The Princess and the Pilot Premium Edition

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Sunday, June 23, 2013

Next month NIS America will have been releasing anime for three years, and they’ve already established quite a varied back catalog. But one thing they haven’t put out is a feature length anime film, which has now changed with their release of The Princess and the Pilot. The film originally came out in Japan in 2011 and was based on the light novel To Aru Hikūshi e no Tsuioku. Madhouse was responsible for the animation, and considering the studio is responsible for many of my favorite anime series I was excited to find out what this effort had to bring to the table. The Princess and the Pilot ended up being a slightly more straightforward tale than I was anticipating, but that certainly didn’t take from the impact it was able to create.

Rather than going for a storyline that features a lot of characters, The Princess and the Pilot spends almost three quarters of its running time exclusively on the exploits of mercenary pilot Charles Karino and princess Juana del Moral (Wikipedia and some other anime sites show her name is Fana so I think this may have been slightly altered for the translation). The story begins showing Charles as a child, and immediately makes it clear that there is going to be a slightly darker edge to the film that stands in contrast to the bright and cheerful look of its packaging. Charles is of mixed heritage from two different empires, which have been at war with each other for years and as a result he encounters discrimination and hostility early on. This is one of his primary reasons for becoming a pilot, as in the sky he is free from the social class system and discrimination of the world below. But despite the fact that his superiors in the military look down of him because of his bloodline, Charles’ skills as a pilot are incredible and he is selected for a top secret mission to escort the princess to the empire’s capital after enemy forces attack her in her home city.

From there the film plays out in a straightforward fashion, as the original mission of simply sneaking through enemy lines to deliver the princess falls apart rather quickly and some aerial combat and running away ensues. But what gives The Princess and the Pilot its character is the way it focuses on the bond between Charles and Juana that grows in the short time they spend together. As hardships occur the formalities break down and the two are revealed to have met once before as children, further strengthening their bond. There is a bit of a romantic edge to the way the story is framed, but it’s shown in fleeting moments and both characters seem to realize there is no magical fix for the social class system of their world. Some viewers might feel that the personality changes the two go through seems a bit too abrupt, but I would argue that it was more a case of the characters showing their true selves after they had been attacked and thrust into difficult situations. I don’t want to go into any further specifics and ruin the major moments of the film, but did find it interesting that the ending left several plot points up to speculation and perhaps leaving room for a sequel somewhere down the road. I do believe the author Koroku Inumura has written additional novels after this one but I’m unsure if they are tied into this story or simply set in a similar environment. But whatever the case, I rather liked this approach as it’s always a great thing when a film doesn’t spell out absolutely everything for you and leaves some elements up to the viewer’s interpretation. Throughout The Princess and the Pilot the feeling of overcoming hardships and achieving seemingly impossible tasks reminded me of Royal Space Force, though this title plays out in a much more straightforward fashion when compared to the abstract stream of consciousness vibe of Gainax’s work.

I have always found that just about anything Madhouse gets production duties on ends up having captivating animation and design work, and this is once again the case. A lot of different companies helped Madhouse with a mix of hand drawn animation and CGI (looking at the list of companies on Anime News Network, it’s almost twice as long as the typical production). Considering that a significant chunk of The Princess and the Pilot takes place in the air, a lot of attention was paid not only to the design of the planes but also the environments. As someone who has a weakness for airships, I absolutely loved the designs as there were gigantic airships that looked like real life aircraft carriers. The combination of CGI and animation resulted in some spectacular aerial battles, but even when the scenes were calm the environments were jaw dropping and always offered something interesting. The character design work was another point of interest, as even the minor characters that got limited screen time had distinctive looks and grabbed your attention. Madhouse and the rest of the design staff were able to pull off a visually stunning look during the battles while maintaining a slightly more subdued yet bright and cheerful feel during the character driven moments, and it kept me engaged until the end.

Sound is an area I don’t always focus on in my reviews, because a lot of anime has background music that fits the tone of the show it is on but doesn’t stand out afterwards. But The Princess and the Pilot had a beautiful score that featured a number of piano pieces that added to the emotional touches of the film and were still in my head after I had finished watching. Even the song that the princess sings during certain scenes has staying power, and the soundtrack was really able to function in a way that enhanced the overall work. The voice acting is also great, as the interaction between Charles (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and Juana (Seika Taketomi) was handled extremely well and the two actors really sold me on their chemistry. What’s interesting is that this is one of Taketomi’s first major roles, but she really nailed it and I wasn’t aware that she hadn’t been in anything else until researching it later on. It’s great to discover new voice acting talent like this, especially in an industry that tends to stick with an established network of VA’s.

Despite the fact that this is a one disc Blu-Ray film, that didn’t stop NIS America from doing their usual limited edition packaging. The on-disc extras are sparse, consisting of some trailer and TV spots, but this isn’t that surprising as this is likely all that was available to offer. But the hardcover box has some incredible artwork on it and the included art book has some really neat features. In addition to interviews with the original light novel author and members of the production staff, there are pages of sketches showing how the character designs changed over time. This kind of behind the scenes look is an excellent inclusion, and considering how much I enjoyed watching the film I was really interested to take it all in and get a better idea of how the production team approached creating it.

NIS America’s first licensed anime film is a strong one, and it’s one that I plan on watching again. It may not quite have the same timeless quality as some of Studio Ghibli’s work, but the bond between the two characters and little bit of social commentary interspersed with some mesmerizing aerial battles make this a film you won’t soon forget. Madhouse has continued to impress me with their work, and along with Summer Wars this title proves to me that they can pull off feature length films just as well as long running television series.

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