The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Princess Arete

Title: Princess Arete aka Arite Hime
Genre: Drama
Company: Studio 4°C
Format: Movie; 105 minutes.
Dates: 21 Jul 2001

Synopsis: After the death of her mother, the queen, Princess Arete has been confined to a tower in the castle to shelter her from the world. Arete frequently manages to sneak out through hidden passageways in the castle to explore the town, but she laments her life, and how little she knows of the world. The kingdom’s knights are often sent out to find magical treasures created by a long extinct nation of sorcerers, believing that the finder of the most amazing treasure will win the princess’s hand in marriage, but this is in fact a scheme set up by the kingdom’s economists, as magical treasures are a lucrative trade. One day, an evil sorcerer flies into the kingdom and claims that the princess is cursed. He vows to lift the curse, making Arete an “ideal” princess, in exchange for the princess’s hand in marriage.

The Highlights
Themes: Very smartly explores several different concepts about gender roles, imprisonment, solitude and work.
Setting: The story wouldn’t work if the setting hadn’t been this well realized.
Music: An amazing soundtrack from Senju Akira.
Pacing: Slow and deliberate; short attention spans need not apply.
Main character: Arete is incredibly admirable, both in concept and character.

While watching this anime I was reminded of the long tradition of Disney animated fairytales. For all the astounding advances in animation and technology that Disney pioneered and the works of beauty that they created, a more recent criticism of many of their classics is that their female leads often aren’t good role models. One reasonably has to make allowances for the different expectations for gender roles at the time, but this persisted right up until the early 90s, and it was only with Pocahontas and Mulan did things change vastly, with the more headstrong, less passive women becoming more commonplace in Disney fairytales than the beautiful, but essentially ornamental, princesses. Around the same time, Ghibli princesses like Nausicaä (Nausicaä) and San (Princess Mononoke) were championing social justice and conservation while generally kicking ass. There’s this interesting crossover between the two types of female leads all throughout Princess Arete, a film that manages to be intelligent without intellectualizing. It has more to say about gender roles and idolatry than either the new-age Ghibli or the Disney school-of-old, and manages to say it with fewer words.

I wouldn’t quite call this a minimalist film, but it isn’t that far off. The pacing is very slow and deliberate and the animation is simplistic, a more muted version of the style often used by Studio 4°C. There are frequent, long bouts free of dialogue, and where it can be helped, the anime prefers to show things rather than explain it through speech. Composer Senju Akira’s soundtrack is simply incredible, filled with a complexity and a strong tinge of sadness that goes a long way towards defining this anime. The seiyuu are also very good, especially Kuwashima Houko and Koyama Tsuyoshi in the two lead roles.

However, the aesthetics are ultimately unimportant, as this film is about several very interesting themes that are cleverly woven together. As I’ve mentioned, the first thing that struck me was the commentary on gender roles common in fantasy stories. There’s a real sadness about Arete’s fate, the fact that she’s objectified and essentially caged to preserve her preciousness. She’s smarter than her potential suitors, and sees through them for the power hungry pillagers that they are. She’s sensitive to the lives of the peasants that she observes but can never influence, and when she escapes her tower to experience the real world, the people of the court conclude she’s become cursed. The build up is very slow (but never monotonous) and it’s forty minutes into the film that the conflict really begins when she’s pawned off by her father to be married to an evil wizard (the “evil wizard” part isn’t a traditional fairytale trope, but the “pawning off by her father” is). When the wizard imprisons Arete again, there’s an interesting parallel between the princess’s trapped state and the wizard who essentially isolates and imprisons himself, and another parallel between the wizard and a witch character that appeared earlier… one of whom is prepared to foolishly wait for something which will probably never happen, the other not.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the ideas that the film explores, but the pacing prevents anything from feeling crammed or overcooked. Arete’s actions during the final arc of the movie are both ironic and admirably heroic. I’m nitpicking by naming this film’s flaws, but the plot occasionally relies on convenient coincidences and the pacing probably severely limits its appeal. But anime that are as insightful and meaningful as this are a rarity.

The Rating: 8

Reviewed by: Sorrow-kun

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