Reviewby Theron Martin, Jul 2nd 2014
Chaika - The Coffin Princess
season 1 streaming
Five years ago an alliance of six nations finally concluded a centuries-long war against the Gaz Empire when a group which came to be known as the Eight Heroes defeated and killed the immortal Emperor Gaz. In current time 20-year-old Toru, a former saboteur (a warrior with ninja-like skills and magical self-enhancement ability), and his adopted sister Akari wander aimlessly, their skills useless in a world now at peace, until they happen across a white-haired girl toting a coffin through the forest. Upon saving her from a hostile unicorn, they discover that she is not only a wizard but also claims to be Chaika, the daughter of the former Emperor Gaz. She insists that she is on a mission to collects her father's body parts so that she can give them a proper burial and hires Toru and Akari to help her in that task. But the task comes with many complications, for the body parts of Emperor Gaz, which were distributed amongst the Eight Heroes, are some of the most powerful and pure sources of magical fuel in the world and thus in high demand, and the Emperor's daughter Chaika was widely-believed to have been slain by the Eight Heroes. (And a big gap in Chaika's memory calls into question how, exactly, she did survive.) A government task force is also hot on Chaika's trail, and the Chaika that Toru and Akari know is apparently not the only one out there undertaking some kind of quest.
Meanwhile, above their heads, tensions within the Council of Six Nations, which split the former Gaz Empire amongst its members upon the defeat of Emperor Gaz, threaten to come to a boil.
Coffin Princess is based on the eponymous light novel series by Ichiro Sakaki, a prolific writer and manga-ka who has had several other works adapted into anime series since the early 2000s. The most relevant one here is Scrapped Princess, to which this one bears inescapable visual, structural, and to a lesser extent thematic similarities. Both are fantasy stories set in worlds which have a partial blend of magic and technology and feature bizarrely elaborate vehicles, both center around puissant adult male and female siblings protecting a younger girl who is a fallen princess (and the title character) believed by some to be dead, both feature a diverse group which is partly dedicated to hunting the fallen princess down but which also has other assigned tasks, both eventually involve lead characters making allies of dragon-like beings, and both involve encounters with false (or at the very least alternate) versions of the fallen princess figure. Both also have a similar balance of action, drama, humor, character development, magic, and mystery. In fact, the first half of this series feels like Sakaki wanted to take the same basic structure as Scrapped Princess but spin it off in an entirely different direction to see what else he could do with it.
And that is pretty much how the first season plays out. Despite the many superficial similarities, this is not the same kind of story – both for better and for worse. On the good side, the storytelling here is a little more complex. We get a much greater sense of multiple levels of scheming, of numerous levels of conflicting interests, going on: the Council of Six Nations members are not entirely getting along, the hunters are caught between competing interests, and various of the Eight Heroes have their own priorities. The revelation that multiple Chaikas may be running around who each believe they are the legitimate daughter of Emperor Gaz and each have their own unique goals and skill sets suggest that someone else is playing a very screwed-up game, too. Putting the setting in a world that is still recovering from a massive war is also a major change, as it opens exploration of issues about what to do with individuals who were trained or even specifically made for warfare but no longer have a purpose now that the war is over, a theme which the series hits on quite heavily and from multiple different angles. The way the magic system works, with its dependence on magic fuel, use of gun-like devices instead of a wand or staff, and final command words spoken in Engrish (“The Ripper” or “The Silencer,” for instance) also has some interesting mechanics, although one of its most reprehensible gimmicks is something partly recycled from one story arc in Scrapped Princess.
The characterizations are more of a mixed bag. While Chaika can be adorable, with her stilted speech pattern and cute way of reacting to things, she is not in Pacifica Casull's league as a character, nor is Toru quite the equal of his Scrapped Princess counterpart Shannon. Akari, contrarily, definitely has more personality than her counterpart Raquel ever did, and the recurring supporting cast generally comes off better despite some goofiness that would be more expected of a recent romcom. Any shortcomings on characterizations are much more a matter of comparison to incredibly high standards than actually being bad characters, but they do contribute to the one major point where this series shows no sign of being able to equal or surpass its predecessor: it simply cannot capture the poignancy of its title character's plight anywhere near as well. Of course, that “I must gather Father's remains” is nowhere near as compelling a premise as “I must survive being regarded as the poison that will destroy the world” does not help, either. This one does have a bit more romantic subtext, as Akari does not deny that she is in love with Toru (she is an adopted sister, so they are not blood-related), one of the members of the team pursuing Chaika is clearly in love with the team's leader, and faint attraction between Toru and Chaika is occasionally hinted at, too.
As with Scrapped Princess's anime adaptation, director Soichi Masui heads a BONES production team for this project. Despite some interesting creature designs (especially the carnivorous, magic-using unicorn in episode 1), weapon designs, and interior building designs, this is not one of the studio's better artistic efforts. Chaika's almost-all-white look is certainly distinctive, and Akari actually has a build which make it believable that she could handle swinging around what is essentially a spiked sledgehammer for a weapon, but none of the other recurring character designs stand out much and their depictions rarely look that sharp. The animation is good enough to support the numerous action scenes and CG-enhanced magical displays quite well, however. Graphic violence is not at a consistently high level but it can spike quite strong; the first episode is an excellent test on this, as the series is only rarely again as graphic as it is there. Hardly any scene in this season outside of the closer could be classified as true fan service.
The musical score and vocals are both strong efforts. The halting cadence that Chika Anzai (performing her first lead role) gives Chaika, which is supposed to represent the fact that the common language used in the setting is not Chaika's native language, takes some getting used to and is just as likely to irritate as endear, but she is able to convey the character's attitudes and emotions quite well that way, and she has capable back-up in all of the other important roles. The opener and closer, which are used on all episodes throughout, are both solid rocked-themed numbers, and the soundtrack in between provides a good mix of orchestration and alternative instrumentals which ably supports all of the dramatic content and provide plenty of energy for the dramatic scenes.
In all, Chaika – The Coffin Princess is a work more in line with current anime and light novel trends than its late '90s/early 2000s predecessor. That makes its use of humor and character relationship patterns feel more familiar, but it also saps some of the freshness and distinctiveness from the work. The biggest issue it will have to resolve when it comes back for its second half (in the Fall 2014 season) is how to balance the dragon-like character, who seems grossly overpowered because she does not have the built-in limitations that her counterpart in Scrapped Princess did. However, along with a couple of jaw-dropper-level cliffhangers in the final minutes of episode 12, the first season has plenty enough good characters, plot lines, action, and sense of mystery to keep its viewers coming back.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Several intriguing mysteries, plentiful good action scenes, multilayered plotting, Alien parody in one episode.
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