Shelf Life
Princess Principal

by Paul Jensen,

It's Preview Guide time again! We've had a couple of unexpectedly good premieres already, with the most pleasant surprise for me being Zombie Land Saga. If you have a taste for dark humor, make sure you check that one out. In the meantime, welcome to Shelf Life.

Jump to this week's review:
Princess Principal

On Shelves This Week

Monster Hunter Stories RIDE ON - Season 1 Part 4 BD+DVD
Funimation - 300 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $64.98
Currently cheapest at: $43.49 Amazon

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Extra: We have reviews for parts one, two, and three of this series. It's available streaming on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Nanbaka - Part 2 BD+DVD
Funimation - 325 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $64.98
Currently cheapest at: $43.49 Amazon

Synopsis: The inmates of block 13 are ready to get back to their usual routine, but a murderous guard has other ideas.

Extra: You'll find our episode reviews for this series here, and you can stream it on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Prison School - Complete Collection BD
Funimation - 300 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $29.98
Currently cheapest at: $20.59 Amazon

Synopsis: Five boys enroll in a previously all-girl school, only to discover that their female classmates aren't as friendly as they'd hoped.

Extra: Look at that, two prison shows in a row. We have episode reviews and a review of a previous release for this series. It's available streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.

Recovery of an MMO Junkie - Complete Collection BD+DVD
Funimation - 275 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $64.98
Currently cheapest at: $48.74 Right Stuf

Synopsis: Moriko Morioka quits her job in order to spend all day playing online games, but things get complicated when her male in-game character befriends a player with a female avatar.

Extra: I wrote our episode reviews for this show, and I absolutely loved it. We also have full series review, and it was covered in This Week in Anime and ANNCast. You can stream it on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

World Break: Aria of Curse for a Holy Swordsman - Complete Collection BD
Funimation - 300 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $29.98
Currently cheapest at: $22.49 Right Stuf

Synopsis: At a school for magical fighters who can draw on the memories and powers of previous lives, a student who can remember two separate lives is about to upend the status quo.

Extra: We have a review of a previous release for this series, and it's available streaming on Crunchyroll, Funimation, and Hulu.

Yamada-kun and the Seven Witches - Complete Collection BD
Funimation - 300 min - Sub+Dub - MSRP $29.98
Currently cheapest at: $20.59 Amazon

Synopsis: After teenage delinquent Yamada and honor student Shiraishi accidentally swap bodies, they discover that they're not the only students at school with supernatural abilities.

Extra: Hey, it's another show I did the episode reviews for! We also have a review of a previous release, and you can stream it on Crunchyroll and Funimation.

Zillion - Complete Collection BD+DVD
Funimation - 825 min - Sub - MSRP $64.98
Currently cheapest at: $43.49 Amazon

Synopsis: In an all-out war between humanity and an alien civilization, our best hope for survival rests with three young soldiers and their unique weapons.

Extra: Just when I thought we had reviews for everything this week, this blast from 1987 shows up. Our user ratings seem reasonably positive, with an average of 7.1 out of 10. The first four episodes are available on Funimation.

Shelf Life Reviews

For this week's review, I'm taking a look at the gravity-defying steampunk action of Princess Principal.

Princess Principal has a premise that sets it up as a spy series, but it's better described as a steampunk action show than as an espionage thriller. The main characters are indeed spies, but their missions tend to involve a lot of car chases and personal showdowns, rather than than the cerebral stuff you'd get out of a more specialized title. That's not necessarily a downside, though, and Princess Principal does its own thing quite well. It's entertaining, exciting, and emotionally compelling, which is exactly what I look for in a genre series.

The story is set in an alternate version of late 19th-century London, capital of the nation of Albion (totally not England). The country's mastery of anti-gravity technology has allowed it to produce a fleet of airships and become a global power, but a revolution has split the nation into two halves, with London now divided by a massive wall. A group of spies for the Commonwealth, including our enigmatic heroine Ange, have been tasked with infiltrating an elite school on the Kingdom side of the wall as part of a mission to “replace” one of the Kingdom's princesses. However, their assignment takes an unexpected turn when the princess offers to work with them in exchange for helping her take the throne for herself.

Despite the complex setup of lookalikes and double agents, Princess Principal plays pretty fast and loose with the rules of spycraft. Characters openly talk to one another about being spies when they're out in public, and they're not particularly concerned about letting their enemies see their faces. To be fair, Ange and her partner Dorothy are the only “professional” spies in the group, so it makes some sense that the other girls would make the occasional amateur mistake, but you definitely shouldn't go into this expecting a John le Carré novel. This series also suffers from a lack of a recurring antagonist, with even the final group of baddies feeling somewhat disposable. Without a genuine rival, Ange and company occasionally seem like they have it a little too easy. The ending is also surprisingly inconclusive, especially considering that this is an original work, rather than an adaptation.

Thankfully, those issues are buried under a landslide of good popcorn entertainment. Princess Principal offers plenty of chases, fight scenes, and death-defying stunts, all of which are presented with a strong eye for action. Ange's portable anti-gravity ball is the show's most distinctive gadget, and it's used to good effect without becoming too much of a crutch. The other members of the team all have their own specialties, ranging from the fairly ordinary like Dorothy's driving skills to the genuinely unique, like Beatrice's mechanical voice box. Princess Principal consistently finds a sweet spot in its action scenes where it's able to have plenty of fun without coming across as overly silly. In terms of pure entertainment, I'd rank it up amongst the best in the genre.

The show also boasts a strong central cast, which helps to make up for the occasional clunky plot point. All five of the main girls are pretty likable, with a good balance of personalities across the group. Ange in particular is interesting, as it's initially tough to figure out how much of what she says about herself is true. It's possible to guess her backstory before it's fully revealed, but it still works as a compelling part of the larger narrative. The series takes time to develop all of the core characters and fill in their personal histories, with consistently successful results. For an action show, Princess Principal manages to sneak in a surprising number of emotionally poignant moments.

Whether it's focusing on car chases or character development, this show looks good across the board. Its fictional version of London features a mix of spectacular cityscapes and convincingly dingy alleyways, which help to play up the notions of inequality that factor into the story. The animation is strong enough to keep up with the demands of the visual direction, with some close-quarters fights featuring especially fluid movement. The character designs are distinctive, even if it does sometimes feel like the heroines are overdressed for all the running and fighting they have to do. The English dub in this release gives everyone regionally appropriate accents, some of which are more convincing than others. Given the option, I'd lean towards the original Japanese audio track. The standard version I reviewed offers some on-disc extras including a handful of short “picture drama” videos, and there's also a limited edition scheduled for next month if you're looking for physical extras.

While it does stretch the limits of storytelling logic at times, Princess Principal is a fun, well-produced series that packs more of an emotional punch than one might expect. With a charismatic cast and a distinctive setting, it has enough going for it that I'd recommend it to a pretty wide audience. Even if the old “girls with guns” formula isn't normally your cup of tea, give this one a shot.

That wraps things up for this week. Thanks for reading, and remember to send your Shelf Obsessed entries to [email protected]!

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