BY BENJAMIN K. PAPLHAM
Author’s Note: This section is dedicated to calling attention to lesser known animated movies and television. If somebody has a suggestion for me to review or discuss, please feel free to email me and I will see what I can do!
I found this movie entirely by accident due to the wonderful magic of the “Recommended for You” section on Netflix. I embarked on this film with absolutely no idea what it was about or what was going to happen, which, when dealing with the anime genre, means you never know quite what to expect. I suppose it’s only fair to mention it’s an anime, because “Princess Arete” contains the typical elements—slow pacing, concentrated nature shots and big bright eyes—that doesn’t appeal to everyone. However, if you are a fan of the style, then I believe this film is worth looking into.
Lesser known than the popular Studio Ghibli, (and I admit I hadn’t heard of them for years, either) Japanese company Studio 4°C presents “Princess Arete” (2001), a film about individuality and female empowerment.
Arete is a young girl with a Rapunzel/Merida complex, a princess in a castle tower struggling to discover herself when her future is fraught with being used as a pawn in a game of eligible suitors, arranged marriages and constricting social expectations. But Arete is different from other princesses. She yearns to be out in the real world and is determined to escape her prison of nobility.
The audience lives or dies by Arete’s character. If you don’t like her, then the movie will be a train wreck. Working in her favor, Arete is instantly a sympathetic character. Her loneliness and frustration is easily tangible, helped largely in part by design features like dark, creeping shadows and a pair of upturned eyebrows that give her a contemplating demeanor.
Working against her, Arete is a two-dimensional character (no pun intended) and her motivations are watered-down.). However—and I have absolutely no validation for my theory—it is possible that Arete’s simple character structure is due to a reference to Greek mythology. “Arete” is a Greek word meaning “moral virtue,” and in “The Odyssey” Queen Arete offers Odysseus protection and hospitality. Similarly, Princess Arete is the voice of intellectual virtue and compassionate insight into people as an aggregation of individuals. Arete is also the funnel through which all the main themes pass through, such as the relationship between how a person controls other people compared to how that person is in control of him or herself.
Overall, this movie is passively frustrating. There are moments of beautiful poignancy, but that’s precisely the problem with the film—moments. A few different scenes—the conversation with a suitor who sneaks into the Princess’ room or the first-person camera pan of Arete watching the village from her tower or Arete smudging a wall painted to look like a window—are especially noteworthy. But the film often lags, leading to periods of time where I was left feeling impatient for something to happen.
Another aspect that was slightly irritating was the underuse of fantasy. In the film, one of the main characters is a wizard, and Arete herself uses magical objects. However, the fantasy element is only lightly touched upon, and the hints left me annoyed because the film didn’t take those aspects a step further to expand the universe. In defense of the movie, I suppose that the lack of fantasy was playing into the theme that celebrates the ordinary person and the idea that the individual doesn’t need magic to initiate change.
All things considered, it’d be too harsh to call “Princess Arete” a throwaway film but too generous to call it a masterpiece. I appreciate the film for its animation and important message, but also believe it lacks a tight plotline and complicated characterization. My average star rating is a reflection that this film is not for everyone, but I still would recommend it for anime fans.