Rozen Maiden and its follow up series Rozen Maiden Träumend came out to very little fanfare in 2010, but were both - in my humble opinion - surprisingly good series. A rapid box set release is par for the course nowadays, but it gives a perfect opportunity to check out a title that many may have initially overlooked.
The story starts by introducing us to Jun, a schoolboy who has completely
withdrawn from everyday life and refuses to leave his house, much to the despair
of his long-suffering sister Nori. Jun passes the time by ordering random
items from the internet and then returning them before the end of their trial
period, but he gets more than he bargained for when he unwittingly orders an
ornate doll. The doll isn't any normal figure, and when Jun winds it up
with the supplied key he is shocked to find it come to life and demand he makes
it some tea! The doll is called Shinku and she is a Rozen Maiden, a
sentient doll created by a mysterious master craftsman whose sole purpose is to
prove herself worthy of returning to the side of her creator. After
reviving her Jun quickly becomes Shinku's medium, allowing her to draw power
from his spirit and life force, and soon learns of the Alice Game. Shinku
is not the only Rozen Maiden, she has several sisters who all have the same
desire to return to their creator but the problem is that only one of them may
do so. In order to decide which doll is worthy they must all compete in
the Alice Game, a battle to collect the mysterious 'Rosa Mystica' they each
possess. However, the Rosa Mystica is what gives the dolls not only their
powers but their sentience, and removing it from them will effectively kill
them. It's not long before the other Rozen Maidens begin to turn up, and
whilst some are more benign the likes of the creepy Suigintou and psychotic Bara
Suishou have only winning on their minds. However, before she has any
chance of defending herself from her dangerous enemies Shinku has another battle
to face - getting Jun to come out of his shell and return to everyday life.
Her power is directly linked to the confidence and mental stability of her
medium, so unless she can get him to open his heart the Alice Game may be over
for her before it can even begin...
As you can probably gather from that synopsis, Rozen Maiden is something like an anime version of Highlander, only with elaborate, cute dolls rather than strangely cast immortal swordsmen. On the surface Rozen Maiden looks like a series aimed firmly at a young female teen demographic, with sentient dolls creating bonds of friendship and trust with human masters, collecting magical items and enabling their human companions to learn Important Lessons about life and themselves. The artwork and animation in the series initially
does little to persuade you otherwise, with Peach Pit's gorgeous and detailed artwork from the original manga translated quite impressively to the screen. The dolls are cute as hell (even the evil ones), there's occasional comedy episodes and pratfalls and overly adorable characters like Hina Ichigo and Kanaria who push the cuteness factor into brain-melting territory. However, beneath the surface sweetness and gloss beats a very dark and surprisingly deep emotional heart.
The simple fact is that for all the hijinks and cuteness the dolls are expected
to fight each other to the death, and most of them don't want to. All of
the dolls are torn in some way between their pre-determined purpose and their
actual feelings, and the personal battles each character faces are what elevates
the series into something entirely different to what you expect. Jun's
story and Shinku's battle to bring him back to society are the main driving
force of the first 12-episode Rozen Maiden series, but the best aspect of
this part of the story is the conflicts she has with her sisters Hina Ichigo and the
surprisingly effective villainess Suigintou. The series deals quite
sensitively with some tough issues, but it really hits its stride in the second
12 episode series - Rozen Maiden Träumend. In this part the story
moves its focus away from Jun and on to the dolls, in particular Shinku who is
wracked with guilt following her actions in the first series. The change
of focus is welcome as the dolls' battle is the most interesting aspect of the
series as a whole, and the story really brings each of the characters to life.
Each doll has a different story to tell, whether the brattish Suiseiseki's fear
of being alone or the quiet Souseiseki's guilt about fighting her destiny, and
the series gives equal focus to each of them. It's never entirely clear
where the story is going either, and there are a few twists and some
surprisingly moving scenes as it moves towards its conclusion.
This said, the series are not without their faults. The tongue-twister names can be a bit annoying at time (especially twins Suiseiseki and Souseiseki), and there are occasional lapses into cheap comedy territory. The series doesn't really need to do this, and the comedy episodes are pretty unoriginal too, including such standard setups as The Detective episode, The Escalating Feud episode and The Aloof Character Being Uncharacteristically Nice episode. It seems lazy, especially when the rest of the series is done so well. There's also
the fact that Bara Suishou in Träumend is not as effective a villain as the cackling Suigintou is in the first series, and that Jun's sister Nori is never really used to her full potential. However, these are small issues when taken in the context of the whole, and the series never really drops to the level of absurdity that the likes of, for example, Love Hina does with its comedy storylines.
This Rozen Maiden & Rozen Maiden Träumend Collection set is a perfect example of why you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. On the surface it looks like inoffensive fluff aimed at young girls, but when you watch it you soon realise it is much more than that. The story is at times gripping, action-packed and emotionally involving, with some great artwork and music and strong and interesting characters. Whilst some of the comedy does take the edge off of the series' quality, as a whole it is an excellent package that deserves to be judged more on first impressions. With 24 episodes for under £30 from many retailers the set is great value for money, so pick it up and prepare to be pleasantly surprised.
The same extras as the individual releases, with trailers, clean opening and closing sequences, Japanese TV ads and a short promo video. Pretty average to be honest, and a shame they didn't include some of Peach Pit's fantastic artwork for the series.