August, a clergyman, returns home from missionary work abroad because his sister Christina, an infamous porn star known as “The Princess”, has died from drug abuse. Taking care of his orphaned niece Mia, August is horrified to discover the little girl has suffered mental and physical abuse. A visit to Christina’s grave, transformed by the porno producers into a ghastly memorial complete with phallic sculptures, proves the final straw. With Mia in tow, August batters and murders his way through the producers’ ranks in search of his ultimate target: Christina’s boyfriend-turned-manager, Charlie.
A brutal, unsettling thriller offset by moments of poetry, Princess blends sparse 2-D animation with bursts of CGI and live action flashbacks shot on digital video. Rather than empty stylistic flash, these scenes shed light on the relationship between troubled teens August and Christina and the enigmatic Charlie (whom we never truly understand, even at the fadeout). It is an intriguing approach whose nearest antecedent might be the genre-bending, experimental erotica of master animator Osamu Tezuka, such as Arabian Nights (1969) or Cleopatra (1970). However, critics’ comparisons of Princess to anime probably have more to do with Britain’s narrow frame of reference for adult oriented fare like this. Anders Morgenthaler’s visual style is more reminiscent of Mike Judge (King of the Hill) or even BBC2’s dire Monkey Dust, and whereas Tezuka’s films celebrate sexual liberation with Sixties' revolutionary zeal, Princess scrutinises the fallout where commercial interests and exploitation have soured everything.
Morgenthaler depicts a believably seedy milieu where screwing on camera is just a job, with zombie-like performers, bored film crews and cynical, indifferent porn merchants. He challenged contemporary pop culture’s laissez-faire attitude to pornography by showing its effect upon an innocent. Mia’s kewpie-doll looks only heighten the horror in scenes where she plays make-believe as a whore, or during bath-time when she instinctively unzips August’s fly. The film asks tough questions, such as an elderly prostitute’s riposte to August: “You can’t hide her (Mia) from reality.” Is this reality? Or has the exploitation of human beings become so entrenched in our culture we can’t recognise any other way of life?
With a clergyman as its central character the film risks seeming purely anti-sex or anti-erotic. It’s sometimes difficult to tell if its fiery evangelical stance is sincere or tongue in cheek, especially the oddly spiritual end credit sequence with Lord of the Dance playing on the soundtrack. Amidst imaginative visual flourishes (a haunting scene of cherry blossoms drifting in the park) there are some plot holes. Mainly, how on earth did a missionary become a kung fu badass? Nevertheless, this is a bold, provocative work and further proof there is more to adult animation than Cartman making fart jokes on South Park.