In Japan, a fashion style called Gothic Lolita has become popular over the last decade, combining moody and frilly elements into a look that’s something like a Victorian-era doll. That subculture obviously provided some inspiration for the creators of “Rozen Maiden,” which features cute Victorian-style dolls as its main characters.
The human protagonist, Jun Sakurada, receives one of the dolls, Shinku, after he follows the instructions on a mysterious letter. After Jun winds the doll up, Shinku comes to life and Jun becomes part of the conflict between living dolls trying to win the Alice Game, a battle that rewards the winning doll with the loser’s life force or “Rosa Mystica.” The doll that defeats all the others gets to become Alice, which is apparently very desirable but not really explained yet.
Much of the story’s setup is familiar; it has the loner guy with a sibling but absent parents, a roster of girls (in this case, dolls) with different styles and personality types to live with and abuse the hero, the otherworldly elimination tournament fought by beings with their own signature powers, and so on. The story, though, does avoid the high school clich?s by having Jun live in self-imposed exile from school and society, due to an as-yet-unspecified trauma he experienced in the past. With some prodding from the dolls, Jun’s struggle to confront what happened to him gives some depth to his character and provides more drama than much of what happens with the dolls. It can be difficult to relate to the extraordinary circumstances of plots like “Rozen Maiden,” but especially so when the principle characters aren’t even human. It also doesn’t help that some plot points have no lead-in or explanation afterward, such as when the doll Suiseiseki suddenly arrives and becomes part of Jun’s growing group of dolls. In some shows, such mysteries would entice viewers to keep watching for answers, but here they just feel like perfunctory events that may or may not be explained later, without giving any confidence that the answers will be worth waiting for.
The animation varies in quality, with more care given to action scenes, while the rest of the show is fairly plain and flat. In fact, everything about “Rozen Maiden” seems to be shades of adequate, with nothing to really recommend or dismiss it. It was a well-received show in Japan, though from this first volume it’s hard to see why it would be so popular. Then again, maybe it has more appeal to viewers who are into the Gothic Lolita angle.