Whenever schoolgirl Kokone Morikawa (voiced by Mitsuki Takahata) falls asleep she dreams of Heartland, a fantastical yet strangely familiar kingdom of hi-tech wonders. There a little princess named Ancien (also Mitsuki Takahata) lies imprisoned in a palace because her grandfather the King (Hideki Takahashi) is suspicious of her magical powers. One day a giant monster dubbed the Colossus goes on a rampage through Heartland. The King commands his men to charge their giant robot Engineers into battle, but to no avail. So Ancien springs into action, aided by her faithful A.I.-equipped cuddly toy Joy (Rie Kugimiya) and Peach (Yosuke Eguchi), a brave commoner, driven to use her magic even though the King's ministers try to stop her. Meanwhile in the real world: life takes a strange turn for Kokone. Her widowed dad Momotaro (also Yosuke Eguch) is mysteriously arrested. Before long Kokone and hapless school friend Morio (Shinnosuke Mitsumisha) are on the run from bad guys in suits while protecting a 'magical' tablet device. But she still can't stay awake. Suddenly Kokone's fantasies seep into reality, unlocking secrets connected to her own mysterious past.
Kenji Kamiyama, among the most inspired animators working in Japan today, is the brain behind this beguiling, mind-and-genre-bending blend of fairy tale, science fiction and slice-of-life drama. A truly multi-layered work, Napping Princess (which was also released under the alternate titles: The Story of the Unknown Me and Ancien and the Magic Tablet) evokes the sense of wonder found in a Hayao Miyazaki fantasy (with among others: an aerial sequence over a moonlit metropolis worthy of the Studio Ghibli maestro at his best), the disorientating dream logic of Satoshi Kon, epic spectacle of old school Japanese tokusatsu (including, in time-honoured tradition: a giant robot battling a rampaging kaiju), and the heartwarming family drama of Isao Takahata. In dealing with a child coping with death and a fractured family life by retreating into a fantasy world the film obviously bears comparison with Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and The Neverending Story (1984). However it keeps a noteworthy foot in sociopolitical satire. Which is in keeping with Kamiyama's past work: e.g. Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex - Solid State Society (2006) (superior to the over-praised 1995 anime that inspired the 2017 live-action remake) and especially the outstanding Eden of the East (2009). Here Kamiyama mounts an allegorical fable that takes account of Japan's past and looks to its future.
The story tries to reconcile two generations of Japanese society: the now-greying go-getters behind the Sixties-to-Eighties economic boom and the now-middle-aged Generation X-ers who bore the brunt of the downturn in the Nineties. The villains, as in Eden of the East, are unmasked as the kind of corrupt corporate goons whose naked self-interest caused the global economic crisis of 2008. However Napping Princess counterbalances its suspicion of unchecked corporate power with a very Japanese faith in the utopian promise of technology. Kokone and Ancien (who in a neat twist turn out to be connected in a different way than we first imagine) wield their wi-fi devices like actual magic wands, conjuring 'spells' that get them out of many a jam. Aside from this charming conceit, some might take issue with the films emphatic belief in the importance of driver-less A.I-controlled cars. It glosses over the obvious negative impact on jobs and other facets of society.
Along with failing to concoct a convincing explanation for Kokone's ability to jump in and out and later bring others into Heartland, Napping Princess arguably blunts its satire with plot twists that ultimately bolster Japan's corporate patriarchy. Nevertheless Kamiyama crafts an ambitious, engaging fantasy adventure that pulls off a pointed critique of corporate self-interest's negative global impact enmeshed in an uplifting fairy tale about youthful optimism saving the world. It has an especially appealing heroine in Kokono. Voiced in spirited fashion by Mitsuki Takahata, she is sassy, vivacious and outspoken in a manner refreshingly different from the usual young adult lead. One imagines the amusing conceit that the teenager's chief superpower is being always sleepy will resonate with countless real-life counterparts prone to partaking in many a nap. Music by Yoko Shimomura including an apt cover version of The Monkees' 'Daydream Believer' with new Japanese lyrics.