Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Rio: Rainbow Gate! (Episodes 1 - 3)

Japan's fixation on gambling, particularly pachinko which developed from the American version of "Corinthian Bagatelle", has a pretty large overlap with its anime and manga industry. If a series does well (Lupan the 3rd, Hokuto no Ken) or produces characters that people go bonkers over (Lucky Star, Evangelion), you can guarantee that there is a pachinko machine that has taken advantage of its popularity. Heck, you don't even need those tiny metal balls; "pachislo", a similar game with the central slot machine dissected from the banging metal sounds, has been a booming diversion as well.

While "moe-slo" has managed to do well with the use of moe characters in these slot machines, it usually borrows the characters for the machine, not the other way around. Very rarely will you have a pachinko or pachislo machine series so popular that it spawns its own animated show, and such examples haven't necessarily translated into successes (such examples are Umi Monogatari and Kaitô Tenshi Twin Angel...wait, it's coming back?!)

Our heroine Rio in work mode.

Okay, maybe the industry is just big enough for another venture into animation. Rio: Rainbow Gate! is an odd attempt at glamorizing the gambling industry through the conversion of a pachislo game series to anime. Realistically in Japan, pachinko and pachislo are about as close to diversionary gambling as you might get, but the gambling racket is mostly dominated by horse racing circuits. Casinos, in the Vegas sense of the word, are a relative unknown and are almost nonexistent in Japan.

Perhaps this mystique about the casino has drawn people to the popular pachislo game and the title character Rio Rollins Tachibana, the game's buxom dealer. To some, she may be vaguely familiar, as she made cameos on the gaming disaster Dead or Alive Paradise, but Rio: Rainbow Gate! is her big debut on the anime scene. On the fictional island casino known as Howard Resort, Rio is known as the "Goddess of Victory" to its gambling patrons, as she is able to bring good luck to gamblers with her very presence. She's become such a big name at the resort that she's constantly being used as an advertisement by her employer, the nutcracker-like Tom Howard.

Mint following Rio's pet ferret Chip into the rabbit hole (ferret hole?)

It is Rio's popularity that has brought a variety of people to her inner circle of friends. One of Rio's sudden admirers in the show, the cherubic Mint, is left in Rio's care for the most part, developing a "big-sister" crush on her new guardian. In the first episode, we meet the rest of Howard Resort's main employees through Mint's wandering flight of fancy through the casino—the Hollywood starlet Rosa Canyon, buoyant bunny-girl waitress Tiffany, and twin sisters Elle and Ille.

Of course, Rio's charm and success rate as a "Gate Holder"—a dealer who possesses one of 13 special "Gate" cards—also brings a variety of ruffians to the casino. While her matches with the sparkly-eyed gambler Orlin and a ghost known only as "Misery" are for other wagers, Rio must accept gambling duels from other Gate Holders. The arrival of Elvis, a ladykiller of a dealer with an uncanny knack of mathematics and probability, puts Rio on the hotseat in a bizarre game of roulette bowling for her Gate, even though she never won her own card in the first place. Each opponent challenges Rio in a display of gallant hallucinations, where the game is animated in something bigger than it actually is (and with Rio in a multitude of costume changes).

This is NOT a commercial for Segram's 7 whiskey.

If you were to watch Rio: Rainbow Gate! with the presupposition of seeing a sincere story unfold, Lady Luck isn't on your side. There is very little coherence in the show's actual plot, as dull one-on-one card games and roulette spins turn into nonsensical scenes of mazes composed of playing cards and volleyball games with oversized numbers. The epic Orlin-Rio poker game is over Mint's teddy bear, of all things. While the stakes for the match between Rio and the ghoulish Misery are much higher (Misery wants the casino for herself), the scene of Rio fending off flying ghost chicken wings while trying to keep Mr. Howard from being sliced in half by Elle and Ille is so amazingly ridiculous that...'s actually fun to watch.

Yes, this is how we first meet Rio. (Eyes up here, pal!)

Seriously. In the same way that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was hilarious to the MST3K crew, Rio: Rainbow Gate! is such a bizarre mishmash of unrelated imagery and inept characters (you'll love to hate the klutz Anya) that the unintentional comedy is off the scale. Fan service is sold at high premiums that rival gold, as revealing outfits are the norm and skin is buffed to such a shine that you'd be able to see Rio's breasts from orbit. The absurd characterization of Mr. Howard, in comparison to the other characters, is so over-the-top that the chain-smoking owner (voiced by the thunderous Kôji Ishii, Garterbelt from Panty & Stocking) rescues the show's cast from being bland.

Considering the expectations of Rio: Rainbow Gate! were basically in negative-number territory, the show's shipwreck of a plot unbelievably keeps it from submerging. Granted, the introduction of a particular character in Episode 3 does establish some sense of plot in the upcoming chapters, so the story may still be taking up water and sinking a slow death, but so far the show has a reason to exist, if only to make us wonder just how absurd it could end up getting. Perhaps Rio loses her top in a game of human Plinko?

No, Rio darling, dealer is showing 17.

Perhaps the best thing Rio: Rainbow Gate! has going for it is its self-awareness. Those who know Rio already will probably be her biggest fans, and much of them are have probably already lost ten thousand yen to a pachislo machine since the beginning of this review. Those who are left have to be snagged in the only way the show knows how—through the theater of the absurd.

Yes, Rio: Rainbow Gate! may be a slug compared to a shiny gold coin, but even a whole barrel of slugs has got to be worth something.

(Rio: Rainbow Gate! is simulcast on Crunchyroll every Tuesday at 10:30 AM EST.)


  1. Rio: Rainbow Gate is fun to watch. I kinda wish I believed in watching cartoons ironically, but alas, I'm sincerely enjoying this silly mess. And it seems the creators at Xebec are as well- they've taken this series to such craziness that there probably isn't a snarky comment you could make about it that they haven't already thought of.

    In a way, it reminds me of the craziness of early nineties OVAs, when anything went and everything did. It's like Xebec is channeling their inner Yoshiaki Kawajiri.

  2. Flying habanero chicken wings, man.

  3. My favorite part so far is when the loser from episode one ditches a winning hand, leaving only a queen in his pocket. His reasoning? "I have terrible luck with women in the real world, but I'm the best player with the women in the cards!"