What do you think when you hear the word spy? Personally, I think of secrets, shadows, and stealth. If I wanted a bit more drama, I’d throw in nighttime scenes and highly-classified missions. One or two badass fights wouldn’t hurt, either.

You know what? Maybe it’s easier to say that my mental images for the word spy are really the first four minutes of PRINCESS PRINCIPAL.

PRINCESS PRINCIPAL is set in an alternate version of London. The city is divided into two parts, the Commonwealth and the Kingdom, and both sides are at odds with each other. The show follows five girls who serve as spies for the Commonwealth. Usually, it’d be easy to write this off as just another “cute girls doing cute things with that one gimmick” sort of anime. Luckily, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL is just the opposite of that. And no scene better proves that than its first one.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange atop a steam tower | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

At first, the show starts out pretty standard. Viewers are thrown into the middle of things as each girl jumps into action and we race to follow them. It’s a classic way of giving viewers a taste of the promised story before switching to setup. But PRINCESS PRINCIPAL quickly ends up going above and beyond that. More than just an introduction to the plot and basic artistry, every cinematic technique this opening scene utilizes fully embraces the show’s spy-themed premise.

From the colors to the soundtrack, camera work to character design, every choice made in PRINCESS PRINCIPAL’s first four minutes is bursting with the classic idea of spy thrills; a classic idea that’s portrayed through deception, mystery, and action. As a result, it’s the strongest opening scene I’ve seen in a while. So, let’s break it down.

Things to Note for PRINCESS PRINCIPAL

The truth is, the scene I’m about to discuss isn’t the very first that PRINCESS PRINCIPAL opens with. The show itself starts with a forty-five-second long narration before going into the opening credits. I will discuss the four-minute-long chase scene that happens after. Since it’s the first scene with character interactions and substance, I will continue referring to it as the opening scene.

In terms of action, the events of those four minutes are nice and straightforward. Put simply, a portion of the main cast helps a young man escape from his pursuers. We meet three of the major characters one-by-one as they each play their part in ensuring their target’s safety.

Ange, the protagonist, tracks the man, Eric, and is the first to approach him. With her strange, inexplicable gravity-defying power, she leads him away from his pursuers. While Ange does this, the second girl, Chise, fights off their enemies. The third girl, Dorothy, is the driver of their getaway car.

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Seeing Isn’t Believing

Deception is essential in spy-work. This can range from simply making one thing appear as it’s not, to outright lying. PRINCESS PRINCIPAL’s setting and dialogue lend spectacularly to this theme in both respects.

In the first few shots, black shadows and off-white fog shroud nearly everything in sight. The dim lighting is mostly provided by the blood-red moon overhead. Everything is obscured and we aren’t able to see anyone’s faces. This anonymity makes this place appear otherworldly and the characters seemingly inhuman. Ange, watching Eric as he flees his hotel, is a masked being in a phantom-like cloak. Eric and his enemies are artfully portrayed through her spyglass — nothing more than barely-detailed figures in the distance.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange observes her targets through a spyglass | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

As the scene continues, specific details remain difficult to come by. We see through the reflections of Eric’s eyeglasses.  Looming shadows against stone walls signify his pursuers. Thick mist continues to conceal Ange’s features.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange hidden in mist | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

No one is as they seem at first glance and everyone’s true selves are hidden. Steampunk London creates a wonderfully dark, cramped, and uncertain background to this scattered chase through the streets.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Eric fleeing his pursuers | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

At last, we see Ange properly, outlined in a strange green light as she approaches Eric. Supernatural appearance aside, she greets him cryptically. “I’m an extraterrestrial,” she says. “I am from the Black Lizard Planet.” She later amends this with a blunt, “I’m just lying.”

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange finds Eric | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

Our first taste of the show’s protagonist is her doing what spies do best: lie. Trick. Deceive. Her job is to help Eric, but she refuses to divulge any more information and explanation than she needs to. Instead, she mostly speaks nonsense, or so it would seem to Eric and the viewers. It’s an excellent introduction to the character that stays true to the show’s promised premise.

Mystery at its Finest

Adding to the idea of deception, spies also have an air of mystery about them. In this case, both soundtrack and color palette add to it.

During the “deception” parts — in other words, before we truly see the characters as they are — a delicate, subdued track plays. A blend of percussions makes a soft but steadily repetitive beat that fades into the mist as Ange observes her target from a distance. Then, as the chase picks up speed, so does the track’s tempo. Combined with low-angle shots of Eric weaving through streets and alleys, this creates increasing tension and anxiety. We don’t know who’s trying to catch him or what’s going to happen next. We barely even know where he is and where he’s trying to go.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
The streets of London | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

PRINCESS PRINCIPAL’s use of color reinforces that sense of loss and confusion. I mentioned the black shadows and off-white fog earlier. They remain present throughout the scene, alongside faint yellow street lamps and red, brick buildings. These dark and hazy colors create a barely-visible world. It’s a wonderful way to build atmosphere — you never know what’s lurking just around the corner.

The streets of London pt 2 | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

Added to that is Ange’s glowing green outline that appears whenever she’s defying gravity. Her odd superpower, which stems from an unexplained mineral called Cavorite, is mysterious in and of itself. However, the peculiar radiance surrounding her whenever she activates it heightens that. In line to her first dialogue in the show, it gives her an alien-like presence. It also truly stands out from the otherwise murky color palette.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange activating her Cavorite | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

Now, here you might be thinking, But she’s a spy! Standing out is bad! Well, allow me to explain.

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Illusions and Grandeur

Spies are deceptive and mysterious, but let’s not forget the importance of action in the genre as well. And where there’s action there’s usually a good dosage of drama and flair close behind. Staying true to course, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL’s imaginative character design and framework during the opening lend to some of the flashiest thrills of the season.

Costume design is cleverly both discreet and ostentatious here. For the sake of stealth, the three spies dress mostly in black in this scene. Ange and Dorothy have a few accents of other dark-toned colors adorning their outfits, presumably just for style. Additionally, Ange and Chise often cover the bottom halves of their faces with a mask when fighting close-range.

Then we get to the flashier aspects. Ange dons a top hat and form-covering cloak, showy accessories that simultaneously throw off her identity. Chise, meanwhile, dresses largely like a ninja, which is most definitely out of place in 19th century London. Dorothy wears large goggles as she drives at top speeds. These costumes stand out, and yet do their job of concealment all the same. They’re inventive and help clearly differentiate the characters while still staying true to the basic idea of secrecy.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Dorothy, Ange, and Chise in their getaway car | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

The exciting and intense art direction also strives to impress. Take the first time Ange meets Eric and displays her gravity-defying ability, for instance. As they fly into the air, the whole city of London is tilted in the background to emphasize how out-of-depth Eric feels. The shot itself then starts rolling upside-down as Ange switches off her power and they plummet back to the ground. The spinning frame provides a fun shot that also shows off PRINCESS PRINCIPAL’s creativity and imagination.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange and Eric escape their pursuers | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

Going All Out

Towards the end of this opening, with the appearance of Dorothy and the getaway car, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL wholeheartedly brings its action-scene skills to the forefront. And you couldn’t have action without a car chase, now could you?

The hyperactive car chase ensues, complete with intricate mechanical designs and plenty of gunshots. The camera zooms in and out, following the high-speed race down London’s cobblestone streets. The car’s headlights are blinding as they bounce along slopes. A jaunty jazzy tune plays throughout, trumpet solo and all.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
The high-speed car chase | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

We’ve entered thriller territory, and PRINCESS PRINCIPAL is more than happy to oblige. Through a balance of moving bird’s-eye shots and medium side-views, we get both a taste of the pursuit and a nice look at carefully-detailed engines and guns. The camera is constantly moving, either in a single shot or through quick-paced cuts, amplifying the energy of the chase. Once Ange whips out her anti-gravity power and starts glowing green again, we’ve turned away from the stealth and reached the climax of the action.

Screenshot, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL, Episode 1
Ange atop the enemy car | Image: Amazon Anime Strike

And it works. PRINCESS PRINCIPAL started off with shadows and mystery and shapeless figures in the mist. But a steady buildup of conflict and thrill prepared the audience satisfactorily for the moment when all secrecy was abandoned. Building tension in music and pacing meant we were ready for the moment Ange casually manipulated the opposing car to crash into a wall, covertness be damned.

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Kicking Things Off Right

In a span of four minutes, PRINCESS PRINCIPAL pulled off what few other anime can do for me these days. It hooked me, excited me, and exceeded all my expectations in its opening minutes alone. It executed a top-notch scene that both embodied its premise in every cinematic aspect and was also just genuinely entertaining.

Successful hooks like these let viewers know what they’re getting into and set an appropriate tone for the rest of the series. The dark London alleyways and oddly-extravagant spy outfits interest me. The steampunk mechanics and knowledgeable art direction convince me. Most other shows persuade me to stay through a striking premise rather than an entertaining and cleverly-informative opening. PRINCESS PRINCIPAL has done both at once.

Every detail here adds to the overall atmosphere; no one aspect is overlooked. It’s fun to analyze, fun to watch, and fun to continue. Hopefully, more anime can learn from PRINCESS PRINCIPAL.

Featured image screenshotted from Amazon Anime Strike.

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