This Week in Anime
What Makes Princess Principal So Engrossing?

by Jacob Chapman and Steve Jones,

As far as anime premises go, Princess Principal should be a niche within a niche, combining cute girl clubs with steampunk espionage in a plot told out-of-order. This week in anime, we dig into what makes the series so unexpectedly entertaining.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

You can read ANN's weekly coverage of Princess Principal here!

Jacob
Hey Steve! Can't believe it took this long for us newbies to take over this week in anime together! >:D

Steve
Hi Jake! Nice to finally be able to talk with you about the most important thing in the world. Anime.

Yes, what better way to conquer our column than with the most anime thing possible: this moe steampunk bullshit

It's been eight weeks and I still do not understand what the title "Princess Principal" is even supposed to mean.

the principal cast follows a princess around? that's all I got ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

To be honest tho, this has ended up one of the shows I most look forward to each week! And I almost never gave it a chance!

Same! I came in with the assumption that it would be Colossally Stupid because it's written by Ichiro Okouchi of Valvrave the Liberator and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress fame. Both shows I greatly enjoyed for entirely the wrong reasons.

And let's not forget Code Geass and Guilty Crown! He's everyone's favorite screenwriter.

I mean I would absolutely prefer to forget Guilty Crown, but I know I can't.

I haven't even seen Guilty Crown yet but I can't forget it either.

At the same time, I think it's important to separate his work with Hiroyuki Yoshino from his work by himself. Things get exponentially sillier when Yoshino's involved, as he was on Geass and Guilty Crown. Okouchi tends to verge darker and include greater attempts at commentary without Yoshino's influence, but I didn't expect that to actually result in a GOOD show for once.

So I guess we should talk about what makes Princess Principal easier to take seriously than his other work. Cuz it ain't the premise.

It's definitely not the premise, but it's kinda the way the show treats the premise? Like yes, it takes place in steampunk victorian england with magic floating gems, but we've been gradually introduced to different facets of it with each episode. The wordbuilding feels pretty natural, all things considered.

I actually wasn't talking so much about the Steampunk part as the All Girls' Academy of Spies (which includes the literal princess of the country) part! Like how is she hiding this level of subterfuge from her own government? The spies' original plan was to REPLACE HER WITH A DOPPELGANGER, and she's like "cool I wanna join!" Tho we found out last week that there's an extra special reason for this that runs a little deeper.

I dunno, if I were a princess and I got the opportunity to join a league of super cute spies I'd probably jump on that too.

Absolutely! But why would anyone on either side let you?

NO IDEA

Princess Principal definitely works more on "this is cool" first and "this makes sense" second, but that's okay for the tone it's striving to achieve. It's ironically much less serious in concept than what Okouchi was going for in Valvrave or Kabaneri which makes it, somehow, less silly. The attempted tone and the achieved tone match up better.

Yeah, it wears its silliness on its sleeve and that's totally what I like about the show. It's an absolutely preposterous story if you think about it for one second, but the characters are too likable and the plot too brisk to really dwell on anything for too long. It's just a fun ride to go along with.

Yeah, silly plot aside, Okouchi takes these girls and their motivations seriously, and every new spy adventure is always about their own personal journeys. The actual details of the War or the Empire or the Wall basically never matter in the end.

not that the otaku-friendly hallmarks of his style aren't as front and center as ever

You certainly are, Dorothy.

Hahaha I LOVED the reveal in the second episode that she's in her twenties. She's an undercover high school student AND an undercover spy. Felt like Okouchi winking at the audience a bit: "yeah, i know. we all know."

The show's premise is that everyone is lying about everything most of the time, which makes each episode an exercise in discovering who the girls REALLY are underneath who they claim to be.

Mind you, this doesn't mean their characters are particularly complex or nuanced in nature:

You see. The Princess is on a bridge. Which separates two worlds. And one step too far means certain disaster. It's very subtle, I'll give you a moment to process it.

HMMMMMM... but yeah, like I wasn't all that excited about the first episode because Ange in particular came across as your very typical stoic anime girl. But the second episode really sold me on the series!

Yeah, the important thing is that each reveal is compelling, not that it's mind-blowing. Since this franchise is relevant atm, it's kinda similar to the Death Note approach of executing on betrayal of expectations at the right time, rather than betraying those expectations in a thought-provoking way. These are all backstories and spy adventures we've seen many times before, but timing is everything, and Princess Principal has a real entertainer's spirit driving it forward.

I also love the varying scope and scale of its individual stories. They'll be infiltrating a top secret scientific facility in one episode and doing laundry the next. And both are fun to watch!

I feel like I should stress that both moe and victorian-ass steampunk are equally Not My Aesthetic, and this show still has me completely wrapped up in what's happening every minute. Director Masaki Tachibana certainly knows how to keep things interesting! It seems like just the right marriage of director and writer, which is always heartening to see.

It's a very solid production all around. Not the best looking show, but it has its moments.

Yeah I wasn't even talking animation, (altho it has its moments, Chise's episode was baller!) but that sense of timing and storyboarding is impeccable. Even the silliest reveals feel resonant in the moment. For example, Dorothy's episode really bothers me on paper. She became a spy after running away from her abusive father, and the whole episode is basically geared around her accepting that he wasn't that bad before killing him off in the most Expected Way Possible.

YER A GONER, DANNY

RIP

But you know what? It's the best episode of the show.

I was just gonna bring that up as one of my favorites!

It's easy to interrogate its message and predictable plot beats on paper, but people constantly underestimate how important execution is to compelling entertainment. The emotions land, the reveals land, you care. Caring is what matters, even if you don't agree with the writing choices or perspective.

That moment in the car where Dorothy opens up and reaches out to Beatrice was so great for both of their characters. They both came from abusive households and both of them were able to find comfort in each other.

Tho Beatrice's circumstances were a little more Anime:

WE'VE ALL BEEN THERE, RIGHT GUYS? STILL GONNA CALL HIM ON FATHER'S DAY~

ah now there's the Okouchi I know and love

Right? It's not like he's suddenly become a radically different writer. But I think he found his bliss and the right team to let it flourish for what it is. Princess Principal (for the most part) isn't overreaching for depth or darkness. Hell, neither was the first half of Kabaneri. That second half is the only thing that sunk it. So maybe he really is growing as a writer.

This show does feel like a maturation of his writing? Like that scene where Dorothy's father starts fiddling with Beatrice's voice box was extremely uncomfortable to watch as a demonstration of physical abuse, but not in any way that felt gross or exploitative. Compare that to Valvrave.

Right. I think a LOT of that lies in the direction. None of the most uncomfortable material gets wrung out for shock value, it just sort of "is." Even fantasy-era Victorian England is a pretty ugly place. And while this gets overstated in dialogue a lot (because Okouchi), the execution just lets it sit at a distance so the audience can make what they want of it. I think it wants us to accept that these girls have to make their own happiness even in a gruesome profession, and being spies gives them a real sense of joy and purpose as they work to change the country from the inside, without the show getting too high-minded for its capacity to say exactly how that's supposed to work.

Cute spies doing cute espionage

So on that note: WHO IS BEST SPY?

UGH. It's tough to choose but Dorothy is the smug beer-swilling one so she's automatically after my own heart.

Ha ha, she's actually the one I like least. Maybe because she's the closest to being a "sexy spy with daddy issues" trope. But honestly there's not a bad character in the bunch, because they all get a lot of levity and have this refreshingly blase acceptance of their awful pasts.

On the note of levity, I gotta go with Chise. She gets the best jokes and the best action, even if she has the shallowest character. Gotta have fun in this show! But I'm excited to see where Ange and Princess's story is going too.

Haha, and Chise is probably my least favorite, but again, they're all good spies.

VARIETY'S THE SPICE~

we can all agree that Beato makes the best faces tho


And the best voices! Being a victim of abominable scientific experimentation has its perks!

But I can't wait for the finale when Princess and Ange finally get married in Casablanca.

Not if Beatrice has anything to say about it!

look, they already played piano together. if Evangelion's taught me anything they're practically engaged by now.

There's even a heart in the background!

HOLY SHIT, THERE IS! just now noticed... OTL

AND YOU SAID THIS SHOW WASN'T DEEP

spy heart, spyin' on your identical lesbians

Because this is Okouchi, I'm still waiting for a reveal that they're actually sisters.

I wouldn't be even a little surprised. But yuri jokes aside, Ange and Princess's story is the quintessential example of a dumb obvious idea (Prince and the Pauper, taken straight-up beat-for-beat) being elevated through just the right build-up and payoff. I think everyone guessed that was going to be the twist in episode two or so, but the show makes us care about it by the reveal in episode eight by exploring just WHAT this switcheroo means to the two girls and how it's shaped the facades they wear now for their own very different goals. So it doesn't really matter if you "figured it out" beforehand, because the reveal itself is not the point. It's how that Reveal makes you Feel, dontcha know.

Mm hmm. The most recent episode is probably my favorite yet. Again, not because it did anything different or revealed anything I hadn't already figured out. But because I really got a sense of how much these girls felt for each other, and how much their reunion was such a miracle for both of them. I'm rooting for them no matter what ridiculous bullshit the Duke of Normandy throws their way next.

I am too! I think just the fact that I am rooting for characters in a moe steampunk Okouchi adventure is my favorite thing about the show. It took something that was an absolute Hard Sell for me, by a writer that I really didn't respect, and it surprised me. Sometimes people make the unfair assumption that critics WANT to dislike things, but that's not true of any honest critic I've known. We always want to be surprised, we want to see things we have our doubts about because of our history or experience with a genre or creator turn out to actually be good. Princess Principal is one of those things, and while it's not the second coming or anything, not my favorite kind of anime, or even one I may remember next year, it's wildly compelling entertainment with heaps of giveadamn behind it that I see really reaching an audience, at least over here.

That's the beautiful thing about anime: always full of surprises (good and bad). Princess Principal is chock full of charm, and it won me over by the second episode, so give it a chance! It's fluff, but it's the best piece of fluff to come out of this summer season.



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