It's doing a lot right. It's dumped most of the empty-headed comedy fluff. It's dark from the beginning and it's giving us a reinvented Jun who's emotionally crippled in an entirely new way. Rozen Maiden needs broken people, for preference as horrifyingly as possible. That's what the show feeds on.
However it's also drab and makes baffling anti-use of its villain. I'm tempted to buy the manga, just to see where the story's meant to go.
To recap, Rozen Maiden is the story about beautiful little vampire dolls, who look as if they were made in the 19th century. I think they were. Their outfits are certainly florid and frilly enough to be Victorian. They don't suck blood, mind you. They're only vampires in the sense that they find human masters and form contracts with them, letting the dolls drink the humans' energy in a way that can be life-endangering. Theoretically they're also fighting a battle royale called the Alice Game, with the objective of being the one last beautiful doll survivor, but most of them (especially Shinku) are so appalled by the sororicide that they're avoiding any active pursuit of this.
"We were born to fall into despair. That's the fate of the Alice Game."
The manga ran from 2002-2007 and ended in creator-publisher acrimony. A new manga with a different publisher then ran from 2008-2014 and was an alt-universe crossover that somehow managed to be both a sequel to and a "what if" version of the original series. It's set in a universe where Jun never wound the key in Shinku's back, never met the Rozen Maidens and grew up to be a depressive student at a dead-end college, working part-time in a shop under a manager who's a complete dick. He's a virgin with no friends. Girlfriend prospects are so poor that in effect he's castrated himself psychologically.
This is perfect, obviously. Rozen Maiden is, at heart, about Jun and Shinku. The original Jun had been a fourteen-year-old hikikomori, but Shinku healed him. Traumend and Ouverture increased the ranks of the walking wounded, but at last we're back in Broken Brain land with Jun and Shinku.
(The manga only uses Jun-2 for a few volumes, incidentally, before reverting to Jun-1 and the regular universe. However this anime is just adapting the first manga story arc.)
Knowing all that, ep.1 puzzled me. Where was Jun-2? This was Jun-1 in the regular universe with all the dolls, albeit in a condensed retelling that starts from the top and manages to cram all seven sisters into one episode. Those seven are, in order: (1) Suigintou, the unrepentant villain trying to protect someone even more pitiful than herself, (2) Kanaria, goofball, (3) Suiseiseki, abusive tsundere who'd die for her twin sister: (4) Souseiseki, the serious one, (5) Shinku, haughty ice queen who makes a terrible first impression but is also the show's moral core and the rock around which the audience revolves, (6) Hinaichigo, in all respects a toddler, and (7) Kirakishou.
Yes, that's right. Not Barasuishou, who was an anime-only character in Traumend and not a proper Rozen Maiden anyway. Kirakishou is the real seventh sister and just as bad, but scarier. She'll kill you beautifully with roses. There's one kill in the title sequence and another in ep.1. (That's a real death, by the way, albeit a doll death with an eccentric and eventually emotional mini-loophole. When it happens, you might be expecting it to be reversed somehow, at some point. Nope. She's dead and never comes back.)
Ep.2 then threw away all and gave us the dreary, doll-less life of Jun-2. His manager at work is terrible. His pretty colleague is trying to be nice to him, but Jun-2 doesn't even reply to her questions and cuts her dead.
The realities then touch in a way that made me laugh and immediately made this one of my favourite uses of alternate universes. Jun-2 is about to learn that he needs Shinku.
This series is the story of Jun-2 rediscovering himself, obviously. He has a talent for dressmaking, for instance. He should have made that his career. Jun often likes traditionally girly things, e.g. dolls, which is unfortunately what caused the trauma that turned him into a hikikomori. (That's painful to watch, as of course it should be.) He wants to change himself and the world... but not by making new choices about the future, but by using SF magic to rewrite the past. He thinks he's inferior to the fourteen-year-old Jun-1. He also lies about important, dangerous things to Shinku, which I'll confess I had a bit of a problem with.
He makes dolls. I liked the fact that this isn't quick or easy, by the way. He has to take time off work to find time for the dressmaking, for instance. He helps his colleague. He gets emotionally attached to Shinku and becomes mildly depressed by the idea of her disappearing again. Slowly, very slowly, he claws his way up to a functional life with prospects and the ability to care.
As for the dolls, we spend little time with most of them. They're stuck in the other universe. It's mostly just Shinku and/or Suigintou. This is a good choice, since they're clearly the richest characters. There's entertainment to be had from their bickering, but after a while it becomes clear that Jun-2's daily life just isn't much fun to watch. He goes to work. He occasionally goes to college, although not often because he feels alienated there. He leaves the dolls alone all day in his tiny, empty flat.
What about Kirakishou, though? She defeats all the dolls in the original universe between ep.1 and ep.2... but she's an oddly underwhelming villain. She's mostly a sinister presence rather than an active antagonist. You can sense her influence at work. You'll realise that Jun-2 is unwittingly working to her bidding. Eventually she emerges, fights our heroes and gets emotionally destroyed, with a few episodes still to go.
...and that's it. The remaining episodes mostly go on character drama with the other dolls, including a horrifying angle on Suigintou and heartbreaking ones on Hinaichigo, Suiseiseki and Souseiseki. They waste the character of Kirakishou, even though she's one of the most broken bird in this series of a franchise about broken birds. You'll want to take this scary homicidal killer home and give her a cuddle. She's been trapped alone in a disembodied state since her creation, which I'd guess was about a century ago. She probably can't even sleep, unlike her sisters who've all slept through entire decades. She's insane. All she wants is a body, to the point of not caring about her Rosa Mystica or the Alice Game. I don't think you can leave a character like this floating around instead of building the finale around her, which would have been fine as either a supervillain climax or something more sympathetic that explored her pain. We don't really get either. There's a twitch of last-gasp villainy, but nothing serious. Ep.13 for me was heading for one inevitable development... that never happens. It was screaming from the screen at me. Everything the franchise has been about demands it. It's obligatory and wikipedia claims that it does actually happen at the very end of the manga. Good. Doesn't happen here. Gyaaah.
The anime's dutifully adapting the manga, you see, which hadn't finished with Kirakishou. That would have been fine had the anime continued with a second season, but it doesn't.
I'm going to have to buy the manga, aren't I?
Romance and sex are... distant, but casting a shadow. Jun has basically turned off that part of himself, which is going to have to be reactivated if he wants to turn himself back into a human being. Early in ep.1, his sister thinks he's become interested in girls and immediately wants to text this to their parents. His sweet work colleague is clearly a girlfriend-in-waiting, with the main obstacle to this being Jun's mental block. One's assumption as a viewer is that Jun-2 is surely going to get together with her one day, just as one assumes that Jun-1 will get together with Tomoe.
However there are also the dolls. This is only subtext, but it's quite loud subtext. (It's also being undercut hard every week by the title sequence, which gives us lots of naked dolls and makes them look inhuman and, frankly, terrifying. They're dolls. Remove their clothes and they're basically skeletons with ball joints.)
Anyway, doll sex would be disgusting and require brain bleach, but the Jun-Shinku relationship starts out with him blushing at the thought of looking under her skirt (despite his non-reaction to humans) and an implication that at least he finds her attractive. He's shocked and gives himself a talking-to. After that, he doesn't have any weird reactions, although Jun-2's daily routine of going off to work makes them look more like a husband and housewife, as opposed to the more childish Jun-1.
Kirakishou, though, takes it up to text. The sealing of a doll-human contract has always been presented with marriage imagery, here again with Megu and Suigintou in ep.5. Kirakishou sexualises it. The pact involves the human kissing a ring, so she puts it in her mouth. She licks and sucks his fingertip in a fellatio-like fashion before saying she wants him. She then goes painfully, heart-rendingly berserk when he rejects her. She's practically yandere for him. She even tries to torture him into choosing her, even though assembling these dolls' bodies arguably brought him close to their definition of Father.
This is a more mature Rozen Maiden. (It split the fandom. Some fans reacted like me, while others preferred the jauntier, more comedic tone of the earlier anime seasons. Mind you, Shinku and Suigintou are usually good for a laugh when they're on-screen together.) Jun-2's life is grey, dull and almost uncomfortably convincing. The dolls understand and accept that humans grow out of playing with dolls. This reduces the entertainment level, but raises the artistic coherence. Sometimes it's more fun than at other times. Nonetheless I still got a lot of enjoyment from it and of all the shows I'm watching at the moment, this is the show I always wanted to return to the most. It's got under my skin. I care about Shinku and the others. It's also sustaining the Alice metaphor (white rabbit, dreams, the looking-glass, etc.) and arguably extending it with a white queen (Kirakishou) and a red queen (Shinku), who fight with roses.
"When that's finished, someone brings me more freshly severed heads."