Napping Princess feels like too much and too little at the same time. At its heart are some elements that have tremendous promise, but they're all milling around inside a confused and ill-conceived story. It's stranded between so many poles at once — an industrial-espionage thriller, a family drama, a chase/heist story, a parallel-worlds fantasy — that it can't touch down on any one of them. After director Kenji Kamiyama's work on Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Moribito, and Eden Of The East, this project comes in a very, very distant fourth.
Napping Princess takes place in 2020, right on the eve of Japan's hosting of the Olympics (something that ought to give AKIRA fans a giggle). Its heroine is Kokone, a teenaged girl living with her father Momotaro, an auto mechanic who communicates with her either in monosyllables or via text messages. He's been like this ever since his wife, Kokone's mother, died in a car accident some time ago, and so Kokone mother-hens him and tries to get him to take actual paying work instead of doing things like installing self-driving hardware in old peoples' cars in exchange for food.
Whenever Kokone nods off, something she's purported to being in the habit of doing, she finds herself in a fantasyland. It's a sort of steampunk Noir Age city a la The Big O, where a princess named Ancien tries to get out from under the thumb of an imperious father. He runs the car factory where everyone works, and where everyone is obliged to buy new cars whether they like it or not. When giant monsters come ashore, Ancien partners with a "pirate", a biker-gang type nicknamed Peach, to hijack the giant robots used to fight them and use them to finish the job all the more effectively.
It quickly becomes clear that Kokone's (day)dreams are allegories about her own experiences. And not just hers alone, but of her father's, and her mother's father — the president of a real-world car company — and a sinister bearded man who works for the company and comes snooping around for something Momotaro and Kokone have on Momotaro's tablet PC. When Momotaro is arrested, Kokone goes on the lam with Dad's tablet to save him, and discovers that her "napping" powers not only affect her, but others too.
Kamiyama's Mulligan stew
I need to cut short my discussion of the plot to point out the movie's first big problem, which is that it has a great idea at its center that it chooses to do very little of consequence with. Early on, I hypothesized a couple of ways Kokone's dreaming power could be developed. One, it would be a super-power of sorts, something that could transform our world irrevocably, and the story would revolve around the possibility and danger associated with that. Possibility #2 was the fantasies shown by Kokonoe's would be used as a way to comment allegorically on the goings-on.
What the movie tries to do is have both cakes and eat them too. By this I mean it invokes Kokone's dreaming power as a superpower when it's convenient, but settles more for just using it as a kind of fantasy-allegory recasting of what's going on. That's bad enough in that it's not internally consistent, but it's made worse by the movie not even really seeming to care which one matters. It eventually amounts to a storytelling technique that just calls too much attention to itself — especially during the slam-bang climax, where any possible tension between what could be going on and what we see going on is neutralized by the movie's indifference to picking an approach.
It doesn't help that the rest of Napping Princess is something of an idea salad. There's Kokone's dreaming power, and a thriller plot about her dad having allegedly stolen the secrets of a self-driving car, and the business about her mother's legacy, and the road-trip stuff where Kokone uses Dad's tablet to summon help (akin to the smartphones in Kamiyama's Eden Of The East). It's about three hundred percent too much plot needed to sustain a movie, which is all the more bizarre given how little payoff there is. The self-driving car stuff is a snore, the fantasyland material ends up being mostly for show (although it is used to deliver a sly twist about who Princess Ancien is supposed to be in the real world), and the family stuff is bog-standard anime feel-goodism.
Stories that don't soar, that don't give us some overriding reason to stick with them, have a bad tendency to get hung up on dumb details. When Kokone's father is arrested, the police inexplicably do not confiscate his phone at first, allowing him to alert Kokone about the bad guys coming for her. There's nothing in the story requiring events to be structured in such an incredulous way; it's just the movie being lazy. But for me the real problem was in how the most interesting element, Kokone's dreaming ability, is never given support or direction by the story it's surrounded by, and never allowed to flourish in a way that would have really driven things. It's just one more piece in the jumble.
It always hurts a little more when we see mediocre or confused work from people we know have talent. Kamiyama has directed two shows I keep close to my heart, Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Moribito: Guardian Of The Spirit, so anything with his name on it I'm inclined to at least consider that much more seriously by default. GITS: SAC, and also Kamiyama's Eden Of The East shares some thematic overlap with this movie, mainly about the way technology has become an irreversible way of life for us, so we might as well learn to use it wisely. But Eden, for all of its problems (and it had plenty of them), at least had narrative direction and discipline, and it kept me curious about what it would do. Napping Princess feels like notes from five other unfinished projects that were forcibly mashed together into one. That might explain why it's so, well, lumpy.