Not the best cover image ever, but I’m working with what I have. Princess Principal is something of a long awaited watch, as it’s been on my radar since around the time it began airing. Something about it seems… unique. Why I never watched up to this point may have been because of a number of things—it looked maybe too self-important, top reviews on MyAnimeList didn’t paint it in a great light, etc.
In the spirit of the holidays, I went ahead and gave it a shot. No, that phrasing was not initiated due to the clear pistol present in the cover image.
Taking place in the early 1900’s, the series features a central cast of spies that attend an academy as a guise for normalcy. Though technically only two of the main five were actually trained as formal spies, the group is formed together by various circumstances. Switching between an episodic nature and a gradually evolving central narrative, it condenses things down as needed within its one-cour rigidity.
There are also elements of… sci-fi(?) in the form of Cavorite, a material that seems to allow the user to bend gravity to their will. One spy in particular uses this quite excessively throughout, though the nature of this substance is never totally explained at any point. Oh, and there’s a “silent war” between factions within the country the spies reside in. Like the Cavorite, this is rarely explained in depth at any point.
Princess Principal is an anime about spies in an England-like setting (not technically England). Well, gee, sure sounds like another specific IP spawned from the 1950’s that prefers things shaken, not stirred, yeah? While comparisons will inevitably be raised, the whole product certainly feels more akin to traditional anime stylings than a 00-spiffy journey of one-liners and “babe savin’.”
Look at the Pretty Action; Don’t Question It
What’s pretty apparent very early on is that the anime is not one for the more, well, “mentally conscious.” The aforementioned Cavorite—to reiterate, gravity-bending material that is rarely explained—gives an “OP-ness” to the central team of spies that provides them with tremendously thick plot armor. Hell, one spy in particular, Ms. Pistol-Wielder in the cover image, is so amazing at everything that giving her Cavorite is like giving a Snorlax an anchor to hold to further increase its weight.
The key to enjoying this at length is a commendable suspension of disbelief. How these teenage girls (one is actually 20) can end up being so skillful at their jobs and have their adversaries look like fools can be pretty far-fetched. Despite the prominence of guns throughout, many have the aim of Stormtroopers. Some sequences play out more like these spies are ninjas, agilely maneuvering past danger like world-class athletes. Given few things are ever actually explained in a logical manner, many scenes will simply be left for the viewer to ponder their legitimacy (or forget about).
Should you be able to ignore this, though, it’s pretty fun. There is a commendable amount of effort placed within action and espionage scenes that have a nice cleanliness to them. Methodical expertise of the field (albeit with logical oversteps) that keeps things watchable; even has a few missteps due to other members’ inadequacy to keep things on edge. While it’s pretty clear early on that nothing substantially bad will happen to any major cast member, the stakes are always prominently set by the tone.
Will also briefly mention the audio/visual elements of the series in a positive light. While not totally revolutionary, there are a nice variety of different settings explored, distinguishing character elements (Japanese character has thicker eyebrows), and gruesome elements on display. There’s also a fairly jazzy score that plays during specific action sequences that carries a suitable vibe. Mixed altogether, it allows Princess Principal to light the torch towards its own success.
Moments of Tenderness
Let’s discuss the “flow” of the series real quick. I mentioned above that it’s like a mix of episodic missions and a gradual build to the larger plot elements set by the premise. It is intentionally told out of order… usually.
The first episode is only about halfway to “present time.” The second yanks the viewer backwards to explore how Ms. Pistol-Wielder came to be in the academy that serves as the show’s central setting. This timeframe hopping continues for a majority of the twelve-episode run, only coming to a steady progression upon episode ten. That way, it can tell a story while also choosing its moments to develop the characters’ roles for “present time.”
This is something I’ve come to respect about Princess Principal. I like that it takes the initiative to go a little awry with its timeline; it encourages people to really pay attention and see what individual moments led to the eventual bond that this main cast of characters have. Of course, this wouldn’t work if the series never took the time to really peer into the psyche and motivations of the major cast. Fortunately, it does… variably by person, but I digress.
Beatrice, whose traumatic childhood is actually kind of funny and woefully in service to her only useful purpose to missions, is an example of the series’ lesser steps at developing characters. She gets a single episode that explores her background (and not even all of it is dedicated to her), then is kind of just there for the rest. Clearly the least viable during missions and debatably the weakest character, her only redeeming characteristic is that she’s delightfully loyal. And cute, I guess.
Others fare much better by comparison, notably Chise and Ange (Ms. Pistol-Wielder). While I have kind of a soft spot for Dorothy over the rest (I just like how chill she is), there seems to be a substantial amount of time dedicated to giving these additional characters moments in the sun. More than that, their motivations make sense—perhaps dramatized to some degree, they’re relatable enough to the context of the series.
Chise, at one point, expresses dismay that she isn’t as useful to the spy team due to her tendency for straight-on offensive tactics. Fair! Dorothy and Beatrice have a specific connection due to their shared painful experiences of the past. Adorable! The anime is filled with these small, but impactful moments of camaraderie that really tie the whole thing together, fueling the inevitable duel of executing missions and fighting with inner emotions. Whether missions small in scope or containing worldwide consequences, there’s always a dousing of sentimentality that’s present.
Hanging From a Cliiiiiiiff~ (The Spoiler Section)
Gonna go ahead and spoil something in the following paragraphs, so feel free to skip to “Conclusion” is you’re deadset on avoiding such things.
Princess Principal ends on a rather abrupt cliffhanger, which kind of makes the lead-up to the final two episodes rather deflating. Seeing as this was released in 2017 and no sequel season was ever announced, there’s a heavy-handed nature to it that simply says, “We don’t know how to finish this.”
However, it seems there is some sequel material already being churned out for viewers to indulge in. Apparently, six (Six!) sequel films are planned to finish out the series, with the first two already having been released as of this writing. (The second doesn’t seem to be translated into English yet, as far as I can tell.) Whether this helps get the rather abrupt taste out of the mouth set by the final minutes of the finale is really up to the individual.
I’ll also note that this can be rather brutal when it wishes to be. The first, sixth, and tenth episodes, in particular, showcase some really grim material that goes beyond what’s typical of an anime series. One of the main characters just outright kills someone at point-blank range. A character integral to the plot of one of those episodes kills themselves (and it kind of shows it). Popularized as it has been, the world of espionage is certainly not without grit, which this series shows perhaps better than others.
Of the anime I’ve watched thus far this December, Princess Principal is the best one. Equal parts fun and impactful, it’s supported greatly by the eventual strength of the main cast and the weight of the series’ stakes. Although, it certainly goes sky high when it comes to getting these characters out of danger, and rarely elaborates at all on the “how.” Almost purely a “Great if you don’t think about it” title, it’s worth it for some solid character drama and engaging action sequences.
The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.
For more anime reviews, check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.