Some spoilers for season 1 will follow.
Hitsugi no Chaika, known in English as Chaika: The Coffin Princess, is a fantasy/mystery/adventure show based on a light novel series of the same name. It stars “siblings” Toru and Akari, a pair of magically-enhanced human soliders known as Saboteurs, who agree to be employed by the eponymous Chaika as a means to overcome their post-war ennui.
You see, Chaika Gaz–a white-haired girl who speaks in clipped sentences and wields a magical sniper rife (she uses it to cut a unicorn in half in episode 1)–introduces herself as the daughter of the former Evil Emperor Arthur Gaz, who was defeated five years ago at the end of a massive war. The eight heroes who defeated him chopped up his super-magical body and split his remains among themselves. Chaika’s goal is to gather those remains and…give him a proper burial.
See, that’s what’s so interesting about this show. It is, at every level, almost embarrassingly (for the viewer) charming. Chaika herself is nearly a realistic take on a moe character. Everything about her exudes “adorable”–and, perhaps paradoxically, that gives her an air of danger.
It is established that she is not the only Chaika trying to gather the remains, nor are her plans for the remains the same as the others’. She doesn’t even exhibit the same personality traits: of the three Chaikas revealed in season 1, two speak in short sentences, two are portrayed as being physically more mature than the other one, and all three have different opinions and personalities. It quickly becomes apparent that “white” Chaika–the one we follow throughout the series–is the “good” Chaika. It’s implied that the Chaikas are created and not born, which opens up a vast range of possibility space that I can’t yet begin to navigate.
That’s another thing about the show: it’s simple, yes–right down to the warmongering General-types in the last arc who refuse to listen to those more knowledgable than they–but in that simplicity lies a subtlety that lurks around every corner and lends an air of mystery to the entire endeavor: how many Chaikas are there? What is their ultimate goal? Was Arthur Gaz as terrible as he is often portrayed as being (there are many hints that he was an aloof but benevolent ruler who threatened the powers-that-be in the other countries and might have been taken out on the “Evil Emperor” premise alone)?
What started out as a straightforward and vaguely interesting mindless fantasy show evolved into a bewitching mystery that drew me in further and further with every passing second. The characters imply a depth that, if not explicitly explored, is all the more intriguing for what does emerge from–say–facial expressions, reactions to social issues, persistence in the face of authority, a lot of–I’ll use the word again–subtle cues that build a character far beneath what we can see on the surface. It’s exactly what I’ve wanted in a show, and I didn’t even know it. Even the deeper, cerebral shows–Mysterious Girlfriend X springs to mind as a good example of complex characters–tend to tell and not show. The implied nature of the characters does exactly what it’s supposed to: it lets my mind fill in the blanks. Not only is this a lot easier from a writing perspective than filling out a character by hand, it’s more intimate for the viewer. What could be more engaging than putting a little of ourselves into each character?
It’s a show of little touches. For example, the main characters are being pursued by, in essence, the “good guys”–this lets the writers portray the “villains”–here, the protagonists–as having internal motivation and goals, which allows them to show both sides of the obvious conflict as being active agents in the story. This makes them both interesting. No mean feat.
Even things that don’t matter are charming as all hell: easily 85% of the proper nouns in the show are references to cars, trucks, or the companies that make them. Chaika, Gaz, Acura, Trabant, Gilette, Bohdan, Abarth, Skoda, Lancia, Koenigsegg, Scania–the list goes on and on and on. What’s left are largely musical, or so it seems (Layla, for example, and one of the characters’ last names is some kind of rock star I’d never heard of). As someone who appreciates cars and music both, it feels like being in on a little joke, the whole point of references. In a very meta way, this serves to bend my affections towards this show. It’s probably unintentional, but there it is.
In summary, Chaika the Coffin Princess is not the most complex or nuanced show in the world–that wonderful title might have to go to this season’s Mekakucity Actors–but it is a far cry from the usual fantasy fare, superficial and predictable as those often are. I’m someone who draws upon a lifetime of analysis and interpretation of stories and the creation thereof, and–refreshingly–I can’t guess what’s going to happen next.
Now, this has happened before, to both positive and negative effect. The aforementioned Mekakucity Actors, for example, is at the pinnacle of Tarantino-style Pulp Fiction-esque storytelling in its particular medium. It kept me guessing right up to the end, and delivered spectacularly (I’ll probably have to watch it again, in fact, to really grasp everything that happened). Nobunaga the Fool, however, kept me guessing…because it didn’t itself know what it was doing (stageplay aside; I don’t have access to it and it shouldn’t matter anyway).
So Chaika could go either way, though I don’t expect it to end any worse than mediocre. But, fantastic or disappointing though the end may turn out to be, I fully expect that the journey to get there will be anything but boring.
Shocking truth: Chaika is available on Crunchyroll. Season 2 is pending for this Fall. Watch it, please, and maybe it’ll get a North America Blu-ray release before too long. Don’t make me post pictures of Sad Chaika, because I am fully prepared to unleash that particular weapon of moe destruction.
Update: Apparently Chaika just got picked up by Sentai Filmworks, so we know it’ll get done right.