Patience is a virtue, or so I've been told. And virtuous as I long to be, sometimes my endurance can be worn thin. I was patient through 13 episodes of Serial Experiments Lain, and it paid off. Then again, Sakura Wars pushed me past the breaking point well before its last frames had flickered. Shamanic Princess fits squarely in the middle between the two. Shamanic Princess is a six episode OVA series that requires an almost limitless supply of patience during its opening two episodes, made bearable due to its stunning art direction and superb animation. If you can bear the first hour of the program with its surprisingly slow pace (despite several action sequences) and lack of plot information, you'll feel gratified that all is indeed revealed by the end.
Tiara is a magic user from the Guardian World, sent into our reality to retrieve the Throne of Yord. The Throne of Yord possesses incredible powers that hold the Guardian World together, making its return essential. With her partner, a wily ferret named Japolo, Tiara tries to hunt down this ancient artifact. If having to face her old friend and rival Lena wasn't enough, Tiara finds that her old love Kagetsu is responsible for the Throne's theft. What's more, he's not stolen it for evil purposes...the Throne of Yord holds the key to the disappearance of his sister (and Tiara's best friend) Sarah. Tiara must determine where her loyalties lie, choosing whether to follow the plans of the Elders or to keep hope alive for a dear companion.
It's too bad the plot isn't that clearly laid out within the show itself, but it's not. The screenplay was written by Asami Watanabe, one of the threesome responsible for the disastrous script to the incomprehensible film X. It's clear from the two scripts that Watanabe believes that films are more interesting when the audience is left deliberately in the dark, which is a big mistake. A show in the mystery genre keeps the audience asking questions about things the characters themselves don't know. Shamanic Princess keeps the audience asking questions about things the characters do know but the author is holding back from us deliberately. There's a palpable difference. All problems I have with the show, I lay squarely at Asami Watanabe's feet.
To be fair, what kept me watching through the hazy plot was the incredible artwork. Designer Atsuko Ishida goes far past her Magic Knights Rayearth work here, creating some uniquely awesome looks for her characters. The artistic direction of the show is also top-notch. For the first four episodes, we stay primarily in a dark, gloomy world that nevertheless captures our attention with its gothic beauty. Not to mention that this is one of the most beautiful OVA series I've seen, with certain sequences rivaling movie-quality animation. Your brain might get bored, but your eyes won't.
Thankfully, about fifty minutes in, we are given relief from our confusion. At nearly the end of the second episode, we start getting clues as to what the Throne of Yord actually is, who these folks really are, and why they relate to each other the way they do. Through the end of the fourth episode, which is the grand finale, we stay interested and charged. Then the show heads in a dramatically different direction with a new director. The last two episodes are actually prequels, laying out the groundwork between the friends and explaining exactly what happened leading up to the events in the first four episodes. They work wonders at wrapping up the plot ends that were still hanging once the show's climax hit.
Now that I've seen the show in its entirety, I'm a little torn as to how to recommend watching it. Unlike a movie like Memento where watching it chronologically would spoil the effect, I'm not convinced that watching the last two episodes first would ruin the experience. In fact, I'm pretty certain that the groundwork laid in those episodes would bring far more weight, meaning, and clarity to the first four. Granted, some of the mystery would be gone...but seeing that the mysteries of the opening hour are contrivances, not plot twists, I don't think it'd be a big deal. Ultimately, Shamanic Princess is a show you need to watch more than once to get its full effect.
I can recommend Shamanic Princess despite the pacing issues because there is a surprising gem hidden in the messiness. The show has characters that are much more realistic than most. Tiara is often moody and brash, certainly not the straightforward heroine. Kagetsu, who's set up to be the villain at first, is the polar opposite. It's these details that make the characters feel genuine despite their unusual circumstances. And though Hellsing may be winning fanboy awards for its sleekly shadowy look, Shamanic Princess looks miles better and has substance to its darkness instead of just style.
Although there are still minor problems with the story of Shamanic Princess--for instance, there's a brief subplot about Tiara going to school that goes nowhere--I was quite satisfied when the journey is over. The opening doesn't move nearly as fast as it should, but once you're hooked, you're hooked. It's an emotional, tragic, beautifully illustrated shoujo event that shouldn't be as confusing at it is, but it's still worth seeing if your patience level is high.
Shamanic Princess -- realistic violence, very brief nudity/revealing outfits -- B+