Oh, the thin red line I tow…
I have long tried not to commit myself to watch a ton of new shows each season. It’s not out of concern that media consumption will become “work” because… I mean I’m a critic aren’t I? That it would become a “hassle” is more accurate, perhaps. I don’t like the idea of becoming a cynic who starts to become jaded, even if inevitably I probably will have seen enough stories that I start to somewhat tire out.
I put myself in a funny position then, because I want to stave off that creeping cynicism, but then look back on shows from before and think I missed out. But then I remember exactly why I love approaching critique in a more retroactive manner. Not only are there still plenty of classic shows that I haven’t seen, but there are even more that interest me but don’t get talked about a lot.
Even popular works don’t always have the kinds of content I look for, which appropriately enough is the content I strive to make. Every month, one of the highest viewed posts on this blog is my review of all three Kizumonogatari films together, a pretty popular trilogy. On the other hand, my series on Bones’ forgotten Towa no Quon films got more views than I initially expected. If I had to guess why it’s because people like me were looking for discussion about it and found there was practically none.
That’s why I love finding shows – even somewhat recent shows – that I completely missed, yet fall in love with when I finally see them. It’s an opportunity to shine a spotlight on a work that doesn’t get a ton of discussion in the constantly forward-facing anime community. Today’s show just so happens to be one of the hidden gems of 2017, Studio 3Hz’s steampunk spy thriller, Princess Principal.
3Hz is not a studio whose work immediately sets the mind ablaze with notable works, though I can imagine that changing in the future. The first big production of theirs I became aware of was the perplexingly mediocre Dimension W. Then came SAO Alternative, a Sword Art Online spinoff that seemed to please those dissatisfied with the main series.
Their most discussed work is likely Flip Flappers, a sci-fi adventure comedy that grabbed everyone’s attention back in fall 2016. I mostly know it from the bits of gorgeous art and sakuga I’ve seen floating around. I gathered this studio was slowly growing and had yet to find an identity, but after Princess Principal, I’m sure that they are going great places.
Set in an alt-history Victorian London, Princess Principal tells an engrossing spy plot following a team of young undercover agents. The discovery of the substance called Cavorite advances technology but drives London towards war, now divided by a wall. A secret war is being waged between the Commonwealth of Albion and the royals of London.
I would describe the experience of watching this show to be “unexpected.” I’m uncertain why exactly I dismissed the show back in 2017, but I may have jumped to too many conclusions. I probably wrote the series off as a show with a cool concept that unnecessarily inserted schoolgirls into the premise.
I was sorely mistaken. The school setting may seem like an afterthought, but it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. It is simply a clever and diagetic framing device, given that the cover allows the team to work alongside a princess who is on their side.
Speaking of which, Charlotte – the “princess” in Princess Principal – is helping the main characters fight against her own nation. If the first two episodes don’t make it clear enough, this is a show about liars. Episode two tells of how this royalty came to join this group of spies in a tense episode that shows that none of these characters are who they seem
The series is episodic and jumps around its timeline focusing on several different cases, telling how each character joined the team. Ange le Carre, the main character of the series, makes a point to say that all spies are liars. The characters live off of lies and yet find camaraderie despite the lack of honesty between them, like a sort of mutual respect that comes with the trade.
The constant lies are an extension of the most prominent theme of the series; division. The story exemplifies how this war between spies has divided everyone, and even conflicts not directly associated with the war are wrought with missed connections. The characters are arguably part of the problem is a sense. Even so, their fight is one to tear down the literal and metaphorical wall so that they don’t need to lie anymore. Even the opening, titled “The Other Side of the Wall,” blatantly expresses this dream.
Ange is the biggest liar of all, constantly taking on new personas and devotedly sticking to a facade everywhere else. Her base personality at first seems very deadpan, but she reveals herself to be more dynamic early on, even having a sort of dry humor to her. She knows Princess Charlotte from her past and the two have a lot of baggage from when they were young.
As they come to understand each other, Ange opens up a lot more. Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell what is an act and what isn’t as she seems to become more emotive very suddenly in the later episodes. Regardless, Ange and Charlotte’s relationship is a sweet and fun vessel for the show’s more fascinating themes. Not that the other characters don’t also carry some pretty memorable tales with them.
I wasn’t expecting this show to get so serious at times, but given the setting and story, it only makes the characters stronger. Ange and Charlotte’s story is already this tragic storybook plot, but the entire team tugged at the heart-strings plenty of times. Beatrice could have easily been the most annoying member and was certainly trying my patience. It’s the glimpse of her upbringing that allowed me to empathize and her channeling of her past trauma into moving forward that earned respect.
Chise is arguably more one-dimensional, bearing a lot of similarity to Ange, but added on to that the fish-out-of-water trope, seeing as she is Japanese. In learning about her past, we see her lie to herself more than anything so that she can do what must be done, even if it hurts. She is a committed warrior, but also curious, learning to listen to her heart more as time goes on.
Dorothy is the most mature member, her being literally the oldest at 20, yet undercover as a high-school girl. She carries a youthful attitude and is proficient in driving and seduction. Even if it weren’t for her age, her maturity would have been evident by how self-sufficient she is. Dorothy is a spy who hasn’t given up on trying to live a life she is happy with. Given her role in the plot and that personality, it’s easy to forget that she is technically the leader though, as she rarely is treated thus.
There isn’t a single person in this cast I don’t love in some way and that is so important when creating a show based around a small team like this. So many other shows fail at making the whole cast hit the mark. Even Blood Blockade Battlefront, one of my favorite shows of all time, needed a second season to truly make the most of its cast.
Late in 2018, I was hyped for – and soon after disappointed by – Sirius the Jaeger. Watching Princess Principal now, a show that came out a year before-hand, it feels like it’s the better version of that same show. I know it’s an odd comparison given the latter is a show about hunting vampires but bear with me.
Both shows depict small five-person teams stationed in big cities during the late 19th century/ early 20th century. Both are about said team fighting a secret war with a lot of political intrigue. Most integral, Both have quiet protagonists teaming up with one whom they had a strong connection to in their youth to end the conflict for the benefit of both sides. The most bizarre similarity? Both shows feature episodes right in the middle of their season-long runs in which an anti-restoration gang of samurai hijacks a train… weird, right?
However, Principal does everything right where Jaeger got shit wrong. The characters are emotionally fleshed out across the board, with few to no characters feeling pointless. Also, whereas Jaeger‘s political trappings were abandoned in the second half, Principal takes it in stride throughout.
The rich spy aesthetics are teamed with a well-thought, character-driven political intrigue story. Through presentation alone, the show creates some cool antagonists to our heroes that I just wish got more screen time. While the plot can get a bit cumbersome in the final two episodes especially, the characters are what matter.
There is a two-part finale that was practically tailor-made for me. It was a culmination of everything that came before that may have felt just a bit too rushed. You can tell they were pressed for time and this finale was packed to the brim. Plus the villains who had been hyped up the whole season didn’t have a lot to do with the finale.
Throughout the season they build up the Duke of Normandy as the big bad and his assistant, Gazelle, as the professional mirror image of say, Ange. It would have been nice to end with a face-off with her. Likely they want to save that for the sequels. Yes, plural. While a release date has been unfortunately unannounced, it was confirmed that six sequel films are being worked on.
While that is a hefty number of films, I imagine they will be short films like the Garden of Sinners series. Honestly, I’ll take whatever continuation I can get, but I just want a true conclusion to this story and the world. The antagonists, with some added stories dedicated to them, could be just as memorable as the main cast. Furthermore, there is an added dimension to the political drama that demands more explanation.
The Principal team has these handlers who are much older seasoned government workers who look awesome and are well-acted. However, compared to the main cast they have the depth of a puddle and the implication of a larger story behind the scenes got me curious as hell. If they hammered out the framework of this secret war, things might be easier to follow.
Lastly, and this is just wishful thinking, but maybe they could make Ange and Charlotte a cannon lesbian pairing- I’M JUST SAYING, it could be pretty cool and they’re already a power couple. I’d just prefer it if they acknowledged it, you know?
Masaki Tachibana was the director behind this project and while I haven’t watched any of his other works, he is definitely on my radar now. One member of the production staff whom I’m more than aware of though is the composer.
Yuki Kajiura is the composer behind such shows as SAO and Fate/ Zero. While I have issues with the former, I can’t deny that her music for the series has been pretty awesome. Here in Principal, the soundtrack is equal parts adventurous and dramatic, elevated by Kajiura’s skill at string-based pieces.
Pardon my boldness, but Princess Principal‘s opening is one of the best I have ever heard. It embraces the spy motif for a high-energy anthem that feels perfect for a Bond film. It is a stark contrast from the ending theme, which always felt ill-fitting, especially at the end of episodes with sad conclusions.
One of my other hasty assumptions about this series would be a lack of quality animation, but good lord I was wrong. There was unexpectedly superb and even frenetic fight animation throughout and consistent animation quality. The premiere felt like the pilot for some ambitious film project, as it looks like a movie and while the rest of the series doesn’t quite match that premiere, it is still a pretty show to look at.
Steampunk gets dragged undeservedly at times, but the elaborate mechanical metropolis of this show’s London is a treat to watch. Not just the advanced technology, but simple things like the huge elevated highways or the huge wall itself. The show’s background artwork sends my mind back to early Tim Burton films or the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies.
Sentai Filmworks did something quite unexpected for the dub. It may only apply to one episode, but during an episode which a lot of Japanese characters, they decided not to dub over the Japanese and half characters only speak in their native languages. Characters like Chie who are bilingual will speak both.
It is an incredibly clever technique that I wish more dubs would employ when dealing with multinational casts. The dub was unfortunately unavailable on Amazon Prime, where I watched the series, but the dub is available through Hi-Dive and VRV.
This series was an all-around surprise. It’s a spy fan’s dream that doesn’t pull its punches. The characters won me over because their backstories and developments made them far more than the tropes they first envisioned. I judged this book by its cover back in 2017. Thank god got around to opening the book.
Princess Principal is available for legal streaming on Amazon Prime (Sub Only), Hi-Dive, and VRV. It’s also available on Blu-ray through Sentai Filmworks.
Leave a comment letting me know what you thought of my review. Have you seen Princess Principal? If so, what did you think? While you’re at it, tell me what other overlooked shows I should dedicate my time to. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you next time.