Five girls live in 19th century London, a city within the Albion Kingdom divided into east and west by a large wall. The girls serve as undercover spies enrolled as students at the prestigious Queen’s Mayfair school. The girls make use of their individual abilities to remain active in the underground world of disguise, espionage, infiltration, and car chases. – ANN
Streaming: Amazon Anime Strike
Episode 1 Summary: A new path for history was set in motion when the strange element “cavorite” was discovered. Cavorite allowed the kingdom of Albion to create an air fleet that was unmatched in the world, but this imbalance of power tore Europe apart. Albion was split into East and West by a huge wall encircling London, and now, as in any divided country, spy networks crisscross from one side to the other trying to get the upper hand for their side.
Five young women attending Queen’s Mayfair school moonlight as spies, their current job involving helping a scientist defect so that he can get the money to help his younger sister, who is suffering from cavorite poisoning. But the scientist’s goals are muddied by who he’s actually working for, and it isn’t long before the girls discover that the ultimate goal is to draw them out from their hiding place.
Impressions: Anime is a medium that’s tackled a lot of genres and sub-genres over the years, but despite the popularity of steampunk within geek culture over the last decade or so, there haven’t been very many anime that have taken advantage of that. Steamboy is probably the most obvious one, and perhaps Last Exile as well, though that one has a slightly different feel. But for the most part it’s kind of an untapped market for anime. That’s why I was pleased to see a series like this that seems to be all-in as far as the steampunk aesthetic goes. Princess Principal seems to not only be concerned with what type of technological achievements might have been made had the world made a giant leap in discovery around the late 1800’s, but also the effects on class in society as a result.
The first episode takes place in the city of London an its surroundings some years after its eponymous battle that’s referenced several times throughout the episode (and which seems to play a large part in at least one of the main characters’ backstories). Many of the scenes occur within the elite private school the girls attend which serves as a cover for their nightly activities, and portrays the kind of upper-class Victorianesque setting one might expect in a steampunk-focused piece. With its emphasis on aesthetics, we get the expected steam-powered inventions, English gentility, and costume-like variations upon period clothing that make the genre fun to play around in. What we also see, though, are the bits and pieces of London buried beneath the thick smog, in the gutters of the city where the lower classes dwell. There are scenes of the poor clustered in an infirmary waiting room, and homeless people lining the streets. The discovery of cavorite, and likely the war that went along with it, definitely made some people wealthy, but there are clearly many who weren’t lucky enough to share in that prosperity.
The first episode doesn’t really take a stance on any of this beyond allowing the audience to see how things are; it’s clearly used as a means to demonstrate how stratified the world is. It does give us some perspective in that at least one of the girls now working as a spy was lucky enough to escape this kind of poverty (having been orphaned) and find a way to some kind of financial means (even if the work she and her compatriots are hired to do isn’t particularly savory). Anime has a tendency to “tell” rather than to “show,” so despite the fact that these visual interjections were pretty obvious, it’s nice to get a little bit of background on the world without an “as you know…” info-dump up front.
In addition to its portrayal of the people populating its alternate-history milieu, the show’s background art is striking and detailed, providing a lovely backdrop for the well-executed action in this episode. There’s an incredible amount of care in the depiction of the lush plants in the Queen’s Mayfair gardens, as well as in the brownish grit and grime of the city streets below the all-encompassing fog. There’s just enough of a sepia-tone to give the whole thing a classic feel to go along with its old-timey vehicles and other less tangible period style. It’s definitely not a universal constant, but I find that, often, when different pieces of the whole are given a lot of attention and care separately, the final product tends to reflect that extra energy and planning in its overall quality. Obviously nothing is certain from one episode, but I was truly impressed by how this show made its visual impression.
I did a panel at an anime convention a year or two ago that was a discussion of moé tropes and how employing them in character creation isn’t necessarily a mark of laziness on the part of a creator, but instead can be a shortcut to get the audience up to speed quickly, with character detail and development to follow as required by the story. Some examples of this technique used well are Puella Magi Madoka Magica, or perhaps a slightly better comparison to this show, Sound of the Sky. In both of these shows, we’re fooled into thinking that the characters, being who they are and marked by their moé characteristics, will have a particular, predictable story arc. In both cases the characters have much more depth than might be obvious at first glance, and as details are added to their personas, we learn more about the world they inhabit. I think many of us are still wary when the cast of an anime looks like “a bunch of girls each with her unique one-note personality,” and that was my knee-jerk reaction to this show. Ange, who we spend some time with in this episode, feels like a typical “emotionless girl with a tragic past” that is meant to appeal to a certain type of fan, and there are a couple of other obvious character types within the group of characters we don’t know very well yet. But I get the impression that we’ll learn more about these characters as we go, and I’m interested to see that happen. And hey, if we don’t end up with richer portraits of our protagonists as we go, perhaps at the very least we might end up with something like Joker Game, which oozed style despite not sharing any pertinent details about the cast; I can dig a show about cool people doing cool things.
It’s not surprising to me that this show, which wasn’t really on my radar, seems much more promising than I would have thought; that’s something that happens every season. Though I might have some slight misgivings about the show’s ability to keep up the standard of this opening episode, I’m impressed enough by the type of story it told and the environment it portrayed that I think it’s definitely worth a second look.
Pros: Lots of visual style and a cool alternate history premise. Depicts class differences in a steampunk setting.
Cons: Difficult to tell if the somewhat-generic characters will develop as we go. The visuals may not be able to maintain quality going forward.