For a show about paramilitary revolutionaries who ride on giant, heavily armed robot/motorcycles, RideBack is a surprisingly subtle show. A lot of that comes from what RideBack doesn’t have. For one, there’s no male lead. Can you think of another action seinen (one in Ikki, for example) that doesn’t have a male lead? What about a seinen with a female lead who constantly wears a flowing dress while riding a robot/motorcycle at terrific speeds, yet there’s a pronounced lack of fanservice? In a 12-episode show, 11 of which involve said flowing dress on said robot/motorcycle, I think there’s one panty shot. Instead, the fanservice is only hinted and winked at, as if Studio Madhouse is saying: “Yes, normally you’d be seeing a gynecological exam here, but not today, friend. Not today.”
The show’s subtlety is also reflected by the overall plot and character development. The plot isn’t about fighting robot/motorcycles, it’s about the gradual radicalization of students under the soft rule of a totalitarian state. Students who start off as disengaged loafers slowly become more aware of what’s happening around them and start agitating for change. The female lead isn’t consumed by passion for robot/motorcycle fighting, she’s just someone who can’t accept not being the best in the world at something.
But let’s start at the beginning. See, a thing happened where a rebel group called GGP took over the world via their robot/motorcycles called RideBacks. These are a kind of advanced, deadly Segway. They have 2 arms (for murder), two wheels (for wheelies), and because of either their advanced gyroscopes or a wizard’s spell, they are highly maneuverable. The idea that you can take over the world because your motorcycles are fast makes as much sense as a Ferrari Enthusiast club conquering the planet because of their crazy TOKYO DRIFTS, but whatever. Disbelief: Suspended. The GGP conquered the world and now exist as a militant superstate, barging in and directing affairs when they choose to but otherwise staying out of everyday life. From what’s in the show, the situation seems analogous to life in Russia or China today: as long as you keep your head down and don’t challenge the state, no one will mess with you beyond demanding bribes every now and then. But if you start complaining, then you and your family are off to the gulags.
Existing in this delightful backdrop is Rin Ogata: a ballerina, daughter of the best ballerina there ever was, a Prima Ballerina Assoluta. Rin was expected to follow in her path, but a broken ankle following a grand jeté put an end to that. The injury healed without any issues; she could have still been an amazing ballerina. But not the best ballerina. This is a good illustration of the core element of Rin’s character, which can be summed up by the title of Jimmy Carter’s first book: “Why not the best?” If you can’t be the best in the world, why even bother trying?
This is what leads Rin to the RideBack. A series of comical events ends with her driving one of these things at her university’s RideBack club. Her dancer’s balance and reflexes makes her a preternatural RideBack rider. She has an uncanny feel for the machine and comes as close to merging with a motor vehicle as we’ve seen in quite a long time. There’s a lot of beauty in seeing Ogata dance on the RideBack; after a while it starts to feel a bit forced (she was a dancer before and now she’s a dancer again: BUT THIS TIME ON A MOTORCYCLE), but the first few times you do really get the sense that her love for dance is the driving force behind everything she does.
The action scenes that follow are mostly in the vein of “Rin sees something bad happening (terrorists hold her friend hostage or her brother is roughed up by government toughs), then Rin drives so fast that the problem is solved.” Believe it or not, these scenes are awesome. RideBack has some amazing CG scenes, even accounting for the fact that Japan still hasn’t figured out how to best Babylon 5-level CG from 1997. The fights look really, really good and actually get the pulse beating a bit.
And bringing back my first point, there’s a lot behind the fighting that we don‘t see. There’s one particular scene that moves the show from good to great in my mind: Rin is being transported between jails after she apparently didn’t drive fast enough to solve every problem, and a revolutionary group intercepts the transport to rescue her. A good show would have given us an amazing battle scene with explosions and bullets and more explosions. A great show has Rin huddled in a corner of the armored car, mentally worn down from months of imprisonment, to the sounds of muffled shots and the occasional blood splatter on the transport’s windows. The scene goes on for exactly long enough for the thrill of battle to wear off so everyone can realize that people with families and hobbies are dying out there.
I can’t say the anime is perfect – it has 12 episodes to cover 10 volumes of manga and you can tell a lot was skipped over. Plenty of storylines are dropped or have no connection to the overall plot of the show. Important points are introduced with only a few lines and almost no explanation. Sometimes this works out – I kinda like the subtle references to an ill-explained “Arizona incident,” since sometimes the imagination fills in details better than exposition. But in many cases, far too much was left unsaid. A key part of the show’s ending is explained with exactly one line said by one minor side character to another. The anime should have been twice as long to tell the complete story.
That’s why it’s such a disappointment that the manga isn’t available in English. I’ve only read the first volume, but it’s already clear that the the manga tells an even deeper tale of student radicalization and rebellion, with the stories of several side characters given proper attention.
Educated opinion: I honestly don’t watch a lot of anime or read a lot of manga anymore – I’ve gotten so bored with seeing the same story told, only with more explosions and breasts than the years past. But something’s changed recently. Sure, there are lots of terrible things, but there are new shows and comics that are honestly trying new things and succeeding. RideBack is part of this vanguard of anime that doesn’t suck.