Sep 29 2011 12:00pm

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: RideBack

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: RideBack

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.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: RideBack

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.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: RideBack

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.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime: RideBackWhat 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

David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Rideback was very interesting . . . but I was part of the crowd that was disappointed with its ending. I loved it for veering away from genre tropes, but at the same time I feel that they forgot to include a powerful enough climax to top off everything that had come before. In many ways, the episodes leading up to the finale made what should have been the high point of the series fall just a little flat. That it encapsulated Rin's real passion - ballet - was fitting, but it all just seemed too easy in my mind.

Now, I'm not saying the show would have been better if Rin and just had a "screw this" moment and started killing dozens of government employees, but I do think it could have used a proagonist that wasn't quite so passive. You spend a lot of time with her hanging out with the Resistance without really deciding what to do about that relationship . . . and she never really does. She's always forced into action by outside forces, and reverts to a passive state afterward. Even the ending is much the same, her epiphany about Rideback ballet aside. Having a story about someone who was just kind of there, and stepped up to bat a couple times, just made it fall a little flat for me over all.

Anyway, what's our hint for the next series you'll cover? Or is it undecided still?
Tim Maughan
2. TimMaughan
@ZetaStriker - I totally get where you're coming from - most people I know have had the same reaction to the ending. But I can't help but like it, even on a second watch. It's unique. Its a shame maybe that the series wasn't a little longer, or that we didn't get a second season. Or an official translation of the manga, which I've still not read.

And hell you're right - I forgot the hint! Actually I think I might take a break from the SF/F anime series for a few weeks; for a start I've got a pile of manga to review for you guys, plus maybe a feature or two...but don't worry, it will be back. Stay tuned!
3. mechazoidal
For me, the problem was much the same as HOTD: the manga(at least the first volume) covers roughly the same story beats in a much more intelligent way.

The show makes the Ridebacks out to be the "secret weapon" that put the GGP in power; the manga shows they're just sporting gear that the military is evaluating for use. Rin saves her friend from the student riot in both versions, but they're forced to stay on campus in the manga because their faces were photographed, and the school is considered "neutral territory"; where the show just has the GGP let them waltz around. And so on.

Since the manga did run for the better part of the 00's, it might be just that Madhouse had to frantically compress the story and put their own touches on it. But for me, while the mid-season shift does start showing the darker side of the world, the GGP went from 'sinister 21st conspiracy' to 'mustache-twirling generic evil army', which gradually killed my hopes for the show.

That being said, the first few episodes are worth watching just for the action, and I still want a Rideback of my own.
4. jason e
I'd love a rideback. my motorbike looks so out dated now :)

Yeah the ending didn't feel right... also, it was a shame her friend died :(
5. Suzanne B.
I watched this on your recommendation, and I loved it - thought it was fantastic. Probably the best anime I've watched this year.

I do agree with others that the ending was problematic.

I actually didn't have a problem with Rin's ballet battle - I thought that was lovely, and fit her character arc well. Instead, my real problem with the ending - and the last four-five episodes, say - was the sidelining of amazing secondary characters. Part of what drew me to the show was the group feeling - even though Rin was the star, the other members of the club weren't mere plot devices. Tomoyo, Shoko and Tenshiro, in particular, were all intriguing characters that I enjoyed spending time with. Near the end, though, any character arcs they might have had dissolved, and they became plot devices for Rin's final victory. Even the group as a whole disappeared, and all her friends were left watching Rin's struggles via their TVs.

I felt that loss of the secondary characters, especially when it came to Tomoyo and Shoko. Tomoyo ended up being my favorite character of the series. She and Rin had a very interesting dynamic: every time I thought I knew where that storyline was going - oh, Tomoyo's going to be the bitchy jealous rival; oh, Tomoyo's going to be the traitor; oh, Tomoyo's going to blame Rin for everything - the show surprised me. Tomoyo balanced Rin's passivity in a good way, and her family problems were a nice (and unexplored) foil for Rin's. But near the end, it felt like her storyline turned into the story of every average sidekick. The fact that Tomoyo spent the last episode just watching Rin take down bad guys... was shoddy character writing. It made no sense in context of Tomoyo's personality, or in context of her relationship with Rin. Shoko was also an intriguing character: I liked how, when she was held hostage, she wasn't just a passive victim, and the show did a good job of not dismissing her reaction post-hostage situation. But then she too, melted into the background of the TV screen, and just watched Rin take down bad guys. The lack of those secondary character storylines made the last few episodes much thinner, and much less rewarding to watch.

I absolutely agree that Rin should have been the focus of the end of the series, but if they'd allowed other characters - like Tomoyo and Shoko and Tenshiro - to have complete, finished, satisfying story arcs, I wouldn't have been left wanting so much more. We never find out what happens to Tomoyo or Tenshiro - in fact, we don't really know what happens to Rin either.

Of course, some of these problems could have been addressed in a second season, but... that didn't happen. Sadly, because despite my complaints, it was a great show, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I would have enjoyed seeing Rin take up ballet again, and watching how she balanced ballet with Ridebacking. And I would have loved to watch the group dynamic continue to evolve.
7. chilidog724
Rideback was one of the most saddest animes i have seen, i just got into it about a year ago. the ending was a bit out a thier, ( just hit you like a brick it came to fast.) but the way they ended it was exelent in my opinion. im just glad they ended it all the other anime i have seen end with huge cliffhangers because the companys whom make them just dont get good enough ratings. the rideback show was one of the best, well thougt out, orginized, showed humanism at its purest form. i dont think the ending should have ended any different.

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