with outlandish personalities conspiring to commit fratricide due to their crackpot creators desire” thing. That part, at least, never stops being weird and gets a decent airing in this series. The problem is, while I am glad to spend the time with this series, I cannot call it a good show.
The most severe issues that cause me to say this can be found at the beginning and end of the series itself. The entire first episode is an attempt to cram the entire 8-volume original run of the Rozen Maiden manga into a 22-minute blowout, hitting as many of the big ticket plot items that it feels able to touch on before ending with a disjointed thud. I can sit here and hypothesise the reasons behind this decision - the 2nd season of the anime followed an anime-original storyline and so has to be corrected and it has been a long time since the original Rozen Maiden anime and manga, but no matter the reasons it feels like a waste of an episode. Due to the speed of it, nothing has any emotive impact and it does a disservice to the characters and their respective plights. It certainly does not feel like a useful way to try and onboard people new to the franchise.
The ending of the series is an offender of a far higher degree, however. Just as everything is nicely wrapped up and you have been given closure for both the characters and the ongoing storyline, the show realises it still has 8 minutes left to fill and immediately runs headfirst into setting up the next story arc with a speed and violence that you wish some of the intervening 11 and a half episodes had displayed. This setup undoes a lot of the closure whole cloth, and sets up for a possible sequel series that has never come. As someone who cannot move on to reading the manga to continue the storyline (it’s not available in English) this is an infuriating tease that undoes a lot of work and the emotional strength of the show.
The material inbetween adapts the second “run” of Rozen Maiden (after it was picked up by a new publisher) and is on the whole good, but never breaks through into “great”. You get some solid character drama and introspection throughout the whole run, and nothing can take that away from the series - Jun and to a lesser extent some of the side characters have a journey to go through and the path is thorny and strewn with setbacks and self-doubt, on the way threatening to undo their little victories and tie them in knots.
Alongside this you get the odd flash of brilliance - infrequent little flourishes that make you jerk up in your seat and pay intense attention to the show, hoping for a watershed where the show hits its stride: a wonderfully moody piece of background music that breaks free of the workmanlike quality of the rest of the soundtrack will play at introspective moments, elevating things; cute character moments and infrequent gags that play off the cast and their absurdities that sadly do not escalate into full comedy episodes; the delightful next-episode-preview skits; the infrequent, and woefully short, fight scenes where the show begins to play with imagination and the outlandish characters it has at its disposal, only for the conflict to be interrupted in one manner or another; a wonderfully animated flourish to help drive home a character monologue and elevate the script from its normal level of “moderately overwrought” to “actually sublime”, driving home the series’ thoughts on personal alienation and inadequacy. These little moments are wonderful but never lead to the watershed you hope for, and while the show never truly dips into being bad, it seems content to hover around the level of “passable”.
The show does come close to a dip though, particularly in the second half of the show. After a massive event that crashes the ongoing plot threads together, the characters then have to spend a total of three episodes over a few backdrops hashing out what is going on and trying to resolve each one in turn, with different issues cropping up and being dropped in time as attention and character focus jumps back and forth. All of this is done at a initially methodical pace that quickly turns torturous as you realise that the last two episodes have involved scant little but the cast slowly going over plot points in an exacting order, unpicking each item and repeating revelations as they slowly move towards a conclusion. There is a lot of plot and payoff to get through here admittedly, but the direction for most of this sequence feels stale and uninspired.
One strongly underwhelming part of the show is the backgrounds - with a few fantastical exceptions, all of them have the “photograph run through a softening filter” look that you normally see in visual novels. While I am not opposed to this on principle, it makes every location in the show look so indistinct and dull, and the characters look out of place. While someone more charitable could ascribe this to an intent to convey alienation and mundanity, the show cannot quite pull the look off and it comes off looking flat.
While on the subject of flat, this is the perfect descriptor for the dub. Not an iota of enthusiasm exists in it, and this makes it utterly intolerable. Most of the characters (especially the dolls) are outsize characters and having them deliver their lines with zero emotion kills the already wonky-sounding script dead. The subtitles are not perfect either however, in some episodes slipping into being half a second late which makes critical conversations a chore to follow.
I’m repeating myself here, but while I enjoyed watching this new series of Rozen Maiden I cannot call it good. Its various flaws stick out like a handful of sore thumbs and while I can personally grin and bear it in the name of watching the antics of Jun and the cadre of titular dolls once again, this does not give it a free pass.