There's little that's more delightful than coming across a show that you have no expectations for, but which turns out to be one of the highlights of its season. The best things about the show in question, Chaika: The Coffin Princess, are the little things, the way its small and telling details aggregate and add up to create a satisfying whole. It doesn't have the crazy genius of something like Kill la Kill, but not everything needs to be that outlandish to be enjoyable, and Chaika works so well with what it does that it never feels like it's deliberately aiming lower than it ought.
This is a tough thing to get right, and so I cherish it whenever it turns up in any form. Not every show has to be groundbreaking to be excellent, and sometimes quiet competence and simple, well-told stories are their own reward. I had all the more reason not to expect that from what at first glance looked like yet another show adapted from yet another light novel series, and I haven't been impressed with the track record there. But here, I was happy to be proven wrong.
The burdens of the past
Chaika is set in what at a glance appears to be a generic fantasy setting, where magic is present in various forms, if not always a fixture of everyday life. A centuries-long war with the Gaz Empire concluded with the death of the powerful and fearsome Emperor Gaz himself, thanks to the combined efforts of many. But the end of any war too often means the disenfranchisement of those who fought it, and that's the fate that has befallen Toru Acura and his sister Akari. Trained as spies and saboteurs, with some magic used to spice up their existing skills, the two of them are now faced with living in a world that doesn't value their skillsets — a sly echo of the way the real-world samurai also found themselves with that much less to do after Japan's unification under the Tokugawa banner.
One day while foraging in the woods, Toru comes across a young woman, elaborately dressed, toting a massive coffin on her back. She calls herself Chaika, and speaks in halting tones that sound like she's blurting out only the most important words under duress. The coffin contains two things: a sniper-rifle-like implement that she uses to cast spells (this is one of the show's most inventive visual tropes) ... and a number of the preserved body parts from the corpse of Emperor Gaz himself. She's his long-lost daughter, and she has been on a mission to gather his remnants, scattered far and wide, and give them a proper burial. The body parts have an attraction above and beyond just being war relics: they're powerful sources of magical energy, and so can be tapped into for any number of uses — good, bad, or ugly.
At first the relationship between the three is purely mercenary. Chaika hires Toru and Akari — who are only too happy to have paying work — to retrieve another of her father's pieces from the mansion of a war hero (apparently they were attractive spoils of battle). In the process they learn about both its significance and Chaika's. Some of that information comes by way of the Gillett Corps, a group of mercenaries, also magically augmented, tasked with tracking down Chaika and bringing her in. They have good reason to be worried that whoever might be collecting Gaz's remains could be putting them to terrible use.
This doesn't square with Toru and Akari's direct experiences with Chaika. To them she's a vivacious (if sometimes overly intense) young woman whose magical abilities come in handy. They're not prepared for the possibility that she is only one of several Chaikas — all seeking her father's remains, all programmed with the same sense of urgency, all ostensibly in the employ of powers planning something nefarious with the reconstituted remains. Does that make her an impostor, or is she the real original by dint of better understanding this dilemma than her other incarnations might? The show wisely does not give us an immediate answer — not just for the sake of preserving a compelling bit of ambiguity, but also to leave things open-ended enough for a successor season, one already airing and already showing all the signs of being as good as the first.
Charm without smarm
I've come over time to find that it's not the concept of a show that draws me in so much as the tone of that concept, and how the execution both realizes the concept and adds said tone to it. The general outlines of Chaika's setting hearken back to any number of other fantasy novels, so they are by themselves not what makes the show exceptional. It's the deployment, the way the specific ideas are wrapped up and delivered, that elevate the whole project. (Having pretty slick production values across the board don't hurt either; the magical battles are dazzling, but even the interstitial eye-catch bumpers are attractive and classy.)
Consider the Gillett Corps, the crew tasked with bringing Chaika in. They're not depicted as a stereotypical band of baddies, in big part because the crew works for an organ of the state charged with reconstructing it in the wake of the war. In other words, they're essentially the good guys, and they act the part all along the way. Doubly so as the show heads towards its climax, and they decide pairing up with Chaika, Toru, Akari, and and Fredrika (a dragon-girl alley they picked up along the way; the concept is less boneheaded than it sounds) makes more sense. An entire side story could be told about these characters, and I say that without trying to imply their story is more interesting than Chaika's. The same goes for the way the puzzle of Chaika's identity is handled; the show does not insult our intelligence about who or what she is, and lets us connect enough dots about what might be going on to remain interested without needing to be led by the nose. (Additional poignancy comes by way of the revelation that she can expend her own memories to fuel her magic powers. How much has gone missing along the way?)
It's also Chaika herself, with her determination and her endless resourcefulness, who provides the show with a good deal of its character-driven momentum. Endearing heroines are hard to get right; it's too easy to make them mere firehoses of emotion that don't actually have a hand in being endearing. But when done right, a moé heroine can be as much about the concept of moé itself as it is a way to make a character in that paradigm. (Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth did this particularly well.) Chaika is endearing without being irritating, a quality that gets put to the test as her unease and self-doubt deepens. The fact she emerges from it the other side of her tribulations a more sympathetic character, not less so, is what makes us want to stick around for her sake. My only substantive complaint about the show is the way Akari's pseudo-incestuous attitude towards Toru is played for laughs; it's the kind of gag that just doesn't fit with any of the surrounding material, including the rest of the humor.
Light novels have become a major source of new anime projects, in big part because they represent a largely untapped target market. Manga fans are already part of the captive audience for anime derived from their projects. Light novel readers are just the next ones in line to be so addressed, and that they are fond of a work and will turn out to see an anime adaptation of it isn't a guarantee of the underlying material being worthy of a larger audience. But every source is just that — a source — and it's the execution that matters most. If you bring wit, humor, even-handedness, intelligence, and grace to the material, you get all of those things back in spades. Without having the original Chaika novels in English, it's hard to say if those things were all there to begin with, but I'm just grateful they are to be found in its anime adaptation.