A slightly obscure yet ambitious OVA for its time period, Shamanic Princess is a peculiar fusion of demonic motifs, metaphysical imagery and unorthodox chronology.
Mahou shoujo titles have come a long way since their advent, with the 90’s in particular being a prominent decade of exploration for the genre. During the early years, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon popularized the trend of combining traditional school-life segments with super sentai elements – increasing the demand for more action-oriented mahou shoujo titles. In a similar vein, the tail-end of the decade saw the emergence of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, which wove theatrical components such as shadow puppetry together with the now standard “monster of the week” formula. The result being a uniquely surreal experience that pushed the boundaries of the genre; offering a multi-layered psychological analysis of its complex cast while also deconstructing many shoujo tropes and motifs that we still see today.
At roughly around the same time as Shoujo Kakumei Utena’s manga publication emerged a six-episode OVA series known as Shamanic Princess – a title that would never achieve the same household status as Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon or the critical acclaim of Shoujo Kakumei Utena, but nevertheless still drew plenty of influence from both while forging its own ground. Of course, said ground never ended up being arable, causing it to slowly fall into the realm of obscurity for most audiences. Because of its niche status, this article will provide more of an introductory look at Shamanic Princess, with the occasional personal critique thrown in for good measure.
A Humble Beginning
Shamanic Princess tells the story of Tiara, a young woman from the mystical Guardian World who is sent to retrieve an object called the Throne of Yord from an unknown assailant. During her search, Tiara attempts to live a normal life by pretending to be a resident of the human world, but ends up crossing paths with some old friends turned rivals from her past. And so begins the battle between Tiara and her childhood friend Rena, for possession of the Throne of Yord.
Despite the rather archetypal setup, most viewers will undoubtedly find themselves confused due to the lack of exposition at the start of the series. Terminology is naturally exchanged between the characters, with very little information provided about the purpose of the Throne of Yord or the existence of the Guardian World. Similarly, details surrounding Tiara’s connection with important characters such as Rena and her ex-lover Kagetsu are only implicitly stated, rather than conveyed via flashback sequences or verbal explanations. On the one hand, this creates a strong sense of mystery and encourages the viewer to be more attentive to nuances such as body language and exchanges between the characters. However, on the other, the lack of an existing foundation will only serve to frustrate, especially when it comes to the central conflict – the rivalry between Tiara and Rena – which can make it difficult to comprehend their motives at times.
Heavily influenced by the decade’s trend of battle mahou shoujos, Shamanic Princess features a number of confrontations between Tiara and Rena. Although the genre was heavily populated by titles featuring girls fighting against monsters or the forces of evil, Shamanic Princess opted to have one-on-one skirmishes between its two central characters – an aesthetic that would only see a popular resurgence in the 2000’s with Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. One interesting point to note about the battles are their unique display of the character’s powers, as opposed to the traditional weaponry of magical rods and wands found in other titles at the time. True to the show’s name, Shamanic Princess exhibits an assortment of summoning rituals and arcane arts; Tiara, for example, is able to transform herself into a demon resembling a harpy whereas Rena uses a flute to perform her magic, conjuring up vines and entwinements alike.
While the battles are largely action exhibitions, they also serve as allegorical representations of some of the cast, similar to how Shoujo Kakumei Utena structured its “duel of the week” sequences. In Rena’s case, her actual magical strength is quite low compared to Tiara’s, so she relies heavily on her vines to control and manipulate her servant, Leon, to fight in her stead. Although there’s no word for word explanation given, the above example almost perfectly sums up the basis of Rena’s disposition – and such an approach may be pleasing to audiences who have become tired of storytelling that borders on spoon-feeding. When taken from a literal perspective, the fights provide decent entertainment, but when looked at more figuratively, they also account for a good portion of the characterization and development of the main cast. In most cases, this works to the show’s advantage, given that most of its runtime is devoted to the bizarre external happenings.
A Rude Awakening
Speaking of bizarre, there are a number of atypical directional choices lurking within Shamanic Princess’ narrative, the most notable of which are Tiara’s reoccurring dream sequences. These scenes provide the show with an additional layer of mystery, as all of Tiara’s dreams feature her conversing with an important figure from her past – a figure who speaks almost entirely in a metaphorical tongue. As such, her dreams aren’t bizarre because of any distorted imagery, but rather their cryptic nature. While it’s undoubtedly strenuous to attempt to make sense of vague verses, the dreams are in fact important pieces of Shamanic Princess’ puzzle. While initially, said visions do not seem very relevant to the overarching plotline, later on, they serve as imperative manifestations of Tiara’s psyche and many of the work’s core themes. The issue is actually assembling all the pieces into one place, which for audiences who find this aspect to be off-putting, will lose out on a lot of what Shamanic Princess has to offer.
Beyond the cryptic dream sequences, Shamanic Princess does have a straight-up dose of general weirdness, ranging from an illusionary world to an enigmatic tentacle monster that adopts the form of the main cast. Unlike Tiara’s dream sequences, many of the show’s climatic moments are defined by their distinguishable imagery – imagery that is often haunting, twisted and just downright disturbing. Although there isn’t an excessive use of blood and gore, a good deal of the imagery during the final confrontation is superficial in nature; it’s aesthetically pleasing, but beyond visual shock, it doesn’t signify much with respect to the characters or themes of the work.
However, the most puzzling element of Shamanic Princess’ direction would have to be its unorthodox chronology. The main conflict concludes just four episodes in, leaving many unanswered questions, plot holes and most of the cast’s relationship still shrouded in darkness. It is not until the final two episodes where the narrative jumps all the way back to Tiara’s upbringing in the Guardian World, filling in the missing pieces. Crucial details such as Tiara’s perverse relationship with her first servant and the rift between her, Rena and Kagetsu are explained, albeit in a more conventional manner. By the end of the final episode, everything comes full circle and Shamanic Princess ends off right where the first episode began. An odd decision, to say the least; it’s certainly not the most graceful display of non-linear storytelling, as the jumbled chronology mainly serves to leave viewers in the dark.
A Beautiful Respite
Perhaps the most praiseworthy aspect of Shamanic Princess is its strong audiovisual direction. Being a short OVA series that was distributed from 1996 – 1998, the production had the benefit of time on its side, leading to a final product with some very crisp animation and a downright gorgeous art style. Despite the character designs being a bit dated, the picture quality of Shamanic Princess still holds up beautifully today. The background art in particular is incredibly detailed, and it’s easy to see the amount of care that went into crafting the atmosphere of every little scene; the quaint European-style town that Tiara resides in is given a very warm feeling during the day, but that all changes into a cold, enveloping labyrinth when night falls. Likewise, the dream and illusionary sequences are able to achieve a seamless, ethereal quality thanks to their imaginative scene layouts – the sparse lighting and prevailing shadows help to emphasize the focal point of each shot. Of course, using words to describe a lovely picture can only go so far, so provided below are a couple memorable shots to help illustrate the above points.
On a similar note, the soundtrack of Shamanic Princess is particularly significant in both defining and complementing the unique tone of the OVA. This is hardly an easy feat to accomplish, considering the wide variety of locales – which range from the real to the surreal – but composer Yoshikazu Suo was able to create a harmonious score befitting of such a product. The wide assortment of tracks encompass more traditional instrumental pieces to a discord of synthetic neo-classical with a subtle touch of otherworldly melodies. It’s a unique array to say the very least, but even outside of their placement in the show, the tracks have an excellent rhythmic composition, so they’re well worth a listen.
A Diamond in the Rough
At the end of the day, it’s not difficult to see why Shamanic Princess didn’t make as many ripples as it could have. The OVA’s rather limited release coupled with some of the directional choices not being as accessible to a more mainstream audience inadvertently secured its niche status. As for how Shamanic Princess holds up today, that’s a bit of a tricky question. There are some obvious signs of its age – most notably, the manner in which the characters are explored and the clumsiness of the nonlinear narrative – though conversely, the more cryptic and allegorical elements may appeal to certain audiences. Certainly, for those that enjoy slightly unconventional forms of visual media or are just interested in exploring more of the mahou shoujo genre, Shamanic Princess is well worth the watch. Who knows, perhaps a gem is to be found within its roughness.