Kokone (Mitsuki Takahata) is a teenager living two lives. When she is awake, she is a Japanese schoolgirl on the run after her father was arrested and a mysterious tablet computer was shoved into her hands. When she sleeps she is Ancien, a captive magician princess in a dystopian steampunk-themed kingdom. As her waking adventure unfolds, the events in her sleep begin to take on an unexpected significance.
Napping Princess is an anime feature riding on an awful lot of expectations through sheer pedigree alone. The film marks the feature debut of noted anime director Kenji Kamiyama, whose television series Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Eden in the East have made him one of the most acclaimed and feted anime directors working today. To a large extent the film delivers exactly what his fans are likely expecting: a well-developed world (in this case two of them in parallel) loaded with social comment, and a strong protagonist whose mission weaves deftly through it.
Kamiyama appears to have his eye on automation and the dehumanising effect on technology. Ancien lives in a fantasy kingdom that manufactures 1950s-style automobiles on a 24-hour-a-day basis, leading to gridlocked streets, pollution and a sort of loose Orwell-esque oppressive government. In the waking world Kokone’s path draws her to a large car manufacturer and its plans to debut self-driving cars at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics opening ceremony. Through this car motif the two worlds get immediately tied together, although it is a little questionable over how effectively Kamiyama ties the knot.
Technically the film is gorgeous, combining CGI and hand-drawn elements very subtly to create some outstanding and immense vistas. The character and technology design is inventive and, in the case of the steampunk dream world, very charming. Kokone’s ‘real’ world is similarly well crafted and presented, although in this case Kamiyama and his crew develop a very evocative and authentic depiction of Okayama in Japan’s south. There seems to be a tendency in contemporary anime to showcase regional Japan in rather attractive ways. I suspect there may be an element of actual tourism funding involved; after all, every anime has to get its funding from somewhere.
The only two key drawbacks of the film are its length and its binary set-up. At almost two hours in length, Napping Princess does ultimately outstay its welcome a little. A bigger problem is the manner in which the two parallel narratives intersect. It is difficult to dwell on it too closely without beginning to reveal a few too many plot threads, but suffice to say the film ultimately felt a much messier and undisciplined affair than the opening set-up had suggested. Anime fans – particularly followers of Kamiyama – will be entertained, as well as any lovers of Japanese-style animation. This is not a film to break beyond that crowd, however; it is a solid mid-range animated feature, and should have no difficulty finding itself a comfortable niche in that regard.