Nearly everyone who watched anime in the era when you had to buy it from your local video store has dropped shows for financial reasons. Or because it wasn't available. Or because you forgot to continue buying it. Either way, the age of the internet (and a 9-5 job) allows you and I to return to those shows that you never got around to seeing through. Of the anime on my list that fits this bill, Shamanic Princess stood out, since I remember having no idea what it was really about beyond cool magical battles in the dark. So, when I returned to it with no expectations over a decade later, I was not prepared for its layered plot, layered animation, and complex characters.
Shamanic Princess is an OVA told in two sections, one action-packed, one character-driven. The first segment concerns Tiara's attempt to recover a powerful artifact stolen from the Guardian world by one of her close friends. En-route to a satisfactory if unsurprising ending, the initial volley of episodes abounds with stylish magical combat and dramatic declarations of friendship; which makes the anime by most measuring sticks, an average and enjoyable short offering. However, when the show plumbs the personal history of its cast in the final two installments, a unique narrative alchemy turns the standard storytelling that came before into something more. Seen through the lens of these characters' struggles and motivations, significance, emotion, and animus leak out of the preceding chapters upon reflection. Consequently, this anime's earlier portions resonate stronger and seem markedly better after the final credits role than when first viewed mere hours before.
That is not to say that the OVA doesn't stumble. Most of the important explanatory legwork comes in one chunk at the end of the first section, and so has a forced feel to it. Similarly, the brooding, languid pacing of the first two installments seems wasteful given the short nature of the work, and its predominant focus on Tiara seems a poor choice given the more character-driven content that dominates the back half. In addition, the anime chooses from time to time to be cryptic, either in an attempt to impart information in a more indirect manner or to add padding. However, muddying the waters in order to draw out the otherwise tight pacing does a disservice to the story's straightforward underpinnings.
Though a little confused, Shamanic Princess stands out as an example of 1990's-era success. The lush, hand-drawn background artwork appears to be a larval form of Sora-No-Wo-To or Nodame Cantabile's enthralling vistas, but the lack of modern computer animation means that most scenery shots are static instead of pans. However, each location possesses a strong sense of place whether it be the hard deserts or verdant flower fields of the Guardian world or the vibrant European town in which the majority of OVA's main plot unfurls.
Amost all the action takes place at night, which does not help when combat consists of transparent proxies battling against dark backgrounds, but events still proceed with breathtaking vivacity and attention to detail. The lengthy casting sequences make a good use of visual slight-of-hand to direct viewers' eyes toward points of interest and away from characters or objects in the scene that remain motionless, but the effort succeeds. The visceral drip that peals off the ball of shadow Tiara squeezes to make her mystical minions and the winding vines coiling around Lena's body when she plays her flute grant the fight sequences equal parts novelty and coherence. In addition some of the surface effects of the protagonists' spell casting appear gaudy even by today's standards.
The music, for its part, ranges from inappropriate to well-suited, but none of it grates on the ear. For some inexplicable reason, the directors chose to grace this dark and action-packed OVA with a saccharine OP and ED theme that clash uncomfortably with the content of the show. Not that either song is bad, per se. But they seem more suited to a cheesy high school romance than the adventure-drama on display here. Luckily, the in-episode incidentals understand their role in the proceedings. Much of it falls into standard modern-synth cubbyholes reserved for "action music", "introspection", or "creepy". The score features one intense tribal track that stands head-and-shoulders over the rest of its peers, however. Comprised nearly entirely of drums and possessing a delicious buildup, it augments the increasing tension of its paired scene perfectly.
For their part, the Japanese voice cast fill the roles admirably, with special kudos going to Tiara's voice actress, Sayuri, for not making her charge sound either too "tough" or too "vulnerable". The competent treatment of each character ensures that the OVA does not offend, but suffers a touch at times from wooden delivery, which does not help viewers immediately identify with the cast. On the other hand, the reserved performances give the seiyuus room to inject increasing amounts of emotion with each episode; this development pays out in spades when they become more emotive in the second half.
Fair warning: the dub is bad. Not Slayers-cheesy, overacted tolerable bad. This English-language track is History's Strongest Disciple Kenichi-poor-direction-on-top-of-wooden-performance bad. Jaopolo's (Tiara's ferret familiar) faux-Russian FEMALE accent attempts to add some gravitas to the sidekick, but misses the mark entirely, making all scenes in which he appears unwatchable while simultaneously conferring on the character a maturity that the original audio does not afford to him. When the annoying rodent is not on screen, viewers instead have to suffer through Lena and Sara's droning, which actively detracts from the genuinely engaging story by draining any the emotional impact from their scenes.
All of the important characterization takes place in the second half of Shamanic Princess. The main cast appears standoffish and hardened at the outset, lead by Tiara whose confidence puts her in line with heroines in the mold of Kagome, Lina Inverse, and even Priss. But underneath her stern exterior lurks a young woman who can't choose between her friends and her responsibilities and possesses just enough power that she can probably have her cake and eat it, too. But she alone can't carry the OVA (much as she'd like to), and the creators provide her with the Emeraude-like Sarah and the brilliantly-portrayed Graham to complement the young magician. Graham's origins, role, and fate are too tied to the spoilerrific sixth episode to reveal, but suffice it to say he goes from "why should I care about him" to "favorite character in the show" faster than any three moeblobs. Meanwhile, Sarah coyly lays out her complex and altruistic motivations through cryptic conversations with Tiara which paint her as a much more sympathetic--and well-rounded--character than her Magic Knight Rayearth analogue.
Sadly, Kagetsu and Lena drag the cast down a touch. Lacking Zagato's (Magic Knight Rayearth) power and depth of emotion, Kagetsu comes across as more petulant than villainous. And Lena, for her part, doesn't show enough vulnerability to make her main character trait ("I'm in love with Kagetsu!") convincing. Characters like these benefit from reduced screen time, since it allows viewers to fill in the missing parts of their personalities with speculation and fan-wank, but the later sections, which do so much for Sarah and Tiara actually aggravate the thin characterizations of these two.
Shamanic Princess sticks out as a surprising gem of an OVA from the VHS era. This morsel seems to know that when your climax isn't actually a climax, it should go somewhere in the middle instead of being close to the end (a lesson that would have served X: the Movie well), and the resulting product rewards the viewers handsomely. The sheer momentum of the final two episodes alone should etch this anime into anyone's mind, and the whole thing has a cohesiveness that satisfies in a way so many other short works do not. If you're looking for a diverting, appetizer-sized offering with a surprising amount of character development, then check this one out. However, if you just want to see a scantily clad girl do some magic, this show doesn't disappoint in that way either. Whatever you come to it for, you should walk away from your TV screen or computer monitor pleased with your choice.
In the Guardian World, there live magic users and Neutralizers whose goal is to protect the Throne of Yord -- the source of their power. When the Throne is stolen from its place of rest, it’s up to Tiara and her furry familiar Japolo to find it… but things aren’t always as they seem. Beneath the façade of a simple painting lies the true identity of the Throne of Yord, and beneath the pretense of a simple theft lies the real reason it was stolen… a reason that may end up costing Tiara and her friends their very lives!
These days I load up on comedy, slice-of-life, and horror shows, but I'll watch almost anything that sports a good voice cast, an interesting story, or looks particularly pretty. I tend to relate anime I review to other shows I've seen, because that's just how my mind works. Whether my warped view on a particular show totally misses the mark or you believe I've hit the nail on the head, I'd love to hear from you and welcome feedback and intelligent discussion of just how wrong I might be.