It felt, for a bit, like Steampunk was getting out of vogue. However, with this year’s Video Game Awards, along with a few other places, we started getting hints of Steampunk coming back to the market. However, even before this, there was a sense that much of what was marketed as steampunk was stuff that was less “punk” and more just Victorian-inspired Pulp Sci-Fi, or as the Foglios refer to their webcomic Girl Genius – “Gaslamp Fantasy”. Works that circumvented the social and political ills of the Victorian Period – not necessarily pretending they didn’t exist, but creating worlds where they could have adventures inspired by Wells, Verne, and Haggard, but without the racism, classism, and imperialism. Princess Principal, on the other hand, feels like a Steampunk Ghost in the Shell – a series that engages with the trappings of its setting and does not paint over the cracks and warts, but instead calls attention to them and works with them.
Princess Principal is set in an alternative Victorian England which has been split in two, following a populist uprising, into two chunks – the Commonwealth of Albion and the Kingdom of Albion. The Commonwealth is more of a parliamentary democracy, while the Kingdom remains predominantly ruled by the aristocracy and a hereditary monarch. Much as with Cold War Germany, as part of this London is split in two, divided by a massive wall. However, in this case, the Kingdom is more antagonistic, in terms of operating a secret police, along with seeking to continue their imperial growth, while the Commonwealth wants to continue to break up the Empire.
Or, to put it the other way, what if East Germany were an aristocratic monarchy and still had the Stasi, only Steampunk.
All of this is fueled by the discovery of Cavorite – a fictional mineral originally appearing in an H.G. Wells novel that, within the universe of the series, allows for all manner of anti-gravity devices, including air travel via airship at a Pulp-1930s level.
Princess Principal follows an all-girl team of spies for the Commonwealth, operating undercover out of the Mayfair Academy in the Kingdom, as they carry out various operations – in a sort of steampunk Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex with some light Moe topping. The team is made up of Ange (the team’s field lead), Dorothy (the driver, one of the two “face” members of the team, and literally the oldest member, being a 20-year old posing as a 17-year-old), along with Chise (a Japanese exchange student, and ninja, who joins the team partway through, and is something of a distaff Goemon from Lupin III) – along with two field operatives from the Kingdom – Princess Charlotte (who seeks to ascend to the throne and enact policies that would be supportive of the Commonwealth’s democratic leanings), and Beatrice (a friend of Princess Charlotte who gets roped into the group to protect the Princess, and who can read lips and mimic voices using an artificial voicebox that was implanted on her by her mad scientist father prior to his death).
While the members of the team use an array of James Bond-esque gadgets, a lot of the actual missions the team goes on feel more gritty. There is more of a sense of moral compromise to it, that the members of the team have to grapple with doing something morally wrong, but for what is hopefully the right reasons.
This is split with some lighter fare – the team taking over a laundry business from its negligent owners in order to find a soldier whose uniform (which is washed there) is contaminated with Cavorite, so they can retrieve the McGuffin from his possession, and in the process running an in-all-but-name Kaizen to improve processes so the business runs both more efficiently and safely, and leaving ownership of the business in the hands of the workers (literally giving the workers control of the means of production). Or a melodramatic episode that has Chise having a swordfight with the man who killed her father on top of a moving train.
Further, to get into the political baggage that often gets ignored by other Steampunk works – Princess Principal is upfront about the warts of its setting – in the aforementioned episode with the laundry plant – the equipment has the same issues with safety (and the lack thereof) common in Victorian-era factories. The divide between the haves and have-nots is gigantic, with attention called to it by the posh boarding school the students attend, compared to the hardscrabble lives of ordinary people on the street. Further compounded by much of the rank and file of the Kingdom’s military is made up of conscripts from the colonies, while the soldiers for the Commonwealth are generally from more domestic sources. Chise faces a significant amount of racial prejudice because she’s not a White girl.
Also, there’s some decent queer representation in the series, with Ange and Charlotte having some straight-up queer text to their relationship. They never go so far as to kiss, but there are some pretty serious statements of affection and some heavy hand-holding.
Could it hit harder? Absolutely. However, one of the things I’ve encountered when reading reviews from other writers (including women of color), when it comes to discussion of the racial and sexual violence that the show doesn’t go into (beyond Chise’s experiences with racism) – is that it’s important to strike a balance when it comes to addressing and those issues, and their existence, without overdoing it. To put it another way, if you can have a fictional ore that allows anti-gravity engines, you can have a setting where you don’t have your female characters threatened with dis-empowerment through sexual assault.
Princess Principal is helped by generally being light on the fanservice. Yes, Dorothy is rather buxom and uses that to her advantage on missions, but she, nor any other member of the team is particularly seen nude nor does the show particularly get into focusing on their underwear. Arguably, both Dorothy and Ange’s work costumes do show a degree of leg (enough to admittedly bring up my grumbles about Huntress’ costume in the Knightfall saga and a lack of knee protection), but it’s never focused on.
In all, Princess Principal is a show that is successful at pulling off its steampunk setting and its spy thriller plot, combined with some great characterization, and all without (intentionally or otherwise) becoming imperialist apologia. Currently Princess Principal is available for purchase on Blu-Ray from RightStuf and from Amazon, and is available for streaming on HiDive. Buying anything through the RightStuf and Amazon links helps to support the site.
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