Review for Princess Arete
First impressions can often be deceptive. We tend to pigeonhole directors with the genre of their most prominent works, and this can be compounded by directors who tend to work in their comfort zones. We expect certain types of films from M. Night Shyamalan, Michael Bay, and Steven Spielberg. The first thing I saw directed by Sunao Katabuchi was Black Lagoon. You can forgive me then for expecting every subsequent Katabuchi anime that I saw to be scenery chewing, eighties style action. It turned out that nothing could be further from the truth. Last year I saw the World War 2 drama, In This Corner of the World, and the childhood fantasy, Mai Mai Miracle, two films that are as unalike Black Lagoon, and indeed each other, as three things can be. Now, All the Anime are bringing us Princess Arete, an early film from Sunao Katabuchi, dating from 2001, which again, promises something really quite different. It’s being released on Limited Collector’s Edition combo release, standard Blu-ray and standard DVD.
Princess Arete locked herself away in the castle tower, preserving her purity, until a worthy suitor can complete a quest challenging enough to earn her hand in marriage. That’s what everyone believed. The reality is a little different though. The king has had his daughter confined, and sends potential suitors to find artefacts from the vanished age of magic, which can be sold to fill the kingdom’s coffers. All Arete wants is to be free, to live a meaningful life like so many other people do, the people she can see from her tower window, the people that she meets when she sneaks out of the castle through a secret passage to explore the streets incognito. Then one day, an immortal wizard visits the castle, offering untold magic in exchange for Arete’s hand in marriage...
Princess Arete gets a 1.85:1 widescreen 1080i transfer at 60Hz. The image is clear and sharp, the muted colour palette comes across with consistency, and there’s no compression or aliasing, with banding kept to a minimum. The film dates from 2001, and given the odd fleck of print damage, it looks to have been made the traditional way, with paints on cel acetate. That also makes the interlaced transfer an even odder choice. Thankfully the animation is smooth, and there are no interlacing artefacts or combing. The character designs are simple but appealing, while the world design could have been lifted out of a picture book.
The audio is an even odder format choice, DTS-HD MA 4 channel audio, the three front channels and a single surround channel. You have the choice between Japanese with English or French subtitles, or the French dub. The options are locked during playback. The dialogue is clear, and the music comes across with clarity. This isn’t too heavy on action, but what moments there are have sufficient impact. The subtitles are timed accurately, but needed to be proofread for typos. There are more than a few here, enough to distract. Another odd choice was some minor profanity in the English subtitles. I’m all for sticking as closely to the original translation as possible, but Princess Arete is a fairy tale, and its story is such that it would work with younger audiences. The fact that there is no dub already increases its target audience age, and the profanity doesn’t help.
The disc boots to an animated menu, from where you can access a small page of English credits for the film. I haven’t seen the packaging for either standard version, or the physical extras to go with the Collector’s Edition (exclusive to Anime Limited’s website).
I really wish Princess Arete had a sympathetic dub. It’s the kind of fairy tale that you’d want seven and eight year old children to engage with. Based on a 1983 feminist story by British writer Diana Coles, its message of independence and empowerment is ideally suited for modern society. Given that Princess Arete is a 17 year old movie, based on a 35 year old story, it’s a worrying indictment on us that we just haven’t progressed as much as we think we have, when it comes to equality and civil rights. How much of that is down to my cynical reaction to the current news cycle is another question. But Princess Arete makes all the right noises about female empowerment and equality, by flipping the fairy tale conventions on their heads.
Arete is a self-reliant and intelligent character, who through circumstance of birth has been trapped by tradition and politics. Fairy tales demand that virginal princesses be locked away in towers, awaiting their white princes to marry them, and in this film, it’s got a political element, with the king sending potential suitors on quests ostensibly to win his daughter’s hand, but really to keep the coffers filled. Arete has already discovered the secret passage out of the tower, so she can wander through the town, observing people’s productive lives, lives that she isn’t allowed to emulate. She also is well read, and knows much about the outside world, even if she’s never been there.
So when a wizard shows up, with enough ‘magical’ currency to fulfil the king’s desire for wealth, it’s no surprise that Arete tries to leave. She’s caught sneaking out of the kingdom and brought back to the castle. The wizard, Boax announces that Arete is cursed, and that he can ‘lift the curse’. And with a flash of magic, Arete is transformed into the perfect vision of a fairy tale princess, meek, submissive, and compliant. It’s all a deception though. Boax has seen in a vision that Arete is the one girl who can bring his downfall, and he takes his new ‘bride’ back to his castle, where he throws her in a dungeon. Fortunately, in an earlier encounter with a witch, Arete received a magical ring. Unfortunately, with her meek persona, she keeps making silly wishes.
If there is a perceived weakness to Princess Arete, it’s that it really does play out like chapters in a fairy tale; it doesn’t have the dramatic arc, the engine that drives a feature film, and I did feel it a little harder to engage with the movie. Also while the whole point of Arete’s character is to show her gaining her independence, a sense of self-reliance and confidence, it does make her growth as a character feel like a solitary journey. It gives her a sense of pre-destined perfection as a character, an innate rightness that makes it harder to hold one’s interest in the story. But there is an intriguing sci-fi element that does pique the interest, a history of magic in this world which has an otherworldly source, and also a history of the world in general that can give you the sense that it’s a far future mediaeval fairy tale rather than one set in a fictional past.
Princess Arete is an enjoyable and entertaining film, and it has just the kind of message that you want children to learn these days. It’s just a shame that the lack of a dub, and subtitles a little too profane take it out of the age bracket where it can do most good. For us older children, its narrative, pacing, and characterisations are a little too un-dramatic to really hold the attention, but it is well worth a watch.