There’s only one thing you can be certain of in a series about spies: you’ll never know who you can really trust. In a steampunk alternate reality England, lies are the bread and butter of five young girls whose deception and skulduggery could change the course of history for a fractured nation. From 3Hz (Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online) and Actas (Girls und Panzer), Princess Principal is a beautifully produced, action-packed original anime… albeit, one that feels incomplete.
Years after the commoners of Albion revolted against an apathetic ruling class, a wall across London has left the global superpower split in two: the Kingdom, who remain loyal to the monarchy, and the Commonwealth. When the latter devises a plan to replace the Kingdom’s Princess Charlotte with the expert spy and master of disguise Ange, the fourth in line to the throne makes a surprising offer: to aid the Commonwealth in exchange for their help in making her Queen!
The series’ biggest mystery however, isn’t how these girls will enact “Operation Changeling”, but the enigmatic Ange. A member of the series’ core spy team, Ange is able to convincingly masquerade as anything from a bookish girl to a rebellious tomboy like it’s second nature to her (and it’s fun to watch these transformations too!).
When we first meet Ange, she makes a point of inviting our distrust with reminders of how she’s drenched in a world of lies, culminating in a superbly powerful moment where she shoots a man while telling him that she won’t be the one to kill him. There’s a genuine compassion behind Ange’s lies though, and finding out how it connects to Princess Charlotte, becomes the main driving force of the series.
Joining Ange and Princess Charlotte in the main cast are the 20-year-old alcohol enthusiast Dorothy, Japanese exchange student Chise, and the Princess’ aide Beatrice, who has a mechanical voice box owing to her father’s twisted experiments. As the series progresses, their own unique stories all get their own time under the spotlight, with Chise’s in particular providing a fascinating extra layer to the world of Albion.
The depiction of Chise and the other Japanese characters in Princess Principal is fascinating, especially given that the series’ creative team naturally also hails from the country. Chise’s samurai honour and fighting style feel like something I’d expect more if she were written for a western production. A scene where the cast are taken aback by the Japanese delegation’s formality, such as bowing, was also surprising to see. Cultural differences are a recurring theme in episodes focusing on Chise, which can range from light-hearted jokes like Beatrice hating the smell of natto, to racism. This only makes it more unfortunate that Rachael Messer’s performance in the English dub occasionally dips into sounding more like a caricature.
Chise’s accent isn’t the only ridiculous voice in the English dub however, as I am now convinced that its director has never actually heard a British person speak. Despite having a dialect coach listed in the credits, the majority of the cast speak in the same poor imitation of the Queen’s English, to the extent that the main characters’ voices are almost indistinguishable. These exaggerated accents also really don’t suit Ange or Dorothy at all, with the latter perhaps suited to a coarser sounding accent. I should probably be thankful however, that the dub didn’t attempt a Geordie or Glaswegian accent!
It saddens me that the dub’s unveiling was met by Americans believing Sentai Filmworks had hired British actors, because it is so cringe-inducing that I could only last a single episode before switching back to the Japanese audio.
Sentai Filmworks do deserve credit for the subtitles however, which use the British (and correct) spelling of words like “grey” and “Mum”, and also feature a neat distorted font for when Beatrice’s voice box goes on the fritz – little things that go a long way.
Every other aspect of Princess Principal’s sound design deserves applause, however. “The Other Side of the Wall” by Void_Chords and MARU is a striking and energetic opening theme, or “an absolute banger” as the kids say these days. My all-time favourite anime composer Yuki Kajiura delivers a classical score best described as Puella Magi Madoka Magica infused with jazz. While the Collector’s Edition is already packed with extras (which weren’t available to us for review), it’s a huge shame that the Original Soundtrack isn’t among them, and I’ll definitely be importing it soon.
Even more understated aspects of the sound design are delivered with an expert touch, with the hefty clang of crossing blades in Chise’s frantic fight with the assassin Jubei being a welcome touch that really adds to the impact of the scene. Visually, the series is gorgeous and slick action sequences are full of energy – on a technical level, Princess Principal is top tier.
Like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, the episodes of Princess Principal are presented out of chronological order, with their place in the story being handily marked with a “Case Number” on the disc’s menu. However, some of the stories are so standalone, that viewers may only notice this when select episodes dial back the clock to tell a character’s origin story.
An interesting note however, is that some episodes in this release are listed differently to even the original broadcast order, with episodes in two pairs (6-7 and 8-9) having their orders swapped. This was the case in the Japanese home video release as well, and we did reach out to the North American distributor Sentai Filmworks, but they were unable to disclose why this change was made. If I had to guess, it may have been to avoid a very slight inconsistency, and to shift a more plot-focused episode closer to the final arc.
Where Princess Principal falters however, is in its most important aspect: the story. Borrowing the mysterious substance “Cavorite” from H.G. Wells’ The First Men on the Moon, Ange uses its gravity-manipulating properties for really cool visual feats like scaling the side of an aircraft mid-flight. However, the series has an unfortunate tendency to make Cavorite into something of a deus ex machina, like Vibranium in Marvel Studios’Black Panther. An example of this is when we learn of its ability to show the past location of moved objects by spreading its particles across a room, right when the ability is useful, only for it to never be used again.
Like so many twelve-episode series, too many standalone episodes in the middle leaves the last two as a panicked dash towards the story’s climax… which ends so abruptly with so little resolved, that it literally feels as if the series ended half-way through an episode. There is a six-film sequel project set to begin in Japan later this year, but why wasn’t the story brought to a satisfactory end in the series itself, and who has the appetite for six films?
It’s such a shame that Princess Principal’s story doesn’t really go anywhere in this initial series, as it definitely has a wealth of high points that I still recommend people experience, and the show is an absolute technical triumph. It’s just not a complete story… yet.
Princess Principal is available as a Blu-ray Collector’s Edition from 18th March 2019, with a Standard Edition release to follow on 10th June.