Wow, this was quite an episode; the treatment of Jun’s social anxiety is surprisingly authentic and believable, and Hatekeyama continues to prove himself as an excellent director of atmospheric, character-focused drama. The pacing is indeed a substantial improvement over the first episode; freed from the constraints of recapping an entire manga, the way this episode deals with the common theme of “time” is visually and aurally inventive.
The episode starts off with a stylishly rendered alarm clock, and the “12:34” time could be a playful reference to the concept of linear time as well as showing shut-in Jun’s abnormal sleeping schedule. We then see what seems to be the central conceit of this series, a what-if parallel universe created if Jun chooses “Not to wind,” represented with a VCR-style rewind and replay. The transition from middle-school Jun walking down the stairs to adult Jun walking up the train station stairs is also a clever little way to visually tie the two together across time and space.
The song that plays in this opening scene is quite lovely; I didn’t realize at first that Shinkichi Mitsumune, the composer for all previous Rozen Maiden works, was also doing this, due to the absence of familiar themes, but it’s still a very good soundtrack, just as in the previous seasons. I wonder if some of the older motifs he used will show up at some point.
After the OP, we follow Jun’s monotonous daily routine, aided through some beautiful watercolor-style background art. We also meet the two other important characters in this episode, the bookshop manager and the part-time clerk.
The manager is exactly the kind of boss that everyone hates, both too young for his job and too self-centered and arrogant to be likable. Along with his tendency to hit on every female he meets, he makes for an easy petty villain, and despite Jun’s anti-social tendencies, it’s easy to sympathize with him when he has to work for such a terrible boss.
The part-time clerk, Saitou, is the girl-next-door kind of cute, with the kind of agreeable personality that causes her to try and get along with everybody, even when it leads to her being agreeable with disagreeable people- more on that later.
We are introduced to another way in which this episode visualizes time and repetition, with quick cuts to Jun grabbing his work apron and punching his time card. The quick cuts emphasize the perfunctory and disinterested way in which Jun trudges through his life, and I really like animation on the apron cut in how it visually illustrates Jun’s attitude towards work.
Saitou and the manager begin gossiping about Jun while he works in the back, and there’s a literal wall between him and others. We learn that Jun never attended high school and just took the university entrance exams on his own; those familiar with the series will know he was bullied because of his “girlist” hobbies. I should not here that the sound design and direction in the episode is excellent; I really like the technique they use here where the dialogue between the manager and Saitou continues over shots of Jun returning home for the night. It’s an economical use of time, as well as showing their conversation was still on Jun’s mind.
After a dream sequence foreshadowing(or is it post-shadowing?) Jun’s unshakable feeling that he’s missing something vital in his life, we see that him attending university, sitting alone in his dark thoughts while others gossip about him.
At work the next day, Jun receives a mysterious package with a book that entices readers with a promise that they can create a “legendary” Rozen Maiden doll. Of course, the real shock for Jun is seeing the page asking “Will you wind?” present in the book, identical to the page he received as a middle schooler.
Taking it home with him, he gets a second shock when a package is there with both the second book in the series, and a large case containing a doll’s thighs.
One thing the earlier series always teased at but never fully delivered was a true sense of gothic horror, so I really enjoy the direction this is going. There’s an inherent creepiness to the premise of the series- a Victorian-era dollmaker who wants to create the perfect maiden with his own hands, by forming magical dolls and having them fight it out until one emerges victorious and unites all of their “souls”- so it’s nice to see this episode finally acknowledge that visually, with Jun fawning over delicately composed photographs of Shinku and assiduously assembling her body, pale and corpse-like in its incomplete state.
Jun begins to obsessively work on the doll, leaving him visibly exhausted at work. Saitou obviously wishes to reach out to him, apologizing for her earlier gossip with the manager, but as we see in the shot above, the distance between Jun and others is still quite far, and all he can think about is going home to work on his doll.
The next day, it seems Saitou is quite determined to befriend him- the show cleverly uses the earlier-established imagery of the time card to show Jun clocking out and Saitou hurriedly following after him.
I suppose at this point a lot of viewers will ask “why can’t this idiot see that she likes him?” but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. People like Jun have created protective barriers around themselves, and they’re especially going to be distrustful around people like Saitou, who are friendly with everyone they meet. Even walking together he keeps his distance, until she tries to break the ice by apologizing for her overly-agreeable nature. Saitou feels bad about not being able to disagree with jerks like the manager, but she doesn’t want lose any of her several part-time jobs she uses to pay for her drama school.
It’s at this point that Jun notices the unusual key around her neck. The plot significance is unclear at this point, but in any case Jun’s attitude shifts immediately after seeing it, and he actually starts opening up to her.
The episode is then interrupted with an odd, antique-style children’s book talking about a girl visiting her uncle’s boat. Whatever its meaning, it does set the stage for the final scene. I won’t spoil the reveal, but Hatekeyama’s direction is at its most atmospheric here, combining visuals and sound to create a true sense of foreboding and mystery. The episode ends at just the right point to leave us wondering what’s going to happen next.