by Muhammad Emillio Daniel Effendy
Napping Princess: Awake but Confusing
Last weekend, a limited showing of Napping Princess (2017) took place as part of The Picture Show Family and Children’s series that is curated by FilmScene and proudly presented by MidWestOne Bank. I attended on a Saturday alongside a small crowd of children accompanied with their parents.
The film opens by throwing the audience into a fantastical world right away. Simplified cyberpunk architecture is juxtaposed by the bright colors meant to appeal to children. A monarchy imbedded deep in a religion in which crosses around the neck are replaced with a lock without a key pose an unknown looming threat. An odd choice to include in an anime movie targeted for younger children. A little girl named Ancien (Brina Palencia) jumps across blocks of extended metal arms surrounding a large tall building. She’s said to be a magical princess, a supposedly leftover element of the mahou shoujo genre that caters to young preschool girls in Japan. Most of Ancien and her world’s backstory is revealed through her own narration in a sort of children’s book style. At this point, I expected the entire film to be made for children and as such, adjusted my expectations on what I’d be watching. That may have not been a good idea however as we’ll get to later.
Visual treats can be seen in every scene but the shots don’t linger and move along to match the speed of which the characters drive through the story. The film is a mix of many elements that can be considered cliché within the world of Japanese animation and often feels familiar to audiences who are generally aware of those clichés. Giant autonomous robots, giant man-piloted robots, giant monsters (Kaiju), magic, advanced technology and an insistence not to stick to a conventional three-act structure narrative. However, one can be easily inclined to say that Napping Princess includes far too many elements of anime clichés to make its’ own unique mark despite being visually impressive. Reader note; I did watch this film in its English dub.
The film tells its story through the eyes of Morikawa Kokone (Brina Palencia) who is a Japanese high-school girl in her third-year and takes place in the year 2020. Whenever Kokone falls asleep, she dreams of another world called the Heartland, an eerily totalitarian society where cars are their main produce. The film spends most of its time constantly alternating back-and-forth between the two worlds, one that Kokone inhabits and the other that she dreams of. The transitions between scenes in the dream-world and that set in near-future Japan are incredibly seamless and don’t rely on cheap-tricks like film-grain or color correction to notify the audience of the change. A strong visual aesthetic that can be easily identified within the architecture and costume design of the world in the dream-realm easily set the worlds apart. However, despite the smooth as butter transitions between these two worlds, the narrative somehow still manages to suffer as audiences are left confused as to the true nature of the dream-world. A word of warning, don’t expect to come away from this film with answers to what that dream-world actually is within the logic the film itself tried to build; there are no such answers given.
Whilst its narrative suffers greatly under the weight of far too many elements mashed together, the film still manages to be visually appealing. The first thing I took note of is that despite its’ science-fantasy backdrop, the anime does not regress to the design shorthand of giving characters vibrant unnatural hair colors in order to make them stand apart from background characters. This is in part achieved through its art direction that mitigates the use of same-face syndrome, a reoccurring visual problem with some Japanese anime. Characters are easily visually identifiable from each other thanks to a cast that mixes various age groups and body sizes instead of making every seventeen year old high-school girl look like she’s thirty.
Having been written & directed by Kenji Kamiyama, it definitely takes on his signature markings that that would be familiar if you had watched Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - Solid State Society (2006), Blood: The Last Vampire (2000) or any of his other anime films. Yet most of his films have notably been made for a more mature adult audience, and the decision to make a film intended for a younger audience with a notable lack of violence does not translate well at all. There are often convoluted storylines and plot-points Kamiyama has chosen not to linger on and explain for the audience. In a film intended for an older audience, I would have likely accepted this, but for a story that seems to want to both cater to a younger and older audience, it does run into plenty of narrative problems that leave the audience confused. A seven-year-old sitting in the cinema near me was visibly distressed at his inability to comprehend the film. And I understand his distress. As mentioned earlier, going into this film expecting a film made purely for children is a mistake. It feels like the film is split between who its’ target market should actually be. It’s dream-land scenes often felt like they cater to children and its’ real-world Japan scenes broach darker and more adult-oriented matters yet shying away from them. A scene discussing the death of Kokone’s mother gets close to discussing some very personally held beliefs within Japanese culture regarding how they treat they’re dead loved ones and pay respect to them. However, the scene pulls away as soon as it starts to cross the line of not being family-friendly.
The English dub works well for the most part, but loses its mark on some jokes that can only be understood to Japanese speakers. Textual aspects of the film such as signboards and text messages on a phone or tablet are never translated and this often leads to plenty more confusions for Western viewers. Perhaps studios need to take a page from online fan-sub communities and insert contextual subs for audiences to better grasps certain things on-screen. A scene explaining why the written characters for Kokone’s name matters went unexplained and even for fans of Japanese animation, the significance of that scene can be lost without understanding the language deeply. This is especially problematic given how her name does act as a pseudo plot-device.
The film seems to not know whether it wants to accept its’ own preset logic throughout the majority of the film and there are three points in the film in which it outright contradicts its’ established logic regarding the nature of the dream-world. This could be just a problem of being lost in translation when localizing to an English dub. But it seems too glaring an issue to merely be that.
As a final world, the film is overall beaming with potential to be better than it had intended to be but it’s insistence on being catered for a younger audience got in the way of itself. If you want to leave the cinema with at least some resolution, don’t forget to stay for the credits, some things definitely become clearer in the scenes shown there, though they’re still about as helpful as Marvel’s post-credit scenes in trying to understand what’s happening.