Princess Army Wedding Combat

There are times when it's not possible to tell if something is a parody or not. Take, for example, Sam Raimi's film Evil Dead 2. Freakishly gory and scary? Yes, especially if you're new to horror or are twelve years old. But pay closer attention to all of Bruce Campbell's one-liners and the amazingly over-the-top gore, and you find there's a whole lot of comedy and satire in the midst of the bloodletting. Or take something a little more recent like Adaptation. If you understand screenwriting and the wholesale "selling out" of film, then the ending third is blisteringly hysterical. But since I was the only one in the theatre laughing in said hysterical fashion, apparently not everyone was in on the joke.

In the case of Princess Army Wedding Combat, a 2-episode OVA from 1992, it's not that clear a line. There's material in the beginning of this shoujo title that makes me think that the creators were winking at some of the stereotypes associated with the genre. However, any parody completely falls apart in the second episode, which is as generic as they come. I had thought I might have been onto a hidden gem when I first started the show -- after all, it does have a great title -- but there's enough unpleasantness and "same old same old" here that even its better parts don't earn it a recommendation.

Nonoko is a world-class judo student, and she regularly pummels the guys in her dojo, all of whom (save a questionable bishonen) have romantic intentions towards her. Of them all, though, Yuya is clearly her romantic interest. While the other guys just leer and dream, Yuya's genuine, if a bit hotheaded. The situation changes dramatically when Hajime enters the picture. He's been studying in Poland with his father for several years and has returned for one reason: to marry Nonoko. Turns out Nonoko's dad made a deathbed arrangement with Hajime's father to make sure the two are wed. He's all for it, but Nonoko's not really interested, being only 15 and all. So what's the alternative?  Yuya and Hajime must duel. If Yuya wins, Nonoko can do whatever she likes...but if Hajime wins, the marriage is on.  What's a fashionable judo girl helpless damsel to do?

One of the reasons that I thought Princess Army would be decent was because of the animation. For 1992, it looks pretty awesome. The artistic style is highly reminscent of Marmalade Boy, but with a budget to kill for, at least as high as many OVAs of the time. This isn't talking about frames per second; it's the style itself that's rendered flawlessly, which I've seen only a handful of times with shoujo titles. Having just watched Everyday Is Sunday, which was made just a year or two before, the difference is night and day.

Princess Army also starts out quite funny. While it doesn't radically rip apart shoujo traits, there's plenty of good humor in the opening. There's also the matter of Hajime. A playboy character who dresses like he just walked off the set of Miami Vice, up until the end of the first episode, he's a stitch. He is wildly forward, and while casual subtitles won't tell you this, his advances are so incredibly inappropriate for Japanese society that the knowledgable viewer may get a kick out of them. That is, until the end of the first episode, when he tries to force himself on Nonoko. Yes, indeed, the first episode ends with a rape attempt. It's just as unpleasant as it sounds. Thankfully, as soon as the second episode starts, he stops himself well before anything happens...but still, what were the makers of this thing thinking?

The second episode ditches most of the humor and becomes focused on the fight over the pending nuptuals. What's so incredibly disappointing is that Nonoko becomes little more than a passive observer. The first episode clearly states that Nonoko is better at judo than any of the other characters, so why is she this helpless little thing in the second episode? I'm not a radical feminist; I don't have a problem with the concept of gender roles. I think the Twilight phenomenon shows that many modern women like the idea of men (or pasty vampire boys, at least) willing to protect them and sacrifice themselves for them -- chivalry ain't dead. This is even more true in Japan. But for them to set up Nonoko as a judo whiz to let her skills go completely unused in defense of her own honor is nothing short of criminal. Even the most chivalrous man wants a woman who'll stand up for her principles, and Nonoko's personality all but evaporates by the end. If there's anything unexpected in the second episode, it's just how by-the-numbers the characters and storyline become. And like many short OVAs of long-running manga, characters (like Nanoko's brothers and the judo students) pop in just long enough to be seen, but not to have any real reason to appear. The whole thing ends ambiguously in a huge puddle of disappointment.

If nothing else, Princess Army illustrates that moe has been around for a very long time. It may be shoujo, but Nonoko is clearly a moe character, one that inspires fierce protectiveness in the show's characters. (Her lack of willingness to fight for herself only makes this stronger.) There's also the issue of feminine characters looking way too young. As my wife observed, Nonoko may be a teenager, but she looks all of 11. Is it disturbing?  Yes, a little bit. But that's really due to the show's inappropriate use of sexuality. It does make me wonder -- why does a shoujo title have fan service? It doesn't seem to serve the intended audience.  Or perhaps the creators of the show knew there would be crossover interest. I don't know. But this much I can fathom -- moe isn't a new phenomenon by any means.

I've been thinking about this show a bit since watching it a week or so ago, and I've wondered if I've given it too high of a grade.  It really isn't very good. Yet I must admit that the first episode has its moments. It wasn't until Hajime's attack that the show really went off the rails. But in a day and age when a lot of shoujo titles are available to viewers, there's no need to revist this one.

Princess Army Wedding Combat -- profanity, violence, mild fan service, halted rape attempt -- C+