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Review: Princess Nine

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Dirt, fastballs and romance

At the beginning, I loved Princess Nine. It may be a cliche to say "I laughed, I cried!", but the fact is, I really did laugh and cry. The show seemed to be capable of doing something nigh-impossible: present a story unabashedly about girl power, without demonizing the male characters and rehashing the war between the sexes. Instead of getting bogged down in just dealing with sexism, the show transcends the gender gap and becomes about universal human struggles that apply to everyone: wisdom versus ignorance, passion versus apathy, and fear of the unknown versus the courage to try something new and dangerous. There's an awful lot going on in Princess Nine, and for a little while there, I was in anime heaven.

Then I saw the final third of the series -- and suddenly, I wanted to break all the discs over my knee and throw the pieces into an industrial wood chipper. However, a cooler head prevailed, as I eventually realized that despite my disappointment with the final arc, this is a quality release that deserves a place on many fans' shelves.

Besides, I have no idea where to find a wood chipper.

Rivals to the end

Princess Nine DVD Complete Series

Publisher: Nozomi/Lucky Penny

Release Date: April 1, 2014

MSRP: $39.99

Ryo Hayakawa is the daughter of a great baseball pitcher, although she doesn't know it. She's just minding her own business, playing in a casual sandlot baseball team whenever she's not needed at her mother's tiny restaurant, only to suddenly be offered a scholarship to a prestigious high school out of the blue. Keiko Himuro, the wealthy and dignified president of Kisaragi Girls High School, is deadset on forming an all-girls baseball team, and she wants Ryo in her lineup -- but is it just for her pitching arm, or is there another reason? And will the team see the light of day when not only the school administration, but even Himuro's own daughter, are against it?

Princess Nine starts off its 26-episode run with lot of intriguing questions, and in that respect, it doesn't disappoint. I was very impressed with the writing in this series; while it did follow the predictable route of a sports anime in many respects, there were enough deviations from the norm to keep things feeling fresh and exciting. What's interesting is that instead of being a typical shonen sports anime, this is truly a shoujo sports anime; baseball often takes a back seat to relationships. Part of the reason why the story feels fresh is because it deviates from the game to explore the characters for surprising amounts of time, but for that very reason, baseball lovers might be disappointed with the relatively small amount of actual baseball played.

Team glamour shot.

While some characters are cut from familiar molds, including Ryo, others have surprises in store. I found Keiko Himuro to be a fascinating character; a rare adult female who has a character arc that has nothing to do with her children. Coach Kido, while basically being Tom Hanks' character from A League of Their Own (which Princess Nine bears many superficial resemblances to), ends up being a lot of fun. Every girl who joins the team adds something new to the table, and even background characters like the regulars who frequent Ryo's mother's restaurant end up having memorable roles to play. While not every character has loads of depth, quite a few of them do, and finding out what makes them all tick is a big part of the appeal of the show.

Production-wise, this show is a mixed bag in a very particular way I don't think I've ever seen before. While the art is typical, low-budget '90s anime TV series fare, it seems as though incredible care was taken with the music and the sound design in general. The score, by Masamichi Amano, was performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and the pedigree shows. While the music adds an almost palpable sense of gravitas to the show's more dramatic scenes, I found there was often a disconnect between the art and the music; you would have this amazing, truly epic orchestral score in the background, only the art looks like it could have been taken from any low-budget show circa 1998.

Pitch like a star

That's not to say the animation is poor; it's at the very least adequate, and occasionally even dynamic and exciting during the baseball scenes. It's just that it's usually very typical, workmanlike art and animation (complete with shortcuts like repeated stock footage use) that seems at odds with the high-quality score.

Other than this disconnect (which is only a problem insofar as the music is actually so much better than expected), I only have one problem with the show, but unfortunately, it's a doozy. As befitting a shoujo show, there's a dramatic love triangle between the earnest Ryo, snobby genius Izumi Himuro (Keiko's aforementioned daughter), and Hiroki Takasugi, a batting prodigy for the Kisaragi Boys High team. Early on, I didn't mind the love triangle and found that it added an interesting tension to Izumi and Ryo's rivalry. However, by the end, the love triangle completely overwhelms the show and it all degenerates into melodrama; romance tropes that seem beneath the level of the writing on the rest of the show start to rear their trite heads, and baseball gets sidelined in pursuit of the answer to the all-important "Who does Hiroki like?" question.

lovebirds (sigh)

But that's not all; the fact that the love triangle becomes more prominent may be a negative for many viewers, but that's not what made me want to destroy the discs. No, the real problem is that the way the love triangle is depicted seems to undermine the entire message of the show. While Ryo and Izumi's performance on the field becomes increasingly compromised due to their feelings for Hiroki, there's no indication that Hiroki's own athletic performance is ever affected by the romantic turmoil in his life. This double standard ironically serves to reinforce exactly the kind of sexist stereotypes that the rest of the show seemingly exists to challenge. Maybe it was unintentional, but the implication seems to be that while girls may be talented at sports, they can't keep their pretty little heads in the game once romance is involved, while guys have control over their feelings. Given the overwhelmingly progressive nature of the rest of the show, I found this development infuriating.

Your mileage may vary; after all, Princess Nine has been out for over a decade and has a pretty stellar reputation, so obviously, not all viewers have the same problem with how the love triangle developed that I do. After all, Ryo and Izumi are depicted as unquestionably two of the best athletes around, of any gender; how strong do they have to be for the show not to be sexist? Still, the fact remains that the way the whole thing played out left a sour taste in my mouth, and I have to be honest about that.

Lil' Ryo, awwww

If you put aside possible issues with the story, this release from Lucky Penny is pretty flawless. Not only do you get the entire series for under $40, but for once, the set is full of extras. May of them, like the History of Baseball in Japan feature and the voice actress stats, are just some extra text, but the features devoted to the performance of the music by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra are fascinating. Keep in mind, you need to have subtitles turned on to see the subtitles on the special features; if you're watching the dub, the features will play unsubbed.

Speaking of the dub, I thought it was adequate without being memorable. Hilary Haag turns in a strong performance as Ryo, as do some of her teammates, but I thought Vic Mignogna's Hiroki lacked the suave quality of Takehito Koyasu's performance and left the character devoid of his original charm. Some of the other performances, like Jennifer K. Earhart as team manager Nene, are kind of grating and made me want to switch back to the Japanese track. In short, if you're a dub-only watcher a few strong performances make watching Princess Nine in English a worthwhile endeavor, but all else being equal I recommend the original language track.

First base yo

So, where does that leave me? I love Princess Nine; I also kind of hate Princess Nine. But I only hate it because I got so invested in the story, which means it's a good show, right? But it can't be that good, otherwise I wouldn't have wanted to use the discs for skeet shooting practice after it ended, right? I have no idea; I'll probably still be puzzling this one out for a while. In the meantime you may want to pick up this series if you'd like to see the interesting combination of a hardball story with a decidedly softball aesthetic; it has an awful lot going for it, and the price is certainly right.

And maybe when you're done you can join my new club, where we burn effigies of Hiroki Takasugi and talk about the Princess Nine that might have been if only the dumb love interest had never existed.

7.0 -- A show with many fantastic qualities that drowns in its own melodrama by the end, and seemingly undermines its own premise at times. Nevertheless, when it's good it's very, very good, and the score is peerless.


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Princess Nine reviewed by Karen Mead

7

GOOD

Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Karen Mead
Karen MeadContributor   gamer profile

Hi, I'm a former newspaper journalist who got tired of having a front row seat to the death of print. There probably could be some interesting story there about a disenchanted reporter moving on ... more + disclosures


 



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