Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
DVD - Complete Collection
Baseball is a man's sport. Well, high school baseball in Japan is a man's sport, according to the Kisaragi High School board of trustees, who are up in arms over their president's decision to form an official baseball team at the girls-only school. "Why not softball?" the disgruntled old men of the board argue. "Light sports are nice for a diversion, but girls shouldn't pour time better spent in academics into intense physical pursuits. They could never hope to compete against boys in baseball." The madame president refuses to budge, having seen great promise in recent middle school graduate Ryo Hayakawa, a hyperactive girl with a killer pitching arm and incredible talent inherited from her late father, a former all-star pitcher with a murky past. With Ryo as captain, she hopes to form an all-womens' baseball team capable of reaching the national championship at Koshien.
This doesn't sit well with the president's jealous daughter, tennis star Izumi Himuro, who has a savage forehand swing but languishes in the shadow of her mother's obsession with Ryo and the new team. To make matters worse, her baseball-playing ace fiancée, Hiroki Takasugi, has become obsessed with Ryo as well, and the idea of challenging an all-girls team at nationals. Ryo, Izumi, and an eclectic pack of other players must train to make Kisaragi High's team the best it can be and prove themselves to the people they love, the rivals they hate, and a world out to tell them that girls can't play baseball.
Few anime seem like a harder sell than Princess Nine, a full-frame show from the hand-painted, pre-digital 90s about a team sport with an all-female cast but no fanservice. That said, Rightstuf's announcement to rescue and re-release Princess Nine was met with modest ceremony, and the show itself is still passed around in whispers as a classic among sports' anime, remembered in some small way by pods of fans even as the years pass it by. Revisiting it now, it's easy to see why it's still remembered, and easy to say that fans should definitely give it a chance now.
Princess Nine is about womens' baseball in a disproportionate way, because it is 80% about women and 20% about baseball. It takes a full 13 episodes for the team to be completely filled out and permitted to compete at all. After that, their first game is an unofficial skirmish designed to convince the school board to allow them to even try for nationals, and the match is rigged against their favor. Needless to say, the show's focus is biased overwhelmingly to exploring the nine girls on the team and the other women (and a few dudes) who support them. There are baseball games galore in the second half, and the many practices leading up to them lace sports action throughout the show, but the characters' lives, emotions, and struggle for validation are the bread and butter of this story, and this ultimately makes it stronger and more widely accessible.
For Ryo, baseball is not only fun, but a passion that connects her to both her late father and the boy she likes from afar, over time helping her discover who she really wants to be for herself. Izumi's journey is more tumultuous, as she hopes to use baseball to win her mother's affection and must ultimately connect with other people on an emotional level to accept herself. The other girls face varying degrees of struggle from the tragic to the comical, but ultimately baseball is a backdrop for all of them to come together as friends sharing the same impossible dream. If you don't know how the sport is played, Princess Nine doesn't bother explaining it to you, so going in knowing some baseball basics is advised. Regardless, the show is easy to understand because baseball itself is hardly the point. The journey this underdog team goes through is heartwarming, dramatic, and even distinctively feminist.
Princess Nine's cast is relatable and diverse in its flaws as well as its strengths. The girls aren't iron dynamos who show up the boys' teams with perfect athleticism and full-lipped, full-hipped emotionless sass. They're complex, vulnerable people with full hearts and complicated motivations that aren't always good or bad, but usually somewhere in between. The problems they face are serious, leaving them no time to skip around on screen giggling or flaunting various tokens of appeal for fanservice like in many more recent all-girl team anime. When they're not tied up in a heated baseball game, Ryo and her friends face crises of identity, condemnation from the public, and even mortal danger during a flash flood. The stakes are always high in Princess Nine, and the game of clashing and evolving personalities is seeded much higher than the baseball games themselves, which are treats with high rewards at stake for the emotional journeys taken to get there.
It is encouraging to note that the show's modest budget is well-balanced in this regard. The select moments of strong animation are reserved for the baseball games themselves and the places the money starts to disintegrate are all talking head scenes (that do go off-model pretty often). It's an unusual anime in that the shabbiest looking episodes are in the first half while the second half jumps up majorly in consistency, presumably because that's where all the big games happen. Overall, it holds itself together well, and delivers solid bang for small bucks.
This commitment to heavy stakes and diverse, dynamic characters is what sets Princess Nine a cut above the peers of its age, because in all other regards, Princess Nine is firmly a product of its time. The art design isn't as 90s as it could have been, with a blessedly dampened color palette and softer edges on all the big flat two-tone hair, but it's still fairly dated. More notably, audience patience ran higher (and most studio budgets ran lower) in anime 15 years ago, so Princess Nine's strong narrative core is an even greater blessing in light of the old still-pan-while-insert song-plays snail pacing of the show surrounding it. Most of the show's leisurely lingering can be blamed on its desire to wallow in sentiment, and since it earns most of that sentiment through good writing, it's a comforting wallow, but some viewers may find it and most shows of its stripe and era to be a slog. New fans should expect rewarding turns at a less-than-rewarding tempo.
While the show is consistently entertaining, it's not consistently exceptional as a character piece. The greatest flaw in the slaw is a tortured love triangle plot between the two lead girls and a perfect slab of plywood named Hiroki Takasugi, and the saddest thing is that it didn't have to be. It's not immediately a damper on a progressive story for girls to have a focus on romance. Love is a powerful, drama-fueling part of adolescence, and both Ryo and Izumi are strong and likable enough presences that planting a boy-prize in their already heated conflict doesn't dampen them as characters. However, Takasugi is such a perfect, boring Ken doll that he comes pretty close to derailing them anyway. Ryo and Izumi both want Takasugi so badly simply because he's a perfect white-horse prince, and the onus is never on him to commit to either girl. He simply stands to the side until he is yanked back into the story to give one of them a shoulder to cry on or coach them in baseball, because of course he's perfect in sports as well as personality. He actively sucks the novelty out of every scene he's in and reduces Ryo and Izumi to lovesick puppies in a scenario where chemistry and a romance to root for is nigh impossible because the writers have made Takasugi a flawless prize. This unfortunately also sours the finale to the show, because his role in it is so instrumental. It's not a bad ending. Given the journey the cast of Princess Nine has taken up to that point, it is a valid way to say goodbye and hint at a new beginning, but it is disheartening in its execution largely because in a story about so many wonderful girls, the final episode's focus seems all about This Dude that we never liked to begin with.
Released under Nozomi's bargain label Lucky Penny, Princess Nine's release comes with all the nifty little extras from the ADV release of the show including nearly the full soundtrack of the series in video form (admittedly, most of it is different arrangements of the show's opening theme, which viewers should get used to hearing ad nauseum,) a history of baseball in Japan, dozens of cast and crew profiles, and other goodies. ADV's english dub is also included, and while it is roughshod and dated in some ways, it holds up surprisingly well, as the actors clearly understand and care about the characters they are playing. Hilary Haag, Monica Rial, and a heap of other ADV old guard shine with enthusiasm, chemistry, and a freedom to express themselves through sincere emotion without the constraints of maintaining the more modernly enforced "anime girl voice." It's a boisterous dub filled with dorky accents and awful Japanese pronunciation, but at least the girls clearly understand their characters, the context of the scenes they're in, and get to speak naturally adapted dialogue. It's a fun listen for nostalgia and barring some rust, holds up standalone as well.
Unfortunately the video presentation itself is not up to the standard expected from any Nozomi release, even under the bargain bin label. It may be that the materials for Princess Nine just aren't in great condition, but the video on disc is dirtier and noisier than many of their past retro releases, obviously transferred from tape with an overscan line visible in some cases. On the plus side, all of the original text and logos have been restored in place of the crude english overlays on the ADV release, but quality-wise, the transfer on Princess Nine is less than pristine. It's unfortunate, but not unexpected.
Above all else, Princess Nine strives and succeeds to make the audience feel for its heroines. They struggle from the beginning to the end, and only ever upwards, in what is easily one of the most feminist anime of the 90s but also just plain fun to watch. This overwhelmingly sweet show comes with a bitter aftertaste at the bottom of the 9th, but for its all its little missteps and dissuasive age, Princess Nine deserves to be seen and remembered. Baseball is the frame this show paints inside, but anyone who has been told "you can't have this dream," and wanted to shout back "I can!", especially because of their gender, can find something beautiful here.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B+
Animation : B-
Art : B-
Music : B-
+ Well-written character piece with feminist themes, both fun and heart-wrenching with occasional pockets of nice animation, still worth watching over 15 years later
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