Princess Principal

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Team Principal, as of the first Princess Principal: Crown Handler movie. From front to back: Ange, Dorothy, Princess, Chise, and Beatrice
Luckily, Princess Principal kicks ass: it has flair, strong worldbuilding, and an awesome cast, and while it doesn’t end on quite as strong a note as I would’ve liked, it’s obvious they were leaving room open for sequels. Now that I know that a movie series is incoming, I basically have nothing to complain about.
—Nicoletta Christina Browne, THEM Anime Reviews

Princess Principal is a Twelve-Episode Anime, originally aired in 2017. It is followed by a six-part film series, Princess Principal: Crown Handler, that was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic; as of early 2024, only the first three movies had been screened in Japan. The television and movie series have both been licensed by Sentai Filmworks, who (as of the end of 2022) have released the series and the first two films on Blu-ray. The series is also available on Amazon Video.

Victorian-era Britain Albion has discovered the anti-gravity substance Cavorite and used it to build an Air Fleet and become even stronger than in Real Life... but a revolution a decade ago has split the country, with the London Wall marking part of the border between East and West. There's still a war going on - not fought by soldiers, but by spies and subterfuge.

So, yes, this story is set in a steampunk version of the Cold War.

The Commonwealth of Albion has devised a plan – Project: Changeling – to replace the Kingdom of Albion's Princess Charlotte (fourth in line for the throne) with a double, Ange le Carré. What they didn't count on was the princess deciding to join forces with Ange in order to become Queen and reunite the nation; a decision that she fully expects to end with her going to the guillotine. The two, along with Ange's partner Dorothy and Princess's school friend Beatrice, become an espionage team for the Commonwealth, based out of the prestigious Queen's Mayfair girls' school that Princess attends and taking mission orders from "Control". A young Japanese swordswoman, Chise, joins them early in the story, and is given the cover identity of a foreign exchange student. "Team Principal" has the advantage of Ange possessing the "C-ball", the smallest known Cavorite device.

To add to the suspense, every member of Team Principal (with the possible exception of Beatrice) has a secret that she's keeping from Control... and, in the cases of Ange and Princess, that they're keeping from the rest of the team.

The story can't decide whether it wants to be in the "trenchcoat and stale beer" or "tuxedo and martini" subtypes of espionage stories, or abandon espionage stories altogether and tell "caper" stories instead. Perhaps it's best to place it in the middle of the spectrum, at "casual outfits and red wine". Or maybe "schoolgirl uniforms and tea".

Tropes used in Princess Principal include:
  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: The tunnels under and within the Wall are immense. Then again, the Wall is tall and thick enough that entire buildings are incorporated into it. (This is a possible Shout-Out to the church in the Berlin Wall and the subway tunnels running under that wall.)
  • Alphabetical Theme Naming: The original Team Principal is made up of Ange, Beatrice, Charlotte, and Dorothy. When everybody starts calling Charlotte "Princess", Chise joins the team.
  • Alternate Techline: Takes place in an alternate late 19th-/early 20th-century Great Britain (internal evidence suggests circa 1900) where steam still predominates and cavorite-powered antigravity makes massive flying battleships possible, and automotive technology is twenty or thirty years further along than it was at the equivalent point in our timeline.
  • Alternate Timeline: One where a dramatic civil war (the causes of which have yet to be even hinted at) split Great Britain Albion into two hostile nations separated by a great wall, somewhere circa 1890, and where antigravity exists and automobiles out of our 1920s are a common sight in 1900.
  • Anachronic Order: The stories were aired (and provided in the North American Blu-ray release) out-of-order, specifically to include all of the characters in the first aired episode and presumably in order to keep some secrets for as long as possible. Each episode is identified with a "Case" number that indicates where it falls in chronological order (which we are using to identify the episodes here).
  • Applied Phlebotinum: Cavorite, the anti-gravity compound.
  • Bait and Switch Credits: At no point does Ange ever transform into a black humanoid lizard; her stories of being from the "Black Lizard Planet" are accepted as lies or understood to be metaphors for being a spy.
  • Band of Brothers: The members of Team Principal will do anything to protect each other, including in Case 11 and Case 24.
  • Because I'm Jonesy: During one of the picture dramas, Beatrice impersonated Ange while calling Princess so that Beatrice could find out whether Princess thought Beatrice was a liability to the team – not knowing Ange was standing beside Princess at the time. Princess played along.
  • Bloodless Carnage: Thoroughly averted. The series does not shy away from blood.
  • Cheeky Mouth: Inexplicably seen here, despite the general high quality of the animation throughout. And it's not consistent -- sometimes profile shots will have moving chins with coordinated mouths that clearly wrap around the front of the speaker's face, while other shots in the very same scene will demonstrate this trope.
  • Conspicuous CG: Although it maintains a look of traditional cel animation quite well, there are moments, such as most vehicles and the traveling shot in Case 1 when the Princess's party returns to the ball, where the illusion fails.
  • Cool Car: Dorothy's car, which looks much like one might expect a 1910s/20s-vintage hot rod/race car might, with all manner of piping and extra bits (including what might be a primitive supercharger) sitting on (or in) its hood. It's huge, almost the size of a truck, can hold pretty much the entire team at once, and appears to be spectacularly souped-up.
    • The Princess has her own car, which is kept parked next to Dorothy's under the school. Although somewhat smaller and more "feminine" looking, it seems to be no less powerful.
  • Cool Garage: The apparently secret garage under the school where Dorothy and the Princess keep their cars, and where Dorothy or Beatrice maintains them. It's not the Batcave (visually, it's much closer to the Black Beauty's garage in The Green Hornet TV series), but it's highly unlikely that any other student at Mayfair has one.
  • Culture Clash: Some is seen between the Albionese and the Japanese who have come to revise a treaty; it's clear that Team Principal (and just about everyone else) is ill-informed about Japan and has little to no idea how to respond to many of their cultural gestures. And some clearly view them as barbarians in the grand British tradition, such as the people whispering on the dock, and even the Colonel who is part of Control.
  • Free-Range Children: Before the Revolution, Princess Charlotte appears to have had virtually no adult oversight. She was able to meet with Ange on a regular basis, and actually had the time to teach her how to read and write and play the piano without anyone in the palace ever noticing. Even after the Revolution, this doesn't appear to have changed too much, no doubt contributing to Ange's early success at pretending to be Charlotte.
  • Fundamentally Female Cast: The core cast is exclusively female, and female regulars outnumber males overall.
  • Grappling Hook Pistol: One of Ange's pieces of spy gear, first seen (chronologically) in Case 7.
  • Great Wall: The London Wall is a Victorian Steampunk equivalent to the Berlin Wall, separating the Commonwealth of England Albion in the west from the Kingdom of Albion in the east, the result of a revolution ten years before the start of the anime. It is a truly immense example of a Great Wall, hundreds of feet tall and thick, incorporating whole buildings (including an entire cathedral) into its structure, and containing internal tunnels wide enough to host a two-lane highway. Despite its name, it surrounds more than just the city of London (as is shown briefly on a map), although its full extent was never revealed.
  • Green Rocks: Cavorite, quite literally. It appears to be a natural mineral found (only?) in Albion; in its natural form it is a pale green crystal, and when used actively emits a green glow that surrounds everything it effects.
  • Grey and Gray Morality: Outside of Team Principal, it's hard to call one side the "good guys" and the other the "bad guys".[1] The Commonwealth and the Kingdom both have sympathetic and villainous people among them and by turns the girls may find themselves threatened by ostensible allies and aided by technical enemies. This is no doubt to emphasize the Cold War parallels in the story, as well as to underline how both sides are Not So Different from each other – a definite advantage when Princess Charlotte's plan is to eventually reunite them.
    • Subtly lampshaded in-universe when the team chooses the name "Team White Pigeon"; Dorothy likes the name because it isn't grey.
  • Historical Domain Character: Charlotte's beloved grandmother is very clearly Queen Victoria, confirmed when Ange stops to look at a portrait of the young Queen during Crown Handler - Chapter 1. This allows us to set the date of the events in the show to no later than 1900 (Victoria died in January 1901), and probably a year or more earlier given her apparent health.
    • In Crown Handler - Chapter 1 and Chapter 2, her health is explicitly said and shown to be declining, suggesting the film series takes place in 1900.
  • Identical Stranger: The only reason Project: Changeling was even considered is because Ange and Princess Charlotte look alike.
  • Impersonation Gambit:
  • Infant Immortality: Averted, as is probably to be expected in a Grey and Gray Morality setting. For example, in Case 7 Jubei Tōdō had no compunctions about striking to decapitate Beatrice; only her mechanical voicebox saved her.
  • Irony:
    • A classic case of Situational Irony: Unbeknownst to anyone but the girls involved, Project: Changeling – intended to replace the Princess with a lookalike – would instead replace a lookalike with the real princess.
    • There is also a case of Tragic Irony during Case 18, when Dorothy complains that her father is late for a meeting, while his body is being wheeled into the morgue.
  • Les Yay: Although there is nothing overt seen in the series (other than perhaps their plan to run away together to Casablanca), and indeed Case 20 seems intent on demolishing any possibility for it at all, the closing credits of both the series and Crown Handler: Part 1 still hint at something more than simply friendship between Charlotte and Ange. They are also a popular Shipping couple, although of course that has nothing to do with Canon developments.
  • The Man Behind the Man: Invoked: When the Princess first proposes an alliance to Commonwealth intelligence, 7 speculates that she may have someone behind her manipulating events.
  • Meaningful Echo: Case 1, in which - despite Ange saying it was the first time they'd met - Ange and Princess repeat a conversation they had had a decade ago (shown in Case 20), with each saying the other's original lines.
  • Not Quite Flight: If she's not carrying anything (or anyone), Ange's C-ball lets her make stupendous leaps, at the end of if which she simply drifts in for a landing. Judging from one scene in Crown Handler: Part 1, these leaps can span miles.
  • Not So Different: The Commonwealth and the Kingdom. To the point that we hear almost nothing about their political differences.
  • Operation: Blank: "Project: Changeling".
  • Power Glows: Cavorite generates a green glow around whatever it affects. Interestingly, this isn't a Sickly Green Glow -- there's no indication that it's evil, harmful or otherwise problematic.
  • Prince and Pauper: This happened ten years before the beginning of Princess Principal, with Princess Charlotte of Albion and her friend Ange taking each other's place on the day of a revolution that left them on opposite sides of the Wall.
  • Roof Hopping: One of the things that Ange's C-ball allows her to do, as shown most clearly in Case 7.[2]
  • Secret Path:
    • The hole in the palace wall where Ange could get in to see Charlotte was the "get somewhere that is difficult to reach" type, although it was destroyed on the day of the revolution.
    • The tunnel between Queen's Mayfair and Team Principal's Cool Garage is the "go somewhere without being noticed" type.
    • Presumably (at least) one exists in/through the Wall, given the Commonwealth's ability to get agents into the Kingdom.
  • Sequel Hook: Zelda's escape at the end of the final arc suggests she – and the Commonwealth faction she works for – will come back to cause more trouble in the film series.
  • Series Continuity Error: Case 1 mentions that everybody knows what Princess Charlotte looks like. Case 16 has Princess go undercover in a London laundry mill.
    • Refuge in Audacity: This seems to be the idea behind the Princess going "undercover" without any kind of disguise. It's so monumentally unlikely that a member of the Royal Family would do something like that, that she can and be dismissed as simply bearing a strong resemblance to Princess Charlotte. After all, what's more believable? That the Princess has inexplicably taken a job at the same sweatshop you work in, or that the girl they've just hired happens to look like her? Of course, there's no small amount of Accidentally Accurate in the latter conclusion...
  • Single Phlebotinum Limit: The only technological anomaly in this setting (the steampunk trappings notwithstanding) is cavorite, the anti-gravity compound, which appears to be a naturally-occurring mineral found only in Albion, and then almost entirely within the Kingdom. (The Commonwealth has access to cavorite as well, but apparently not enough to build their own battleships.)
  • Spirited Young Lady: Most of the central cast, as befits a group of aristocratic teen girls (one of whom is a literal princess) from a quasi-Victorian alternate England who are a team of spies.
  • Translation Convention: The original Japanese dialog says the characters are speaking English.
  • Victorian London: With added steampunk and a Berlin-style wall. London is Team Principal's home base, and the setting for half of the stories.
  • The Wall Around the World: The London Wall. Exactly what it encompasses is unclear (although the sepia-toned flashback in Case 13 shows it encompasses more than just London), but it clearly divides the known from the unknown and the safe from the dangerous, as far as most of the characters are concerned.
  • Wham! Episode: Case 20, which took some clues from earlier episodes about a relationship between two characters and removed all the Les Yay, sending the plot in a completely different direction.
  • You Are Already Checked In: In what might be the only case of both people involved being heroes, this foils an Impersonation Gambit during the final arc of the original TV series.
  • Zeppelins from Another World: The massive anti-gravity-lifted flying battleships fielded by the Kingdom of Albion, while not in any way actual Zeppelins, serve the same purpose in symbolizing the difference between the story's setting and the "real" timeline.
  1. And sometimes, including Case 13 and Case 22, it's a stretch to call Team Principal "good".
  2. It's the only roof for miles around, and Ange still hops onto and off of it.