Saturday, January 15, 2011

Murder Princess (anime OVA), via Hulu

 This OVA is short, so I've written a fairly complete synopsis, which means there are spoilers. I suppose I should feel guilty about that, since I said I'd try to cut back on them, but I don't. Trust me, if you ever had any urge to see this show, you're better off just reading spoilers and leaving it be. It's not the worst thing I've ever seen, but it rates a "meh" or "this kind of sucks" in enough areas that it's not really worth the two and half hours it takes to watch it.

I really don't want my motto to become "I watch/read this stuff so you don't have to," but it's hard for me to quit something once I've started it...

Synopsis:

Princess Alita barely manages to escape the traitor who has stormed her family's castle and killed her father and her friend/lady's maid. In the process of escaping, she encounters a female bounty hunter. The two of them fall off a cliff, and the simultaneous near-death experience causes them to switch souls. Alita, now in the bounty hunter's body, enlists the help of the bounty hunter to take her family's castle back. The bounty hunter, Falis, agrees, but only because she'd like to get paid and she'd like her body back (pretty much in that order).

After taking back the castle, Falis has to pretend to be Alita and assume the throne until Alita's brother comes back from peace talks in another country. Alita assumes the role of her lady's maid, even taking her former lady's maid's name, Milano. The new Alita doesn't know how to behave like a royal, but she can slaughter monsters like it's nothing, so her people love her.

Alita's brother comes back, and everything seems wonderful, until he's revealed to be a scumbag traitor who's working with a sorceress to try to get hold of something called Te Oria. Te Oria is magic/technology that can grant a person any wish. It's a powerful thing left over from a previous era, when robots were everywhere and technology was so advanced it looked like magic - in fact, all the magic and fantasy creatures in this era are actually technology left over from the previous era.

Anyway, the sorceress and scumbag traitor kill the other traitor (you know, the one at the beginning who killed Alita's father) because he'd outlived his usefulness or something. The sorceress and the scumbag traitor are after Alita - or, more accurately, her body - because only she can access and use Te Oria, which is hidden in the castle. Instead of running far, far away, new Alita, Milano, and a few companions go back to the castle to...try to kill the sorceress, I think. Or maybe just to access Te Oria and use it to switch back to their own bodies. It doesn't go so well, and the scumbag traitor gains access to Te Oria and uses it to wish for the destruction of the world. Once Te Oria is started, the only thing that can stop it is for Alita (or rather her body) to turn it off, but doing so will cut the power it has been providing to all the things from the previous era, including Alita/Falis' comrades/friends. The comrades/friends are unafraid, so Alita and Milano shed some tears before Alita turns Te Oria off.

Because they didn't get a chance to wish themselves back into their own bodies, Alita must continue to be the princess, her bloody battling earning her the name "Murder Princess," and Milano presumably continues to be her lady's maid. The fate of the scumbag traitor isn't mentioned.

Commentary:

The first time I saw the Murder Princess DVD boxed set at my local entertainment store, I considered buying it. I was excited by the words "complete series" accompanied by a low price (I can't remember what it cost, exactly, but it was under $20). Years of experience buying anime taught me to examine the boxed set more carefully, however, at which time I noticed that this "complete series" was only 6 episodes long. Also, the description only vaguely interested me. I moved on to something else, and I'm now glad I did.

I haven't done much research on this series, just enough to tell that this OVA is based on a manga which is apparently very different. So, don't assume that anything I say here applies to the manga. It's possible the manga is quite good. I wouldn't know, and the anime didn't really give me much of an urge to find out.

The show's opening credits try very hard to be cool and project the same feeling as other more enjoyable shows (I was particularly reminded of Soul Eater, for some reason), promising action and probably a bit of fanservice for male viewers. However, a show is more than its opening credits, and this OVA lost points with me right from the start with its generic medieval European-ish fantasy setting.

Right away, little things kept me from getting involved in the story. When the first villain is introduced as a traitor from Alita's own land, and everyone gasps at the betrayal, I couldn't help but wonder, "Shouldn't they already know this? Who killed the king if they didn't even know who was attacking them until after the king's death?"

I hoped that the fight scenes, at least, would be worth watching. Hakuoki (the first season - I still haven't been able to bring myself to watch the second) was also not a stellar show, but its fight scenes (and bishounen) made it slightly more watchable. It was clear early on that Murder Princess's battles would not be able to carry the show. The animation for the fight scenes is cheap and unimpressive, for the most part. It also doesn't help that Falis/Alita is so good at killing things that there is no tension, no suspense. When later opponents wound her, it doesn't feel like she encountered a more difficult opponent, so much as it feels like she is being conveniently handicapped in order to artificially increase the suspense.

Better battles would really have been nice, because the story, characters, and world can only be described as...flat, cliched, contrived, and/or messy. Some things feel like they were ripped from better shows.

Six episodes isn't a lot of time for world-building or character development, so I guess the cliches are meant to make viewers fill in the blanks and maybe convince themselves that this show is better than it really is. Snippets of character backstories come up, but none of it is ever enough to make the characters truly interesting, likable/hate-able, and distinguishable from similar characters in other shows.  The scientist only became a traitor because his research was getting nowhere and he was desperate. That's it, that's the extent of his backstory. Falis's friends don't even have a backstory until nearly the end of the show, when, in an efficient development, their backstory is revealed to be closely connected to an important event in the history of the story's world, which just happens to be connected to the reason why people are after Alita['s body]. In a continuation of the chain of convenient connections, Alita/Milano's real enemy, the sorceress, is the same person who killed Falis's family when she was a child.

Must be a small world.

Then there are those characters who are just...there. They are bodies with basic personalities. The cute little girl robots are examples of that. Their cuteness contrasts nicely with the violence they are capable of unleashing, and it allows for more emotional manipulation near the end of the show, but otherwise the characters are basically cardboard. One of the little girl robots is shy, but deadly when her master is threatened, which I guess is supposed to be amusing. The other little girl robot is more combative. That's all. Thrilling characters, yes?

If I had to vote for the most complex character in this show, I'd probably choose Falis, but even she's not that much better. Her parents died. At some point, she became a bounty hunter interested only in money. She comes to respect Alita/Milano's devotion to her people, so much so that she becomes devoted to them as well.

Falis's relationship with Alita/Milano was one of the most promising parts of the show. Falis, despite traveling with two comrades, is basically a lone wolf. Watching her grow from being around Alita/Milano, and get to the point where she actually wants to use her tremendous fighting ability to help others, rather than just to earn herself some money, could have been interesting. Although it's a direction the show could have gone in, like everything else, this part of the story is brief and underdeveloped. At least the writer seemed to have some recognition of the fact that Falis's growth and her friendship with Alita/Milano was one of the show's few strengths, because it got a little more screen time than some other aspects of the OVA. Of course, that may have been because the relationship was also a good excuse to fit in a little fanservice. I don't know if this is just a product of the translation, but Alita/Milano's words in a couple scenes sure seem like they could be construed as offering herself to Falis in a sexual way.

The relationship between Falis and Alita/Milano would have been more interesting if both the characters themselves had been more interesting. Falis didn't get much character development, it's true, but she did get more than most in the show, and, next to Alita/Milano, Falis seems complex and three-dimensional. "Selfless" doesn't even begin to describe Alita/Milano. She is so selfless, she almost doesn't exist. When she and Falis switch bodies, Alita/Milano adopts her dead lady's maid's identity, ceasing to be the princess. It's an enormous change in her life and her status, but as long as her people are saved, she doesn't even seem to care. She doesn't grieve for her dead father, she barely grieves for the real Milano, and she doesn't seem all that upset that her brother thinks Falis is really her. She practically forces Falis to take over her identity and doesn't seem to mind that she may never get her own body back.

In the absence of characters I could care about, a world that interested me, or a story that was any good, I couldn't help but think too much about things I've sure the writer didn't want any viewers to think about.

For instance, how come only Falis and Alita's appearances were affected by their body switch? I'll accept that they keep their old voices, because that could have been a decision intended to make it clear who's who, no matter the character's appearance. However, Princess Alita's body is used to a sheltered royal life and should be incapable of the kinds of things Falis does.

Then there are the things that are brought up, but never followed through with, like Falis's berserker rage. It comes out of nowhere early on in the show, and several characters wonder about it, because it is unlike Falis to behave this way. It's a detail of potential future interest and importance...and it is never mentioned again.

Overall, I was not impressed with this show. If the fight scenes had been improved, and if Falis and Alita/Milano had been developed more and their relationship given more attention, maybe the show could have been better, but I don't think anything but a major rewrite and a lot more episodes could have made it good.

Watch-alikes and Read-alikes:
  • Scrapped Princess (anime TV series) - If the whole "this fantasy series is really a sci-fi series" aspect of Murder Princess blew your mind, then you've never seen Scrapped Princess. This is another series that starts off as fantasy and gains some sci-fi elements as it progresses. In my opinion, its characters are more likable and its world and story is more interesting. I have not, however, finished the series yet.
  • The Twelve Kingdoms (anime TV series) - If you'd like a butt-kicking female ruler in a pseudo-historical world, you might like this. It takes time and a bit of magical help, but the heroine (or one of the heroines) does eventually get to the butt-kicking point, at which time she's pretty awesome. This anime is actually based on a series of books.
  • Soul Eater (anime TV series) - Situations and characters in Murder Princess frequently reminded me of this series. Again, in my opinion this series has more appealing characters and better action scenes. The series takes place in a world where people called Meisters wield weapons which are actually people who can transform into weapons. Sounds weird, I know, but it's fun.
  • Kyo Kara Maoh! (anime TV series) - If you thought Murder Princess might have benefited from taking itself a little less seriously, you might want to try this. In this series, a high school student gets flushed down a toilet into a medieval European-ish fantasy world where he learns he is the new demon king.
  • Archangel (book) by Sharon Shinn - This one is a stretch, but Murder Princess's attempt to mix fantasy and sci-fi made me think of it. This book, the first in a series, also appears to be fantasy. Later, the series is revealed to have sci-fi elements. Similar to Te Oria, there is technology in this series that can grant wishes to a certain extent or even destroy the world (if I remember it correctly).
  • Dragonriders of Pern (book) by Anne McCaffrey - Again, I'm stretching. Like Archangel, I added this to the list because it's a series that appears to be fantasy, taking place on some kind of fantasy world, but it is later revealed to have sci-fi elements. In fact, I think Ms. McCaffrey prefers this series to be called sci-fi, rather than fantasy. In this particular book (which is actually three books combined), there isn't much evidence that the series doesn't take place on a fantasy world in a parallel universe, but it's a good place for newbies to the Pern world to start. I quit reading the series a long time ago, but I've still got a soft spot for it and its earlier books.

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