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Review: "Rozen Maiden Overture" (UK Edition): All Dolled Up

Much like the world of .hack//, I’m a novice when it comes to Rozen Maiden. The gist of the story (which is vaguely covered in this two episode supplemental OVA) involves a Japanese teenage shut in named Jun sharing his home with a collection of living antique dolls. All granted souls by their mysterious ‘Father’ centuries ago, the dolls compete in battles in the ‘Alice Game’, with the victor promised to become the ‘perfect girl’ and be reunited with Father.

The OVAs focus is on the history which drives the conflict between lead doll Shinku and her antagonistic sister Suigintou, the prototype for all Rozen Maiden dolls. The opening scene sets this up fairly well as the disassembled but eerily human-like Suigintou watches from a workshop shelf as their father departs with the newly created Shinku. Although my more morbid sense of humour was reminded of Homer Simpson’s half finished robot (“Father…give me legs, father!”) the sequence is a good setup for the sibling rivalry that is the root of the developing conflict.

Although the modern day cast do appear briefly, they’re really only a framing device as Jun’s attempts to give Shinku a new brooch create the chance for the backstory to be related. The bulk of the story is set in what appears to be 19th century London, during the previous stage of the Alice Game. Living with the daughter of a well to do family, Shinku spends her nights clashing with her siblings. This routine is broken when one night the girl’s bedroom is magically intruded upon by a weak Suigintou, crying out for their father. Initially assuming her yet another opponent, Shinku comes to realise this newcomer is incomplete and forgoes the contest in order to nurse her back to health.

Of course being that this is the backstory to a rivalry you know this can’t end well. As with Richards and Doom’s college days, the friendship turns sour, and refreshingly both sides carry some blame. Whilst Suigintou is clearly nursing an inferiority complex over being abandoned, Shinku’s treatment of her isn’t fully sincere either. I was worried this would take the route of the likes of Vampire Knight where a weaker, protected sibling feels invalidated by sincere actions of love from a relative and spectacularly lashes out, but instead there’s a more true-to-life blame on both parts.

The dynamic of an unfinished prototype of artificial life coming to loathe more perfected later versions is quite common in Japanese sci-fi and fantasy, but placing the source of the conflict on the pair’s individual choices rather than simple pedigree allows it to buck a somewhat clichéd plot.

At the same time the characters being dolls made by a (seeming) human will of course speak to creatively inclined viewers. Just about any artist or designer has felt a twinge of parental pride to their work, and the idea our unfinished or cruder pieces are like a neglected child is poignant.

Since this is providing a backstory to an existing feud, we don’t get to see much beyond, and the story wraps up with the lead in to the start of the main series. Although that’s workable and manages to tell a decent tale in the hour run time, there is of course the looming question of why something so important to the overall story is shunted into a separate outing. Really, this is something that the main Rozen Maiden series should have made time for during its own run rather than release it separately.

For a title only about half a decade old the animation is quite disappointing and certainly not up to the high quality you’d usually associate with an OVA release. It’s on par with a typical low-budget Japanese television outing, often coming across as flat.

Both Japanese and English audio are presented. Extras are limited to trailers for recent MVM titles, including Rosario Vampire.

Usually tales that flesh out existing mythology are only workable for the already initiated. Rozen Maiden Overture however manages to present a decent and compelling story that is graspable by pretty much anyone, barring some running jokes. I’d actually say this is one of the best origin stories I’ve ever seen, partly because it isn’t blindingly obvious that one of the characters is a self serving antagonist and instead the hubris of both presents them with a shared culpability.
I’d be tempted to give the main Rozen Maiden series a shot as a result but since the framing device segments featuring that cast are the weakest area, perhaps not. If you feel the same way at least give Overture a watch. It’s a pleasant distraction.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if Rie Tanaka really does come to live in random British houses in the middle of the night.

Rozen Maiden Overture (UK Edition) is available from Amazon.co.uk.

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