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"Rozen Maiden: Traumend" Is a Few Knick Knacks Short of a Doll House

Maybe I’d care more about doll-on-doll shenanigans if I’d watched the first season of Rozen Maiden before being pitched into its sequel, Rozen Maiden: Traumend. Maybe I’d also be able to regard its premise with something other than vague bemusement. Probably not, though. As near as I can tell, Rozen Maiden is more or less what would happen if Pokemon were treated as an actual drama, which takes it at least two steps beyond the place where I could really be bothered to care one way or another.

The series’ plot has something to do with magical dolls, which are somehow infused with life and then attach to a “medium” from which they draw further strength. There are seven of them, four of which have wandered into the life of a middle school student named Jun. The previous series apparently focused on Jun’s life as a hikikomori—a recluse—but this sequel brings the series’ other conceit to the fore: These dolls are fated to eventually battle each other (to the death, such as it is) in the “Alice Games,” the winner of which will somehow become the perfect doll, pleasing their unseen creator who simply goes by the name of “Father.”

This whole “battle” aspect is what gives it the faint air of a “battle card” game: each doll has a schtick that she uses when fighting. It differs from Pokemon in that their mediums don’t order them to fight (they try to stop the fights, actually), and most of the dolls themselves, as independent creatures, are understandably perplexed and reluctant to duke it out with each other. Most of the twelve-episode Traumend, in fact, is taken up with minor domestic comedy as four of the dolls try to live with each other and Jun in a modern house. When someone isn’t accidentally setting the kitchen on fire, there is lots and lots of foreshadowing as two rather nasty dolls appear and start making trouble.

Whether you enjoy the series or not, then, will turn mostly on how interested you are in the dolls themselves. The dominant doll is Shinku, whose crimson frock and imperious manner make her a kind of Queen of Hearts in this demented Wonderland. Presumably her character was set up and explained in the earlier series; I’ll just say that, as a newbie to Rozen Maiden, I was early on rooting for her face to find its way under someone’s stiletto heel. Also grating is the mewling kewpie, Hinaichigo. That leaves the sibling dolls Suiseiseki and Souseiseki to carry on as more or less normal personality types, which in their cases are rather boring.

The most winning doll, I thought, was Kanaria, who is a softie like Hinaichigo but covers it with a wholly unmerited high opinion of herself as a fighter and tactician. Many of the early episodes feature Kanaria’s Clouseau-like attempts to infiltrate the house and assassinate the other dolls, and her fetching combination of ineptitude and sunny determination is good at carrying some of the show’s heavier elements. But things turn darker and more tragic when the final two dolls appear.

These are Suigintou and Barasuishou, who live apart from the other five dolls, and are much darker and more sinister figures. Each is bent on winning the Alice Games, though for different reasons. The former has taken as a medium a girl dying of an incurable diseases, and has been told that her winning the Games will allow her to save this girl. Barasuishou’s motivations are more obscure, but she is plainly up to no good. Between them, these antagonists goad and bully and manipulate the other dolls onto the field of battle, and dread and pathos enfold the story as the Rozen Maidens take turns destroying each other.

If you really wanted to dig deep into Rozen Maiden you could probably find a semi-serious attempt to plumb an old theological problem: Why does God sometimes demand horrible things of His creatures? The classic example of this story is that of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac. There’s a similar puzzle at the heart of Rozen Maiden: The dolls’ “Father” has demanded that they destroy each other in order to please him, and to one degree or another they strongly feel the pull of his wish. Unfortunately, the reasons behind Father’s demand are never explained, which makes it very hard to judge whether Shinku and the others are being wicked and selfish by obeying him, or wicked and selfish by refusing to. It doesn’t help that most attempts to explain God’s actions founder on appeals to mystery or to a different kind of “deus” (one of the “ex machina” variety), and Rozen Maiden: Traumend suffers the same fate. Those who bend their troubled thoughts to this series’ story are likely to find their interest evaporating once a few final revelations are made.

Visually, it’s a handsome show, and a great deal of care has plainly gone into keeping the intricately designed and dressed Maidens on model. Animation is at the level you’d expect of an anime TV series, but the visuals are not fatally static. The “Complete” set collects three Geneon discs (in a case designed to hold four DVDs), with no extras worth mentioning.

I’m at a loss to issue a recommendation one way or another about Rozen Maiden: Traumend. I doubt fans of the first season will find it answering any questions—without spoiling too much, let’s just say it kicks certain plot cans several miles down the road. I can’t even say whether fans of that first season will find the characters more, less, or exactly as compelling as they had been. I will say that Traumend left me with no great desire to watch the preceding series, and those interested in animated series about living dolls—and you know who you are—will probably want to start with that first season before graduating to this one.

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