It looks fun and accessible on the surface, but it's weird. I like that. I was just a bit baffled from time to time. Its themes and backstory are disturbing, it's far from clear what's going on and it spends quite a lot of time in dream worlds.
One-line summary: boy ends up living with lots of girls.
The girls are: (a) the boy's older sister, Nori, and (b) lots of dolls. Really. Walking, talking dolls. They're made of porcelain, they need winding up and their knees and elbows are ball joints. They're quite big dolls, about the size of a two-year-old, and it's like having tiny children running around. They also tend to have personalities to suit, with Hina Ichigo behaving like a toddler, Suiseiseki being a petty brat and even Shinku capable of getting scared by children's TV.
As for the only male character, that's Jun, a 14-year-old hikikomori. (This is a scary Japanese word for people who withdraw from all social activities and have shut themselves up at home for at least six months. Jun doesn't go to school and has become phobic about meeting his former classmates. He also says in ep.10 that he likes the idea of eternal sleep.) He starts out as an unlikeable git who's abusive to Nori and spends all his time buying things he doesn't want on the internet, then returning them for full refunds at the seller's expense. The first Rozen Maiden to show up (Shinku) endeared herself to me by treating Jun like a slave, kicking him whenever he talked back to her and ordering him to be nicer to Nori.
The story of Jun's character growth is heartwarming because it's an upwards trajectory (albeit an incomplete one), but that was probably the only option if you don't want the audience to commit suicide. Deep down, he thinks he's worthless trash. Of course he's going to discover new qualities in himself, largely through trying to defend Shinku and the others, but Nori's big motivational speech in ep.11 might make you shiver. Bloody hell, that was bleak. She's basically saying it's okay to hate yourself, because everyone does.
As for the dolls, they're (slowly) fighting a duel to the death that they call the Alice Game. This involves trying to be perfect for the sake of their dead father. Imperfection gives them shock and trauma. They think they have to be beautiful. Losers in the Alice Game lose their sentience, although Shinku doesn't believe in enforcing that rule. (It's one of the ways in which you can see that she's got a heart of gold, buried deep beneath that abusive, condescending, haughty, irritable, bossy, ice-cold tsundere personality.)
So, yeah. Pretty dark. You can see how the dolls and Jun are thematic mirrors of each other, obviously.
Then, on top of that, you have all the childhood trappings. The series is, essentially, twelve episodes of Jun and Nori playing with dolls. That's what it looks like visually, too. Meanwhile the dolls themselves are liable to behave like four-year-olds (e.g. the almost brilliant childishness in ep.5) and Jun keeps calling the house a nursery. Even their magic powers are often childhood-themed, e.g. the Jack in the Beanstalk imagery of the world tree that connects everyone's dreams. (No, I'm not joking.) Plus of course the whole point of the Alice Game is an unhealthy desperate yearning for a long-gone father who was almost certainly a complete bastard.
I leave it as a reader exercise to work out how that childhood motif fits with the show's themes of self-loathing, damaging expectations of one's own image and a retreat into dreams and fantasy.
What about romance? Is there any? It's technically a "boy surrounded by girls" anime, so one can at least ask the question. From most of the dolls, absolutely not. When Hina Ichigo hugs you, it's like any other tiny child being boisterous. From Shinku... um, hard to say. From Jun... well, he's very attached to Shinku, but that's hardly the same thing. He does blush at seeing dolls in their underwear, which is odd, but he's only fourteen and his relationship with Shinku is basically that between two children. (While also being mistress-servant and even having tinges of father-daughter.) Mind you, Nori is comedically oblivious to the fact that there's a boy at school who keeps trying to ask her out and instead in ep.10 says something worrying in her sleep.
That's a lot. That's a seething, hissing black pit of psychological horror. What are the actual episodes like?
Often they're just colourful light comedy, or even a bit like a magical girl show. The dolls often behave badly and annoy Jun, while Nori can be a bit of an airhead. They bicker. They're silly. They'll scare themselves watching a children's puppet show on TV. It's a laugh. Suiseiseki is a brat who causes trouble. They're also a bit disconcerting aesthetically, with often squeaky anime voices coming out of dolls that look like actual Victorian dolls. They have doll proportions and everything.
However then you'll visit Jun's bleak dream world, or have episodes where a doll's being kept physically and emotionally tethered by a senile bereaved old man. Sometimes Jun will have a shock that makes him even more anti-social than usual, e.g. he went outside and saw people. Or an otherwise fun episode will include the apparent death and dismemberment of a toy clown. The proximity of dream worlds makes it possible to be woken up by, for instance, your computer monitor bulging and then vomiting forth a cloud of black feathers. Also no one seems to see anything odd in the existence of a scary mirror-doorway in the lumber room, even though it's often used by the villain.
There's an original Rozen Maiden manga, by the way, but be warned that its creators fell out with the publishers and so the plot gets guillotined in volumes 7-8. It then continued with another publisher, but eccentrically. It started out as an alternate universe and yet somehow mutated into a sequel. Its first story arc got an anime adaptation in 2013 and I'm particularly looking forward to that, although apparently it's slower and more melancholic than the main show. Here's all the Rozen Maiden anime to date:
- Rozen Maiden (2004, 12 episodes)
- Rozen Maiden: Traumend (2005, 12 episodes)
- Rozen Maiden: Ouverture (2006, 2-episode prequel)
- Rozen Maiden: Zuruckspulen (2013, 13 episodes)
Oh, and the cool opening theme's by Ali Project. Tomoko recognised their sound immediately. They've also done the theme songs for Noir, Kamichama Karin, .hack//Roots, Linebarrels of Iron, Code Geass, Phantom -Requiem for the Phantom-, Fate/Extra, Another and Katanagatari.
I like this show. However it takes a bit of processing, because the form and content are an unusual combination. My notes at one point say "I'm not sure I understood that story". (The plot was straightforward enough, but it hadn't been entirely clear what the villain wanted, why Suiseiseki was still alive, what the hell the World Tree had to do with anything, etc.) Apart from anything else, those cases that the dolls sleep in kept reminding me of vampires' coffins.
"There is no death for dolls. We just go somewhere far away."