In 2020, the world finds itself governed by the GGP, a tyrannical global dictatorship that has wrested control from the world’s leaders, enforcing order with an iron fist. Against this backdrop, we meet Rin Ogata, a 19 year old girl whose dreams of a career in ballet have been dashed by injury. One day, by chance, Rin encounters the Rideback club, a group overseen by the sullen Okakura, who maintain and race the titular Ridebacks – machines that are a hybrid of motorcycle and mecha. In particular, Rin’s experience with a red Rideback named Fuego awakens a new sense of purpose in her, and she is soon entangled in the group’s revolutionary leanings. Thus, she and her friends Suzuri and Shoko are set upon a path that will bring them into head-on confrontation with the GGP, and dire consequences ensue.

Rideback adapts a 10 volume manga by Tetsuro Kasahara. Sadly, I’m unfamiliar with that material, so I have no idea how faithful an adaptation this 12 episode series is. But coming from Madhouse, the venerable studio responsible for such modern anime successes as Black Lagoon, The Tatami Galaxy and Parasyte, it certainly boasts an impressive pedigree. And indeed, the show’s concept feels impressively solid. With a story threaded together from such disparate strands, it certainly seems to promise a bit different to your standard mecha show.

In truth, Rideback is actually a really tough show to critique. It does a lot of things competently enough, but it also stumbles in some pretty important areas. And this is really the show’s most infuriating – in fact, defining –  characteristic. After one of the strongest opening episodes I’ve seen in anime of late, everything that follows seems to wander in a counter-intuitive direction. The series is well judged in terms of its tone, but it feels lightweight. The characters are well designed and appealing, but (Rin aside) never follow wholly satisfying arcs. It tantalises with a premise that feels fresh, but never really capitalises on it properly. The story itself has weight, but little sense of gravity… substance, but little soul. The ingredients sound appetising, but the resulting soup is thin.

This fumbling approach even seems to have spread to Funimation’s dub and ADR script. While the performances are mostly spot on, and even impart a little much-needed soul to some of the thinly developed characters, there are a couple of cringe-inducing turns as well. Trina Nishimura’s Suzuri, while obviously intended to come off as grating and irritating, is perhaps a little TOO successful in that regard at first. Jason Douglas does well with his part as the villain of the piece, but eventually has little to do beyond snarl like a pantomime baddie. And Robert McCollum, who I most recently spotted delivering a career-best performance as Shinya Kogami in the excellent Psycho-Pass, deserves sympathy for having to spout some of his character’s risible, overwrought dialogue.  

The biggest fault with this show, though, has to be that it just flat out fails to deliver anything it promises in a meaningful way. I found myself wondering, close to the finale, just how does a 12 episode series dangle so much in the way of interesting ideas and themes… and almost comprehensively refuse to do anything interesting with them on-screen? In this respect, Rideback‘s faults are legion. The revolution arc of the story feels somehow undercooked until we’re a handful of episodes away from the end, and lacks the resonance it should have. In fact, there’s very little feeling of momentum to the story. It’s alarming how muted a sense of rising stakes or escalating tension it fosters as the final episodes approach.

If you investigate the show expecting crazy motorcycle mecha action scenes, I imagine you’ll be pretty disappointed too. In fact, the Ridebacks themselves feel like a rather awkardly inserted afterthought. From the unfortunate nomenclature of their ‘spread legs form’ to the faintly ridiculous sight of revolutionaries sitting atop them while stationary during a firefight, they feel rather superfluous to the story’s needs. Given the focus on character interactions and motivations, and the revolution aspect of the story, there seems little point to their inclusion outside of Rin’s connection to Fuego – itself a rather slender plot thread. That interesting red motorcycle mecha you see on the DVD case? It’s chronically underused, and conspicuously absent from much of the show’s running time. Rin’s hinted-at balletic prowess astride Fuego is shown precisely twice during the 12 episode run. So if the ballerina-cum-freedom-fighter-plus-robot selling point is primarily what snags your interest, prepare to feel catastrophically short changed.

It’s not all bad, though. While it may pull a lot of its dramatic punches and lack the visceral thrills its premise might suggest, Rideback is still watchable stuff. Somehow, in spite of its problems, it manages to hang together. And it does have its moments. In fact, it’s one of a few shows I’ve seen recently which, given how much anime I’ve watched in my lifetime and in spite of knowing its tropes backwards, still managed to lull me into a false sense of security and deliver an unexpected punch in the gut late in. When a show you’ve been huffing and puffing through suddenly pulls that kind of trick and makes you feel something for its characters, it’s a sign it’s doing something right. So some ground is regained. There’s also some very appreciable thematic stuff going on in the narrative, which lends an air of maturity to things. It’s a visually pleasing little show, too, with some very well blended CG elements. That’s very much to be praised, because, were it poorly handled in a show like this, it’d sink the whole package.

Speaking of the package itself, DVD extras amount a couple of English language episode commentaries, and textless opening and ending songs. Generally, I’m not impressed by such things, but the show’s opening  theme, sung by Mell (who also sang the propulsive intro to Madhouse’s more notable Black Lagoon) is surprisingly catchy. The ending,  ‘Kioku’ by Younha, is built around a beautiful vocal, and tied to equally beautiful imagery. Together, these pieces provide a strong musical bookend to each episode, and it’s nice to have them as textless extras.

So here’s the tough part – how do I finally rate Rideback? As I say, it’s a difficult show to review. It fumbles so many of its plays, but still maintains a focus of sorts in spite of that. Utimately, I really wanted  to like the series. And, to be  fair, it’s the sort of show you can very easily plop into your DVD player and just go along with, as it really does nothing offensively poorly. But given how great Rideback sounded on paper, and how much potential it had to really do something  different, the vein of middling entertainment it serves up inevitably leads to disappointment. It could well be that, if you know what you’re getting before you go into it, you might enjoy it a good deal more. But there’s no papering over the fact that it’s a show with a confused sense of focus and a little less gas in the tank than its promo blurb suggests.

6 / 10