My first encounter with Napping Princess was through a series of news pieces during its production. AlI I knew at the time was that it was a Kenji Kamiyama film, it involved a parallel dream world, and the trailer had a criminally beautiful cover of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” sung by the lead voice actress.
My intention had always been to watch it at some indefinite future point, as what little I saw in clips featured an appealing mix of technology and fantasy. So what could I expect from it? I’m not sure. But I do know that whatever you’re expecting, this movie isn’t it.
Gentle readers, Napping Princess is a car movie.
Yeah, no, I was just as surprised as you are.
The film takes places in 2020, shortly before the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Our heroine, Kokone Moriyama, lives with her widower car mechanic father Momotaro. She can’t seem to manage a good father/daughter relationship with him no matter how hard she tries, with most of their conversations taking place via texts. But it’s clear he cares about her—at least from afar—and that he’s extremely put-upon for reasons that aren’t revealed until later.
Kokone dreams of going to school in Tokyo. She also dreams, in a different way, of being a witch princess named Ancien who lives in a car-centric kingdom called Heartsland. Here, ars are produced 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and even the employees are expected to have the best and newest models. Meanwhile, Ancien is locked away in a glass room, separated from the tablet that allows her to magically bring things to life.
The real-world Kokone has a talent for falling asleep anytime, anywhere, always launching into her dreamworld. But when a major automotive company pursues her father for his tablet, which contains a code to automate self-driving cars, the worlds of Japan and Heartsland begin to blur together.
Both dubbed and subbed versions of Napping Princess are available on VRV, and the dub features a good cross-section of American voice actors — including Brina Palencia of My Hero Academia and Doug Erholtz from the Final Fantasy games. What interested me most though, though, was the Japanese casting. Save for Ancien’s talking dog Joy (voiced by Rie Kugimiya, notably the voice of Alphonse in Fullmetal Alchemist), the primary cast is made up of live stage and screen actors, giving the film a very different feel from the majority of anime, which mostly use career voice actors.
As for what the movie itself is? Well, giving too much away would spoil a lot of the fun, because the fun is in the discovery. Can you figure out what Kokone’s dreams mean before she does? I did, as it turns out, but that didn’t make me enjoy the reveal any less . Rather, it gave me a slightly different view on the situation as she moved forward in both her real life and Heartsland.
The nature of Heartsland is actually what surprised me the most. As I said, this is a movie about cars, and Kokone’s dreamscape is a car world. Or, to be more specific, a car manufacturing world. Employees check in and out of the city’s enormous central factory with the click of a giant padlock on their clothes, and the roads in and out are jammed with constant traffic. High above the city, Ancien and her fellow royals are decked out in garb evocative of more traditional fantasy settings.
As a viewer, though, there is one thing you will absolutely have to give up as early as possible—figuring out what’s a dream and what’s real. The worlds move more and more fluidly around each other as the film goes on, with multiple characters seemingly sharing dreams with Kokone and being aware of the movie’s parallel world.
There is never an explanation provided for the sliding scale of realism throughout the film, which—for me, at least—is fine. We were never promised an investigation into the coexistence of two similar worlds, and not every story needs to do extensive worldbuilding to be enjoyable. This is a story of a family torn apart for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious, and if you’re the kind of person who needs to know the definitive truth of a narrative, you won’t find one here.
Instead, there’s a lot of interesting metaphorical imagery at play, especially given the treatment of smart devices and self-driving cars as “magical.” The power of words, both positive and negative, is a major theme throughout the movie—we get to see both in action on numerous occasions.
Funnily enough given the themes, Napping Princess felt a lot like being read a bedtime story. There was action and danger, but I never really worried about anyone or felt tense. Perhaps it was Kokone’s sense of humor or her ability to sleep anywhere that relaxed me, or maybe it was the storytelling itself. Either way, I was happy to give it my time on a tired autumn day.
My only regret about the film? No tablet I own will ever get my lunch delivered to me as quickly as Kokone’s did.