The Summer 2017 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Princess Principal ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
Sorry, Mr. Okouchi, but this one's just not my aesthetic.
While the writer doesn't always matter on anime projects, especially when so many of them are adaptations of other work, it definitely matters for Princess Principal, whose screenwriter is one of the two most notorious names in the business for some of the absolute dumbest nonsense in original anime work. (And he used to work with the other name!) For those unaware, the duo of Hiroyuki Yoshino and Ichiro Okouchi, after jointly creating one of the biggest modern anime franchises in Code Geass, then moving on to confound audiences with the fantastically stupid Guilty Crown, have since split apart to wreak separate havoc on the world of anime screenwriting in the years that followed. Yoshino is mostly known for writing elaborate-worldbuilding-masking-basic-horny-stupidity in works like Seikon no Qwaser and Izetta the Last Witch, while Okouchi prefers elaborate-worldbuilding-masking-narratively-ambitious-stupidity in works like Valvrave the Liberator and Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress. Princess Principal is an Okouchi joint, which tells you most of what you need to know to either avoid it like the plague or be inescapably drawn to it like a fly to a bug-zapper. I thought I would be in the latter camp, but after watching this episode, I might end up being in the former.
While this episode is tightly executed and sharply animated courtesy of its production team, the woefully underexplained "cute gothic lolitas who are also secret steampunk agents" thing doesn't really turn my crank, at least not when the premise is taking itself this deadly serious the whole time. Valvrave and Kabaneri weren't exactly in on the joke when it came to their bombastic content, but they were easy to laugh along with thanks to the light touch their directors took with the material. Princess Principal's director Masaki Tachibana apparently doesn't have the same flair for turning Okouchi's insanity into something with a little more joie de vivre, because Princess Principal adopts a tone somewhere between 91 Days and Gunslinger Girl, despite having perhaps the most face-palmingly chuunibyou premise Okouchi has ever helmed. It's a perfectly watchable twenty minutes of high-octane action with more cringey attempts at mystery writing spliced in, but it's bound to be more enjoyable if you can take it seriously, and I just can't. This one's too drab to give a "so bad it's good" endorsement, but if you're a fan of Victorian-era action and can handle the dorky dialogue, it could still be worth a shot.
I had absolutely zero expectations for Princess Principal going into this premiere, and I ended up absolutely blown away by it. I'm a sucker for turn-of-the-century period pieces, espionage stories, and the steampunk aesthetic, and Princess Principal combines all of those things with a sense of style, confidence, and intrigue that this season has been sorely lacking. Made in Abyss will likely remain the most technically and artistically impressive premiere of this whole lot, but Princess Principal has spunk and gusto in spades, and I loved every second of it.
With a story so steeped in wartime drama and flashes of steampunk flair, a keen sense of style is a must, and that's what initially stuck me in the opening moments of this premiere. While the animation throughout the episode occasionally displays hiccups of budgetary limitations and directorial clumsiness, for the most part it manages a cohesive sense of visual and kinetic purpose that gives the production the feel of a cinematic production, even if its technical specs aren't always up to snuff. Ange and her cohorts fall and fly through an alternate history London that is lite with deliberately striking shadows and pools of murky green and yellow lights. The costume designs are striking, and manage to toe the line of attractiveness without quite crossing over into the territory of being fetishistic, which is good considering our heroines are all schoolgirls, in addition to being apparent world class spies.
Most of the girls are only just introduced here, though the action beats that bookend the episode work well enough to show how everyone functions as a team. Dorothy is a skilled, if somewhat chaotic getaway driver, Chise is really good at stabbing people, and the Princess is their stalwart leader (though I object to the use of the pedagogical “Principal” in the title; she runs a group of cute spy girls, not a school). Beatrice's role as “the cute one” was the most predictable of the bunch, though I will say the gag involving her vocal abilities was one of the more entertaining moments of the episode.
Above everyone else, Ange gets the lion's share of both the character development and the flashy action scenes. While her use of the antigravity device does make for interesting visual choreography, I was more impressed with how compelling of a lead she turned out to be. Her insistence on playing up the dishonesty of her profession initially came across as just a cute quirk, but it became much more devastating by the episode's end. Her repetition of “No” to the face of the man she was killing in cold blood was unexpectedly moving, and that moment cemented how much this show impressed me. There were moments throughout the episode that relied too much on expository info dumping and redundant conversations regarding what it means to be a spy, but this scene at the end made up for all of that, in my eyes. This isn't the most perfect premiere of the summer, but it might just be my favorite, and I cannot wait to see where the show goes from here.
I almost wish I'd enjoyed Princess Principal's first episode more. The show has a variety of clear strengths, with its visual merits standing at the top of them. Princess Principal is dynamically directed and beautifully composed, offering plenty of striking compositions and lots of neat visual ideas. The animation is also quite strong, and the show's sense of visual pacing really showed its strength during this episode's finale. The finale sequence, where two characters were reduced to shadows against streetlights as they discussed the fragility of truth, was a terrifically executed affair.
Unfortunately, all of that aesthetic goodness was lavished on a story I just couldn't take seriously. Pretty much every work of fiction demands the audience suspend their disbelief to some degree, buying into one or another story's unlikely assumptions. But suspension of disbelief can't be assumed - it has to be earned, and the more absurdity you layer on a story, the harder that sell becomes. Princess Principal starts with a self-serious spy narrative, populates that narrative with a bunch of tiny girls who all attend the same high school, and then decks those characters in ridiculously overdesigned steampunk nonsense. It assumes several bridges of genre/aesthetic investment I just couldn't bring myself to cross, and thus pretty much everything this episode tried fell flat for me.
Princess Principal wants to be both a grim, self-serious spy narrative and a goofy steampunk-styled cute girl venue at the same time, and its two priorities are just utterly incompatible. There are individually good moments here on both sides of the tracks, though the show's own priorities clearly lean towards the spy thriller end. The cast's consistent discussions of the nature of lies actually leads to some satisfying dramatic places, and this episode's individual plot was paced quite well. But trying to fit both a tender-hearted cast of twelve-year-old girls and a period spy drama into the same series requires an extremely specific management of tone, and Princess Principal continually fell into unintentionally hilarious territory.
That's not to say I'm against shows being silly - but Princess Principal's great failing is that it is both extremely silly and also unwilling to own that silliness, instead asking us to take the grim ruminations of a girl in a ridiculous top hat just as seriously as she does. If you can handle the disconnect in Princess Principal's base variables and aren't inherently suspicious of steampunk frippery, I'd knock this one's grade up a number. But personally, I just can't offer Princess Principal the tremendous amount of credulity it demands.
Some parts of this episode are really quite silly. Between the magic glowing green rocks and the “it's the Berlin Wall but in London” premise, the opening narration made me groan more than once. I also rolled my eyes when the show introduced the Princess with dialogue that essentially amounted to, “Tee hee, I'm a spy too.” Even so, I ended up enjoying Princess Principal more than I thought I would. It gets enough things right to be entertaining as a slightly cheesy action show.
Once this episode finishes front-loading its exposition, we're treated to a solid chase scene. It's fun in a manic sort of way, with wisecracking girls in elaborate costumes flying through the air and old-timey cars crashing in an exaggerated manner. The industrial, steampunk-ish aesthetic that defines most of the episode works reasonably well, partly because it doesn't go too far overboard. Instead of covering the entire environment with gears and gauges, the environments tend to include one or two eye-catching elements among otherwise ordinary scenery. If nothing else, it looks a heck of a lot better than last season's Clockwork Planet.
The self-contained story arc is simple enough to follow, and it functions as an introduction to Ange and her fellow spy girls. The writing isn't especially deep (gosh, I never knew that being a spy involved lying), but it at least sets the right “trust nobody” mood. Ange gets the lion's share of character development here, and she comes across as being the right kind of enigmatic. She seems eccentric without being obnoxious and pragmatic without being heartless, so I can see her filling the role of mysterious heroine quite nicely. With the exception of the seemingly out of place Princess, the rest of the spies play their limited roles well enough. In particular, the friendly rivalry between Dorothy and Chise has some interesting chemistry to it.
Your enjoyment of Princess Principal will probably depend on your willingness to buy into its premise and your tolerance for the odd contrast between cutesy tea parties and life-or-death action. If neither of those things is a deal-breaker, then it looks like this could be a fun little “girls with guns” series. It feels like it's been a while since we've had a good one of those, so here's hoping that Princess Principal can manage the balancing act between drama and entertainment.
Though I wasn't heavily enthusiastic about any new offering this season, the concept behind this original production intrigued me the most. Its first episode actually exceeded my expectations, in the process becoming second only to Made in Abyss as the season's strongest premiere to date.
One huge factor in the series' favor is a very jazzy musical score that is another terrific effort by Yuki Kajiura. Complementing it is a neatly-designed closer sung in Engrish and the intense, jazzy opener “The Other Side of the Wall,” which is also sung in cleaner-sounding English and easily the season's best opener to date. In fact, I've already decided that I must hunt down the OST for this series when it eventually comes out.
Anime has proven on many occasions that it take more than just a good soundtrack to make a worthy series, but this title has all of its other bases covered, too. The art design is spectacularly imaginative and effective in creating an early 20th century setting with a distinct steampunk flavor even though the power source isn't actually steam, whether it's the bright, sunny fields of the school or the grimy, darkly-lit settings of much of the rest of the scenes. Vehicle and clothing designs are also highlights, and even don't mind the somewhat cutesy way the girls dress on mission, though my one quibble with this episode is that the girls' school uniforms don't seem appropriate at all for the era in which the story is set. The episode has no shortage of quality action scenes, either, whether it's the intense opening chase sequences or the heavier content towards the end. This series isn't on the masterpiece level of Made in Abyss's first episode in those technical senses, but it's a strong second to it.
I've also quickly taken a liking to the characters and concept. None of the personalities shown so far are strikingly original, but they mesh together well and are quickly likable. Ange may have the drabbest appearance of the lot, but the way her constant, sometimes outlandish lies may obfuscate the truth even from herself is intriguing, as is the way she sometimes uses them for humor value. There's also a sense that the princess (who is just referred to as Princess in the credits) may be a participant in the spy games in name more than action due to her circumstances; perhaps she is the team's sponsor? Regardless, the stealth and counter-stealth plays are well-timed and satisfyingly comprehensive for this self-contained story.
What's not at all clear from the first episode is whether this series will mostly consist of standalone missions or whether there will be an overall plot to it. Either way, I'm on board for this one.
Welcome to Albion, which is totally not steampunk late-Victorian England despite those repeated images of Queen Victoria. Cue my usual and ridiculous annoyance at costume inaccuracies. I think we all know by now that that's my button, so I'll just get this out of the way right now: despite a few perfectly fine gowns and the fact that the men are all dressed period-appropriate, the girls in this show look like modern anime girls set down in their 19th century setting in a way that feels like a blatant attempt at fanservice and/or an attempt to irritate obnoxious people like me. What, you can draw a beautiful early 20th century car, but you can't be bothered to make a girl's dress go down to mid-calf and research a neckline? Argh.
Rant aside, Princess Principal's first episode looks like a serviceable action show. It's got a nation divided, a British(ish) Empire that's augmented by an early air force and deceptively dangerous mineral, and a core cast of spy girls who have potential to develop into a decent team if not individual characters. Despite the episode's focus on Ange, the pathological liar, the unnamed Princess is actually the most interesting of the girls thus far. Not giving her a name seems like a deliberate attempt to distance her from any of Victoria's actual daughters, although Helena or Louise seem most likely judging from the family portrait in the beginning. The action scenes are exciting, particularly the opening car chase; all of the driving scenes actually have a nice swooping feeling to them. That Eric isn't who or what he presents himself as is a little too obvious from the start, and I'm still trying to decide if he had that carrier pigeon in his bag somewhere, but watching him try to figure out Ange is interesting.
Right now Ange feels like the biggest obstacle to at least my enjoyment of the show. Her inappropriate look aside, she's much too cookie-cutter in terms of “stoic violent girl with mysterious past” characters, right now reminding me of a less interesting Kirika from Noir. Her compulsion to lie is interesting enough, but it can only carry her so far, and by the end of this episode, her “shocking” action is undermined by both the fact that we know she's lying and the vague confusion of the group of adults who appear to be directing operations. The steampunk imagery, on the other hand, is beautiful, and the papercraft ending theme a lot of fun, so if Ange becomes less of a focus, there's some potential here. If you're up for an action show, this is looking like the best one thus far.
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