Jun Sakurada is a teenage boy who has left school and refuses to leave the house. He’s doted on hand and foot by his older sister, Nori, who he lives with. You know, because this is an anime, and teenage protagonists living with their parents would just be heresy. He occupies his time by ordering a bunch of junk online, using it briefly, and then returning it just in time to exploit Japan’s ‘cooling off period” law. One day, he receives an offer that asks him one simple question: “Will you wind it, or won’t you?” He clicks yes out of bored curiosity, and not long after, a suitcase appears on his floor, containing a beautiful blonde ball-joint doll in a red southern belle dress.
He winds this doll, as per his promise, and is shocked when it actually wakes up and starts talking to him! It… I mean, she… Introduces herself as Shinku, the fifth in a series of magical Rozen Maiden dolls, and he’s been selected to be her servant! With this haughty totty ordering him around, and a bunch of other dolls arriving at his house via airmail(I mean that literally, they crash through his window), will this hikikomori’s0 life ever be the same? Or will it forever be changed by his involvement with these dueling dolls and their mysterious “Alice Game?”
When I first watched Rozen Maiden, I wasn’t very impressed by the animation quality, but I was willing to give it a pass… After all, as dated as it looked, it was probably one of the better looking shows of the late nineties, right? But then I saw online that it came out in 2004, and I sat there in a stunned silence until I came across the name Studio Nomad, and I understood a little better. See, Nomad is a studio comprised of former Madhouse and Pierrot staff, and neither of those companies have ever really been anywhere near the forefront of production quality, especially back in the early aughts. I reviewed a Pierrot title a while back(Twelve Kingdoms), and while I gave it an 8/10 in general, the animation was one of the few factors that kept it from getting the higher score that I wanted to give it.
And Rozen Maiden just happens to have been the first outing for Studio Nomad, which just makes matters even less promising. The animation isn’t what I’d call ugly… Trust me, we’re nowhere near a Deen or Xebec level of bad… But it doesn’t take a trained eye to see how low their budget must have been. Character movements are jerky and clunky, and they can look off-model in several shots. The visual direction is pretty good, as the people in charge of this were clearly trying to make their product look better than it was destined to look, but there was only so much they could do with it. The only time the animation really starts to impress is during the fight scenes… Yes, these ball-joint dolls fight each other, and it’s as awesome as it sounds… So I’ll give them credit for that. The action, when it’s happening, is kinetic and a lot of fun to watch.
The artwork, however, is really weird in it’s presentation. For the parts of the story that take place in the dream world, the visuals are striking, highly imaginative and full of very beautiful, very tonally appropriate imagery, and I loved watching the characters interacting with these lovingly crafted environments. In the real world, however, it’s nowhere near as interesting. There’s a lot of detail, to be sure, but it still feels kind of lifeless and flat, and the characters just feel tacked on, like stickers on a television screen. The character designs are pretty neat, though, especially with the dolls, who’s colors schemes and outfits say a lot about their personalities and dispositions.
As for the English dub… Woof. This is easily one of the more annoying ones I’ve had the chance to hear. That might just be me, though… The main two actors are Mela Lee and Mona Marshall, who were both highly prevalent at the time of this dub’s release, and I’m not a fan of either of them. I don’t think I’ll draw much ire for putting down Mela Lee, who’s voice just sounds like the audio equivalent of Splenda in most of her roles, but I might just be angering a substantial fandom when I place Marshall in the same ballpark. So let me explain.
I respect Mona’s body of work… I mean, how can you not respect somebody who’s played more cartoon characters than Daws Butler and Mel Blanc combined? And she has a very impressive amount of range and talent, but when she’s playing young boys, she’s about as convincing as Zac Efron in The Lorax. I didn’t mind it as much in Wolf’s Rain, as he was kind of a quiet character, but as Jun, her voice is just all over the place. It’s the one kind of role I never really like her in, and to say she’s worse than Mela Lee in this dub just sounds excessively cruel… But it’s true. The rest of the cast isn’t any better, as they seem to range from soft and screechy to soft and waify. At least Sherry Lynn sounds like she’s having fun as Hina Ichigo, but Mela Lee’s performance in the role of Shinku just sounds like she’s reading her lines off of a cue card. Which is a shame, because she nailed the character’s upper crust accent.
The only real saving grace of the dub is Karen Strassman in the role of Suiginto, the villain of the series. While the original seiyuu did sound creepy and sinister, Strassman actually kind of outperforms her, adding layers of bitter pain and jealousy to the mix. Which is great, because as we find out, that’s exactly the kind of jilted antagonist she is. Unfortunately, one solid performance is not enough to base a recommendation on, so I’m going to have to call ‘sub over dub’ on this one. The music, while serviceable, is still pretty generic and repetitive, with standard plinky slice-of-life tunes dominating most of the soundtrack, and an instrumental version of the opening being thrown in for a lot of the action scenes.
When talking about the story and writing of Rozen Maiden, there are three different sides to it that need to be examined. The first one is the main plot, revolving around Suiginto and The Alice Game. It can be a little confusing if you’re not paying attention, but the goal of the game is apparently to be the first doll who meets Father, the man who created them. This plot is the reason all of the action in the series exists, and with Suiginto at it’s core, it also gives the series a pretty solid, intimidating antagonist. It creates some very high stakes, not only for the few dolls you actually care about, but for their human masters as well… And even for Suiginto. The problem is that when you get right down to it, the villain is the only character who actually wants something to happen. I’m not a fan of main characters who’s only goal is to preserve the status quo and live a peaceful life, and the entire cast doesn’t want anything other than to exist. It makes it kind of hard to root for them, because when nothing’s happening…
The second side of the story is my least favorite of the three, and it’s exactly the kind of story most of the characters would like to have. It’s the slice-of-life side. About half of the series’ screen time is centered around Jun, Nori, and the dolls just hanging around the house and interacting with each other. I’d be lying if I said nothing funny happened here… An early gag with Shinku and the toilet had me in stitches… But for the most part, this show just isn’t very funny. The jokes are either repetitive or just way too drawn-out, and some of the material is just plain painful. And then you have shorelines like the Snow White rehearsal, which was about as pointless as leveling Aeris in FF7, unless you’re actually invested in the romance between Jun and Shinku.
Speaking of which, the comedy isn’t the only thing wrong with the slice-of-life side of the story. The other giant problem I had with this show… Which I didn’t fully understand until my second viewing over the course of this week… Is that it is, in essence, an elaborate pedophile fantasy. Yeah, I know I’m going into lunatic Nancy Grace territory here, but hear me out… Take away the fact that Shinku and her friends are animated dolls, and Rozen Maiden becomes the kind of series that could most easily be described as a harem where all the options are little girls. They seem to match the loli stereotypes, too… You have the precocious one, the tsundere one, the shy waify one, and the hyper Genki one. It’s like a weird combination of Love Hina and Strawberry Marshmallow.
And before you start telling me that I’m looking too far into it, and it’s not real loli because the characters in question aren’t biological humans, I’d like to point out two things. First of all, the lolis in UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie weren’t human, but the show was still really damn creepy. “They’re not human” is just a half-assed excuse. And second of all, these characters don’t really feel like dolls… They move independently of their ball joints, to the point that I have to wonder why they have them in the first place, and they’re biological enough to get hungry, eat, and taste what they’re eating. Taking those facts into account, along with the unsettling level of sexual tension between Jun and Shinku, and it’s really hard to hold onto the illusion that these characters really are just walking ball-joint dolls. The ‘guy takes care of a bunch of little girls’ setting is there so the viewer can imagine himself in Jun’s shoes, and your imagination is exactly where all the debauchery that would never be presented on screen is intended to happen, and with unnecessary suggestive moments like the laundry episode lingering about, they’re pretty freaking transparent about it.
The final side of the story is my favorite one, and it’s the development of Jun Sakurada as a character. Rozen Maiden was one of the first stories to try and tackle a Hikikomori character, alongside Chobits and Welcome to the NHK, and it takes a much different approach from those other two. (This part’s a bit spoiler-y.) Rather than being a failed college student or a paranoid drug addict, Jun is much more relatable in his circumstances. He was a very impressive student, standing tall as one of the best in his grade, but the attention this got him… Remember, kids, Japanese schools post your grades on the wall for everyone to see… Wound up leaving a lot of pressure on his shoulders, with both teachers and students talking him up as a prodigy despite the fact that they only knew him through the pedestal that they were all placing him on. So when he finally started to cave under the pressure and get bad grades, the backlash was unbearable. In addition, he was starting to get teased over his sewing prowess, and it all just crushed him, causing him to have a mental break down and hole himself up in his room.
It’s some fairly compelling stuff, and the way he’s portrayed whenever he faces the idea of going back there is very strong. It unfortunately culminates in a scene with his sister where she says some things that… Let’s see, how spoilery do I want to get, here… Well, she gives him a tearful, emotional pep talk that not only misses the entire point of his character, but it honestly sounds like she’s trying to make him feel even more guilty than he already feels. She tells him “No, you’re not a horrible person for inconveniencing us, we feel like horrible people for not being able to fix you!” Great, so you’re trying to make him feel better by telling him ANOTHER negative impact he had on your lives? Geez, with a sister like you, who needs social anxiety? Oh, and at one point, she totally also has a sex dream about him. Make of that what you will.
I have a theory about this show, and it’s based solely on season 1… Which is all I’ve seen so far. My theory is that the dolls aren’t actually real. He ordered them online, in the order and pace that they arrived, and is only imagining the interactions and stories he’s having with them. And his sister… His dear sister, who loves him and would do anything for him… Is playing along, having tea parties and elaborate fantasy play sessions with his little brother and his dolls, all while she wonders(whenever she’s alone with Shinku) whether or not she’s doing the right thing by enabling him. That would explain why she never has as animated a reaction to the dolls as he does. It’s kind of a spitball theory, and there’s no real evidence for it, but try watching the show while thinking about it… It actually kind of makes the series better.
Rozen Maiden was originally available from Geneon, which of course means the original balls-expensive DVDs are out of print. It’s currently available from Sentai Filmworks, and at this point, there are several different DVD sets you can buy… I don’t think it’s available on Blu-ray outside of Japan, though. Personally, I’d recommend the 2011 Sentai box set, which includes this season, plus the second season and a 2 episode OVA. It’s only five disks and it’s relatively cheap, but it comes with the disks stacked on top of each other on a single spindle. It’s possible to accidentally crack the disks while pulling them out, so moving them to a safer case is probably a good idea. In addition to the second season and OVAs, there was also a new season in 2013, that was actually dubbed by Sentai, so I’m expecting a better dub in that set… Or at least I was, until I saw that Nancy Novotny was playing Nori. Because… Ew. My least favorite character, played my least favorite actor. THAT’s gonna be a fun review. In any case, all four iterations of the franchise are available for streaming on Crunchyroll.
While I can’t say I’d really recommend this series… I haven’t watched the other seasons yet, so my opinion might change… It wasn’t really a bad anime, either. It’s kind of a mixed bag. It has more than it’s fair share of problems, especially in terms of it’s production values and obvious loli-harem leanings, but there’s also a lot of things to love about it. While the art itself is hit or miss, the art design is really strong, and the visuals and imagery can be downright beautiful. It’s a very cute show, very well paced, and while it’s not for me, the effectiveness of the humor will vary from viewer to viewer. Fans of Ball-Joint dolls are going to love it to death, and understandably so, as I don’t think there are any other shows that feature that interest as prominently. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I can see why a lot of people would, which is why I’m going to give Rozen Maiden a 6/10.