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DVD Review

DVD cover

Rozen Maiden
Volume 1


Starring (voice): Asami Sanada, Miyuki Sawashiro, Noriko Rikimaru and Sakura Nogawa
RRP: £15.99
Certificate: PG
Available 15 March 2010

This is the story of one young boy who couldn't get along with his classmates and decided to drop out and never return... This is the story of an exquisite doll who wished to one day become a normal human girl... This is the story of one young boy and an exquisite doll and their adventures as they strive to help each other in overcoming their fears and the very real dangers of the Alice Game. However, in order to do that, they must overcome their distrust of each other...

Dolls - and their uses - have become one of the most pervasive themes throughout the majority of anime and manga. The industry exists in synergy with action figure and video game manufacturers, with authors, designers and producers having a keen eye for how their characters can become an instantly recognisable brand across multiple platforms. The mediums themselves consist of animations and images that are simplifications or exaggerations of people and their mannerisms. It's therefore easier to imagine creators of manga and anime thinking of themselves as 'dollmakers' than those working in live action, and inevitable that this self-awareness should feature in their work.

It was only a matter of time before Studio Gainax' classic mini-series Gunbuster featured giant robots delivered in blister packs and spaceships assembled in orbital shipyards resembling breakaway sprues from a model kit, and it was only a matter of time before the highly collectible dolls of Rozen Maiden sprang from their mahogany and velvet caskets in their overflowing Victorian finery.

Rozen Maiden is a classic example of this kind of self-aware anime, adapted from the Peach Pit manga of the same name by the Nomad animation studio.

The story centres around Jun and his sister Nori, two children who live without adult supervision because their parents work overseas. Jun is a shut-in afflicted with anxiety and depression, living almost solely through the Internet and either unwilling or incapable of attending school; Nori acts as his carer, reading books on child psychology in her spare time between classes from a desire to help her brother.

Jun's interests become insular and obscure to the point that one day - addicted to mail-ordering bizarre items - he is the recipient of a mysterious wooden box containing Shinku, a sentient doll imbued with seemingly supernatural powers. Shinku quickly takes charge of the situation and bonds with Jun via a magical ring, making him her medium through which she can absorb his power. She is revealed to be a doll from the Rozen Maiden brand, and as the story unfolds a number of her friends and rivals become part of the household, all of whom are dolls with differing personalities.

The Rozen Maidens slowly assist Jun in expanding his horizons and dealing with the mental illness that has isolated him from society, while occasionally defending the home from the series' mysterious antagonist Suigin Tou.

This volume of the planned DVD releases contains the first half of the series (six episodes of the full twelve), and the viewer is left hoping that many of the questions posed by this bizarre multi-tiered premise will be answered with the next instalment.

The anime's strongest feature is its wealth of subtextual detail. The dolls of the Rozen Maiden series receive an unspecified form of power from the children to whom they are bonded, an extension of the manner in which any good toy seems bought to life or animated by play. They are also terrified of being abandoned, a fear of neglect that mirrors the experience of the human children Jun and Nori. But it is also the case that Shinku was mysteriously delivered after Jun carried out instructions on the Internet (would he have pursued his online obsessions to this extent had his parents supervised him?), and that his power is mediated to her by means of the ring which bonds them. The implication is that she is a kind of mail-order bride in a worryingly vampiric marriage, yet another example of anime's pernicious and near-ubiquitous notion of the 'woman-made-to-order:' a woman designed and built by men according to what they believe a woman should be. Certainly the gosurori (a Japanese compound word, literally splicing 'goth' and 'lolita') and childlike design sensibility lends weight to the notion that these dolls are fetish objects.

The writers attempt to dodge the usual charges of paedophilic sexism by making sure that the Rozen Maidens never exhibit sexualised behaviour and removing all expected traces of compliance from their personality. Shinku is by turns haughty and aloof, by turns insightful and compassionate. She is never servile or flirtatious. Her character belongs in the same tradition as Mary Poppins, and her role within the series can be seen as a series of carefully judged interventions aimed at helping Jun recover from his illness. In this sense gender conventions are turned on their head. It is the boy who becomes socially conditioned by playing with floridly dressed female dolls, and in this sense Shinku's therapy is reminiscent of the manner in which Satoshi Kon confronted his male characters with their anima in his film Paprika.

The writers should be commended for their skill at maintaining thematic ambiguity despite such combustible subject matter. It is never entirely clear as to who is doing what (and to whom), and so somehow the tone of the series is kept perversely innocent.

Rozen Maiden is an example of anime that tries its hand at a lot of genres - absurdist comedy, character study, adventure, mystery - with only moderate success. A cynical viewer might suspect that Peach Pit and Nomad planned many of the story elements by targeting as many demographics as possible, and some episodes and characters seem significantly better written than others.

The series' largest flaw is that its plot and characters are insubstantial compared to its chewy, complex subtext. A fulfilling story should be more than merely a delivery system for its themes and ideas. It's up to the series' second half to solve these problems, and it may be in for an uphill struggle. But if you like your anime loaded to the rafters with implied meaning then this is well worth checking out.


Seth Cooke

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