Five girls attend a prestigious school in the Kingdom of Albion (a Kingdom split in half by a wall). However, these girls are actually spies using their specific skills to complete their jobs.
Princess Principal is going to be a hard show to review really. Mostly because I loved the experience of watching it and had a lot of fun, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have its faults. The problem being, the longer you think about this show the more those faults become apparent. Still, there’s a lot to enjoy in this steampunkesque spy series.
Firstly, the characters are fantastic. They all seem pretty standard at first and their designs are excessively moe (to the point where I wasn’t actually planning on watching this show at all because one look at the character designs made me roll my eyes). But each of the five girls is given time and attention and back story over the course of the first half of the series and by the time we get back to seeing them operating as a full unit I had really fallen in love with these characters and their relationships. For all the holes I’m going to poke in the plot of this story later, I am not going to throw rocks at this main cast. They are a great team and a lot of fun to spend time with.
Obviously Ange and the Princess get the lion’s share of development, and that’s fine because I love both of those characters. Ange’s stoic nature and her quirky references to the Black Lizard Planet just make her an enigma that you want to figure out. She’s cold as ice when needed, illustrated clearly in the first episode where she shoots a traitor, but behind the scenes she’s definitely got a softer side. Again, seen when she made sure said traitor had insurance so that his daughter would receive medical attention. The Princess begins much as you would expect a Princess playing spy to act, but as the story progresses you see there is so much more to her than the external character she has perfected playing. These two were such a delight and when you throw in Chise, Beatrice and Dorothy this becomes one of my favourite teams in an anime I’ve seen in a long time.
Secondly, the music. Loved the opening theme to this show. It is incredibly energetic and fun. Visually it works and it does give some sense of the characters, but mostly it sets a tone for the show that it mostly lives up to even if the events aren’t quite as loud and vibrant as the opening might have you believe. Still, this is an opening I didn’t skip even once and actually went back and listened to after episodes just because it was fun to hear.
Thirdly, the setting. Okay, steampunk Victorian era is kind of done to death but I really appreciated the setting here. For the most part technology is within the realm of plausible with only one or two contraptions that seem fantastical. Mostly, it could actually be just historical (with the usual inaccuracies) and not steampunk at all but there’s enough going on that you kind of have to put it in steampunk category. Be that as it may, the world these girls live in is rich and dynamic. It isn’t a setting that they’ve been dropped onto. There are so many different groups and factions all with their own goals and motives. Even just the random workers they encounter are all crafted to feel like real people with their own story to tell. The setting is pretty fantastic.
Alright, so now we have to address the issue with the plot. To start with, the show is broken into cases that are shown to the audience in a non-chronological order. This means we meet the characters in the order the show wants us to and learn the information we need about the characters when we need to, but it means there is no real drive toward any kind of final goal. Each case has its own goal and mostly the case is irrelevant. What is important are the characters, how they interact, and what they learn from the experience. As a character piece, Princess Principal is superb but it comes at the expense of plot. There’s no real buy in from the audience as to whether it matters is the team succeed of not in many of these missions as we are never really clued in as to what the missions are trying to accomplish. While that isn’t such an issue early in the series, it is what leads us to a fairly ordinary ending.
The one plot thread we do follow most of the way through the story is Project Changeling which was a plan to have Ange kill and replace the Princess. Somewhere along the line that plan included having the Princess become part of the team, though where that left Changeling was never really determined. Then, in what seems like a desperate effort to push us into a climax when there was no real overall end goal, suddenly the guy in charge of the spies is replaced and the new guy orders Ange to kill Princess. The final two episodes follow this drama to its conclusion.
However, the wall is still there, the Princess still isn’t Queen, the old spymaster is back, the girls are for some reason in Casablanca and still carrying out missions, so the question has to be asked whether from a plot point of view this show accomplished anything? Certainly the characters have come along way and it was really fun watching them do that, but it kind of felt like the story wanted to be more than just about the power of friendship (although that may just be my own wishful thinking). Mostly, this could be resolved by giving us a second season and actually addressing the set up that this show has now that the girls have dealt with their issues and become a team.
I recommend checking this show out. It may not be for you but there is a lot of fun to be had here. It manages to balance its cute moments with some far darker tones and for the most part gets the balance right.
If you’ve seen Princess Principal I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
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