Man, I miss ninjas. I never thought I'd say that, but I do. I thought at the time that Ninja Scroll was fun but way over-rated, and many of its offspring were far, far worse...and no, I don't count Naruto as a ninja epic, sorry. I'm talking about your crazy, gory, no-holds-barred slash-'em-up that seemed to simply die out in the last ten years. The best I've seen recently is Sword of the Stranger; it neared excellence, but its pacing lagged. As it turns out, sometimes a blast from the past is just what I need, and that's what I found with Puppet Princess. A strange mix of bloodstained ninja violence, a bit of grotesque imagery, and a few stabs at comedy, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Despite some glaring issues when it follows a few old formulas, there's also some real creativity at work.
Rangiku is the princess of the title, and she seeks the help of a famous illusionist hero to take revenge on Karimata, the feudal lord who killed her entire family. The magician is dead, she's told, so she winds up hiring Manajiri, a ninja who's willing to work for the small amount of money she's got. At first, Manajiri thinks he's going to have to rescue Rangiku from her own attempts to take down her enemy, but she's no slouch in battle due to her father's legacy...a bunch of giant puppet warriors that she can skillfully control. Still, two against a force of hundreds is no fair fight...
Puppet Princess certainly owes a debt to Kawajiri's film for its artistic style, but it is unique in certain ways as well. Other than Rangiku, the male characters all take on grotesque looks in battle, particularly when they go berserk or are shocked by something. It reminded me of some stylings I've seen in violent seinen manga, and while it's not pretty, it is effective. Sadly, the animation budget is a bit skimpy, which means that any time we're outside of a battle scene, it looks mediocre. For example, there's a rather extended sequence with Rangiku by a waterfall where the lack of detail makes what is supposed to be a sexy moment almost humorous. Various artistic choices well known to any otaku are used to cover up the lack of motion, but since we're here for the good looking battles, it's not that big a deal. The music is pretty much boilerplate samurai tuneage.
Two things made Puppet Princess stand out to me. The first is the occasionally jarring juxtaposition between brutal violence and comedy. There's a running joke about Rangiku's inability to remember how to say Manajiri's name, along with a couple of other bits that are humorous. But this show also has deadly serious moments, even some shocking ones when the background story of the puppets is revealed. One minute you're laughing, and the next you're cringing. However, for me it worked. So many stories like this are so darn serious that a little levity doesn't hurt. That said, this show splatters on the red paint, so if you're squeamish, this isn't for you.
The other standout that made this show enjoyable was the unique plot concept of the puppets and their master. Occasionally, these stories include a butch sort of woman who eats shuriken for breakfast. That's not Rangiku. She's as mild-mannered as they come on the surface, but once she pulls out the strings, she's formidable. The puppets require suspension of disbelief, but I thought they were a clever idea well-executed. It's certainly not what you expect in a samurai-style tale, and I liked that.
While this show was released by Media Blasters a number of years ago on DVD, I'd not heard about it, and it could be that it didn't sell well. Frankly, even now I think its current price on Amazon ($22.50 as of August 2010) is way too high for a 45-minute show. It's good, but nowhere near that good. I am of the opinion that the running time actually works in the program's favor; it gets in, establishes its leads, tells its story, and gets out. That doesn't make it a must-have at those prices, though.
Puppet Princess is no-frills shogunate-era violence with some cleverness. If you've missed some old-fashioned gory swordplay in your recent anime diet, this is one you might put into the rental queue.
Puppet Princess -- graphic violence, nudity, brutality towards children (mostly off-screen) -- B+