#1 Steampunk Victorian-era London
Separately, those are already 3 settings I really enjoy. Mix them together and you get the setting of Princess Principal, which had me intrigued the moment I read the summary. In this world, Britain was torn apart by civil war, and like post-war Germany a wall across London separates the two sides of the kingdom of Albion. It’s the 19th century, so you got cobblestone roads, factories spewing smoke into the air, and everybody that isn’t poor wears fancy outfits, but at the same time you got a lot of cool science stuff like improbably large blimps and gadgets that are almost magical.
I watched this show as it aired, so I had to make do with the subbed version. If and when this comes out on Blu-Ray though, I really hope they are going to do some proper British voice-acting to really complete the setting. Even as it stands I was immediately interested in it, and the first scene where they display the architecture and the gravity-defying properties of the technology had me hooked on the show from episode 1.
#2 Anime spy thriller
The story revolves around five girls who are attending school while secretly working as spies for one of the factions involved in the war. I have to say that I find the name poorly chosen, “Princess Principal” gives the illusion that the school is relevant, which isn’t really the case, the focus is on the various spy missions that take the cast outside of it. Either way, anime about spies aren’t a common thing, the first that came to mind was the mediocre Joker Game from a few season ago, so this was a pleasant change of pace from the usual anime.
Each cast member has its specialities and they work together to complete missions that are played very seriously, unlike something like Totally Spies if I may reference something that isn’t anime for a moment. The cast steals important documents, assassinates VIP’s and stalks people. The morality behind what they do is a common element in the story and you got a nice line-up of characters that really suit the setting. For example, Ange is a highly talented, all-around spy who is a compulsive liar, you always get the sense she is telling half-truths and playing roles, whereas Dorothy is more a Bond-like character, charming her way into situations first and relying on force only when it’s needed.
Princess Principal entered a niché where it has little to no direct competition, but didn’t take that as an excuse to take easy ways out. It tells complicated stories with multiple layers to it and has well-rounded characters that are perfectly suited for featuring in these stories.
#3 Every day is an adventure
What made it easy to come back to Princes Principal every other week is that it is a very episodic show that, at the same time, builds towards a greater narrative. The titular Princess could potentially be an heir to the other side of the civil war, and the side of the “good” guys are helping her eventually ascend to the throne for their own benefit. Rather than spending each episode building on just that, each episode is a mission or advances a side-story while at the same time providing some hints or pushing the Princess’ plot slightly forward.
This means each episode tells a complete story, you get to see a mission start, have its twists, and then end in a proper and satisfying way. It builds towards the overall plot slowly and makes sure to keep you posted on it each week so that you stay invested, but at the same time you also get to finish a thing every week, and a lot of the episodes have interesting stuff going on. One episode has the girls trying to find a serial killer which leads them to start working in a failing business from which they can investigate the matter while at the same time helping that business recover. It’s a lot of content for one episode: find a killer, save a business, fix people’s lives, keep the overall plot going, advance the individual characters arcs, and still they find a way to fit that all in, in a way that feels satisfying to watch.
I generally don’t like following shows as they air, because at that point it starts to feel like an obligation. You gotta watch that show on that day, because that’s when the episode comes out. With Princess Principal, I was excited for the next episode to come out in a way I haven’t been for years.
#4 Yuki Kajiura at the wheel
Music is always something I am terrible at noticing, unless it’s so good you can’t help but pay attention. Koji Kondo’s work on various Nintendo games is one such case and another are the many fantastic soundtracks by Yuki Kajiura. She is a phenomenal musician that has done the soundtrack for shows like Madoka Magica, Sword Art Online, and Fate/Zero. Anime with music so recognizable that it’d be hard to imagine them with any other music.
Her work on Princess Principal is not her best, but even an okay Kajiura soundtrack is far above par as far as I’m concerned. The main theme in particular really gets me hyped up for any scene it’s in, an effect that is preserved due to how sparsely it’s actually used. Several other tracks also stand out and the sound design is all around quite strong too.
It’s often shows I find simple or uninteresting that end up with 20+ episodes, specials, and movie tie-ins, whereas complex shows like Princess Principal tend to just get 12 episodes and then end. “Fortunately” this show kind of ends on an open ending, which doesn’t leave everything entirely unresolved, but does leave several major story points open and villains alive, in such a way that implies there are plans to continue it. Personally, I would be 100% in favor of that and I feel this show definitely has the potential to produce a second season, or even a movie tie-in. At the same time, I am really glad that trying to leave the show open for continuation didn’t get in the way of delivering a great finale.
The issue I have here is that the studio behind this little gem is relatively new and, to my knowledge, not exactly bursting with resources. At the same time the series wasn’t absurdly popular, though the current MAL stats of 56,000 viewers and an average score of 7.81 are certainly admirable. Whether it gets a sequel or whatever is just guesswork at this point, but I certainly hope it will, and judging by the ending of this first season, so do its creators.