Napping Princess (2017)

Napping Princess first published by Sight & Sound, September 2017

Review: Somnolent final-year high schooler Kokone Morikawa (voiced by Mitsuki Takahata) leads a double life. In her waking hours she struggles to grasp an image of her mother Ikumi (who died in an accident when Kokone was a baby), to work out whether she should move to Tokyo for university or stay in her home by the Great Seto Bridge, and to get to the bottom of why the mysterious Watanabe (Arata Furuta) has just had her auto mechanic father Momotaro (Yosuke Eguchi) arrested by local police. Meanwhile she spends her sleeping hours as princess Ancien, banned by the King from using her magic computer tablet to give life to machines at a time when the steampunk kingdom of Heartland is coming under twin attack from both a monstrous lava-spewing Colossus and a traitor closer to home. Through both these scenarios, adolescent Kokone is attempting to find her own identity and autonomy in a muddle of past and future, dreams and reality.

Written and directed by Kenji Kamiyama (best known for the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Guardian of the Sacred Spirit and Eden of the East animated television series), this feature length anime is being released in the UK with a shortened translation of its original Japanese title Hirune Hime: Shiranai Watashi no Monogatari (literally, Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me), but it has also been travelling under the title Ancien and the Magic Tablet. All three titles mark a crucial confusion of identity that also governs the film itself, allowing it to get the best of two very different genre worlds. For Napping Princess is part baroque fantasy adventure and part contemporary teen rite of passage, and while Kokone may spend half the film – including, improbably, its climactic sequence – deep asleep, the viewer will need to stay wide awake in order to bridge the opposing banks of its protagonist’s fluid narrative.

Racing from Okayama to Osaka and then on to a Tokyo with her friend Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), Kokone grows convinced that the key to both her family history and to her present predicament lies hidden in her dreams. Yet while there are, from the outset, obvious correspondences, there are also puzzling incongruities, between Heartland fantasy and her reality in Japan of 2020. This is because her dreamworld is a composite of a half-remembered allegorical bed time story which Momotaro used to tell her as a child (and with which she has always identified without properly understanding its dramatis personae), and of influences from other, mostly animated films (chiefly Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979 and Castle in the Sky, 1986; and the Evangelion and Transformers franchises) which we must assume have, over the intervening years, captured Konoke’s imagination and entered her dreams. Somewhere in all the noise of these different influences, Konoko will find herself – and along the way, viewers are treated to a colourful, bipartite story in which a young girl forges a link between different worlds and generations.

Synopsis: Okayama, 2020. Kokone Morikawa lives with her widowed father Momotaro, a car mechanic. Kokone sleeps a lot, dreaming she is Princess Ancien in Heartland, a steampunk kingdom that is obsessed with building cars but bans her from using her magic tablet to give the vehicles autonomy. When Momotaro is arrested, and the sinister Watanabe comes and takes Momotaro’s tablet, Kokone steals it back, getting her older friend Moroi to help her escape in Momotaro’s customised motorbike. Exhausted, Kokone and Moroi fall asleep in the stationary motorbike’s sidecar, and both dream that they are in Heartland, which is under attack from a giant Colossus. Both wake up in Osaka, and realise that the motorbike runs autonomously. Moroi reminds Kokone that Heartland was part of a bedtime story that Momotaro used to tell them as children. Kokone discovers that Watanabe is an executive at Shijima Motors in Tokyo, where her estranged grandfather Isshin is CEO. On the express train to Tokyo, Kokone dreams of trying to give autonomy to the King’s giant mechas so that they can fight the Colossus effectively, and realises that Ancien, who dies in the conflict, is Kokone’s mother Ikumi rather than herself. Decades earlier, Isshin and Ikumi had fallen out when he rejected her software for driverless cars. Now Watanabe, hoping to oust Isshin, plots to stop Ikumi’s software (on the tablet) reaching Isshin in time for the Olympics parade. Momotaro rescues Kokone from Watanabe, with help from the motorbike, and is reconciled to Isshin.

© Anton Bitel