“Case 1: Dancy Conspiracy”, “Case 2: Vice Voice”, and “Case 9: Roaming Pigeons”
Sundays 10:30AM EST on HIDIVE
We flash back to see how the girls first got together, and how Beatrice proved her worth in the field, then step forward to the daring heist of a new piece of Kingdom technology.
The very best spy dramas tend to be a difficult mix of subtle complexity and unbelievable stupidity, and on the evidence of this first quartet of episodes, Princess Principal appears to be walking that fine line with some grace. The inherent insanity of the premise remains deeply dumb, but some pacy scriptwriting and interesting structural wrinkles mean that the show has become a highly entertaining mixture of the two extremes.
Let’s talk about that structure first though, because it’s arguably the most radical thing that the show is doing to make itself stand out. Non-linear storytelling is famously an incredibly tricky thing to do, and far better pieces of media have failed, but so far Princess Principal has not only succeeded at keeping its continuity in line, but also taken advantage of the format to spring some unexpected twists and surprises. For example, by featuring Beatrice in episodes 1 & 2 you begin to get the audience questioning what place she has among a set of ruthless spies, but then the surprise revelation of her cyborg nature clues us in a bit on why they tolerate her continued presence.
In fact, Beatrice’s focus episode (episode 3) is a fantastic justification of her character overall, and a really great example of how to take a character the audience might not be responding well to and flipping that perception on its head. I found Beatrice annoying, whiny and generally not particularly engaging, but by taking the time to give her some focus, the episode made me much more amenable to her. It does this by fleshing out her backstory a little, but more importantly by focusing on what she’s doing in the here and now. Her voice changing ability is marvelously foreshadowed and then justified at a crucial point in the story in one of the cleverest and most unorthodox possible ways. In addition to that, she’s allowed to show that her loyalty to the Princess is more than just words, and she demonstrates serious bravery by stepping outside of her comfort zone. The net result of this is that she demonstrates on multiple levels why she’s important both in-universe and in the narrative as well. That’s just good, well thought out character writing.
Chise, who’s probably the closest Case 9 gets to a focus character, doesn’t benefit from such an in-depth writing effort, but in this case that’s fine as the show’s priority is clearly elsewhere. This episode’s clear mission is to set up the idea that nobody can be trusted and that everyone may be working on a different agenda. This is a pretty standard trope for spy stories, but a considerably less common one in anime, where the emphasis tends to be more on ‘true companionship’ and where even if there is a traitor it tends to just be a single individual. By contrast, Princess Principal has very quickly established that there are multiple different parties even within the core 5 cast members. Chise is revealed to be actually under the command of a foreign power (presumably this universe’s version of Japan, what with all her Samurai trappings). However, that doesn’t make her a double agent, since at the moment her higher-ups are probing which of the two sides to support in this war. That makes her a wild card who could either help or betray the team at any point, depending on her personal and professional leanings. The Commonwealth leadership still clearly suspect Princess as being a mole, while in turn Princess and Ange have their own agenda, which may or may not be agreed upon between them.
The net result of all of this is a heady cocktail of possibilities for betrayals and counter-betrayals, twists and turns, and potentially shocking plot twists. Lead writer Ichiro Okouchi has form in this department, having written Code Geass‘s memorably swerve-laden plot, although in that case he was unable to stick the landing. Signs are good here though, with this first crop of episodes establishing that the show is formidable on all fronts – writing, plotting, action, and aesthetics are all among the top of the pile this season, and the swirling possibilities give it a compelling hook in a way I’ve found few recent anime to possess. I’m very excited to see where they’ll go from here.
- The show continues to be a great looker, with some lovely character work and gorgeous backgrounds, as you’d expect from the team behind Flip Flappers. Fights are well paced and choreographed, and about the only weakness has been some distinctly dodgy CG.
- There are repeated very unsubtle hints that Ange is actually the ‘real’ Princess and that she and Princess were swapped at birth or at a young age. They even share a real name – Charlotte.
- Dorothy is actually revealed to be in her 20s and just posing as a high schooler in a pretty amusing twist.
- There are occasional oddly accurate depictions of classic spying techniques, such as the hollowed-out book and multi-man tailing techniques displayed in episode 4.
- Seriously, that’s just Queen Victoria!