By: Vrai Kaiser October 11, 20210 Comments
A mini mech wielding a beam saber

What’s it about? In an alternate Japan, the year is 2029. The country has been taken over by a militaristic faction while otaku culture has been completely outlawed. Kudo Hosomichi works as a host in Kabukicho in order to pay his parents’ debts, only to one night find himself the reluctant pilot of a rebel mech. But not just any mech—this one is powered by the otaku passion of its “battery girl” Akagi Rin.

I always feel jaded watching shows like this. There’s really not much wrong with RUMBLE GARANNDOLL’s premiere. It’s a by-the-numbers mish-mash of heavy-handed homages that also has cute mini-mecha designs and a fair bit of heart. It sits squarely in the subgenre of “rah rah otaku culture” that’s remained a crowd-pleaser ever since Otaku no Video pioneered it in the 80s—people love to see themselves on TV. For mechs this season, you could very much do worse.

An embarassed chibi Rin getting the side-eye from Hosomichi. subtitle: Oh my god, this is mortifying!
Chibi Rin is good and I support her

Anime that are capital-a About otaku culture have historically focused on a very particular image of what that culture looks like (male and heterosexual, and everyone is either into the major male demographic shows or a female character is over in the corner liking Girl Things that our dude protagonists can’t be bothered with). In fairness, there’s been a lot of change on that front with titles like Princess Jellyfish and Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, opening up the floor as far as what affectionate parody and celebration of otaku things can mean.

But that particularly outdated, dude-centric vision of Otaku Culture™ tends to live on in shows that are specifically about the subculture being cruelly outlawed. So when, after an episode of female characters mainly appearing as subordinate characters except for an evil general, the “battery girl” Rin revealed herself as not just an adorable chibi AI but a human woman in an Evangelion-style dummy plug, I let out a massive sigh. After a whole episode dedicated to hamming up anime tropes with varying level of success, the “real” Rin’s introduction in exaggerated tsundere style all but screamed “love interest and narrative second fiddle.”

a girl climbing out of a plug-shaped cockpit. subtitle: Battery girl.
I understood that reference!

I fully admit this is a me thing; despite believing firmly in the transformative power of fan spaces, I’ve spent too many years cataloguing toxic assholes not to intrinsically side-eye this kind of setup.

I’d love nothing more that to be wrong on my cynicism here. There are some bits of narrative setup here that could point toward a more optimistic story of mutual teamwork. While Rin might be the “battery” and Hosomichi the pilot, it doesn’t work unless he’s supporting her and the two are of a mutual mind. Which could turn into “women are emotional, men are rational,” but I’m being positive here.

a Kamina lookalike punching toward the sky. subtitle: You must release your inner soul!
Trust in the this dude who esteems in you!

There’s also not really any fanservice in this first episode, which was a pleasant surprise. And yes, because I am twelve, I did laugh at the fact that the revel leader is named “Commander Balzac.” The translator also deserves a hearty tip of the hat for translating Balzac’s (who is, of course, doing discount Kamina cosplay) speech about the importance of passion as “Scream! Shout! Let it all out!”

Future episodes will have to figure out what they’re doing with lighting. Despite the neon cyberpunk aesthetic of alternate Kabukicho, the screen often becomes dim and difficult to parse, which means that some of the mech fights outside of the glowing finishing moves can get a bit muddy. There’s also some interesting subtext going on with the references to militarism: neon signs are emblazoned with the phrase “Rich Country, Strong Army,” and the episode’s antagonist is costumed in a white Naval officer’s uniform.

A man in a naval uniform pointing a sword to camera. subtitle: This is the only way to reconcile our two Japans!
Someone smarter than me probably has a lot to say about this!

Depending on where it decides to go from here, Rumble Garanndoll could turn into a surprisingly smart series or a big doofy punch-em-up about beleaguered otaku fighting back against a nebulously defined version of The Man. For now, I think I’ll sit it out and see how things shape up.

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