[This is a spoiler free review]
If you like mind-bending, genre-crossing animated films, then Kenji Kamiyama's Napping Princess: The Story of the Unknown Me is your perfect, Friday night movie.
Following high schooler Kokone, this fantasy adventure toggles between her life in the real world and her dreams, wherein Kokone becomes the younger, magically imbued Ancien. During the day Kokone is entering the summer before her graduation, navigating all the usual pitfalls of being a teenager as well as a somewhat emotionally removed father. At night (or whenever she falls asleep, really) Kokone enters Heartland, a fantasy/sci-fi world where machines rule and she's kept in isolation because of her ability to cast 'spells' on them. As a colossus threatens to destroy all of Heartland-----and Kokone's father becomes entrenched in a conspiracy involving stollen tech-----the lines between the real world and Kokone's dreams begin to blur. Solving the mystery in one realm may well help to save the other.
What separates Napping Princess from other fantasy animes is its overt use of science fiction. I'm all for finding those gaps between genres, enjoying the experimentation when it works (Cabin in the Woods) and when it kind of doesn't (Cowboys vs. Aliens). For the most part, Napping Princess works well. Yes, there's some confusion. In a viewing with only six others, I had the pleasure of listening to two guys in front of me hilariously react to the film, shouting everything from a generic, "WHAT??" to "This is almost as bad as NGE [Neon Genesis Evangelion]," "Nothing is that bad and you know it." That confusion stems partly from questions left unanswered, but primarily from unexpected genre mixing. Like, for example, watching the mecha with rockets on its feet spout redundant fantasy wings. Or having the princess of a technologically advanced society be outed as a sorceress until she teams up with a pirate. Stuff like that.
In many ways these unexpected overlaps have basis within the narrative----Kokone is dreaming and these moments are reflective of dream logic-----yet regardless they don't take away from the moments that shine. Drawing on steampunk and urban fantasy, Napping Princess enchants with lines like, "He's trying to upload a curse!" highlighting a wonderful blend of technology and magic. There's also a fascinating moment wherein Kokone remembers that she has her tablet with her (the means by which she casts spells) and she undergoes a "transformation" reminiscent of every magical girl since the early 90s: hair and clothes fluttering in the wind, a sparkling background that speaks of power. There's no literal transformation, she doesn't get a cool fighting outfit, but her perception of the world has changed and now she has the skills needed to fight.
In fact, Napping Princess sends a rather optimistic message about technology. By connecting it to the impossible (magic) and putting it in the hands of those poised to make the most use of it (young kids), one comes away with an overwhelmingly positive feeling about the future. The fact that this film grapples with and resolves fears about driverless cars----a very real kind of "magic" that's quickly on its way----only heightens this feeling.
Yes, it's impossible not to compare Napping Princess to films with tighter plots (Kimi No Na Wa certainly comes to mind), but this film nevertheless has a charm all its own.
A final point, vaguely spoiler-y:
For all its silly premise and cutesy characters, Napping Princess has a lot to say about ethics in our technological age. One only need look at one of the final scenes where Kokone (whose name is spelled with the kanji for "wings" and "heart") links together her father, the "hands" the finished the driverless cars' programming, and her grandfather, the "head" of the automobile empire. The scene is staged exactly like the ending of Metropolis.
Feel free to cite that the next time someone says anime is only for kids 👍