Princess Principal Collection (Cert 12)
2 Discs Blu-ray (Distributor: MVM) Running time: 303 minutes approx.
I don’t have much time for our royal family, as treacherous as that may sound, but I can guarantee that the Princess Charlotte of Cambridge fawned over by our press will never be as cool or as productive as the Princess Charlotte in this anime original series.
Set in an alternate version of Britain at the turn of the 20th century called Albion, London has been divided following a proletariat uprising against the royal family over their monopoly of a special anti-gravity substance called Cavorite that made them a powerful global force. Now split in two by a huge wall running through London, the bifurcated Albion is now the Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
After years of peace, the Commonwealth launches a project called Operation Changeling, in which they plan to switch the Kingdom’s Princess Charlotte is replaced with a look-a-like from their ranks. However, Princess Charlotte catches wind of this plan and makes an unusual deal with the Commonwealth spies – she will join them and work for them as a spy against her own people!
Why on earth would Charlotte do such a thing? That is for her to know and us to find out in this tale of intrigue, espionage, politics, and steampunk action from the pen of Ichiro Okouchi, the writer of Code Geass. Don’t be misled by the cutesy art designs of the main female cast, there is plenty of depth to their characters and the individual stories that slowly build to the revelatory, but teasingly open climax.
Preconceptions also need to put aside when considering the decision to run the episodes in a largely non-chronological order which can be confusing to see cast members being introduced after we’ve already seen them in action. To that end, the opening episode is the show’s mission statement to give us a taste of what to expect for the remainder of the run.
Most misleading of all, if one takes the title literally, is that Charlotte isn’t the main focus of the story – that honour befalls to Ange, the highly adaptable spymaster and the double of Charlotte. This facet is intrinsic to the mystery and intrigue of the central story in providing many red herrings and avenues for the clever twists and turns for the final arc when Control, the organisation employing the schoolgirl spies, issue their deadliest mission yet.
Initially on opposite sides, Ange and Charlotte join forces as part of the quintet known as White Pigeon, along with Dorothy, a 20-year old driver whose developed body comes in very handy during missions, Beatrice, Charlotte’s ditzy aide with an implanted voice box constructed by her engineer father that can duplicate any voice, and diminutive ninja girl Chise, whose acclimatising to British culture provides some cute, pithy humour.
Together they undergo a series of dangerous missions on behalf of the Commonwealth employing their individual and collective abilities, from weeding our double agents, and assisting defectors from the Kingdom to disrupting shady political deals, and even hunting down serial killers. With their cover being pupils at the elite Queen’s Mayfair school, they have a secret hideout with their own transport and bespoke arsenal.
A key part of that arsenal is a C-ball, a spheroid device Ange uses that runs on Cavorite, and allows her to gravitate under a controlled situation, proving very handy for sneak attacks and escapes. Considering Cavorite was instrumental in Albion’s rise to power and the subsequent civil unrest, they is barely any expansion on its creation and scope of use, vis-à-vis side-effects, time limit etc., a noticeable omission from the script.
Where the script compensates however, is in building the characters, fleshing them out with rich backstories, some explored deeper than others, often revealing tragic pasts that shape their current personalities. Beatrice becoming a test subject for her father is pretty brutal as is the violent upbringing Dorothy endured, yet interestingly, whilst one is meek and excitable, the other can be stoic and melancholic but never intensely so.
In the group construct, these opposing personalities are just part of an overall dynamic that works exceptional well, partly by staying on the right side of being predictable tropes but because of the chemistry they create. This is one of those rare occasions where the sum and the parts are equally effective, one skill complementing another yet capable of succeeding individually.
Given the range of missions and the situations the group find themselves in, the main concept could be translated into any scenario or time frame, but something about the Steampunk application to Victorian England that is the stabilising factor in making this series work. Storyline wise, it allows Ichiro Okouchi to explore political allegory, racism, social injustice, domestic abuse, and other issues without appearing sententious.
Aesthetically it gives animators Studio 3Hz and Actas a chance to delve deep into the history of Europe for its inspiration for the artwork architecture, fashions and character designs (including a Queen Victoria look-alike monarch), whilst having plenty of fun with the action too. Steampunk invention means the weaponry used never feels anachronistic to keep them within the realms of possibility for the period.
Okouchi’s writing is as intelligent and complex as ever, less sinuous than Code Geass but still an involved set of tales with a central vein that runs on its own track. Not all the missions end with a bang but the majority are satisfying enough with significant progress made within furthering the intrinsic themes. There is gentle humour, no fan service and only mild violence but plenty of action betwixt the political machinations.
With an ending that leaves the door wide open for more from White Pigeon, the good news is that six films are being made to continue the story. It might not feel like from the first episode but I am confident it doesn’t take long before you too will be glad that Princess Principal doesn’t end here, and that surely, is the mark of a great anime series.
English Language 2.0 DTS HD-MA
Japanese Language 2.0 DTS HD-MA
Disc 2 only:
Clean Opening Animation
Clean Closing Animation
Limited Edition Collector’s Edition
80-page Interview Book
176-page Storyboard Book
144-page Secret File Book
12 Art cards
Rating – ****
Man In Black