The Winter 2015 Anime Preview Guide
The Rolling Girls
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
Ten years ago the Great War threw Japan into a state of chaos, one further exacerbated by the disappearance of all leaders. Now the country is essentially a group of warring city states, each fiercely proud of their local heritage. Battles are waged between groups of state-sponsored vigilantes, bands who, when they're not fighting, tend to the little things, like beautification projects and keeping things safe, sort of like a cross between a police force and town council. Those who head up these groups and handle the fighting are known as “Bests;” the rest of the gang is, well, “Rests.” While there are as many vigilante groups as there are towns, The Rolling Girls' first episode focuses on the feud between two Tokyo groups, one led by Kuniko Shigyo and the other by the mysterious masked fighter Maccha Green.
As far as new takes on the post-apocalyptic story goes, The Rolling Girls is definitely a nice change. Nothing is dark or gives off that “doomed” feeling; the colors are manic and bright, the settings are pristine, and apart from the whole warring vigilantes thing, everything appears very normal. It isn't so much a dystopia as a world that has gone through a lot of changes, and as someone who works with a lot of YA literature, I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this. The beauty of the world also makes the story feel lighter than it might otherwise have, because there's definitely an edge to this story. When Maccha Green and Shigyo fight, it isn't with silly magic or by pulling their punches – it's a real battle. By the time the episode ends, the Rests of Maccha's group (including her younger sister Nozomi) are in actual danger, Shigyo's gang having put them on a roller coaster with a good chunk of track missing. These kids are taking their turf wars with the utmost seriousness, something it is easy to forget when we're seeing scenes of everyday life. It makes you wonder about what life was like before the vigilantes came into being, indicating that perhaps we're seeing the aftermath of the dystopia as it works its way back to something resembling normal.
Most of this episode's appeal lies in its brightness and quick pacing. The beginning is a lot of explanation before we actually get to the meat of the story, which to be perfectly honest feels like it comes in the last five minutes. Not that the episode up until that point is dull, but by the time you realize what the plot really is, the ending credits are rolling. It speaks well of the show that it rarely feels like it drags, but the ending shows how good the show could have been all along, and with hindsight, it makes the start a little disappointing. Luckily the slickly animated visuals keep your eyes busy, and there's an interestingly 1970s feel to the character designs and the vehicles. That works with the over-the-top nature of the story while also making the show stand out from others this season.
The Rolling Girls' first episode is bubblegum fun with an edge at the end, and I do wonder which will win out as the show progresses. If nothing else, it is really a lot of fun to look at, and I must admit that I enjoyed looking at it a little more than I enjoyed watching it, but as the plot takes hold, that could change. The potential is there; let's see how they use it.
The Rolling Girls is available streaming on Funimation.
Oh wow. What a premier. Words seem like a poor way to catalog the first episode of Rolling Girls, but I'll give it a shot.
The Rolling Girls exists in a world where central governments seem to have disappeared, and thus each section of Japan is ruled by its own local “gangs” that maintain public order. This world has also gone crazy in a variety of other ways, leading to an explosion of creativity in architecture and a number of less metaphorical explosions courtesy of the “Bests,” super-powered individuals who act as the champions of their districts. As our story begins, the Tokorozawa district of Tokyo is being defended by Maccha Green, champion of the Hiyoshicho Propeller gang, and challenged by Kuniko Shigyo, Best-for-hire in the employ of the Higashi Muramaya gang. Maccha Green's secret identity is Masami Moritomo, whose sister Nozomi dreams of helping the Propellers in any way she can. In this first episode, a clash between Kuniko and Maccha Green ends inconclusively, we get a bit of an introduction to the world of Tokorozawa, and then the Propellers are caught in a fiendish plot in order for Kuniko to steal Maccha Green's powerful uniform.
Most of that exposition comes across in a dizzyingly beautiful exposition montage that opens the episode, showing off Rolling Girl's overwhelming sense of visual style. Its backgrounds alternately look like felt and cut-paper collages, like brightly colored watercolors, or like digitally touched-up tapestries, with nearly every frame bursting with color and tiny details. The loose character designs are twisted and bent into a vast array of expressions and styles, and the animation is wild, joyous, and nearly constant. Both the character animation and effects work demand repeat viewings, with frenetic exchanges of attacks giving way to explosions that coalesce and explode in pinks and blues. And even the non-action scenes exhibit a tremendous sense of purposeful design and emotive color work. The show is beautiful.
The storytelling is almost as endearing as the show's visual language. Though the opening montage is necessarily busy, once the episode truly gets moving, the worldbuilding becomes much more natural. Very little is directly explained to the audience - most of the time, the characters simply express the details of their world in the natural flow of conversation. This is how worldbuilding should be - I don't want a show to tell me about its world, I want a show to take me there. The various character dynamics between Kuniko, Masami, and Nozomi already have a natural energy, with the show hinting at key history underlying all of their relationships. And the execution of the overall premise makes it clear that we're dealing with a story with points to make about community, as defined internally by the young and as envisioned by society.
The Rolling Girls exists somewhere between Kyousogiga and Yozakura Quartet with maybe a dash of FLCL thrown in, and that is a fantastic place to be. From aesthetics to characters to the hinting at overarching ideas, this first episode impresses on every front. More, please.
The Rolling Girls is available streaming on Funimation.com.
Rating: 3.5 (for entertainment value, despite the 2 writing quality)
Writing matters. It really, really, really matters. Nowhere is that more clear to me this season than in Rolling Girls, an initially wacky and wonderful original concept series, sporting a first episode packed with fluid animation and smart color design by Studio Wit. It stars completely average high schooler Nozomi Moritomo, who just wants to help her big sister Masami (who has a different surname?) protect the nation. (Her mother holds Nozomi's report card right up to the camera to show ALL 3's, SEE HOW AVERAGE SHE IS?) Past that, it gets confusing. There was a "Great Tokyo War" that resulted in all of Japan's prefectures becoming different nations, at each other's throats and presided over by warriors known as "The Best," in contrast to the average citizenry known as "The Rest." These "Best" members fight with an "anything goes" array of magical and often nonsensical weapons. (The first girl we meet fights with a giant clothespin. Hm, this forced wackiness is beginning to sound familiar...)
Anyway, there's about a million other little details and sanctions following the end of the war that the episode piles on, and if I'm being honest, it's a little difficult to tell several of the characters apart thanks to their combination of moe sameface and the insanely busy and constantly changing backgrounds and settings of fantasy fun futureland Japan. Something about squad captains. Something about licensed squad captain supporters. Something about magical motorcycles. Infodump after infodump with very few compelling character traits to distinguish the mouthpieces of it all, and a few scattered attempts at humor that are more limp than funny. (There's a "giant robot fakeout" scene that goes on way too long and is basically a "Team Rocket from Pokémon is Stupid" joke except we don't know or love Team Rocket yet.) It's a mess. But it's a mess that strongly reminds me of something...
Look, I'll come right out and say it: somebody at Studio Wit saw Kill la Kill and said "We want to make something like that!" so that's exactly what they tried to do. Tried. They tried to make the show original too; this isn't a rip-off so much as it is "heavily informed by" Kill la Kill, and it's clear a lot of love and personal passion went into it above and beyond a desire for Trigger's disc sales. Still, the germ of inspiration is undeniable, and once you start seeing it, you can't stop seeing it, which is the entire problem.
Does Rolling Girls deserve to be compared to Kill la Kill? No, not really. Did it invite the comparison anyway? Unfortunately, yes. Is the writing and art design in Rolling Girls anywhere near the level of clarity or creativity of Kill la Kill? No, and sadly for me, that was most of what occupied my mind while watching it because even with the animation spectacle front and center, the episode was slammed with dialogue, and the writing was just not good.
"Awkward 'as you know, she is your sister' dialogue? Huh, you wouldn't see that in Kill la Kill."
"Long strings of worldbuilding exposition slapped over an unrelated argument? Huh, you wouldn't see that in Kill la Kill."
"Cool it with the random edits: where the hell are we supposed to be right now? Its world was cuckoo-pants, but I always knew where I was in Kill la Kill."
It was an unjust, cursed stream of consciousness that I didn't want to keep up, but the fact of the matter was that Rolling Girls didn't establish any unique endearing identity so hard that all I could do was run my eyes over the trappings and be reminded of better ones from other shows. Then I saw this eyecatch and nearly fell out of my chair laughing at the absurd concentration of "LOOK, WE ARE TRIGGER TOO." It's all the more unfortunate because Kill la Kill was by no means a bastion of excellence in writing, but its script was competent and it did avoid standard hacky problems. One episode in, and Rolling Girls does not.
The writing demands aren't high for a show like this. You need a simple hook underneath all that world-building for an audience to latch onto. You need characters with clear, compelling motivations to grab onto that hook and start carrying the story as quickly as possible. You need a standout sense of humor to boost all that wackiness into something that makes the audience laugh and maybe even speaks to their heart a little bit. Rolling Girls doesn't have these things yet, but it's very pretty and moves quickly enough, so it's worth at least a look. I wish I could say it was all style and no substance, because maybe then I would have enjoyed it more, but it's trying for substance and "rolling, falling, scrambling" all over itself in ways that just don't work yet.
The Rolling Girls is available streaming on Funimation.com.
Rating: 3 (of 5)
Review: The Rolling Girls is an apparently original series (it does have a concurrent manga adaptation but doesn't appear to be based on that) from Wit Studio, the animator for Attack on Titan, Hozuki's Coolheadedness (aka Hozuki no Reitetsu)and the movie Hal. Nothing about this endeavor can be assumed based on those previous works, though, because the look and feel of itis utterly unlike any of them. In fact, if anything it has more the taste of a Gainax project or especially 2013's Kyousogiga, with its brash bursts of color, animation focused on dramatic actions, and lax concern for its character designs looking rough or even inconsistent. Its use of music, vibrant energy, and bizarre buildings (one looks like a giant teapot, for instance) all take cues from FLCL. It does not (yet), however, have FLCL’s pervasive philosophical tone.
The premise is another one of those bizarre concepts that someone has come up with to allow excuses for flashy super-powered battles by individuals referred to as The Best. (Regular people are called The Rest, naturally.) Apparently the Great Tokyo War happened ten years earlier, resulting in Japan splitting up into prefectures from earlier times. Growth and development of individualized identities for each prefecture have sprung up at an absurdly fast rate (the narration even admits this!), resulting in some weird shifts in clothing and building styles, amongst other things. Each prefecture has its own vigilante squad which serve peacekeeping and sanitation purposes and apparently can settle disputes with battles between representatives (i.e., Best), and squads from different prefectures don't get along at all. The sentai team-costumed Maccha Green, who favors settling things peacefully but can put up a fight worthy of any sentai hero, is a Best affiliated with the Tokorozawa gang Hiyoshicho Propellers, and has a run-in with a rival Best-for-hire, a woman who uses a giant safety pin in fights and is out to get Green's power suit. Young Nozomi, a trainee member of the Propellers, is unaware that her big sister Masumi actually is Maccha Green rather than just helping her. A blue-haired girl who gets lost easily also finds her way to the Propellers and is taken in as a new recruit (though she seems to have another reason for keeping them), while a girl in a gas mask also lurks around. The episode ends with a rival squad setting up the Propellers for a nasty fall at an amusement park in an apparent effort to lure Maccha Green into a trap.
Really, very little of this makes any sense so far, including especially why one of the Propellers seems to have an alligator head or why residents of one other prefecture seem to be wearing wizard hats and robes, but this looks like a series where random stuff is going to happen without much regard for common sense. While that can be cool, I would definitely wish for even a little stronger artistic effort here, as how rough the character art looks in many places is a major negative. There does seem to be at least a bit of an underlying story, and the battle scenes are pretty decent, so that could sustain the series, but right now it looks like an iffy prospect.
The Rolling Girls is currently streaming on Funimation.com.
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