Ancien is the princess of a mystical land, whose king is obsessed with cars and locked his daughter away out of fear of her magical ability to bring technology to life. But in reality she’s Kokone, a Japanese teenager who lives with her prodigy mechanic father, her only battles being against bouts of narcolepsy in which she indulges her fantasy setting escape. However, when a shady villain has her father arrested she finds real danger and must work to uncover a secret from her family’s past.
Kenji Kamiyama is considered to be a Japanese director of high pedigree, known for works steeped in dark social commentary such as instalments of the Ghost in the Shell franchise. My previous outing with his work was 009 Re:Cyborg, a film I was less than impressed with (even if some of its harsher notions about Western society sadly feel accurate just a few years later). Kamiyama intended Napping Princess to be a break from what he is known for, making his daughter the primary audience. Does this alleviate previous problems?
For the most part, yes. Napping Princess is a whimsical, charming film with imaginative visuals and concepts plus a mystery angle to keep you guessing. As a protagonist, Kokone continues my observation of noting that female characters in Japanese animation seem to be much better handled in theatrical outings than television. She’s a well rounded character with strength to be a main protagonist but balanced by quirks and flaws that stop her feeling overbearing. One of those humane traits is the reaction to the threat to her family, to which she responds like any teenager would. The film does a good job blending together tension and comedy, keeping things from being too heavy for the intended younger audience. Case in point, there’s a great scene where Kokone must stealthily sneak around her own home when the baddies break in without realising she’s there. There’s great nail biting dread as the intruders close in on realising she’s present but comedy in how she eludes them and their own incompetence.
Across the film, Kokone will regularly nod off and dream of a fantasy setting based on bedtime stories her father used to tell her. The fantasy setting has a steampunk setting, allowing for some more ambitious and awe inspiring sequences than those set in reality. However, this is where my past criticisms with Kamiyama reappear. Without giving too much away, eventually we find out the dream world might not be so isolated and as a result perception of the film becomes somewhat confusing. Satoshi Kon was an expert at this, using the blur between reality and fantasy to keep audience’s on their toes. Here it becomes just kind of confusing, especially the last act of the film where revelations are had and we’re trying to piece together the answers. It’s not as bad as Re:Cyborg but I did have to sit there for a bit after the film ended to make sense of the finale. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a story that asks its audience to think but there’s that and having to do leg work to defend bad film making and sadly this leans more into the latter.
Kokone is joined by other players and the film wisely focuses on a small cast to keep impact on the heart of the story. Her father is depicted as a genius mechanic who out in the boons is fitting locals cars with AI drivers for next to nothing. He’s arrested early in and spends most of the time talking to Kokone via chat client on his phone. This is a really good angle as it takes advantage of modern technology but also highlights the risks of assuming you know who you’re talking to online is who you think they are. Not in a preachy way but in a way that makes up for so many other films misrepresenting the web. In fact this and related clever playing with the audience makes me befuddled about my earlier complaint. The character is also focal to the story relating to events that predate Kokone’s birth, reminding us that parents are people too who had lives prior to having children.
Morio is a male contemporary of Kokone who ends up joining her on her adventure. The character is really just kind of there to give her someone to bounce off of once she hits the road. Watanabe/Bewan is an example of how the dream setting is used, with our antagonist of a slimy business man being interpreted in the fantasy setting as a Jafar-style duplicitous court advisor. He’s very much like the Wet Bandits in the Home Alone films; preening, stupid and angry that a child keeps outwitting him. The juxtaposition of the two different interpretations works well for him and while perhaps not the greatest villain ever he works well as the pantomime baddy the story needs.
An English dub will be available at select screenings but the version I saw used the original Japanese audio. One of the other pluses of Japanese theatrical anime vs television is it means a chance to break away from the more familiar stable of Japanese voice actors and all of the talent are on point here.
Much like A Silent Voice, one of the things I really appreciate is the sense of scale to the locales. With a film that is part road trip and part fantasy adventure a sense of space is key and the film achieves this admirably in a way a television anime can’t. The urban sprawl of Japanese cities, the impossible locales of the dream kingdom, etc. All are presented in lush detail. Character animation is also good, with the odd exception of Watanabe who seems to move in this way that awkwardly hints at cel shading. I don’t believe this to be the case so perhaps he just suffered from bizarre choices on directing/boarding? The fantasy sequences also give us some very nicely designed and animated steampunk mechas, essentially armoured fortresses on legs. With most anime mecha often displaying essentially human motion it’s always interesting to see something that breaks from that and considers the sheer mass and weight such a machine would carry.
Napping Princess is an enjoyable film. It displays the best of Kamiyama’s trademarks in a family friendly setting, though alas some of his more unfortunate trademarks are along for the ride. With a tender heart and swashbuckling action this really is a film that deserves a wider audience than anime commonly gets in the West and one I hope parents will follow the director and story’s lead on by sharing it with their children.
Napping Princess will be presented by Anime Limited at select venues across the UK and Ireland Wednesday 16th August in both subtitled Japanese and English dub, with select venues offering further screenings from Friday 18th onwards. For venue details and to book tickets, please visit the official website.
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