Whatever else may be said about it, there is almost nothing else like The Rolling Girls. From its circumstances of creation, to its odd hodgepodge of themes and aesthetics, to even its place in the broader continuum of 2010s TV anime. The Rolling Girls is a true original, one of the few directorial turns from Kotomi Deai and an unusual move from Wit Studio, best known for Attack on Titan. The show is not perfect; it’s weird, it’s wildly overambitious, it’s more than a bit of a mess, but I’d argue that almost none of that matters.
Since I first watched the series a bit under a year ago I’ve turned it over in my head a number of times. I’ve referred to it as the anime equivalent of record-collector rock; a sometimes (but not always) derisive term used to pin down music that mines on reference and stylistic riffing to communicate its ideas. I don’t think that’s an incorrect description, though even just a year later I recognize far more references in the series than I did the first pass around, but there’s more going on here. The show’s tagline spells things out about as clearly as the series ever deigns to:
Rolling, falling, scrambling girls. For others, for themselves. Even if they’re destined to be “one of the rest”
That’s a fascinating little poem, isn’t it? “Even if they’re destined to be ‘one of the rest.'” is a kind of inspiring that doesn’t really come from anime (or really, any pop media) that often. In some of its best moments, The Rolling Girls is a treatise on how support, “soft action”, and even simple determination can match up to more bombastic natural gifts. It took me months to realize it, but this is why the show’s central plot tokens–the Heart Stones–are revealed in the finale to not actually do anything.
This is not to say that The Rolling Girls is an anime about accepting your lot in life–that’d be absurd–but not everyone is Superman, and that’s fine. Some people want to be Superman, and might eventually get there, and that’s fine too. There’s an agnostic, nonjudgmental bent to the series’ storytelling that is incredibly refreshing even five years after it aired. The Heart Stones, the final narration tells us, respond not to skill but to passion. Which you can read a lot of ways; personally I think it maps rather well onto the difficulty of “making it”–financially, emotionally–by pursuing what you love.
And this makes some sense; up and down the show the power of both the bombastic Bests and everyone else comes not from some magic item, but from passion. The show’s fractured near-future Japan divvies the country up into some several dozen microstates, each driven by a love of something. The otaku paradise of Always Comima is the first example we get, and by the series’ midpoint we’re getting hit with wild rock ‘n roll pyrotechnics set to exploding Buddha statues.
The phenomenon of superpowered “Bests” is never explicitly explained, but seems unrelated. The character of Hibiki, perhaps my favorite of the titular Rolling Girls, is rooted in this discrepancy. The finale shows us the hard work she has to go through to catch up to the naturally-gifted Bests. As someone who has always considered herself a bit of a late bloomer and specifically not particularly naturally intelligent, it is maybe inevitable that I’d see myself in the show in general, and Hibiki in particular.
The narrative sympathizes with both the Bests and the Rest, but the fact that The Rolling Girls‘ final insert song contains the lyric “Let’s sing a never-ending song for the bastards of the world” should tell you who we, the audience, are intended to see ourselves in.
The Rolling Girls remains, at least in my experience, a touch enigmatic. It has a place in the wider trends of TV anime of the New ’10s, but it’s a strange one; somewhere in the farthest ring out of the FLCL-indebted high-concept action anime that were often some of the most intriguing (though not always the “best”) shows of the decade. (Flip-Flappers, Kill La Kill, PUNCHLINE!, FLCL‘s own sequels Progressive and Alternative. Hell, even Akiba’s Trip, there were a surprising number of these things!) It is united with them by its freewheeling, wild aesthetic sense. It stands apart because of its thematic core and because of its unusual setup.
There are very few other anime in which Nozomi and friends would be the main characters, but that they are here is something we should all be thankful for. Nozomi and friends, through their struggles, help save the world. Who could ask for anything more than that? Indeed, perhaps we, too, all the rest of us, may help save our own troubled planet. I have said it before and will say it again; everyone is a hero to somebody.
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