The recent BD English release of the second installment in the Princess Principal: Crown Handler OVA series led me to realize that I never did get around to reviewing the first installment when it was released back in March (of 2022). Hence this review covers both installments.
The anime-original Princess Principal TV series aired for 12 episodes during the Summer 2017 season, telling an intact story that nonetheless left plenty of room for more. The planned sequel took the very unusual approach of playing out as a series of six movies/OVAs with a total expected running length roughly equivalent to a 12-13 episode series. (The only other series which started out on TV that I can recall doing this is Strike the Blood.) The first two installments have been released as of this writing, with the third scheduled for a Spring 2023 release in Japan. Based on the first two installments, the sequel is going to take an overall more cohesive approach, rather than jumping around as the TV series did. Whether or not that will ultimately be an improvement remain to be seen, as the TV series did just fine; it made my Top 5 list for 2017, after all. However, fans of the TV series are unlikely to be disappointed with the result so far.
The OVAs are not at all an entry point for the franchise; full familiarity with the characters and set-up is expected. Since it’s been a while, the original series was set in a steampunk version of turn-of-the-20th-century London, one where the Kingdom of Albion’s monopoly on the gravity-defying ore Cavorite (an H.G. Wells reference) made Albion the leading world power. That didn’t stop civil unrest from splitting Albion into two countries, with a wall mostly surrounding London splitting the Kingdom from the Commonwealth. That makes London a hotbed for spy activity. The story focused on the capers of two female spies for the Commonwealth undercover in London, which led to them associating with both a Japanese girl connected to her nation’s embassy and Princess Charlotte, a princess of the Kingdom deep in the line of succession and with no real backing, who learned of the spy’s activities and chose to get involved; in exchange for her silence and assistance on missions, the spy’s superiors would help her step up in the succession. That temporarily set aside an original plan for one of the spies to impersonate the princess. What none but Charlotte and her would-be impersonator Ange know (not even the princess’s loyal attendant, Beatrice, who is otherwise in on the spy scheme) is that the two girls have already been impersonating each other for a decade. “Charlotte” was the actual street urchin and “Ange” was the actual princess, and the split between the two parts of Albion forced them apart while they had (they thought briefly) exchanged roles as children.
That layered subterfuge was an occasional element during most of the TV series before becoming a key factor near its end, and it continues to play a big role in part 1 of Crown Handler. In it, Ange’s team is assigned to investigate whether a mole the Commonwealth has long had in the royal household has become a double agent. The mole turns out to be the Queen’s Grand Chamberlain, and he identifies Ange as the real Charlotte (whom he often looked after personally) on first meeting. Though Ange’s team is, through some codebreaking cleverness, eventually able to outfox the longtime mole and show that he is a double agent, they are not able to learn who else he was working for. A mysterious figure, who seems to be a quite skilled agent who likely represents the other power the Chamberlain was working with, appears near the end.
That mysterious figure returns to play a significant role in the second installment, this time attempting to assassinate on Charlotte’s elder brother Richard, the prince third in line who had returned from serving as Viceroy in “the colony” (i.e., this world’s United States, which apparently never had a revolution) after several years away. While Charlotte seeks to bolster and reassure younger Princess Mary (who makes her first franchise appearance in person; see below), Ange, Dorothy, and Chise investigate the theft of Commonwealth-created Cavorite bombs and some suspiciously convenient leads concerning them. That brings them into more direct conflict with the mysterious figure, while Charlotte stumbles onto a much bigger and deeper plot, one that may be connected to what the Grand Chamberlain was doing in the previous installment.
Both of the nearly hour-length installments eschew the emphasis on character development (at least for the spy team) seen in the TV series in favor of a more plot-intensive approach, with the establishment of the Grand Chamberlain in the first installment being a much more satisfying addition than the timid Mary in the second installment. Both have some action elements in the spirit of what was seen in the TV series, but as with the TV series, those are more highlights than focal points. The emphases on intrigue and the wonderfully-detailed steampunk setting remain, as does Yuki Kajiura’s entertaining musical score. The opener and closer used for both installments aren’t bad but unfortunately, they are not up to the same level as the stellar entries for the TV series.
In general, the second installment is distinctly the weaker one on both storytelling and production fronts. Though neither entry has technical merits significantly higher than those of the TV series, more pronounced and frequent artistic quality control slips can be found in the second installment, especially in one early scene where the girls are all talking in their club room at school. (This is not a big problem but is noticeable.) The installment also suffers more pronounced logical gaps. Any U.S. viewer will immediately recognize the clothing and equipment the mysterious figure is wearing/using as being a mix of 19th century U.S. military and Native American, an interesting combination which has big implications for who the other power involved in these incidents is. However, even after encountering and fighting him, the girls act like they have no clue about his origin, which seems unlikely; even if they are not personally familiar with tomahawks, someone in their organization surely is, and the use of that weapon would be distinctive enough in London for that detail to get attention. Also, there are a couple of uses of the Cavorite ball in this installment which seem like they might be undesirably public. Even beyond that, the second installment just isn’t quite as engaging as the first.
The second installment partly makes up for that at the end by concluding with a couple of major plot twists that set up a cliffhanger, one which leaves Charlotte in a potentially dangerous situation away from any of her normal support. Charlotte has been savvy enough to pull off pretending to be the princess for a decade, so I have no doubt she’ll find her way out of this situation, too, but wanting to see how she manages it leaves me eagerly anticipating the next installment. Hopefully that will be available in the States before the end of next year.
Note: While part 1 of Crown Handler is available on HIDIVE, part 2 is currently only available in the States on BD.
Rating – Part 1: A-
Rating – Part 2: B+