Rio: Rainbow Gate
The Howard Resort is a famous gambling and entertainment resort where anyone can claim a miraculous fortune overnight. Its most famous employee is the beautiful dealer Rio Rollins, nicknamed "the Goddess of Victory" for her natural ability to grant customers good luck just by being near them. But to be the world's greatest casino dealer, the certified Most Valuable Casino Dealer, she must challenge other dealers to duels for "gate cards," a special set of thirteen mystical cards that will bestow its owner the coveted title of MVCD, and grant them a single wish.
I'm reluctant to review Rio: Rainbow Gate. Much of the fun of watching this series was in how much of a surprise it was. This is a series that exists solely because of a famous pachinko machine franchise in Japan, and was written entirely around the passive, sexed-up and vaguely pleasant girl mascot designed to sell those machines, all of which is a surefire mark of a stinker. So when it blossomed into a weirdly enjoyable series, it caught everyone off-guard. This surprise is part of the fun, and I suspect if I told you that Rio: Rainbow Gate is a good series, you would come into it with very different expectations than I did and come out with a long list of solid reasons for why it's trash. You'd probably even be correct in one sense, but in another sense, I would only feel sorry for you. Rio: Rainbow Gate is certainly not "good" in the sense that it is skillfully done. I've been watching the reaction to this series for roughly a year and it seems to me that the only ones who "get" that are those who discovered it as it aired. Those who came in later off the hype from their predecessors dropped the series quickly, probably annoyed and confused. In fact, that will probably be your reaction by the time I finish this review. I'm sorry for that, but I make no apologies for liking this series. It's the kind of crowd-pleasing, crazy anime that, in tone and intent, is very similar to those 90's anime OVAs that have been getting a small revival of appreciation lately. Like Cyber City Oedo 808 or Dagger of Kamui, it's not so much about the quality of the characters or the story or even its progressive understanding of gender politics that make it a compelling watch, but a sense that pretty much anything goes, that a bunch of animators were just given a bit of money by some opportunistic producer looking to add another brick to some media franchise, and then were cut loose to do whatever they wanted. And then they did. Rio: Rainbow Gate probably does more to bring back the crazed spirit of the anime boom years than Bodacious Space Pirates or Level E.
What I'm trying to say is: I was lying earlier. I couldn't wait to write about Rio: Rainbow Gate.
In many ways, Rio: Rainbow Gate is just another cheesecake affair from a studio that has specialized in regularly churning out that kind of anime on the cheap. Every woman is dolled up and their generous busts have an odd shine like they've been waxed. Most of the supporting cast aren't really characters, but talking props based on familiar tropes. Even Rio isn't a character- she's an ideal. She's sweet, submissive, and very dedicated to her job. She's likeable but dull. The story leans on a very typical MacGuffin in anime- our heroine has to collect all the pieces of some artifact, and can only acquire those pieces through episodic duels with rivals. And conveniently, there are only thirteen of these artifacts, a handy number for a short series. That list knocks out several of anime fans' most cited reasons for liking something, so where's the appeal?
One of the reasons that moe series and other shows whose primary appeal is a simple exercise in fanservice do more than just evoke disinterest outside of their target audience, but continually enrage them, is its soulless core. It's extremely cynical to sell something that calculated. Amazingly, despite its calculated roots, Rio: Rainbow Gate doesn't feel cynical. In fact, it feels fun. It's silly, it's weird, it's eager to please and it's clear that the staff at XEBEC were having fun. That sense of fun is catchy, and does a lot to redeem this anime.
The gate duels aren't simply gambling games. That would be boring. No, they're amped up duels that can take place in a virtual reality where Rio has to dodge space sharks, or on an elaborate, miles long waterslide where Rio has to race another dealer to the pool below by calculating exactly what route to take and how to take it, because to be the greatest dealer ever, you have to be a master sharpshooter, biologist and mathematician. She'll win games of black jack by sheer force of will, because this is a cartoon, and logic be damned. And there is all kinds of other fun details beyond the duels, from Rio's boss to the casinos she works at, that I'm not going to talk about here, because it's best left for you to discover on your own. Suffice to say, this series has less in common with Queen's Blade and more with Looney Tunes. Come to think of it, for a series whose main character helps customers win money at a casino and is never fired, this was probably the only way to pull it off. It's better off for it, either way.
And that sense of fun colors everything else. The fanservice no longer feels like the creepy object of a loner's obsession, but more like the raunchiness of a burlesque show. The simple characters start to feel appropriate for a simple show. And even the oldest stereotypes feel a little fresher when they're given twists as weird as Rio's games.
Really, it's kind of a one trick pony, and when the series doesn't focus on the duels, it gets a bit boring. But it's a good trick. And there's something scrappy about the project, which spins some gold out of a crappy concept. A wise woman once yelled into my headphones that anime was TOTALLY UNEXPECTED, and Rio owns that virtue. It's a good reason to watch animation, and the only reason to watch Rio. It was certainly good enough for me.
What it lacks in skillful storytelling it makes up for with goodwill and charm. Add a star if you have a high tolerance for fanservice. — Bradley Meek
Recommended Audience: Teenagers and up. Most of the ladies wear very tight, revealing clothing.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (13/13)
Rio: Rainbow Gate © 2011 TECMO KOEI WAVE CO., LTD. Development Group / Howard Hotel
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