Have you ever made a decision you regret? Something you wish you could go back on, now that you’re able to see the results of it through the power of hind sight? Maybe it’s something major, like you married the wrong person. Maybe it’s something a little less major, like a tattoo that you wish you could painlessly remove. Maybe you just don’t like the breakfast you ordered this morning. Maybe you wish you could take back that one comment you made that wound up having disastrously severe consequences. Well, you can’t take back your mistakes, but it may comfort you to know that when you made them, you created an alternate timeline where another version of you wasn’t quite so unfortunate.
For you see, whenever you make a choice, you create alternate timelines where the opposite choices were made. There are an infinite number of these timelines, and yet they can all supposedly fit inside a box with a terrified cat. And a long time ago, Jun Sakurada made on of these choices, when the middle school version of himself received a mysterious letter asking him an odd, cryptic question: Will you wind it, or won’t you? His cynicism won out over his curiosity, as he circled the latter, and almost instantly forgot the letter ever came to him. But now, as an adult, that letter is once again becoming relevant in his life, as he begins receiving doll parts from a mysterious benefactor, and becomes entangled once again in the Ball-joint Battle Royale that he’d once avoided. One way or another, this part time book shop employee is about to find out that his low-key existence may be much more than meets the eye.
It’s been almost a year since I reviewed the first season of Rozen Maiden, and I seem to recall criticizing it’s animation, but pulling back just a little bit by saying that while it was bad, it at least wasn’t ‘Studio Deen’ bad. Well, I just finished the newest iteration of the franchise, and I’ve gotta say, Zuruckspulen looks gorgeous. And who’s the studio behind this beauty of a series reboot? That’s right… It’s Studio Deen, and here I am eating my words with a nice big slice of humble pie on the side. As it turns out, Deen is a very difficult company to get a consistent read on, especially after the countless stiff, ugly looking shows they’ve produced and the small legion of otaku dedicated to slinging mud at them at every given opportunity.
That’s not to say the new Rozen Maiden had a huge budget… No, upon close inspection, it’s pretty clear that at the very least, money was tight for them. Thankfully, Deen seems to have done everything right with managing this production. For the most part, movement is limited to what’s necessary, with a focus on restraint over indulgence. This can become a problem in some anime, as it can lead to extended key frames and conversations made up entirely of lip flaps, but Zuruckspulen very carefully avoids these problems by taking a page out of Studio Shaft’s handbook in terms of it’s visual style. Almost every single line of dialogue is presented in at least one frame of it’s own, sometimes multiple, and even when the line goes on way too long, it uses framing and angle tricks to keep your eyes invested in the screen.
I’d even go so far as to say that it uses this principal even better than a lot of Shaft shows, which can come off as desperate to make conversations look appealing when they’re at their worst. Zuruckspulen is never that obvious about it, as none of it’s angles or frames ever feel bizarre or extravagant. With each line of dialogue, Deen knew whether to focus on the lips of the person talking or on the eyes (or sometimes whole body) of the person hearing it. The backgrounds are beautiful, and in keeping with the idea of less being more, the water color aesthetic makes every piece look way more detailed than it actually is. With the help of the brilliant visual style I mentioned earlier, it’s very easy to become immersed in the artistry of the series and completely overlook what had to be a shoestring budget.
The character designs are very standard… I’d almost say they look like a more normal version of CLAMP characters, as the humans all possess more or less realistic proportions and hair colors. The dolls, of course, look exactly the way you remember them, if you’ve been following the story thus far. They look more cartoony than their human counterparts, but in a way that a bunch of elaborately detailed ball joint dolls probably would look. The backgrounds in the world between timelines is where the visuals are at their most impressive, however, as the watercolors translate beautifully into a landscape of mostly bleak monotone colors, and while that tone may seem restrictive, the creators had no problem letting their imaginations loose without ever really breaking that tone, making for a very surreal experience over-all.
Despite the lack of noticeable funds throughout the series, the opening video clearly had a lot of money poured into it. The imagery comes by fast, but little of it is without purpose, as a significant portion of it is dedicated to showing us what happened in the time between the original series and this one, with Jun being trapped, Shinku being separated from him and leaving her body, etc. Simple motions such as the villain corrupting the song of the doll Kanaria say bundles about how the plot is going to play out, and even setting the imagery aside, the song itself is freaking awesome. The rest of the soundtrack is just as good, with composer Shinkichi Mitsumune bringing in a full orchestra for a result that’s surprisingly hard to describe, despite it’s obviously high quality. What I can say is that as with the animation and artwork, the music in Zuruckspulen is very ambitious, consistent and unique, with intense attention to detail.
And the funny thing is that a lot of the compliments I’ve given to the production end of the series thus far can also be applied to the English dub, which was helmed by Sentai Filmworks. People often complain when a show gets recast by a new studio, but for this one, it’s a Godsend. Luci Christian doesn’t use the same kind of haughty delivery that Mela Lee used in the lead role as Shinku, but she’s still a great deal more pleasant to listen to, although the fact that she’s portrayed as less abrasive in this canon plays no small part in that change. Shannon Emerick replaces Mona Marshall, and while she’s not great… Let’s be honest, she never has been… She’s enough of an improvement over Mona that you can tolerate her on that novelty alone.
Aside from Nancy Novotny, who thankfully only has a few lines throughout the series, every single actor swap was a trade-up. Karen Strassman made for a great villain in the original series, but Jessica Calvello carries the role with a great deal more complexity, which fits the new portrayal a lot better. Brittany Karbowski is a welcome addition to any cast, and the fact that she gave emotional gravity to a meme character like Souiseiseki is a near-miracle. I’ll begrudgingly admit that Monica Rial isn’t quite as good as Christina Vee in the role of Kanaria, but it’s not a HUGE drop in quality, and of course she’ll do in a pinch, but the biggest improvement is Hilary Haag taking on the role of Hina Ichigo. Hina is no longer the hyper cry-baby she was in the first series, but is used in a much more tragic context this time around, which is an improvement all it’s own, but with Haag behind the wheel, you feel the weight of that tragedy.
Well, those were the replacement actors, so… How about the rest of the cast? The new actors playing new characters to the franchise? Carli Mosier is outstanding in the role of Kirakisho, the seventh doll and newly minted villain of the series. She’s terrifying through the majority of her appearances, working with the arachnid theme of her character, keeping things nice and creepy right up until the end where she portrays a kind of emotional devastation that sounds unaware of any wrong-doings she may have committed. And as for the rest of the human cast… Adult Jun, his boss, and his co-worker/love interest… They’re good. They’re not standouts, but they don’t really need to be. Their roles don’t exactly come across as demanding, so I;m glad Sentai chose to cast relatively unknown actors to play them, saving their A-squad for the more outspoken roles. The dub is about on par wit3h the sub, so pick your poison.
So, before I go any further, let’s talk about redemption, in terms of sequels and reboots. It’s easy for a continuation of a story to be better than the original, but under what circumstances can you say that the original was redeemed? Well, first of all, obviously, the original has to have had major flaws, regardless of whether it was good or bad. Secondly, you can’t just be better than the original… You have to make the original feel better just through the merit of your existence. As amazing as Star Wars: The Force Awakens was, it didn’t redeem the awful prequel trilogy, which still feels like an open wound over ten years since it’s completion. Force Awakens never tried to justify or reclaim the prequels, just sort of used them as a footnote to tell it’s own story. To redeem another story, you have to change it’s context in such a way that it can be looked upon in a better light.
There’s an infamous My Little Pony fanfiction called Cupcakes, and it’s extremely well known in the community for being torture porn and earning the rating “Grimdark as fuck.” It’s also resoundingly, objectively terrible in both it’s structure and it’s technique. However, there’s a much better fanfic… One just as dark, and just as unfriendly to the squeamish, called Silent Ponyville that goes out of it’s way to redeem and justify Cupcakes as an element within it’s own story, by portraying it as one of Pinkie Pie’s horrifying dream interpretations of a trauma she’d endured as a child. This is how Cupcakes can now be viewed and actually enjoyed through the eyes of anyone coming into it after reading the latter story.
So, does Zuruckspulen redeem the original Rozen Maiden? Well, that’s going to depend a lot on which of two camps you’re in. If you thought the dolls and their escapades were the highlight of the original series and want to see more of them, I really can’t speak as to how this new take on the story will effect you. Shinku doesn’t rejoin the series proper until episode three, and the rest of the dolls don’t come in until the latter half. However, if you’re in my camp, you found the dolls and their outright refusal to get involved in their own plot annoying as hell, and saw the depth and development of Jun as the single greatest thing about the series, then I can tell you without a single doubt that yes, the original series has been redeemed.
In terms of Jun’s development, we get to see not only an alternate(but far more relatable) backstory on his social withdrawal, but we also get to see the kind of person he’d grow into if he’d never met Shinku, and… He really didn’t turn out all that bad. Okay, fine, he’s not in any kind of ideal situation, but he’s living independently, he’s in college(although skipping many classes) and he’s somehow courageous enough to consistently attend a part time job where he works directly with two other people… A lazy jerk boss, and an easy-going female co-worker, both approximately the same age as him. We get to see him gradually open up to this new girl and stand up to his supervisor over the course of the series, and every single step forward that he takes feels satisfying in it’s own right. You could make the argument that the girl is a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ because she sees the good in him and tries to get him to open up, but every choice he makes is his own, and the opportunities she directly gives him are few.
Jun is a lot more likeable in this series, and since there’s little to no time wasted on pointless slice-of-life hijinks, so are the dolls. We start off with Shinku and Suigintou, the former of which is trying to get adult Jun to help her get back to her own timeline, and the latter of which is making a compelling transition from old enemy to new situational ally. Shinku is a lot more patient in this version, and thank god, she at no point is portrayed as the love interest of either Jun. The dolls in general were very subtly sexualized in the original series, making for unnervingly pedophilic undertones that I went into great detail over in my previous review. Not only is that sexualization gone in this series, but the imagery of a nude doll is used to unsettle, rather than to titillate.
One of the biggest problems with the plot of the original series was that Shinku and her friends refused to play the Alice Game, choosing friendship instead of fighting, and while that may sound like something the heroes of an anime should do, it ultimately came off as an outright refusal to let the plot move forward. The only one attempting to change the status quo and actually make things happen was the villain. Basically, we were supposed to hate Suigintou for trying to make the story interesting. In Zuruckspulen, the central conflict is of direct concern to Shinku, making her personally involved with the plot right from her fiirst appearance, and she works so much better as an active hero than as a passive one. Even Jun’s development is tied to the plot, as his desire for a more personal connection to the supernatural world of the dolls eventually becomes the catalyst of the show’s climax.
There’s no filler, and the plot wastes no time whatsoever on extended jollies, but that’s not to say the show is devoid of humor. When Shinku and Suigintou begin to co-habitate early on in the series, their bickering and getting under each others… Umm… Resin… Can get hilarious at times, such as when they’re unleashing all out war on each other in Jun’s bathroom. There’s a one-off reference to Shinkus favorite TV dog that hits the mark perfectly, and the show isn’t afraid to occasionally use super-deformed sight gags at the appropriate times. The humor balances very nicely with the plot and characters, and it never feels forced or sluggish. Then again, that’s just for people in my camp… If you love the franchise primarily because of the dolls and their adventures, and find little value in Jun outside of him being a support character for them, well, you honestly might find this series boring. But for my money, this is the season that needed to happen.
Rozen Maiden: Zuruckspulen is available from Sentai filmworks. For those of you who didn’t pick it up cheap from the Rightstuf Winter sale, you’re still in luck because an at the time of this writing, it’s currently available from Amazon for 34.99, down from a whopping 60 bucks. In addition to the first season, there’s a second season called Traumend and an OVA called Ouverture, and while they were originally put out by Geneon and subsequently out of print, they were later rescued and re-released in one tight little 5 dsk package, also from Sentai. The original manga was also available stateside from tokyopop, but even though it’s out of print, it can still be found relatively cheap. The second manga series? Not so lucky, I’m afraid.
I addition to it’s excellent production and design, Zuruckspulen… Which is German for Rewind, for those who care… Is a near-perfectly executed series, which is why it pains me to say that it suffers from one crippling flaw. Much like the other entries in the franchise, it ends on a cliffhanger, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the final episode hadn’t specifically attempted to set up the continuation. Even the first season knew to end on a climax, if for no other reason than to leave people emotionally satisfied until they got the chance to re-enter the story. Another season could be enough to make up for this blemish,but since the gap between the last entry and this one was a whole seven years, we could be in for a long wait. Other than that unfortunate problem and the fact that the first half of the series may be too slow for some viewers, I thoroughly enjoyed this series, and it’s greatly improved my opinion of the franchise as a whole. I give Rozen Maiden: Zuruckspulen a 9/10.