Should You Watch Princess Principal?

Our Episode 1 Summer Anime 2017 Review
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  • Anime
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NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of Player One.
Princess Principal.
Princess Principal. (c) Studio 3Hz

Princess Principal is an anime about cute steampunk spy girls in a spy academy doing missions in a world that centers around a gravity-defying mineral named Cavorite. It takes itself very seriously, but I just can’t do the same. Something about the drab browns and grays, the turgid attempts at plot twists and the overwrought “Berlin Wall but in Fake London” set-up really turns me off.

The show starts off with an action sequence that’s so foggy and dimly lit it looks like a whole lot of frilly smudges darting about an oily screen, with an electric jolt of green thanks to the occasional use of Cavorite. Some of the spy girls are under orders to smuggle a certain fellow across the Wall to the Commonwealth. They use Cavorite to aid in their getaway, making cars and each other bound through the Victorian landscape. They decide to hide their asylum seeker at their prestigious girl’s school, which I guess is also a spy training academy and presumably some kind of elite secret? I don’t know, but their asylum seeker is a grown-ass man. None of the above makes sense to me.

The fellow, Eric, asks the spy girls to fetch his sister so they can defect together. This introduces an unnecessary complication to a plan that’s already set, but the Princess is sympathetic to Eric, so off two of the girls go to fetch his sister from a hospital. The sister has Cavorite poisoning, which is a thing that happens and apparently drives people crazy, so she’s a no-go. Eric feels guilt over the poisoning, which he feels wasn’t an accident but something targeted due to his position as a scientist. (This is the first time we learn he’s a scientist, I think?) But he needs money for the operation, which is why he’s defecting with his research. (We don’t know what his research is.)

After Eric is told when they’ll be transporting him, he sends a mechanical pigeon off somewhere with a note. Oh no, he’s not being entirely honest! It’s too bad, since Eric is one of the most straightforward and comprehensible characters in this episode. The spies move up the timetable and head out with Eric in tow, and the Princess overlooks her team’s exit with an expression of sadness, aware that something bad is about to happen.

The folks setting Eric up have the Duke of Normandy behind them and plan to ambush the girls, kill all but one and get their escape route. That’s when the spy girl we’ve spent the most time with, the one who lies constantly, tells Eric the gig is up: they know he’s set them up. Simultaneously, the Duke of Normandy’s people learn that their careful ambush target has gone up in smoke, and the ninja girl demands an audience.

Now it’s time for liar girl to give us some exposition: she knew that Eric wouldn’t make his sister defect because she saw that his sister had ballerina’s calluses on her feet, and she saw an acceptance letter from the Royal Ballet fall out of his bag when they first met. Liar girl drives Eric to a secluded spot and shoots him dead. But not before getting his signature, which is just… are you kidding me?

All the same, the conversation between liar girl and Eric at the very end is probably the best bit of the episode. “Are you going to kill me?” “No,” she says, shooting the corpse over and over. You got some issues to work out, huh honey?

A week later, Eric’s body surfaces. The episode closes with some nurses tucking Eric’s sister in, her eyes bound in a way that might indicate she’s had the Cavorite operation after all. Maybe liar girl pulled some strings? The closing theme plays over genuinely charming paper-style animation of the girls, which I liked more than almost anything in the episode.

My biggest issue with Princess Principal is that I honestly had a hard time telling the girls apart. There’s the girl that lies a lot, the ninja girl, the princess girl, the one with long brown hair who isn’t any of those, and a super short one…? Part of it is down to the moe art style the girls are drawn in for that extra dash of cuteness, but part of it might simply be that there are too many girls and too much plot for the episode to do much character work.

Worst of all, the effort the episode is putting into its plot is wasted, because we barely understand the world, let alone the stakes. Duke of Normandy who? Princess of what? Revolution where? Eric and his sister were understandable and emotionally grounded, but all the spy frippery seems so beside the point. How can you have a serious drama without grounded, emotionally relatable characters?

Ultimately, I find there’s something so innately stupid about a would-be spy drama that has all its lead spies stand around announcing loudly that they’re spies. I found the central mission and its twists boring too, which makes me mark episode 1 of Princess Principal is a bit of a drag. I’m sure big fans of steampunk will be delighted to enjoy Princess Principal after the big fail that was Clockwork Planet, but the steampunk aesthetic doesn’t dazzle me enough to blind me to the show’s warts.

Princess Principal airs on Amazon Strike on Sundays. Will you be adding this show to your queue? Let us know in the comments section below.

Princess Principal
Should You Watch Princess Principal?
A muddled, over-serious attempt at a spy drama with a forgettable cast of steampunk spy girls suffers from a lack of grounding and a drab color palette.
  • Steampunk theme
  • Female leads
  • Plenty of action
  • Alternate history
  • "Cavorite" material has plot potential
  • Forgettable characters
  • Muddled, inane plot
  • Dreary color palette
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