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There was a point, just a few minutes into the second half of the first episode of RideBack, when I finally decided that it was the first show I’d seen worth following this year. 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.

Well, I say obvious material. To the blissfully uninitiated the story of a beautiful teenage ballet prodigy fighting a fascist state while riding a robot that transforms into a motorbike may sound ludicrous at first. Unfortunately, it could be considered a pretty formulaic, generic, box-ticking plot in today’s conservative, recession hit shonen anime industry.

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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 mothers footsteps, but quit at the age of 16 due to a fractured foot, and instead enrolls in Musashino University. The first half of the first 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’.

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As soon as we come back after the mid-way 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 Hishida, 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.

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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 Kataoka and the older, moody Tenshirō Okakura, whom it would seem, through some very subtle indications, may possibly have links to the aforementioned ‘terrorist’ movement.

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The animation throughout the show matches the quality of the script, with some bold character designs that play with established stereotypes, and backgrounds that make a nod towards Shinkai, but it’s the action and race scenes that really make an impact. They successfully and instantly convey a feeling of speed and flight, aided by a pounding electronic soundtrack, which although maybe a little acid-trance for my own tastes, certainly fits the on-screen action. The mecha designs are cool yet realistic looking, with the CGI used to animate them again subtle and convincing, thankfully. It seems that both budget constraints and industry fashion dictate now that it will be very rare to see hand drawn mecha again in a modern anime project – in itself not necessary a problem if the integration of CGI and 2D art is done well enough, and while still noticeable, it largely is here. At least it works much better than many recent examples, such as last years’ slightly dismal looking Blassreiter.

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At just 3 episodes in of a planned 12, it’s still relatively early days for RideBack. It seems to have got the necessary charcter introductions out of the way in a pleasingly subtle manner, and already started to hint at some darker, deeper plot arcs. It’s up to the production team to keep up the momentum now, and prove that the show can develop into a mature and memorable take on an established genre. I’m certainly going to be keeping an eye it for the next few months and letting you know what I think, so stay tuned for more.

(Note: This is the first part of an ongoing review of RideBack. The second part can be read here.)