Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden Treasures of Science Fiction: Scrapped Princess!

Is it possible to tell a good science fiction story relying mostly on high fantasy tropes--wizards, magic, knights, prophecies, and so on? There actually have been numerous attempts over the years, but most of them have fallen short or come across as merely clever contrivances. And I thought that's all such attempts could ever be.

That is, until Scrapped Princess, an anime TV series that ran on Japanese TV in 2003, which to my great surprise turned out to be an epic science fiction story 'disguised' as high fantasy. The series is based on number of light novels created by Ichiro Sakaki and boasts the same character designer who worked on Cowboy Bebop. It has received high praises by many reviewers both in Japan and in North America for its excellent story, music, and first-class production values, ending up on numerous 'Best of Anime' lists.

I admit I've become somewhat of a reborn anime fan in the last year. I used to be really into anime in the 90s, but my enthusiasm for it waned after it started becoming increasingly mainstream in the wake of Pokemon, and the need to divert my money at the time to more practical pursuits.

However, thanks to anime shows uploaded online by various sites and dedicated fans, I've been rediscovering a lot of really good anime, and have gotten somewhat back into the hobby. And I'm very glad I have; as a science fiction enthusiast, it has opened up a doorway into a great many good stories I would have never have otherwise discovered. In the past year, I've watched through the entire runs of Cowboy Bebop, Planetes, Last Exile, and most recently, Scrapped Princess.

The 24-epsiode story centers around 15-year-old Pacifica Casull, who at birth was prophecized to be the Poison That Would Destroy the World on her 16th birthday. So she was thrown off a cliff--literally 'scrapped'--as a newborn to make sure that never happened.

But as you can probably guess, she was saved at the last moment and secretly placed with a foster family, where she grew up unaware of her destiny. But just a few months shy of her fateful birthday, she was discovered and her foster parents killed by a murderous mob. She was forced to flee with her older brother and sister, and the story opens with them on the run from the powerful forces who want her dead at all costs--perhaps with justification.

Though the series begins seeming like any another high fantasy tale in the vein of Record of Lodoss War, it quickly becomes clear that this story is actually science fiction via Clark's Law (which states that any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.) The 'magic' and 'spirits' and 'gods' of their world are all just forms of technology too advanced for them to understand. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but it was something made very plain by the sixth episode, and the rest of the series makes no attempt to disguise from the viewer that everything happening in the series is the result of highly advanced science.

As the world's backstory becomes revealed throughout the series, the reasons for why their world is set up the way it is begins making a lot of sense. It does get a bit convoluted in places, but all the pieces do end up fitting neatly into place by the end.

Scrapped Princess also surprised me in that it was about something we don't see a lot of in anime or in science fiction--brothers and sisters and the bonds siblings share. Pacifica's older adoptive brother and sister--Shannon, a gruff swordsman, and Raquel, a level-headed sorceress--aren't motivated by any hidden agendas or lofty goals. Very simply, they protect Pacifica because she's their beloved little sister, prophecy be damned.

They also honestly act like brothers and sisters too, arguing and trading barbs and sometimes even going against each other out of pique. Pacifica is bratty, Shannon is dour and critical, Raquel is the often exasperated peacemaker. But the strong bond they all share as a family never seems in doubt.

Pacifica comes from the Sailor Moon school of anime heroines. Often times she's whiny, self-absorbed, spoiled, and shallow, especially with her brother Shannon, with whom she often bickers. But beneath that seems a deeper core of compassion and determination which occasionally surfaces, showing the type of woman she would eventually become, if she survives. Throughout the series she struggles a lot emotionally with the fact that so many people are dying and suffering just because she exists, and wonders if maybe the world really would be better off she was 'scrapped.'

The series vacillates back and forth between lighter comedic moments and much more weighty issues. One moment they would be dealing with Soopy Kun (a goofy cartoonish dragon costume that one of the secondary characters ends up habitually wearing), the next they would be dealing with the ultimate fate of mankind and who may have to die for Pacifica to fulfill her destiny. Mostly it finds a good balance between them.

Scrapped Princess also turned out to be very West-friendly. It doesn't rely overly much on anime cliches or nuances of Japanese culture that can often confuse North American viewers new to the medium. There is a fair amount of cheesecake in some episodes and some very occasional but brief peek-a-boo nudity, mostly stemming from the Japanese predilection for frequent bathing. This, taken along with the violence, would probably rate the series at PG-13.

The complete series is available on DVD, which you can find HERE, among other places. Episodes are also available online.

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