Reviewby Nick Creamer,
The Rolling Girls
BD+DVD - The Complete Series
Ten years after the Great Tokyo War, Japan has broken up into a series of self-governing districts, each with their own personalities and superpowered protectors known as “Bests.” The politics of this new era are tense and convoluted, but to Nozomi Moritomo, it seems like all the excitement of the world is happening far away. But when Nozomi is enlisted to fulfill the problem-solving duties of the Best she's always looked up to, she'll embark on a wild road trip of danger and discovery with three unexpected new friends. Life moves fast, and that's why you've got to roll with the punches.
The Rolling Girls is pretty much exactly the kind of show I want to believe in. Graced with a vivid visual aesthetic, centered on the poignant edge of adolescence, and framed as a rock and roll road trip through a fanciful alternate Japan, it breathes creativity and passion and love.
It's also not a very good show.
Even just explaining the premise somewhat reveals Rolling Girls' core problems. The show exists in a Japan where the “Great Tokyo War” led to the government's large-scale disappearance. In the wake of that destabilizing event, Japan shattered into tiny fragments, where local governments act not just as the police of their people, but also the defenders of their societies' borders. Subcountries aren't just based on geography, but also culture - the Comiket-styled district Always Comima exists as a permanent cosplay festival, while other districts struggle with familial grudges blown up to the scale of political feuds. All of this is complicated by the existence of Bests, superpowered individuals who act either as protectors of their home territory or wandering guns for hire.
All of that would by itself make for a rich and fascinating premise, but Rolling Girls isn't even really about its world - it's more a story about Nozomi Moritomo and her three friends, Yukina, Ai, and Chiaya. Though they come from different circumstances, all of them end up rolling out on a motorcycle road trip together, as Nozomi attempts to take the place of her Best idol Macha Green without any powers at all. So Rolling Girls is ultimately framed as a series of small arcs adding up to a larger coming of age story, as Nozomi and her friends laugh and bicker and discover themselves on the winding roads of a brave new Japan.
That explanation is Rolling Girls in a nutshell - brimming with interesting ideas, grounded by fundamentally human concerns, but ultimately too excited about everything it wants to say to form any coherent sentences.
Even within its first two-episode vignette, Rolling Girls has trouble landing its dramatic material. While the choice to let its world's mechanics develop naturally (as opposed to being explained to us all at once) is a smart one, we're quickly rushed through a conflict between rival gangs that's so nebulously written that it fails to even parse as conflict. All that ultimately holds firm are the shining moments - Nozomi's idol clashing in glorious colors with a rival Best, or the two of them sharing a sleepy ride home after the battle has ended. Characters are introduced too quickly for their actions and relationships to carry meaningful significance, and dazzling setpieces arrive out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.
Rapid-fire conflicts continue as the series moves along, with Nozomi and her friends traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto to Hiroshima, running into new conflicts all along the way. Nozomi's attempts to actually solve the problems of these districts are useless enough to be a running joke; instead, the titular Rolling Girls generally just act as spectators when, for example, a street-racing taxi biker reunites with his sculptor paramour, or a guitarist and shamisen-shredding geisha rekindle a lost friendship.
That reunion between guitarist and geisha serves as one of the emotional and aesthetic peaks of the series, as the two put on a rip-roaring concert to cheering crowds and rockets exploding overhead. The best parts of Rolling Girls are all moments like that - fragments extracted from the roiling narrative stew, be they cathartic animation setpieces or intimate moments shared between new friends. The Rolling Girls is full of such tiny gems, but the connecting material that might thread them into a larger narrative is entirely absent.
The show's final arc is probably the worst offender in this regard - though it's full of compelling character designs and lifted by some individually exciting fight scenes, the story itself is an incoherent mess. Dramatic emphasis is put on conflicts we've had no reason to invest in, and the actual main characters are given almost nothing to do until the story abruptly decides to veer towards an ending. The show's central mysteries are given answers equal parts unclear and unsatisfying, and the characters say goodbye on a note that feels ambiguous more for reasons of narrative incoherence than actual intent. Though it feels almost cruel to call a show as exuberant as Rolling Girls boring, the story ultimately feels like someone else relaying a dream they once had - vague and evocative, but ultimately without congruity or substance.
Rolling Girls' narrative failings fortunately don't extend to its art design. The show is absolutely gorgeous, brimming with unique and expressive character designs and lifted by a general love of vibrant color. The show's backgrounds deserve particular mention - instead of being designed to integrate gracefully with the character art, they're allowed to stand out as warm watercolor tableaus, bringing a unique personality to every new setting. It can't be overstated just how beautiful these backgrounds are, and small visual flourishes like the personalized designs of the crew's bikes (or the fact that one member of Nozomi's original gang always wears a crocodile mask on his head) add to the general carnivalesque feeling of wonder and goofy magic.
Rolling Girls' animation starts off as stellar as its art design, though it gets bumpier as the show continues. But while the path towards any given climax is generally inconsistent, you can always count on the major scenes to delight with wild gestures, frantic battles, and technicolor explosions. Rolling Girls' effects animation deserves special notice - characters don't just clash, they bounce off each other in rippling colors that expand into hearts or blooming roses. When Rolling Girls' expressive characters and gorgeous effects animation are matched against its singularly beautiful backgrounds, it can create a visual spectacle like little else out there.
The show's music is as captivating as its visual style. Though there are a fair number of role-playing orchestral songs, the soundtrack is highlighted by a collection of covers of classic Blue Hearts songs, punk rock staples transformed into power pop through their new renditions. The show's opening and closing songs are both Blue Hearts covers, and several others crop up in the show's more climactic moments. The focus on these covers gives the show a strong sense of tonal cohesion - the show's cast are actually fans of the band and even bond over their shared memories of listening to old records with their parents. Rolling Girls' identity as a punk rock road trip is baked into every element of its production - in the end, my only real complaint with the audio is that the show could sometimes afford to turn up the rock music relative to the dialogue.
Rolling Girls comes in a standard slipcase, housing the show on two DVDs and two blurays. There's the usual clean opening and ending, along with a set of trailers and two commentary tracks featuring the dub voice actors. That dub is fairly solid all around - I felt that some smaller characters, like Kuniko Shigyo, were given actors who didn't quite fit their type (Shigyo had a much more imposing and naturally sarcastic tone in the original), and choices like turning Kyoto's leads British are certainly bold revisions, but all of the leads turn in fine performances. On top of that, the big Kyoto concert is actually dubbed, a rare treat as far as in-show performances go.
The commentary tracks are likewise pretty standard fare; they discuss the chemistry of both the characters themselves and their voice actresses in contrast, as well as small details like Jad Saxton playing against her usual type in handling Ai Hibiki. ADR director Colleen Clinkenbeard also emphasizes how much of Rolling Girls' appeal comes through in the small background details, and both Clinkenbeard and Monica Rial reflect on the unique difficulties of the broadcast dub schedule.
Overall, Rolling Girls is a show defined by fragments of greatness floating in a structural sea of incoherence. It's got an endearing cast, an abundance of cool ideas, and a gorgeous aesthetic package - it's only lacking the narrative skeleton needed to pull all those pieces together. If you don't mind flawed shows with a lot of heart, there's a lot to love here. But it's still hard not to lament the great show this could have been.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Creative art design, beautiful backgrounds, and lovely music. Rises to some truly astonishing individual peaks.
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