Princess Principal
Episodes 1-2

by Theron Martin,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Princess Principal ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Princess Principal ?

Princess Principal is an original anime production from the director of Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 and Barakamon and the writer/creator for the Code Geass franchise. Out of that seemingly eclectic combination comes an alternate-history spy series that freely mixes standard anime conventions with early 20th-century aesthetics to create one of the season's most distinctive titles. Based on the first two episodes, it's also been successful at convincingly crafting a series about cute girls working as spies.

The beginning of the first episode lays out the series' setting. It's early in the 20th century, and Albion's (read: Britain's) monopoly on the gravity-defying mineral Cavorite has allowed it to exclusively build an Air Fleet and create the greatest empire since the days of Rome. However, a civil war split the Empire into the Kingdom of Albion and the Commonwealth of Albion, with a wall and an uneasy peace separating the two. Spy games have become prominent in that environment, with one such group being a cadre of young women affiliated with the West secretly operating out of an elite boarding school in London. The rest of the episode turns out to be an exercise in media res, which showcases a daring mission to help a defector that eventually involves the full team. The second episode then shifts back in time to the point where the team is just forming, when Ange first arrives at the school and meets with Dorothy, who she knows from years earlier and becomes her partner in espionage. Their first mission together is twofold: set up a plant within the Royal Family and secure some stolen documents from a government official seeking to pass them off to the Commonwealth. In the process of doing so at a formal party, they wind up recruiting the Princess (she's not explicitly called by any other name), who insists on getting involved in exchange for helping to conceal their identities. Hence by the end of episode two, the Princess and her servant Beatrice are in the mix, leaving only the ninja girl to be added later.

The setting is pretty cool, primarily based on early 20th-century Europe but borrowing wardrobe designs from other time periods (the school uniforms have a more modern Japanese sensibility to them) and some technology that's clearly beyond the time. The resulting aesthetic contrasts sharply between grimy, shadowy city streets, bright and sunny gardens, and opulent but not necessarily ostentatious parties, presumably to give a sense of the varied worlds that the spies operate in. Although character designs are anime-standard, the array of clothing options is impressive, especially during the party scene in episode two where Ange and Dorothy have to dress up. The involvement of Cavorite devices allows for some nifty gravity-defying scenes in both episodes, with more of an action focus in episode one whereas episode two is more firmly focused on developing the intrigue side of the story.

Although the series has a great jazz-infused score by Yuki Kajiura to back up the visuals (and a kick-ass opener sung in English), so far the characters are at least as much of a draw as any other element. Ange defaults to a dry, emotionless delivery but is also capable of pretending to be something else, so indoctrinated into the habit of lying that she might not even fully know herself how much of what she spouts off is actually a lie; in one telling scene, she even lies about not killing someone while in the process of shooting that person multiple times. Dorothy, meanwhile, is revealed in the second episode to actually be 20 years old and just posing as a high school student, while Princess gives the initial impression of being savvier than she lets on.

There also may be a lingering mystery about Ange's background, as the end of episode two suggests that her actual name is Charlotte and that she knew Princess but was separated from her during the civil war a decade earlier. The note she secretly passed to Princess to alert her to the spying situation is also curiously addressed to Ange, perhaps implying that Princess is the actual Ange? Princess's reaction on first hearing Ange introduce herself also suggest that shenanigans with names are going on, perhaps at a level even beyond what the spymasters are aware. Based on this and certain photographs shown in these two episodes, I wouldn't be surprised if the character currently going by the name Ange is actually Princess's sister. It would certainly explain why she was so convincing at passing herself off as the princess in episode two and why she was called upon for Project: Changeling.

That's going to be fun to speculate on as the series goes forward. So far the slight drag caused by nods to common anime conventions isn't anywhere near enough to tame the potential entertainment value here.

Rating: A-

Princess Principal is currently streaming on Amazon's Anime Strike.

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