Those of you that caught my last post — a review of Highschool of the Dead — may remember me explaining how anime tends to churn out the usual genre tropes — zombies, vampires, aliens... all the expected stuff. But occasionally it still manages to through out something a bit more... unusual. Like say, for example, reluctant freedom-fighting teenage ballerinas riding transforming motorbikes.
There was a point, just a few minutes into the second half of the first episode of RideBack, when I finally decided that it certainly was trying to do something a bit different. As the main protagonist races her fusion of motorcycle and mecha through her college campus, her skirt bellows in the wind and we hear a passer-by shout “I saw her panties!” But we, the audience, see nothing. It’s a brief moment, but one that speaks volumes about the series’ intentions.
While almost any other mecha-and-girls anime would have have been rammed full of panty-shots fan service by this point in it’s opening episode, director Atsushi Takahashi‘s (whose impressive credits include assistant director on Spirited Away) decision to make it instead a joke at the audience’s expense hopefully shows a desire for turning what first appears quite obvious material into a witty, mature, intelligently written show.
Produced by Madhouse and adapted from the manga by Tetsurō Kasahara, RideBack is set in 2020 and tells the story of 19-year old Rin Ogata. The daughter of a famous ballerina, she was expected to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but quit at the age of 16 due to a fractured foot, and instead enrolled in Musashino University. The first half of the opening episode deals with the pretty-but-shy girl’s experiences on the first day of college, and comes across at first as pretty standard issue shōjo anime; Rin wants to just fit in with everyone, but to her embarrassment she keeps being recognised, and the unwanted attention seems to be causing some jealousy issues with her best friend and roommate. So far, so... well, slightly dull. But there’s something else going on — through cleverly and subtly shown TV news clips in the background, that none of the characters ever seem to be watching or care about, hints emerge of a possibly authoritarian global regime, and the actions of opposing “terrorists.”
As soon as we come back after the midway ad break things start to get really interesting. One day after classes Rin wanders into the University RideBack Club, where she encounters for the first time the eponymous class of mech, an interesting (and convincingly believable) robotic motorbike able to raise itself up on to 2 legs. Urged on by club member otaku-mechanic Haruki, she reluctantly agrees to take the RB for a spin — which quickly turns into the shows first brilliantly animated, frenetic, high speed action sequence. The sudden, quite extreme shift in pace grabs your attention instantly, but it’s Rin’s emotional response that draws you into the scene — her own surprise that she’s exhilarated rather than scared by the experience makes it clear to both her, and the viewer, that she may have finally found something to fill the hole left in her life by quitting the stage.
In fact, it turns outs as the episodes continue, that Rin has an almost prodigious talent as a RideBack pilot. Again, not much of a surprise to anyone who’s seen a teenage mecha drama before, but again the show portrays it in a convincing and subtle light — basically, due to her years of dance training, Rin’s sense of poise and balance enables her to override some of the mech’s automatic control systems, giving her a competitive edge. She’s soon recruited into the club by it’s two most senior members — RideBack racing champ Tamayo and the older, moody Tenshirō, whom it would seem, through some very subtle indications, may possibly have links to the aforementioned “terrorist” movement.
Like I said at the top of the review, Rin and her friends initially have no interest in the political backdrop the show subtly introduces. Well, you can only ignore global totalitarian regimes — and the inevitable insurgents that spring up in reaction to them — for so long; both have a habit of making you pretty damn aware of them sooner rather than later. And usually not in a good way. It’s certainly fair to say this is true for ex-ballerina Rin and her college pals by episode 4, when they start to find it pretty hard to ignore those news reports — especially as they’re in some of them.
For a start, when Rin breaks through an army blockade on her RideBack to get her roommate out of a terrorist attack on a shopping mall, she doesn’t just grab the attention of the media, police and the GGP (the aforementioned, shadowy fascistic regime) but also the piqued interest of the so-called terrorists themselves. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; despite pleas from club boss Tenshirōto keep her head low, things start to take a turn for the even more serious when her kid brother Kenji falls in with a gang of RideBack riders on an Akira style rampage, and she steps in to try and bail him out, not realising that the whole stunt has been a set-up to allow the GGP to publicly show off it’s new (distinctly Patlabor like) police RideBacks. It doesn’t end well, with her arrested and being forced to watch her brother being tortured by the GGP’s secret police. With just that one brief scene, both the tone and focus of the show shifts permanently.
What we are seeing here is a very 21st century dictatorship; hidden, friendly and nothing for you to worry about — as long as you stay in line. In many ways it feels like Takahashi is holding up modern day politics to us and asking us to face our own apathy towards those things we’d rather not bother ourselves with; civil rights infringements, surveilance, the news media and the questionable aspects of the war on terror.
If this is the show’s intention, then central character Rin Ogata is it’s purest embodiment. She never once shows an interest in politics — throughout the series her main motivation seemingly being to find something to replace dancing in her life, and even when ridebacks seem to fill this void she rejects them when the situations around her become too complex. Reluctant heroes are nothing new in anime — the unwitting, angst ridden teenage mecha pilot saving the world has been a standard archetype since Neon Genesis Evangelion and even earlier — but Rin seems to take it even further. She rejects the role of symbolic figurehead to the protest movement and abhors violence and the use of RBs as weapons, getting involved in the action only when she sees her friends or family are being threatened. Even in the final episode – while resistance fighters and GGP forces clash elsewhere in what is by far the bloodiest battle of the series — Rin finds her own way of resisting, allowing her friends to escape as she defeats a squad of unmanned mechs using a series of ballet moves. It’s an unusual, but powerful and beautifully animated sequence, and while some fans have expressed disappointment at Rin’s lack of violence considering what she has endured at the hands of the GGP, it brings the show full-circle thematically, and fits Rin’s character perfectly and believably. She is, after all, a ballet dancer and not a terrorist. As she fights the unpiloted mechs on the ground where her friend was brutally killed, it feels like her actions are driven as much by self expression and a desire to not be made into something she is not, as they are by revenge or a quest for political justice.
It’s easy to understand why some viewers will feel disappointed, though — while RideBack personally ticked key boxes for me, it’s mixture of political dissatisfaction and calm pacing reminding me in some ways of the first two Patlabor films — for others a more explosive ending would have felt more comfortable, more familiar. That aside, there’s still so much to recommend the show — along with it’s beautiful animation and it’s skillful use of both electronic and classical music, it features what is possibly the most accurate portrayal of computer hacking depicted in an anime show to date. Sadly it seems we won’t be seeing any more of RideBack than these 12 episodes — at least in animated form — but in many ways it feels like Rin Ogata’s story is very much over, with the finale’s final frames showing us yet again, in amongst all the chaos and violence, what she really values the most.
RideBack is out now on DVD and Bluray from Funimation. A review copy was supplied by the publisher.
Tim Maughan lives in Bristol in the U.K. and has been writing about anime and manga for nearly four years, and consuming both for over twenty. He also writes science fiction, and his critically acclaimed book Paintwork, a cyberpunk-tinged collection of near-future short stories, is out now in print and for Kindle and all other eReaders. You can catch him in October giving readings and talking about sci-fi stuff at The Bristol Festival of Literature and Bristolcon.