Messy, Quirky, and Certainly Unique
If somebody asked me to explain what The Rolling Girls was all about in just a few words, this would be what comes to mind. It’s a messy show with lots of quirks, but it’s also an anime that’s a unique experience. While it may not be the strongest series I’ve watched, nor even one I could call a favorite, its themes are beautifully illustrated through the series’ characters.
When this show came out during the Winter 2015 season it was largely written off by many in the community. Even today, The Rolling Girls doesn’t have much of a reputation. It’s easy to look at Wit’s work on this show and write it off as visually interesting but lacking in substance. To many in the community this is nothing more than a “moe blob” show, but this is overly reductive and doesn’t give the show nearly enough credit. In short, it’s a mistake.
The series takes place in a post-war Japan where all of the major prefectures have become independent countries. Conflicts are resolved between “Bests”, basically superpowered individuals, while the “Rest” simply do what they can to get by. It’s a very simple setup that’s not given much explanation or depth, but it also doesn’t matter much for what the anime wants to achieve.
If you were to take anything important away from this cursory explanation of what the story is about it’d be these things:
- Bests are inherently better than everyone else, and the Rest are more-or-less at their mercy.
- Just because the war is over, people are still fighting. That’s what the Bests are for.
- Compared to today’s Japan which places emphasis on the collective, the country has no split apart into nations that are more individualistic.
Understanding these concepts is essential to the character analysis I am about to do, but before that I need to talk about how the story is introduced. Beyond the above elements, the audience gets to experience a battle between two Bests for the first two episodes. Here we are introduced to Nozomi who wants to help others, especially her idol Matcha Green. That’s why when this battle ends with Matcha injured and stripped of her power, Nozomi offers to take up the requests in Matcha’s place. The only problem is Nozomi is a Rest.
Introducing the Girls
As Nozomi prepares to travel to the various places in Japan, she’s joined by three other girls: Ai, Yukina, and Chiaya. Each girl is driven by their own motivation to join up with Nozomi. Ai wants to become stronger so that she can become a Best, Yukina simply gets lost and joins up out of convenience, and Chiaya makes a request of Nozomi to help her collect these heart shaped stones.
What follows for the remaining 10 episodes is a road trip with the girls getting to experience the different parts of Japan while helping people solve problems by acting as peace-brokers. Their payment for doing so will be the stones Chiaya is looking for. This is a fun time and could easily be its own article, but for the sake of keeping things focused the only important part here is the stones.
I purposefully haven’t mentioned up until now that these stones, which have wildly different names depending on who you ask, are quickly implied to be what gives power to the Bests. The stones are a driving factor for much of the plot but we’ll return to their significance a little later.
Nozomi isn’t Special
The Rolling Girls follows the same basic structure, one episode introduces a conflict which Nozomi and friends need to solve, and the next episode sees it resolved. However, unlike what you might expect, Nozomi brings almost nothing to the table when she shows up to whatever job she’s filling in for in Matcha Green’s place. At the end of the day, the people in conflict usually sort things out for themselves with Nozomi doing basically nothing but receiving the credit all the same.
At a glance, this makes the show sound incredibly boring and risks making Nozomi out to be a fairly worthless protagonist but that’s actually far from the truth. The issues she finds herself thrust into are complicated, usually deep-seated, and not realistic for one person to solve alone. Something a lot of folks in the group watch for this series keyed in on (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check this out) is that the issues arc-to-arc are basically the same; they boil down to one thing: lack of communication.
This is where Nozomi contributes. She desperately tries to get everyone to put aside their differences and talk things over. Even when she’s turned away, Nozomi still does everything in her power to help. That might be looking for something that was lost, making a sculpture for a town despite not knowing how, etc… The point is, what she ultimately does is something anyone can do. Nothing she does is special.
You know what though? Nobody else was willing to do it, or at least they weren’t willing to try. Her persistence and genuine desire to help others eventually pays off every time. While Nozomi is basically a bystander in all of these episodes her mere presence and passion for helping others is what ultimately allows for the people she meets along the way to work out their problems.
So Nozomi isn’t special, but that’s exactly the point of the show. The Rolling Girls is about how ordinary people can make a difference, even through things that seem so small. Chiaya says it best with what she says to Nozomi in the final episode, when Nozomi feels she wasn’t able to do anything, thinking she failed her friend. Here’s what she has to say:
Even though her actions didn’t seem like much to herself, they meant a lot to the people around here. In short, this singular line illustrates the main theme of The Rolling Girls.
Ai Wants a Shortcut
Of course Nozomi doesn’t do everything alone. She has the help of her friends along the way who try things of their own to assist in keeping the peace. Enter Ai, who is easily the most obviously flawed character in the entire show. She’s loud, inconsiderate of others, and entirely self-centered. There’s one thing she wants, to become stronger so that she can become a Best. This is the only reason she helps Nozomi and the people they meet along the way, at least at first.
This causes conflict within the group itself and eventually leads to a falling out between Nozomi and Ai. Why should Ai care about others? After all, she just wants one of the stones so she can become a Best and show others how strong she is. However, The Rolling Girls condemns this thinking on multiple fronts.
Once Ai leaves the group she finds herself involved with the daily lives of a mother and her daughter. As she spends more time with them she is able to reflect on her actions up until this point and eventually comes to care for these people. Which eventually leads to Ai fighting harder than anyone for the family later in the arc.
This is the first piece of commentary the anime offers through Ai. Helping others means nothing if you are only doing it for your own reward. Remember, Ai is only helping people initially because she wants a stone to become a Best, so she can prove that she is strong. She wants people to think she’s somebody like Nozomi, willing to help everyone and anyone, but her motivations are purely self-serving. The Rolling Girls says through Ai that we should help others and not expect something in return, it’s just the right thing to do.
Further still, the show provides an additional message through Ai. Eventually, she does obtain a stone, and with it she thinks she can finally help the family she’s grown attached to. However, to her confusion, the stones actually offer nothing. There is no power in them, they aren’t what makes someone a Best.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to achieving your goals. You have to put in the work. You have to have the passion to see yourself through. Persistence, hard work, and real effort are the only ways for you to realize your dreams. What Ai believes to be a quick and easy solution in the stones turns out to be worthless.
Yet Ai does not waver in this discovery. She pushes onward in this moment and puts herself on the line for the first time, all for this family instead of for herself. That’s when she’s finally able to gain a taste of that strength she’s been chasing along the way. What makes people a “Best” in this world or ours isn’t some magic stone or anything like that, often there were many unseen trials for that person to reach where they are today.
While it’s true that Ai has to be the one to put in the work, the anime equally says that her friends are why she is able to do this. They offer both inspiration and support as she chases her dream to become a Best. Just because a journey is difficult, and one you need to take on yourself doesn’t mean it’s something yo need to do alone either.
The Rolling Girls is about how ordinary people and how they can achieve their dreams, even if they seem far away. Ai shows us how it is OK to rely on others, and the importance of pursing things with a genuine passion and not simply for the sake of things. Strength comes from within ourselves even if we can’t always see it.
Yukina is Lost
Of the four traveling companions, Yukina seems to bring the least to the table. Her motivations for being their are weak, almost noncommittal, and she doesn’t do all that much throughout the show. On the surface her job seems to be to provide comic relief because she’s constantly getting lost in absurd ways, but that’s the point: Yukina is lost.
A small detail about Yukina’s character that is explored a few times before the series’ finale is that she likes to draw. The first time we see her do this she draws a picture for a band and it looks bad, people laugh, and the show brushes that off as Yukina serving her role as comic relief. It isn’t until later that we see the impact of this.
Eventually she draws a picture of her friends and it’s really good. When another character asks her if they can have it she replies, “Sure but let me fix a few things first”. This shows us her lack of confidence in her self. Instead of what you might expect given everything so far for Yukina, the character she speaking with says this instead:
“What would you even fix?”
Up until this point nobody has complimented this girl. Nobody told her that her efforts were meaningful or contributing in any way. The Rolling Girls treats Yukina as a background character for much of the show, and recognizes this but also says that this is Yukina’s fault because she lacks confidence in herself.
In this same conversation the person Yukina is speaking with makes this clear by explaining that the people don’t become good at something overnight. He points out that her drawing hand isn’t even all that callused. It’s easy to get discouraged when others don’t recognize your efforts or you compare yourself to others who have had the time to put in the work you haven’t yet.
Throughout the entirety of The Rolling Girls Yukina has been spending time with this group because she’s lost. Instead of confronting her own insecurities and moving forward, she puts herself into a situation where she can be distracted with what everyone else is doing.
Yukina highlights how The Rolling Girls is about ordinary people and how they can accomplish extraordinary things, even if it takes failing a lot of times along the way; as long as you keep trying, you will eventually succeed.
Chiaya’s an Outsider
I saved Chiaya for last in this discussion because her character is just so different than the rest… or is she? When she first appears in the show it’s readily apparent that she’s different, almost alien compared to everyone else in the world. The girl wears a gas mask everywhere at the start, which is pretty unusual. However, as time goes on, her perspective as an outsider proves invaluable and ultimately demonstrates that she’s not really any different than anyone else.
When I was talking about Nozomi earlier, I already hinted at how Chiaya is capable of saying things nobody else can because of her detachment from the current state of Japan. She grew up alone and isolated, she just wants friends and for everyone to get along. It’s something many would consider a naive dream but isn’t that what most of us actually want?
Throughout The Rolling Girls, Chiaya is either pushing characters to come together or making “obvious” observations about character relationships that the individuals involved simply can’t see because they are too close to things. Sometimes it takes someone who isn’t already mired in all the details to give the best advice, and to that end Chiaya achieves this.
All said, this is actually the least interesting aspect of her character. Beyond being a normal outsider, she’s a literal alien. While this might sound like a shock value statement, and in the show can even come off as a bit of a “lol random” kind of thing, it’s integral to the thematic elements Chiaya represents.
It’s true that Chiaya is a bit weird and does things that are unusual, but as I already stated she wants things that everyone wants. Acceptance, support, love, and understanding are all things that people crave and need. It doesn’t matter the era, or as the show says, the planet. This is why her being an alien is so important. No matter how different we are all, at the end of the day we all desire a lot of the same things.
We see this paralleled in the narrative as well across all of the places the girls go. Remember how all of the problems that arise are more-or-less the same? That’s the point. All of these places in this now split Japan, no matter how different, all face similar problems and want similar things. Sure the specifics might vary a little, but at their core they are nearly identical.
That’s why I can say The Rolling Girls is a show about ordinary people who are all different, but ultimately want the same things. Our differences aren’t what we should focus on, instead we should come together over the things we have in common and work to improve things for everyone. After all, it’s what we all want, so what’s stopping us?
And so, The Girls Keep on Rolling
At a glance, it really is easy to look at The Rolling Girls and dismiss it as a show without a lot of substance. It’s easy to point to the lavish backgrounds, flashy animation, and goofy moments of the show and completely overlook the show’s messages, even if they are completely unsubtle most of the time. Really, the show’s a mess at time, it’s not the strongest show out there but it’s the passion that was put into the work that makes this title so very worth your time.
When the series closes, the girls go their separate ways. It’s not an ending, but rather a bittersweet beginning, lessons in hand, with the memories made along the way.
I’ve been experimenting with content lately so I really hope you enjoyed this article. Please be sure to leave a like and comment if you did. I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Rolling Girls as there was a lot I didn’t even get to mention in this article, like the great OP, amazing dub performance (especially episode 8’s ending song), and so much more! If you enjoy my work here please support me by becoming a patron or making a one-time donation by utilizing the buttons below. Thank you for reading, I hope to see you again soon!