Chaika The Coffin Princess (Cert 18)
3 Discs DVD/2 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Animatsu Entertainment) Running time: 293 minutes approx.
If you are a horror fan and the title of this series has caught your eye then you need to know now that this is not the show you think it is. While it does contain some bloody battles towards the climax this is a fantasy adventure and the eponymous lead character is far from scary.
The reason why Chaika Trabant is given this particular nomenclature is due to the huge coffin she carries around on her slight back, which she does for noble reasons and not nefarious ones. Granted that might sound disappointing but solid storytelling and strong characters means an interesting series lays ahead of us.
Princess Chaika is the daughter of the late Arthur Gaz, Emperor of the Gaz Empire, a feared ruler whose death ended the three hundred year war between the Six Nations. Gaz’s body was cut up by the Eight Heroes, all of whom took a piece with them to avoid his restoration. Chaika is searching for the body parts so she can lay her father to rest.
An unemployed duo of saboteurs, brother and sister Toru and Akari Acura, happen upon Chaika in a forest while scavenging for food, saving her from a rampaging unicorn (and you thought they were majestic creatures). Chaika explains her mission and the pair agree to help her on this current stage for a handsome fee, but eventually become full time partners when they realise the extent of the danger Chaika faces.
Chaika The Coffin Princess is the creation of Ichirō Sakaki, who also gave us Outbreak Company, the original light novel series first appearing in 2010. While both feature a medieval inspired fantasy world for it setting the similarities end there with this being a more serious and, as it progresses, much darker series.
We join the story five years after the war in a period of peace restored by the Council of the Six Nations but news of Chaika’s mission raises concerns that remaining Gaz loyalists will use her to restore their fallen leader and seek to reclaim their erstwhile control and start another war. The Gillett Corps, headed by Captain Alveric Gillett, have been dispatched to capture Chaika but didn’t reckon on Toru and Akari serving as Chakia’s protectors.
Along the way the team, later a joined by the shape shifting Dragoon Frederika, who settles as either a cat or – you guessed it – a cute girl, encounter many different folk with their own agendas and attitudes towards the Gaz Empire. The individual fates of the Eight Heroes tell a variety of stories, reflecting the harsh realities and after effects of war, while others are chancers using the fear of Gaz’s reputation to con ordinary folk for their own designs.
It is this sense of maturity which is missing from Outbreak Company which shows that Sakaki is capable of more than fan service fluff. Aside from a couple of skimpy outfits and some odd outbursts from Akari towards her brother which are frankly unnecessary, the focus is on delivering both an engaging story and exciting action sequences.
With some episodes seemingly following the “villain of the week” format, interest may wane early but don’t be fooled by this; crucial mini-arcs drive the story forward, concluding this run with a three parter, bringing with it a much darker and violent tone. Whatever whimsy is suggested in the early going is replaced by something cruel and depraved, complete with bloody battles and tragic twists of fate.
A key facet in distorting the entire premise comes when the group encounter Chaika’s doppelganger, albeit dressed in red and not white. While only appearing for two episodes, this is not dropped as momentary gimmick idea but returns to become an intrinsic issue in the denouement of this series and presumably in the advertised continuation.
The main characters are fairly typical of the shonen fantasy oeuvre but are sturdily drawn, with fully explored backgrounds. As siblings, Akari and Toru don’t seem alike nor have a visible bond beyond mutual companionship but their history says otherwise. Highly skilled at their job and possessing the unique Iron Blood Form power, Toru is a little more compassionate and as the eldest, leads the way, while Akari is headstrong and well versed in kicking butt.
Chaika is a curious creation in that she speaks in fragmented sentences like a two year old child, albeit with a richer vocabulary. No reason is given for this as the Red Chaika is capable of coherent speech, but White Chaika is a naïve girl with a big heart. She carries a large magic Gundo rifle, capable of firing specific blasts pertaining to an incantation Chaika recites first; the problem is that this takes up valuable time when urgency is often paramount.
Because of her childlike personality audiences will find Chaika to be either adorable or infuriating, although her cutesy gothic-loli design is likely to win over the dissenters. Indeed, the whole show is very much governed by a steampunk aesthetic despite the medieval appearance of the setting, illustrated by the vehicles on display. Toru and co. end up buying a sort of armoured wagon while the Gillet Corps cross the country in what resembles a house on wheels!
Studio Bones handle the production and their prior experience on steampunk/fantasy shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist and Jyu-Oh-Sei has held them in good stead in creating suitably good looking settings here. The battle scenes are tightly animated and don’t rely on the usual distractions of shooting line backgrounds and obscuring flashes, they take us right into the heart of the action.
With its steady balance of character driven drama and vibrant fantasy action Chaika The Coffin Princess doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of its genre but has enough charm and edge to carve its own little niche. Series two certainly has a lot of explaining to do so let’s hope it comes to UK shores soon!
Japanese Language w/ English Subtitles
Disc 1 only:
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Ratings – *** ½
Man In Black