The Complete Shamanic Princess Review
Shamanic Princess is a 6-part OAV [original animated video] series originally broadcast on Japanese television in 1996. With its total 3-hour running time fitting comfortably on your average dual-layer DVD, thanks to Central Park Media you can have the entirety of this 'magical girl' show on one shiny disc for your viewing pleasure. (Good grief, between this, Prétear and Brigadoon, I do seem to be reviewing a lot of mahou shoujo anime lately, don't I?)
Not too give too much away, the concept is thus. An important magical artefact - one that, in point of fact, powers the entire alternate reality from which our protagonists hail - has been stolen. Two shamanic princesses are despatched to retrieve it, each accompanied by a 'partner' who is bound by divine contract to assist them in any way they can. However, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, the first pair of magical practitioners is seduced into betraying the cause, and it is up against not only these two 'turncoats' but the original thief himself that our plucky heroine and her acerbic ferret are pitted. (Honestly, I'm not making this up.) To further complicate matters, there's also a lost comrade to consider, whose fate seems bound up in this mission in some unknown way.
Sounds a bit murky, doesn't it? Well, believe it or not, that's merely a ruse on the writer's part. (Speaking of which, the screenplay is by Asami Watanabe, the same person responsible for X... which kind of figures, actually, as the evidence of CLAMP is everywhere.) When you get right down to it, the story of Shamanic Princess is actually fairly straightforward and quite enjoyable... but it's as if the production team wasn't really content with this situation and set to work on making the series deliberately more confusing and less fun to watch before releasing it into the wild. In this latter effort, I'm afraid they succeeded beyond all expectation.
Easily their single worst decision in this regard was to wrong-foot the natural viewing order of the episodes. By chronological order of events they should be viewed: 5, 6, 1, 2, 3, 4. Now we've all seen films which use inverted chronology to exquisite effect, but when this device succeeds it is because the entire show was carefully constructed to take advantage of this in advance... and not merely because the script was written with a perfectly ordinary timeline and then, just as the principal photography was about to wrap, the screenwriters thought it might be vaguely more interesting to take the first third of the film and move it to the very end.
Alas, this is what has happened with Shamanic Princess and there's no artistic justification for it, because the series isn't made stronger or more intriguing by the change. Very much the opposite, in fact; simply put, spending the first two episodes of a six-part series wondering what the hell is going on and having zero emotional connection with any of the protagonists doesn't make for good viewing. Even with the apparently endless slew of flashbacks the writers saw fit to work in, the show's plot and various character dynamics only make sense once you finish watching the last two episodes, even though the final confrontation and climax transpires long before this, at the conclusion of episode 4. It's just not terribly satisfying, and though I commit a heresy by suggesting it, might I recommend that anyone setting out to watch Shamanic Princess for the first time simply disregard the 'official' order of the episodes?
Because the fact is, this isn't a bad series. At all. But whilst I can envision many casual viewers giving up on it if forced to watch the first half in isolation, I can just as readily imagine the same people being completely hooked on the show... if only they are shown parts 5 and 6 first. The fantasy universe of Shamanic Princess is rich and detailed, with a lot of thought invested in the various notions of shamanic magic and its use, the hierarchy and division of the powers, and so on. All of the principal characters are well-developed and interact in appropriate ways given their interpersonal histories. The fight scenes are nicely orchestrated and fascinating to watch. And the central conflict, while certainly a very standard motif trotted out from the 'tried and true' fantasy stable, is executed competently and only grates ever-so-slightly on the 'How many times have we seen this done before?' nerve.
I would also like to clarify that it's not as if I don't understand why the 'prologue' episodes were shunted to the rear. The reason is obvious: the big showdown at the end of episode 4 (indeed, the entirety of episodes 1-4) feels somewhat lacklustre compared to much of the action in episodes 5 and 6, which constitute by far the strongest third of the series. So Watanabe and Co likely were dissatisfied with the chronological ending of the series, and - rather than work to improve it directly - decided to mask its failings by burying it in the middle of a revised timeline. I still say this was a bad call.
Episode Guide (and Possible Spoilers)
1: 'The Throne of Yord'
Tiara and her cute, furry, wisecracking partner Japolo arrive at some nondescript European town and are immediately attacked by a shadowy figure. We glean from the ensuing dialogue that they are there on a mission to recover 'the Throne of Yord', but just as Tiara begins establishing her mundane cover (generally a prerequisite for 'magical girl' shows) as a local schoolgirl, she discovers that there's another of her kind already on the scene: Lena, a colleague/rival whose friendly demeanour Tiara immediately rebuffs. It doesn't take long for Tiara to realise that Lena (and her partner Leon - no, not another ferret!) have more or less defected to the other side, and are assisting yet another ex-colleague of hers, Kagetsu, in concealing the stolen Throne of Yord. This just serves to vex her all the more, and all this talk leads up to the first proper demonstration of how shamanic magic works... which is impressive!
Whilst Tiara and Japolo are clearly the stronger pair of fighters (indeed, by the end of the first fight sequence Tiara has overpowered Lena and seems just about ready to make an end of the transformed Leon), her power is trumped by that of Kagetsu, who - like his sister Sara, thus far introduced only in bizarre dream sequences - is a 'Neutraliser': one who unlike Tiara and Lena practices a different mode of magic which allows him to cancel out other mages' forces. He offers to return the Throne of Yord in three days' time, but Tiara is impatient and sneaks into his hideout that night in an effort to snatch the artefact. To her chagrin, she discovers that the Throne of Yord (looking for all the world like a painting) has trapped Sara... and, hungry for more, pulls Tiara into its depths as well!
Although Kagetsu launched himself into the painting in an effort to save Tiara, it is only through the timely intervention of Sara (still a prisoner of the artefact) that the two managed to escape in the end, and the expenditure of energy was too much for Kagetsu, who afterwards lies in a near-comatose state, being tended by Lena. Whilst there is clearly something of a history between the two girls and this boy, Tiara agrees to leave them be for the time being, and goes off to plan her next move. However, before she has much of a chance to do so, the Throne of Yord launches its attack... using her friends as weapons against her. After having to battle an artefact-possessed Lena, does Tiara have the necessary reserves of will to fight Sara?
4: 'Morning of Prayer'
The final episode... or what should have been, at least. Almost snared by the siren's call that is this vision of Sara, Tiara realises just in time that what she is seeing isn't her friend at all, but is in fact the Throne of Yord playing yet another one of its many tricks. There's a great deal more magical combat (and no small amount of pseudo-philosophical debate) between Tiara and the artefact as we wend our way towards the eventual denouement, where the true nature of the Throne of Yord is revealed and some of our heroes are given a second chance.
5: 'The Guardian World'
And this is where you should start watching the series. We have all that handy backstory that Watanabe-san thought simply wouldn't interest us during the first, oh, two hours of the OAVs. We get to observe the childhood of the three girls, and how a unequal relationship developed with both Tiara and Lena becoming rivals for the affection of Sara, who was unlike either of them in more ways than one. We are treated to Tiara's nascent crush on Sara's older brother Kagetsu, and the path of trials that shamanic princesses must endure in order to fully attain their powers. Most interesting is the fact that they are required to summon their own partners and bind them to them on their own, and that this involves taming and restraining their own darker selves. (Which explains much about the alternate forms we've seen them transform into.) Much of this episode revolves around Tiara's difficulties in summoning her first partner, Graham... and her eventual success after Sara and Kagetsu lend a hand.
6: 'Festival of the Wind'
When it is her turn to undergo the shamanic trials (this time the ones for Neutralisers), Sara gets offered up to the Throne of Yord... and is absorbed by it. Whether this was supposed to happen (as the Elder does rabbit on a bit about 'offering' Sara to the artefact, and girls do tend to get used a lot as sacrifices in these sorts of fantasy settings) or not, it's something Kagetsu cannot come to grips with... and he begins to plot to steal the Throne of Yord and free his sister from its diabolical grip. Meanwhile, on her first proper mission to Earth, Tiara lets Graham get out of control and he ends up killing the phantom which she had been sent to retrieve, and for this she is punished. Despite being visited by Lena (who has at last summoned her partner Leon and makes an effort to cheer up her rival), things are not about to improve for Tiara. Whilst everyone else in the community gears up for the approaching Festival of the Wind, things finally slip out of control for Kagetsu and Graham, with devastating consequences for both. And as the Elder assigns Japolo as her new partner and tasks Tiara with returning the Throne of Yord, we are now ready to watch episode 1.
Presented in the standard TV aspect ratio of 4:3, the video quality of Shamanic Princess is generally quite good. Albeit far from reference quality (with everything from a persistent background grain, occasional bursts of macroblocking, and quite a bit of rainbowing, particularly along the edges), the animation is executed to a fairly high standard. As one might expect from an OAV production, this series benefited from an expanded budget, and this really shines through in the fight scenes especially. Without exception, these sequences are lovely to watch and make good use of three-dimensional effects which allow you to easily forgive the more prevalent static pans seen during the more quiet, dialogue-intensive parts of the show. The colours are also wonderful, spanning a broad palette that incorporates some nice contrasts between subdued pastels and bolder tones.
Not that any of this comes as a huge surprise, really, considering some of the names on the production team. For instance, the character designer was Atsuko Ishida, famous for prior work on the popular television series Magic Knights Rayearth and Shin Hakkenden and who supervised the key animation for Ranma ½: Nihao My Concubine. The art director was Hajime Matsuoka, the same person who created the background art for My Neighbour Totoro. And for that matter, the director of photography was Takashi Azuhata, who filled the same role for Boogiepop Phantom, Serial Experiments Lain, and Harlock Saga, amongst others.
The audio quality very much depends upon whether you're enjoying the Japanese soundtrack or enduring the English dub. (Both are presented in standard Dolby Stereo, so don't expect a lot of whiz-bang surround sound effects.)
In the original Japanese, Shamanic Princess is graced with a truly stellar cast of voice actors. Leon is voiced by Hiro Yuuki, famous for such roles as Arc in Arc the Lad, Makoto from Neon Genesis Evangelion, Omi in Weiß Kreuz (for which he also sang the theme song), and - somewhat more amusingly - Stan in the Japanese version of South Park! The guy playing Kagetsu is none other than Kouichi Yamadera, the voice of Spike in Cowboy Bebop, Captain Harlock in Harlock Saga, Ryouji in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Juubei in Ninja Scroll, and last but certainly not least, Ryoga throughout the run of Ranma ½. And let's not forget Rica Matsumoto, who played both of Tiara's partners (Graham and Japolo) and has had a goodly number of famous roles here and there (Kei in Dirty Pair Flash, Rumi in Perfect Blue, Satoshi (or should I say 'Ash' for those of us in the West) throughout the sensation that was Pokémon, April in Sol Bianca, Nataku in X, Koashura in Yu Yu Hakusho: The Movie, and - again last but not least - Aoi Futaba in You're Under Arrest), but is probably equally well known for her vocal performances of the theme songs for shows like Dirty Pair Flash, eX-Driver, Fake, and Pokémon.
So much for the good news. If you choose to instead tune in to the English dub, be prepared to steel your ears for a different kind of experience. Tiara's voice actor there alternates between a 'Valley Girl' approach (with the occasional 'Whatever!' thrown in for good measure) and something closer to a straight reading of the script. Her performance comes across as slightly disinterested, unfortunately, and the fact that she sounds fairly old - as, in fact, do all of the characters in the North American cast - doesn't particularly work in her favour. Similarly, the VA playing Sara was apparently trying to achieve something interesting with her inflection, but only succeeds in sounding robotic. And let's not talk about Lena's voice on the dub, which is so husky that it borders on sounding male... while her partner, Leon, comes across as almost deliberately effeminate. Argh! The ultimate insult, however, has to be the voice actor performing Japolo, who decided to try for an extremely camp hybrid-European voice primarily consisting heavily of stereotypical French and Spanish elements but with a few German gags thrown in, and alas ends up coming across as the bastard offspring of Pepé Le Pew, Speedy Gonzalez, and Dr Scratchansniff. (And yes, it really does sound that bad.) All in all, the English dub of Shamanic Princess is well worth avoiding.
But to finish off with some happier news, the OP (opening) theme song, 'Inori no Asa' ['Morning of Prayer'], while typically catchy and infectious (as, let's face it, most J-pop used in shoujo [girls'] anime is), has a particularly nice escalating chorus which will probably have you unwittingly humming the tune at inopportune moments. Both this and the ED theme, 'Omoide no Mori' ['Forest of Memories'] are performed by Miwaku Saitou and are quite pleasant on the ears.
The menus on this DVD are fairly basic fare and have the look and feel of those seen on many early Central Park Media releases. As if a concession to 'moving with the times', there is a small amount of animation visible on the main menu, but it's nothing that's going to make you jump out of your seat. I reserve my only real gripe for the fact that the lads in the DVD authoring department apparently didn't think it was worth letting the audio clip of the wonderful theme song get even halfway to completion before viciously slashing it off and forcing your DVD player to automatically start playing the first episode on the disc. (This menu behaviour is also fairly standard for CPM titles, and it's still as vexing as ever. Most distributors understand that people might want to step away from the DVD player for a minute before watching the disc, and allow the main menu to cycle/loop at least half a dozen times - if not indefinitely - before defaulting to 'play'... but you can always count on a CPM disc to start without you, whether you like it or not.)
The special features provided on this disc are slightly on the slim side, but at least include two of the 'unexpected bonus' variety. Starting with the basic stuff, we have the CPM-standard Meet the Characters section, which provides capsule summaries of six of the seven key characters in the OAVs (in case you're wondering, it's poor old Graham that gets the short shrift here) followed by brief video clips of each character in action. In a thoughtful touch, CPM made it so you can use the AUDIO button your remote control to toggle between the English and Japanese renditions of the clips. (Usually in Western anime releases, these sorts of 'character profile' clips are only played to the English dub track.) There's also a static page of info under About the Artist, which gives the viewer a little background on Atsuko Ishida.
Then, curiously, we have the chance to view Japanese Trailer 1 and Japanese Trailer 2 (which are indeed the original Shamanic Princess advertising trailers... for the videocassette and laserdisc releases of volumes 5 and 6, respectively). I always enjoy seeing the difference between how the Japanese promote anime and the way Western companies do, so it's great to have extras like these on this DVD. I just wonder where the adverts for the first four parts of the OAV got off to. Finally, there is the usual previews section containing CPM trailers for Knights of Ramune, Slayers Try, Virgin Fleet, Agent Aika, and NightWalker.
This isn't quite everything, however... Central Park Media has been something of a leader in providing anime discs with loads of DVD-ROM content, and The Complete Shamanic Princess is no exception, featuring everything from a full-fledged art gallery to the complete English dub scripts to production credits, a full cast list, other reviews of the series, and even various links to their official websites (including www.shamanicprincess.com, naturally!). Alas, not everyone can access DVD-ROM content, so I can't give CPM full credit for these special features; perhaps some day the company will provide a duplicate of these extras accessible from the DVD menus.
Shamanic Princess is a decent anime series and one which I think will appeal to a fairly wide spectrum of viewers. The story is not at all difficult to follow if you do as I suggest and slightly rearrange the viewing order of the episodes, but can be rendered more complicated if you wish simply by ignoring my advice. The animation is really quite impressive at many points (even if the picture quality is merely average for a mid-90s production) and the audio is polarised between the laughably bad English dub and the far more appealing Japanese soundtrack. And whether or not you can access all of the special features contained on this disc is somewhat immaterial considering the great value for money represented by getting the entirety of the OAVs in one place.