Rin Ogata was on her way to becoming one of the most promising ballet stars when a foot injury took her completely out of its limelight. Some while later, a chance encounter brings her to the Rideback club and the rideback Fuego, which she immediately bonds with. The bond is later put to the test when Rin, upon rescuing her friend from a terrorist attack, becomes a pawn in a political game.
In hindsight, I think Rideback is another Reverse Secret Santa request to be grateful for. Because here, at the end of all things, I am grateful for its suggestion. It was a fun and exciting show, and a bit unnerving at times as a good action drama show should be, particularly when politics and its power dynamics come into play.
It wasn't an easy sell, though. The first episode reeked heavily of "introduction exposition", heavily laden with symbolisms. Rin's monologue in the beginning conveniently covered her rise and fall while at the same time covering the event when global government group CCP came into power, and its delivery is quite unlike how normal teenagers talk... unless they're trying to impress college professors (I'd imagine.) Beyond that, it uses symbolism and tropes for all it's worth, for good and bad.
As silly as the concept of the Ridebacks might look -- they're basically motorcycles with arms and, with the correct wheel configuration, legs, which turns the whole thing into some kind of pseudo-mecha that you ride like a bike -- they ended up looking rather cool in that "I want one" way. Rin's first meeting with Fuego, a rather special Rideback, leads to one of the first action-y pieces in the show, where Rin -- who has never sat on a normal bike, much less a Rideback -- goes from panically trying to avoid crashing to putting her ballet expertise to use by almost literally making it dance. Motorcycles are already a big enough symbol of freedom as it is, so one that can almost literally emote through posture and body language really takes that up to eleven, and the intro animation for every single episode really sells that point.
For some odd reason, the show then comes out and says you don't need a license to ride one, which strikes me as logically odd. It's a motorized vehicle with engine powers on par with mid-to-high powered motorcycles, and even beyond that, there's more to driving than knowing how to operate your motorized vehicle. In fact, Rin's accidental introduction to the concept of a Rideback could have gotten people hurt, so I find the concept of being able to use one completely unrestricted irresponsible to say the least. The Japanese version (with the English subs) says the Ridebacks are not street legal, which makes even less sense, given that we see people riding the street on them with nobody batting an eye.
But enough about the main characters in the show. Onwards to the support cast, like Rin Ogata. (I kid, of course, but again; the show really sells the hell out of the Ridebacks, so please pardon the glib jib.) One unfortunate thing about Rideback is that its characters tend to lean towards one camp or the other. Actual characters or character arcetypes.
Rin Ogata is, thankfully, a character. Incredibly talented, but burdened with being the daughter of a legendary ballet dancer, she's trying to find herself again after the snapped tendon ruined her ballet career. When she takes an interest in the Ridebacks, her already heightened sense of balance and rehearsed moves from her dancing days makes her a perfect fit for one. The show makes it clear that medical aid could bring Rin back to the dancing world; she just wouldn't be able to reach the heydays of her pre-accident days, much less her mother's. Even better, her reaction to being involved in all the things the show throws at her is played out realistically; she doesn't immediately become a super soldier fighting for the resistance at the drop of a hat -- in fact, she has her own political stance, which she never really abandons.
Shouko, one of her friends, isn't as much a character arcetype as she is an expositionist -- she's the perfect image of the perfect friend, and her dialogue is mostly there to embellish on Rin's qualities or direct viewer attention towards plot events. One of her lines is almost literally "Don't worry; I know how important the club is for you. Oh, hey, what's that on TV?" Suzuri, more annoyingly, is there to be the character arcetype of a huge fangirl. When she's not there to worship the ground Rin walks on, she's lambasting the others for maybe not realizing how amazing she is fast enough for her. She does eventually take a more personal interest in the Ridebacks, but doesn't really ever lose the shrill, loud personality of hers. The remaining club members are a pretty normal bunch of guys who, to the show's credit, doesn't see anything odd about girls wanting to ride bikes or partake in other normally-seen-as-male activities. This includes resistance leader Kiefer, who wants her to join his cause... eventually.
The bigger arcetypes involves Megumi Yoda, intrepid female reporter who doesn't follow journalistic ethics or rules and gladly jumps into the fire for the sake of a good scoop, yet underneath her unrestrained demeanor hides a heart of gold; and Romanof Karenbak, sneering villain who tries to usurp powers to unleash a police state on the world, who will gladly throw anyone into the fire for his own ambition. These are the aspects of the show that kind of makes the series lean towards B-movie territory, complete with main character death that leans so hard towards its own version of the "two days from retirement" arcetype that said character's fate was basically a foregone conclusion before we even saw it happen.
The sense of corruption on display in this show, however, is anything but an arcetype, putting the spotlight on the problems when it comes to a police force that focuses more on finishing cases, or even worse, are more than willing to throw someone under the bus for the sake of obtaining the results that they want or need. Rideback even goes those extra miles to make things uncomfortable by slowly turning our cast's hometown into a police state where the citizen's rights to privacy and freedom being more and more infringed upon. The show doesn't come right out and say it, but the statement of "those who are willing to sacrifice freedom for safety deserve neither" is told quite clear here. Its political message is loud and clear, and my enjoyment of the show may be attributed to me generally being on board with it. How viewer enjoyment will be influenced by those who aren't... well, it depends, I guess.
And while this show does have a rather obvious villain in Romanof, I have to give the show props for not automatically making the rebel forces the "good guys"; Kiefer, the rebel leader slash head terrorist might have a very understandable reason to antagonize Romanof, his methods still leaves something to be desired. He's relatively unconcerned with getting innocents mixed up in his fight, and will gladly use Rin -- or anyone else -- to further his own goals. It's not clear whether his terrorist attacks actually gets civilians killed or if that's just GGP propaganda to cover their own mistakes or misdeeds. The moral map is all over the place here, with so many shades of grey to be had. Even Rin's isn't as white as her dress; she's near, but she's certainly shown an ability to be reckless and selfish.
The fact that the animation house behind this series is none other than Madhouse also helps, as the show's visuals are great. The vehicles here are all rendered in CG, and the Ridebacks in particular come to life and integrate really well in the show, which, given some of the complex maneuvers the Ridebacks are occasionally called to do by their riders, makes it all the more impressive. The character designs are also well done, slightly reminiscent of Madhouse's work for Gunslinger Girl, favoring more realistic facial and body designs over general MOE aesthetics, and though some of the characters are given a bit more comical character designs, like the Rideback club's advisor, Tenshirou Okakura and his borderline oversized nose and weirdly black eyes, the show still treats them all with seriousness and respect.
Rideback isn't necessarily wall-to-wall action and excitement, but it's a tense ride (no pun intended) from its somewhat laid-back beginning to explosive end. While some of its dialogue can be a bit painful to listen to at times, mostly due to heavy-handed expositionitis, the show still manages to pull of a tasteful piece of political pie with a satisfying (if silly) conclusion.
A tense and multi-faceted story with some mild cases of awkward dialogue, Rideback is one for the crowd who want to be entertained, but not JUST that. — Stig Høgset
Recommended Audience: The terrorist attacks tend to leave people dead, the eventual fights between Romanof's and Kiefer's forces even more so. There is little to no direct onscreen violence, though, outside of an interrogation/torture scene. The rest are made up mostly of blood splatters on the wall, though this does not make the show any less brutal.
Version(s) Viewed: Region A Bluray, bilingual.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Rideback © 2009 Madhouse.
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