Of course, there’s a difference between believing and actually doing it.
Napping Princess is an anime fantasy film produced by one of Production I.G.’s subsidiary studios and comes to us from Kenji Kamiyama, a man who gained a cult following for directing some of the most influential shows of the 00s, only to lose status when his transition to movies ended up being only slightly less shakier than Shelley Long’s. Not that that’s stopped the man from trying, as he spent four years of his life on this project hoping that it’ll meet our questionable standards, and I doubt the “well that was a thing” reaction it got is going to deter him from making another film. Yeah, if you haven’t heard of this movie before now, there’s a reason for it. It didn’t really blow people away in any of the countries it aired in, and people are mixed regarding whether the film was any good in general.
I obviously didn’t look into why the reaction was so tepid because I like to go into anime blind, but I can tell you why I didn’t enjoy the Eden of the East movies and his rendition of Cyborg 009: they felt like they were on autopilot. You know how a lot of franchise films feel like filler because they can’t actually further the characterization of the leads without interfering with the series’ storyline? Kamiyama was never really the best when it came to relating to the characters on a personal level to begin with, and that’s only gotten worse as time goes on. Still, paying attention to the people behind the anime over the actual product is something only trolls and closed-minded obsessives do, so I was really looking forward to Napping Princess when it got announced for an AnimeFest screening. Could have done without Kamiyama himself hoping that his new film will meet my standards, because that just makes me feel all the sadder when I indirectly say to him “your anime are just not very good, dude”.
The plot of Napping Princess is centered on senior high school student Kokone Morikawa, who basically reminds me of Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds except with less perkiness and also less symbolic value. For some reason that’s not really explained, every time Kokone falls asleep, she dreams that she’s a princess in a technologically advanced fantasy world where her stuffed dog is alive and events in said world tend to mirror what happens in the real world. One day, her car-obsessed father is arrested as part of a conspiracy regarding an engine that can allow cars to drive themselves, so it’s up to Kokone to rescue him with the help of text messaging, an old friend who’s just there to be there (no seriously, he doesn’t contribute anything that a taxi driver couldn’t accomplish), a self-driving vehicle that’s a little random regarding how it works, and the power of her dream-like imagination. This leads to a sort of magical cross-country journey involving robots, fire monsters, and moustache-twirling guys in suits who make Team Rocket look like Heisenberg from Breaking Bad, and without spoiling anything, I lost track of what was going on beyond the basic plot beats about an hour into the film.
What are said plot beats you may ask? Well apparently, Kokone has a grandfather working in the car industry that she doesn’t know too much about, and apparently he needs some vehicular evolution to show at the Tokyo Olympics. Also, Kokone’s mother is dead due to an incident that is only seen through the dream world, so I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to take from that. Also, there’s a villain in this movie who wants to steal the self-driving engine for his own gains, but what said gains are escape me because either the movie didn’t make it clear enough or I was too busy wondering how the villain even got his job to pay attention to what drove him. What exactly does this have to do with the magical dream world you may ask? I don’t know. I guess Kamiyama figured we’d be bored if he didn’t include Shigeto Koyama’s mecha designs into the plot, but he couldn’t figure out a good way to do it organically.
If you think I have a low opinion of this movie due to my inability to explain the plot clearly, you couldn’t be more right. I got a grasp that the main focus of Napping Princess was supposed to be about the future of Japan’s automobile industry, but barely any time is actually spent on those aspects. Most of the plot feels like the creators came up with the end goal to talk about cars and got so wrapped up in presenting that goal to us in a flashy manner that they forgot to integrate things naturally. You remember how Cars 2 tried to make a commentary on the oil industry whilst using the “misunderstood spy” plot as a means to tell said commentary in a way that will keep the kids happy, only to fail because none of the spy stuff actually had anything to do with the oil industry? Napping Princess has a similar problem in regards to mixing Japan’s automobile themes with a fantasy world that doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense.
Seriously, the way the other world manifests is so arbitrary. It shifts from being a Satoshi Kon-styled dream-meets-reality world to the “just a cool way to visualize reality” one you’d see in the movie Sucker Punch whenever it wants to with no regard for internal logic. At first, it seems like the world is only accessible to Kokone when she sleeps. But then other people can enter the world to when she sleeps. And then somehow, the events of the world get her trapped on the ceiling of a very tall building with no realistic reason for why she’d be up there. Also, this is a bit of a spoiler, but the world is never really brought up by the other characters with more than a passing “oh this exists”. I understand that Napping Princess wanted to make the presentation interesting, but anyone can animate robots blowing shit up for two hours. The good movies back that up with some actual grounding.
It was around the time the main villain showed up that I completely lost the ability to take the movie seriously, because he is literally the worst bad guy you’ve ever seen in a long time. I don’t mean in terms of being badly written, although he certainly is because his motivations make no sense. I mean he’s just incompetent the entire way through to the point that the audience and I were laughing at him as he got his suitcase stolen from him whilst standing right next to it or the time when he’s set on fire. Not going to explain the context of those moments, but suffice to say, he’s easily the most entertaining part of the movie because of how his cartoonish nature seems out of place in a conspiracy thriller.
Unfortunately, he’s the kind of entertaining that causes the movie to become a snorefest when he’s not on screen. There were a few other laughable moments like the unfinished running animation during a stairwell scene and how Kokone conveniently has things happen to her due to text messaging the wrong people, but none of those moments are connected to the main plot enough to function as camp the way I see Umineko no Naku no Koro Ni and the recent Alien movies as camp. Underneath all the flash is a standard thriller where the elements needed to make it distinguishable are too infrequent to rouse my interest, and it doesn’t help that nobody goes through any sort of character arc. Kokone is motivated entirely by her desire to save her father and that’s it. She doesn’t go through any other turmoil that challenges her pixie girl nature. And since the rest of the cast don’t even get all that much screen time, that means Kokone has to pick up the slack in regards to keeping the narrative interesting, and she fails in that.
As for the animation itself, it looks nice for the most part (although why there’d be unfinished segments given the time spent on making it is beyond me), but there was never really a point when it was being used to really tell the story in a way other than “don’t we look cool?” The only time I really enjoyed the visual storytelling was during the ending credits that showed us how Kokone’s mother and father met, and those images were still. Other than that, there wasn’t anything particularly animated about the film. You could have easily recreated it in live-action and nothing would have been lost. Hell, Japan’s cheap CG being used to animate the stuffed dog might have made him funnier.
Napping Princess is just a trainwreck from beginning to end. With the characters being underdeveloped, the mixing of reality and the dream world adding nothing to the narrative, and the sheer incompetence of the bad guys from their motivations to how they carry out their plans, the only way I could see this movie was as an unintentional comedy – an an inconsistent one at that. And honestly, I’m not sure if the reason I laughed so much was because the movie was just that stupid or because the audience was howling at every joke being made. It is better than Nakamura’s other movies, but given how limp his previous track record is with feature films, that’s probably not the biggest endorsement to make.
If you have kids, they’ll probably enjoy it; but given all the time and effort spent on making Napping Princess, I was hoping for a smarter satire on Japan’s car industry than what I actually got.
- I will say, the Japanese version of “Daydream Believer” is dope.
- I wonder if this is the basis for how the cars in those Pixar movies eventually take us over?