MVM appear to have taken over ADV Films' mantle of fan favourite distributor of late, picking up a host of popular niche titles that larger distributors like Manga and Bandai overlook. Many of the major anime titles being released in the UK at the moment seem to be aimed at a generally male audience, but MVM seek to redress the balance with a cuter approach. Beez has giant robots, Manga has exorcists and ninjas, but MVM have dolls.
Maiden is set in modern Japan and focuses on the reclusive Jun, a teenaged
boy who shut himself up in his room after suffering bullying at school.
Despite the pleas of his long-suffering sister Nori, Jun refuses to leave the
house and spends all of his time ordering stuff from the internet and returning
it before the trial period expires. However, one day he answers an unusual
ad and thinks nothing of it until an ornate suitcase magically appears in his
room. The case contains a beautiful doll in an extravagant red dress,
which promptly comes to life when Jun uses the supplied key to wind it up.
The doll introduces herself as Shinku, and demands that Jun makes her tea and
act as her servant. Before Jun has much of a chance to protest a clown
doll bursts through the window and attacks them, leaving Jun with little choice
but to swear fealty to Shinku and give her the power to protect them.
However, Jun's actions have more consequences than he realises. In
becoming Shinku's medium he becomes part of a deadly world where sentient dolls
battle each other for the spark of life, or 'Rosa Mystica' that each carries.
Not only is he now in danger but as Shinku's medium but his life force is also
linked to hers, and in order for her to gain more power she must help him to
open his heart and return to the real world. Neither of them are in for an
easy ride though, several dolls are targeting Shinku and one - the creepy
Suigintou - is a serious threat to both of them...
I had a look at the original Rozen Maiden manga a couple of years ago (check out the review here) and must admit that I was really taken with Peach Pit's superbly detailed gothic art. My main concern when I heard that the anime was coming out here was whether the creators would be able to capture the elegant and intricate visuals, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they could. As you can see from the screenshots in this review the design of the dolls is spot-on, and the level of detail and the vibrant colours make this one of
the better looking anime series I have seen recently. The animation is good and the design is excellent, particularly in the dolls themselves and the surreal dreamscapes the conjure up for their battles. Suigintou's desolate world is particularly striking, with broken dolls littering a dark ruined city in stark contract to the bright and childish world conjured up by fellow doll Hina-Ichigo.
The story itself leaps between
the intriguing and the clichéd, with some interesting subtexts and plot strands
battling with the usual conventions of romantic anime and some hackneyed comedy.
Jun's reclusiveness and Shinku's dominant personality make a refreshing change
to the normal 'geeky guy and doormat girlfriend' you get in series like
Chobits and Ah! My Goddess, and it's interesting to see how Shinku
slowly begins to coax Jun out of his shell. There is also the intriguing
subtext to the dolls' long running battle - taking another doll's Rosa Mystica
effectively reduces it to the state of a normal doll, effectively killing it.
However, not all the dolls want to fight, and not all of them want to take their
sisters' lives. This moral dilemma adds an extra level of drama to the
series that it could otherwise have been missing, and it is not clear if the
dolls remain sentient but trapped within the unmoving shell of their body
following defeat. It's thoughts like this that enhance the gothic aspect
of the series, but this side is somewhat undermined by a determined adherence to
standard anime tropes.
One of the most obvious nods to the 'shojo' crowd is the addition of the cutesy Hina-Ichigo, although it is interesting that her obsessive need for attention threatens the life of her medium. There is also the obligatory comic relief episode as Hina-Ichigo gets picked on by fellow doll Suiseiseki leading to a very childish feud that Jun tries desperately to diffuse. However, despite these clichés my main issue with the series is the treatment of Jun's well-meaning sister Nori, who he generally treats like crap and seems to be the main comic relief
character in the series. This only serves to cheapen her relationship with Jun, and undermines the impact of his reclusive nature on those around him. It's a shame, as Nori shows signs of being a good character. However, the series' main focus is on the dolls and their struggle, and it's the interactions between Shinku and Suigintou that are the best aspect of these first six episodes.
Once again MVM deliver an interesting anime series that is a bit different to what other companies are releasing in the UK at the moment. Rozen Maiden vol 1 boasts some superb art and design as well as some actual content to back it up, making an interesting mix of action, romance and drama. Whilst some of the comedy is hackneyed some is quite amusing, particularly the aloof Shinku's inability to open doors, and there is an underlying dark edge to the story that is quite refreshing. The short length of the series means that things will have to move quickly next time if it is to get anywhere near covering the story in the manga, but on this evidence it should at least be an interesting journey in the next volume. Good stuff that is well worth a look for fans of gothic-edged anime.