In a steampunk world similar to but parallel to our own, the kingdom of Albion (England) has been split into two countries by a civil war, with the capital of London now divided between a Republic and a Kingdom of Albion by a nearly impenetrable wall. Posing as students at the prestigious Queen’s Mayfair Academy in the Kingdom are five girls who engage in espionage for the Republic side: Chise, an agent from Japan, Dorothy, an older woman posing as a high school student, Charlotte, the princess and heir apparent to the Albion throne, Beatrice, an aide and friend to Charlotte, and Ange le Carré, a masterful liar who disguises her emotions by pretending to be “an alien from the black lizard planet”.
I feel like I hadn’t seen a good steampunk series in a while when I came across Princess Principal. It’s a genre that I have a lot of nostalgic feelings for; I grew up on fantasies like the His Dark Materials books, and the anime world has some great examples like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Kino’s Journey, but I feel like for a while I was lacking for good shows that weren’t half-assed light novel adaptations a la The Pilot’s Love Song. Then this show came along, and I had to keep my fingers crossed it would deliver: it had an electro-Victorian alternate history setting with a cute female cast, with lots of sapphic vibes from the promotional art, character designs from the artist behind Kino’s Journey, and a soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura of Madoka and Kalafina fame. Luckily, Princess Principal kicks ass: it has flair, strong worldbuilding, and an awesome cast, and while it doesn’t end on quite as strong a note as I would’ve liked, it’s obvious they were leaving room open for sequels. Now that I know that a movie series is incoming, I basically have nothing to complain about.
With a show like this, you’d hope that it has atmosphere, and Princess Principal has it in droves. Being an espionage drama, a lot of the action takes place after dark, and I’ve always felt that animation offers a world of world-building possibilities with nighttime scenery, a world that’s harder to replicate with live-action cameras. Princess Principal lives up to that, molding together a version of London composed of the grittier aspects of the Victorian era with the grunge technology of classic Star Wars or Ghost in the Shell, and some of the nighttime vistas of the city and the wall are absolutely breathtaking. The show’s no slouch when it comes to daytime scenery, either, and the show effectively uses color contrast to draw a difference in the scenery inhabited by the ruling and working classes. It’s telling, I think, that the espionage gear that the girls use is all colored black and grey; obviously this has a practical purpose for staying undercover at night, but I can’t help but feel that details like Ange’s chimneysweep hat align the main cast with the proletariat, regardless of their actual origins; there’s an important plot point regarding Ange and Charlotte’s relationship that relates to that that, and unfortunately, I can’t dwell on it because spoilers. I absolutely love the costume design in this show and am still somewhat surprised I haven’t seen more cosplays recently; at the very least, a fan of this show could easily make a lolita coord based on some of the outfits. The character design also stood out to me, and it was a pleasant surprise when I found out that it was the same hand that had made Kino’s Journey, which is another show that combines an antiquated setting (city-states and a lot of feudalism) with futuristic technology. Last but not least, the music in this show is just a total blast; Yuki Kajiura pulls of an electronics-infused jazz-rock soundtrack that builds tension in all the right places, and I also have a huge soft spot for the opening, “The Other Side of the Wall” by Void_Chords and MARU, which is the jazzy steampunk anthem none of us anime fans realized we needed. Basically, I have nothing to complain about when it comes to the technical aspects of Princess Principal.
Now, the episodes of Princess Principal air out of chronological order, and while I haven’t yet come across any streaming platforms or releases that try to arrange them otherwise, I’d say stick to the airing order even if they do. The sequence of “introduction, cast building, setting building, cast building” etc. works well: the show hooks you in with a promising spy mission featuring all five girls and then spends time introducing you to them, and the first couple of episodes are peppered with hints as to Ange and Charlotte’s relationship, and how they met each other, before we get a full episode launching into it. Looking back, these episodes are fascinating to watch because while it’s clear that Ange’s “I’m an emotionless alien from the Black Lizard Planet” act is a front, it’s not clear why she does it…until it becomes obvious that Charlotte is the only person who sees past it, and you start to wonder what it is that lets her emotionally disarm Ange so easily. While the internet continues to go back and forth as to “how they’re just close friends”, I don’t really buy it; if you look at the official art, and at the ending part of the OP, and at the lengths to which princess and Ange put themselves at risk, replace them with a heterosexual couple, and you’d be having a much harder time making that article (Charlotte literally admits at one point that she’s accepting the possibility that aligning herself with Ange’s mean that the monarchy will end and that she’ll be guillotined.)
My own sapphic ships aside, the rest of the cast holds the show together well. I know that some people are sick of the “seduces men to get what she wants” trope, but given that Dorothy (who’s by far the oldest of the group) shows absolutely no interest in men most of the time, it’s kind of hilarious to me to see her simply “turn on her charms” full stop to get what she wants (also, Freddie Oversteegen would argue that there’s plenty of good times to use sex appeal as power). Beatrice is the odd one out, in a sense, because she has no actual spy training and, in another series, would be the protagonist (I’m thinking of something like Release the Spyce), except that she has no real interest in this type of dangerous work outside of being loyal to princess and the fact that her sadistic father’s “body modification” torture meant she ended up with an ability that’s very, very useful for espionage. I liked her presence in the show both because it upended the usual “uninformed protagonist” role and because she was the example of a character working as a spy because she can, not because she wants to necessarily, but ultimately the other characters still accept her. Lastly, Chise is to this show as Goemon is to the Lupin III franchise; apparently Japan does exist in this universe, and she fights with a distinctly different style from the other characters, while also being a bit of the “woah, okay, England/Albion sure is a different world” character in the same way that Monkey Punch added Goemon because he wanted a “more Japanese” character in his manga. We only see the barest of what other countries look like in this parallel universe, and a lot of what we do see is through her eyes.
As for the story itself? Lord am I happy that more of the series looks like it’s coming, because the individual episodes definitely do more work in establishing the main cast and the atmosphere of the world than they do making the politics absolutely clear. I actually don’t necessarily want to complain about that, because I probably would care more about a show with an awesome cast set in a fascinating world, knowing there was more to explore, than a show where they went to great lengths to talk about the factions and politics but left the characters undeveloped. If anything, I’d love to know more about the cast beyond the main five; the politics of the royal family itself are fuzzy, and we come across some interesting players whose backstory just…doesn’t come out during this one season. This is not the only time that I’ve watched a single-season fantasy or science-fiction show, like Kaiba, and ended up feeling that as fascinated as I was with the overarching plot, the self-contained episodes about the main characters ended up working better. The episode that dives into Charlotte and Ange’s relationship most intently is one of the strongest, with some wonderful visual touches; pay attention to their dialogue and keep an eye on the visual touches, since this show is full of them, and it’s nice to look back on previous episodes and pick up on the foreshadowing. So to is the one that delves into Dorothy’s backstory, particularly her difficult relationship with his father; with poverty and class warfare looking big in this show, it ends up being a rather poignant look at how poverty-induced suffering can engender abuse. But near the very end of the show? There’s something of a rushed climax: what I ended up actually caring about was Ange and Charlotte not losing each other, but since a lot of the other players during the final two episodes are introduced pretty last-minute, I found the overarching politics kind of hard to follow. Not to mention that this show has its own “magic substance”, Cavorite, that powers a lot of the machinery and spy equipment and allows for some of the kickass sequences like Ange’s literally being able to fly for short periods. It’s obvious that Cavorite mining has led to a lot of the geopolitical conflicts in this show, but we don’t learn much about it; you can grumble about that, or you can enjoy the visual flair that Cavorite equipment brings the show, and I decided I’d do the latter.
Princess Principal is definitely a personal favorite: it has a fantastic cast, a fascinating steampunk universe, kickass visuals, and it’s also home to one of my personal favorite ships. It didn’t end quite as strongly as I wanted it to, and for a show like this, I really want more than just a single 12-episode cour; since the only other media I know of is a single video game, and there isn’t even a manga, I feel like there’s so much more I want from this series, and I really have to hope that the movies live up. Still, this series has a lot going for it, and I’m definitely a fan.
Borderline five stars, honestly; I might end up changing my rating, down the line, depending on how the movies affect everything overall. But as a standalone, it’s an entertaining show with a lot of compelling character drama, and even if some of the political drama got lost on me, it’s still got my full recommendation. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Preteens and up should be okay, but since civil war and espionage are at the forefront of the plot, expect a fair amount of violence, some graphic (but none of it gratuitous IMO).
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Amazon Prime (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Princess Principal © 2017 Princess Principal Project
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