As Japan’s winter anime season ends, so too does what was arguably it’s highlight: Atsushi Takahashi’s 12 part series RideBack. A refreshingly unique take on the teenage mecha genre, it’s merging of dark politics, ballet and reluctant heroes – while also rejecting anime standards such as fan service and obligitary romance – seemingly dividing fans and critics. It seems partly this was due to show’s gentile, graceful pace – a result perhaps of Takahashi’s Ghibli background, and his wish to never let the viewer forget his main protagonist’s ballerina past – and while it became the show’s trademark, it seems to have left some commentators craving a little more action, along with a quicker moving plot. It’s interesting then, that the director hasn’t shied away from this style, even in the concluding episodes of the show’s finale.
That’s not to say that some of the brutality shown in earlier episodes is absent. Earlier in the series we saw Rin’s kid brother tortured by the corrupt GGP regime, and in episode 10 this is surpassed when one of her friends is mistaken for her at a political rally, with devastating and fatal results. In many ways it’s here that the show is at it’s strongest – it’s depiction of Japan under the control of a global totalitarian authority is one of a seemingly normal and familiar society – until lines are crossed. 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 nedia 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 perhaps 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 recomend 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. It’s unclear whether there will be attempts to extend the franchise – while the GGP has been driven out of Japan, the rest of the world still lies in it’s grip – 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.