A second review requested by Sara L, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Spend any time at all perusing the responses of both critics and anime fans to Princess Arete, a semi-obscure 2001 feature made by the semi-obscure Studio 4Β°C, and one word will keep cropping up. Princess Arete, it would appear, is "slow" And there are two ways I could respond to this complaint, one of which would be to sneer in a most supercilious way at people with short little attention spans, but that would be very mean and unnecessarily hostile, so I shan't. The other way is to acknowledge that yes, in fact, Princess Arete is very slow indeed. That's a great thing.

Adapted from Diana Coles's 1983 fantasy novella The Clever Princess, the film presents a deliberately feminist spin on the European fairy tale tradition: in an undefined medieval kingdom, there lives a princess named Arete (Kuwashima Houko), whose father the king (Nakasako Takashi) wants to marry her off. It doesn't really matter to whom; anybody who can jump through the series of adventuresome hoops the king throws out. Meanwhile, Arete is locked in a high tower, wishing plaintively to go out and experience the world outside her immoderately limited experience. After proving herself vastly more competent and intelligent than the generic princelings who seek her hand, Arete tries to escape, and is immediately caught.

This takes us a lot of the way into the movie, so the accusation of slowness is hardly misapplied, but let us ponder for a moment what the slowness actually does for Princess Arete. There is the obvious, which is to increase our subjective alignment with Arete: her life can hardly be called a thrill-a-minute series of events, locked away with nothing to do but paint and daydream about all the fun she's not having. Placing a character like that within a narrative of purposefully frustrating anti-momentum works terrifically well, I would strenuously argue: it starts to instill in the viewer the same itchy sense of "why isn't anything happening?" that defines Arete's whole life, and puts us in a sympathetic position with her above and beyond the usual ways that screenplays make us feel sympathy for the protagonist. There's something a bit more abstract that I think the film also achieves thanks to that slowness: it grants it a sense of what for want of a better term we might call "historical time". Compared to the great majority of animated films about fairy tale princesses, especially the more modern breed (by which I mean everything starting with Disney's The Little Mermaid in 1989), Princess Arete doesn't make any attempt to adopt some kind of anachronistic attitude or meet its audience of children on their own terms - and I think it's fair to consider this a children's movie first and foremost - but instead takes place securely in a culture with values and priorities very different from our own; it is, in fact, by virtue of applying a feminist slant to such a culture that the movie is able to make its arguments so clearly. And the steady refusal to pick up the pace no matter how far along we are in the action helps to "other" the setting; it is a time and place that had a different rhythm to life, and it feels fundamentally unlike our own world in a way that adds considerably to the sense of fairy tale reality.

For the film certainly is, if nothing else, heavily invested in the narrative structure and emotional logic of fairy tales. In a manner that generally recalls the Grimm collection of stories and their ilk, but even more suggests to me the One Thousand and One Nights, Princess Arete provides very little expository detail, providing characters with only sketches of backstories and motivations, taking place instead in a kind of eternal present, where the past doesn't inform the story in any clear way. This is maybe clearest in the case of the film's villain, the wizard Boax (Koyami Tsuyoshi); having learned of a prophecy that a princess named Arete will bring about the destruction of the stone that grants him eternal life, he uses his magic to win her hand, and then locks her in his own castle. What has transpired in Boax's past, how he came to have the stone of immortality, what he does when he's not imprisoning Arete; these are simply not issues the film is concerned with (it does shift a bit in the ending, but more to make a thematic point than to rigorously flesh out the character). It is primarily a context for Arete to demonstrate her wit and bravery and cleverness, for our entertainment and admiration (I take it that her name is a nod to the ancient Greek arete, which has a nebulous definition, but essentially refers to the moral virtues associated with heroism). In this, I think, it's a really satisfying success.

As a story, Princess Arete is a very lovely, intelligent thing. Its relaxed and reflective way of exploring ideas makes it a uniquely muted children's film, but I think a far more rewarding on. Director Katabuchi Sunao's unhurried handling of the material, and his willingness to let the film's message slowly rise up through the events depicted rather than announce what the film thinks about women in a patriarchal environment (apparently Katabuchi was concerned that, as a man, he had no right to make an explicitly feminist film), or about the abuse of power, or about fearlessly allowing life to follow its own course serves it enormously well: it rewards its audience for thinking and paying attention. The place where it's a bit lacking, I'm very sorry to say, is as an animated film. Speaking bluntly, the film's style is pedestrian at best, with limited character detail: the design of the characters tends towards simple shapes and huge blocks of color, much like the old TV animation that was for decades the only Japanese animation widely seen outside of Japan. I'll admit that this spare style works well within the relaxed, unfussy attitude the film adopts for its storytelling; it contributes the the overall feeling that the film isn't trying to impress us at all. Still, it's not a very interesting movie to look at; it's unambiguously low-ambition and fairly cheap, and there's a definite "for the kids" tang to the animation and design which makes the whole film seem less than it is. The script and moral philosophy of Princess Arete are extraordinarily gratifying; I wish that they had a visual framework that did them justice.