[Review] Princess Principal – episode 1

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.

Source: Anime News Network

Minor bones of contention aside, this has the makings of an engaging and poignant action title. Princess Principal starts strong with a car chase sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in Lupin III (look if the show wants to have a jazz-influenced soundtrack and an anachronistic samurai whose team role is “cuts stuff,” I’m gonna make comparisons), introducing both its steampunk and magical elements in an active, showing-over-telling sort of way. The streets of alternate-history London are intricately designed and manage to look grimy and cluttered without distracting from the central action on screen.

A woman in a black cloak and top hat throws open a set of double doors, her face in shadow

Movement is fluid and gives a good sense of how the four main girls work as a team in combat. This is then complemented by the finale, which offers glimpses of each team member’s specialty. It’s solid as a spy thriller, managing to tell a compact story while also introducing character threads the series can easily pick up as it goes.

We spend most of this episode with Ange, who initially comes off as yet another Rei from Evangelion clone—standoffish, monotone, adopted child soldier, etc.—but is complicated by the fact that she’s also a compulsive liar. The script plays this for both comedy and tragedy in a single twenty-minute span, and resists what seems to be an initial attempt to completely spill her backstory on day one.

Five girls in gray school uniforms set at a table in a garden, having tea

The other girls each get at least one beat to give us a sense of who they are, and presumably their characters and relationships will be fleshed out in episodes to come. They’re not particularly sexualized, though there is some serious weirdness going on in the costuming: Dorothy the team forger wears semi-historically accurate undergarments in a brief changing scene, and yet many of the outfits are much closer to Gothic Lolita than actual Victorian dress. Gotta get that moe aesthetic, I guess.

Which brings me to the show’s biggest problem: the girls’ designs clash hideously with the rest of the show. This isn’t like Baccano!, where all the characters have rather youthful designs alongside the violence and period setting. Basically every character who isn’t part of the core group looks like an adult, with smaller eyes and less exaggerated proportions. It’s especially egregious with the men, but even the women have smaller heads and eyes proportionally, as well as clothing more accurate to the Victorian setting.

A long-haired girl in a school uniform sits at a table and smiles coyly at someone we can only see in profile from behind

With that as the backdrop, in addition to those hyper-detailed backgrounds, you wind up with scenes where it looks like Ange and her colleagues have wandered in from an entirely different show. The writing is strong enough that it doesn’t break the emotional weight of the story, but it is a constant minor distraction from what’s otherwise a very strong visual aesthetic. (Though there is a paper cutout art style used for the ending that’s downright adorable.)

As always with the “cute girls in potentially horrific situations” genre, I’m on the lookout for the plot taking a turn into pointless tragedy porn, but so far it’s scratching a very particular itch in my spy-and-heist loving soul. Shame about Strike’s double paywall, its almost nonexistent availability outside the U.S., and general contempt for consumers. (Okay, okay, this is the last time we’ll mention it this season. Probably. Maybe.)

Read the ANN Preview Guide review.

 

Vrai is a queer author and pop culture blogger; have they mentioned they fucking loathe Anime Strike yet? You can read more essays and find out about their fiction at Fashionable Tinfoil Accessories, listen to them podcasting on Soundcloud, support their work via Patreon or PayPal, or remind them of the existence of Tweets.

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  • Amy Pilkington

    As a Canadian, the whole Strike fiasco in the US makes even less sense. At first I was super upset that apparently I just wouldn’t have legal access to the shows, but then discovered that (most) of the Strike shows are just on plain old Prime Video here.

    Which, on one hand, yay! I get to watch them! But on the other I’m even more annoyed at Amazon for the whole double-paywall in the US thing. It’s not just unfair, it’s asinine.

  • Belaam

    Just finished the third episode and am really getting into this show. Layers of espionage loyalty. Steampunk Berlin Wall in London. Female characters (particularly the titular princess) actively choosing a riskier route to help people. What looks like a queer storyline and fighting to allow it (though it’s unclear exactly what the relationship is and why it’s not legal). Lots of stuff I love here.

    There are definitely some moe design aesthetics and potential torture porn/slowly killing off all protagonists (the show definitely doesn’t shy away from killing people), but as is, this is becoming one of my favorites of the season.