What’s it about? Welcome to Cafe “Kuronekotei”, which hosts an array of autonomous mechanical dolls, or mecha, as its servers. However, these dolls weren’t always meant for serving hot drinks and charming customers: just a few years ago, they were machines used to wage war. Now, having exhausted their purpose, they seek solace in a more peaceful place…
I don’t really know what I expected when I saw the words “Prima Doll,” but what I got was… curious, to say the least. Episode 1, “The First Melody” shows its hand pretty immediately: viewers learn that the Prima Dolls are machines capable of waging wicked warfare, a plot that made me think of the better-known Violet Evergarden.
Episode 1 is an exploration of a lot of the dolls’ backstories, and honestly… I can’t remember a single one aside from Haizakura. Oh, and Yugiri, a doll who’s been damaged. It’s a shame. because there’s a lot of solid character designs, but it’s somewhat underwhelming. Prima Doll is much like throwing undercooked pasta against the backsplash of the stove to check if it’s done: it just doesn’t stick.
Prima Doll’s animation is giving cuteness: it’s really charming and pretty, mashing up steampunk with Japan’s Taisho era in the same way as Shin Megami Tensei: Raidou Kuzunoha. It’s a cool place to set this story… if only our lead, Haizakura, was a bit less The Greatest Hits of Moe. She’s high pitched, pink to an extreme, and cutesy enough to give you a hundred cavities all at once. Unfortunately, that also makes her somewhat hard to digest, since she’s almost too cute for me to like her.
And initially, I took myself to task because that’s a quite unfeminist thought, on the surface: femininity can and should be allowed to be cutesy. There’s no set way to perform it, and the notion that feminism and being incredibly cute can’t go hand-in-hand is incredibly wrong. But when entangled with Prima Doll being a seinen, well… that kind of goes out the window. The target audience–which was originally and still often is cis adult men, even with the demographic also increasingly serving as a catch-all–comes crashing in, and it becomes hard to see Haizakura’s cuteness as anything but moe blob bait meant to charm an audience who likes their women cute and lacking. I think the critique is very warranted here too. I see a lot of sadness ahead for the cast, given the final moments of the premiere.
It’s a shame because the orchestration for Prima Doll, as well as its character designs, freakin’ slap! Everything looks distinct without being too different, lending a quirky cohesion to Kuronekotei –The Black Cat Cafe– in a really appealing way. It’s also a shame because Haizakura displays some curious singing-related abilities that may provide a solution to the trauma the automata are put through for the sake of humanity.
As is, Prima Doll is… underwhelming and a bit too moe for my personal tastes. It seems to be mingling a somewhat dark story with the recover of its all female-coded cast: laudable, but a bit tiresome in the end. Truly, the trope of using young women to wage war is quickly wearing thin in an era where current event after current even around the world emphasize how frequently marginalized genders are considered an expendable cost. While the premise of Prima Doll isn’t wretched, it is exhausting: I’d much rather a sweet series about a bunch of young feminine machines finding their place within humanity and broadening the meaning of what it is to be human than knowing that they were war machines. Even now, I still can’t explain why that doth not slap: it just doesn’t and feels exhausting.
There’s also the matter of some of the camera angles. There’s lots of very high cut yukata that reveal a lot of preteen legs: legs that get a heck of a lot of focus at times. It’s jarring because for some reason, I just keep thinking anime won’t do that. And yet my trust is always shattered because inevitably, girls get sexualized in this subtle, discomforting way. It’s another ding in a show that shows to much promise around the edges of it.
There’s a good nugget of a story here: a tale where femininity is literally weaponized, used as a way to deceive and bring ruin to opposing forces. It’s a story where the victims of that, created by humanity to persevere and preserve our species, are left in the wake of their purpose being fulfilled to find a different path. It’s a story where Haizakura can use her voice to call back the fallen automata and perhaps give them second life through a world without warfare. That’s all genuinely interesting, and quite compelling. Kindness as a plot is one of my favorite things in anime, and I think in a series as pretty as Prima Doll, it could be really, really impactful.
But the moe blobness off it all, coupled with the very “just okay” vibes of the premiere make me think Prima Doll is a show for a slimmer season, if one should ever come. Then again, maybe my foray with it will prove to be much more complex that Prima Doll’s premiere lets on.