Do you like metaphors? I like metaphors. Let’s talk Napping Princess.
Napping Princess opens weird with a long explanation of a bizarre dieselpunk-esque fantasy world full of endless traffic jams because the king reckons cars are the key to happiness. The exposition here is delivered primarily by a lilting narrator in the style of the early pages of a children’s storybook. There’s a biker who gets docked his pay for not driving a brand new car, there’s the eponymous princess with a life-giving magic tablet app, there’s a fight between a giant monster and a giant mech powered by men on exercise bikes, there’s a shifty guy with a goatee who doesn’t like the princess because magic summoned the monster. I think. The sequence isn’t exactly quick but it is dense and it lost me a bit. Then the protagonist’s alarm goes off. At least the ‘It was just a dream’ bit happens sooner rather than later.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a film called Napping Princess involves dreams but the sudden switch a little jarring. Here I was parsing the rules of a brand new fantasy world and before I could quite grasp it I’ve got the machine-gun chatter of a peppy, well-meaning and not-all-that-bright teenage girl (you know the archetype) buzzing in my ears making breakfast. Part of the problem is that trying to keep up with subtitles, pay attention to the visuals and sort through a world-building exposition dump is a little more work than I like without a pause button. It would likely be easier to understand if dubbed.
Pacing in the first act is an issue. There are times where I’d really have liked some more room to breathe and there are points where I found myself left cold. There’s one particularly egregious dead stop when Kokone, our protagonist, decides to have a chat with her dead mum to point out that her mum is dead and there’s mystery about it. This could have been done more elegantly I think, especially in a film that expects you to think as much as Napping Princess does. Point being I didn’t quite understand why the film prioritised expositing what it did when it could have spent more time easing you into the fantasy overload at the start.
At this point, it sounds like I’m pretty down on the film and at this point of the film I was. Around the climax of the first act I was confused about the link between the film’s two worlds, vexed by some ham-fisted exposition, still waiting for the actual plot to present itself and generally irritable because I can’t stand the sort of simple-minded, ditzy cheerfulness that dripped from Kokone like treacle off a tart, though that last one’s my problem, not the film’s. It was then that Napping Princess took off the training wheels and kicked the plot into motion. The set-up was done and from here on out it’s no longer listening time, now it’s thinking time.
As I said at the start I hope you like metaphors because that’s the entire point of Napping Princess. The dream is a metaphor for the film’s real world which is filled with social commentary via, you guessed it, metaphors. For me once the villain showed up and the film got going there was a great deal of joy to be found in mapping the dream onto reality and vice versa. The plot itself is a simple one and exists as a framework to drape the themes and metaphors on because it’s from those that the film pulls its best elements, including an excellent twist two-thirds in which I won’t spoil here.
I decided to go into Napping Princess completely blind so as I stumbled through the first act I didn’t know what the director, Kenji Kamiyama’s inspiration for the film was. The film comes from trying to make a science-fiction film he would want his daughter to see. That fact makes Napping Princess much easier to understand as a work. It is superficially a very simple, very pretty film with fun, likable characters, explicit exposition and a very obvious villain and a clear focus on a father-daughter relationship. For those who want more meat on the bones the film layers in the metaphor. This is great if you either are just watching for that superficial part, and it is a gorgeous film if that’s what you’re after, or you’re quick and sharp enough to keep up with the deeper stuff the whole way through. This is a problem if, like me, you’re stuck in the middle of those two states.
For me far and away the best part of the film is the middle after the exposition is done and before the finale kicks in. In this interstitial part of the film is where all the best character moments are, the film takes its time to enjoy the relationships between its very human characters and to flit between the real world and the dream naturally, moving to and from the dream world as Kokone sleeps and wakes. It is here that Napping Princess offers up information rather than exposition and asks you to draw your conclusions, leaving you to tie the two worlds together. In a stunning reversal, the storytelling here was so spot on I got the twist mere seconds before it was explicitly revealed, heightening the moment dramatically.
Then there’s the finale. The problem here is the exact opposite of the first act’s, the finale is too abstract. It takes place primarily in the dream world, at least visually, but in fact, it’s real things going on. I think. I’m not sure if it doesn’t quite work or I just don’t quite get it. The finale works totally on the superficial level, it’s quite the spectacle, but by this point that was basically irrelevant for me, I was invested in the metaphor and after I thought I’d got such a good grip it just turned to mist and slipped through my fingers, much like how a dream vanishes after waking. Needless to say, I was frustrated, not so frustrated as to turn on the film but I thinned my lips, sighed through my nose and mused on how Napping Princess was so very nearly great. Perhaps I’ll get it on a re-watch. Perhaps not.
In summary, Napping Princess is good, it’s probably amazing if you’re just watching for the spectacle. If however you find the idea of unpicking and understanding a rich metaphor know that this one might not quite work at the end and is a lot of effort up front. Certainly, take someone with you because you’ll want to talk about it afterwards. If you’re expecting another Your Name or A Silent Voice, however, Napping Princess will suffer in comparison, but then most things do when compared to masterpieces. Would I recommend seeing Napping Princess? Yes, if anything I’ve said about it piqued your interest it deserves a chance, though it might need more than one viewing if you want to get at all it has to offer.