I normally don’t try to review an anime before it ends, as I prefer to watch it all the way through before sorting out my thoughts on it. But dear lord, Prima Doll as a show annoyed me so much that I honestly just couldn’t hold my feelings on it back any longer. Prima Doll is a new multimedia franchise created by the company Visual Arts/Key, who many will know as the people who created beloved visual novels such as Air, Kanon, Clannad, and Little Busters. They’re still making games to this day, and I remember watching the anime adaptations for Air, Kanon, and Clannad when they came out, and loving them, though if I were to watch them now, it’s likely my feelings on them will change. But lately Key has wanted to expand their horizons, and I can understand wanting to try something new…though multimedia franchises usually don’t fare well in this oversaturated market. Yet even by those standards, Prima Doll just absolutely screams shameless corporate artifice that’s only there to sell products, and literally nothing else.
Long ago, there was a terrible war that ravaged the world, where autonomous mechanical robots made to resemble human beings, called automata, were used as weapons. Now, the war has thankfully ended, and automata are no longer used for wanton destruction. One establishment, the Black Cat Cafe, employs automata, with the cafe’s owner, Nagi Touma, being determined to give them the best life possible. The story is told from the point of view of one automata, Haizakura, who’s as sweet as can be but has no memories of the war and is terribly clumsy. But she settles into life at the cafe nicely, making all manner of new friends and searching for her place in an unfamiliar, peaceful world, alongside those closest to her. Just reading the premise, the concept of mechanical dolls being used for violence in an alternate universe steampunk war but searching for a new purpose is very interesting and there’s a lot one can do with it. I can definitely get behind using that idea as a backdrop for a more character driven story about what happens when these humanoid robots have to find another function once the fighting is over. I’m sure there are probably stories out there that have done just that.
I would have loved for Prima Doll to do the same, and it seemed like it would…if it weren’t so determined to be as saccharine, treacly, and aggressively moe as possible, so drenched in a thick layer of early 2000’s syrupy sweet moe artifice that I’m pretty sure anyone who has diabetes would die just from looking at the character designs and hearing their ear-gratingly squeaky voices. None of the characters’ have much in the way of depth and characterization to them other than “cute anime girl” or the one personality trait they have, and the show’s attempts at giving them any kind of development just come off as shallow because even then, they still resort to insipid, tired cliches to force the audience to sympathize with them rather than, y’know, fleshing them out beyond their most basic character traits. Haizakura in particular is the biggest offender, which is really bad since she’s the main character. She is so cloying and irritatingly cutesy, with the show trying so hard to make you like her and see her as sooooo pwecious with her overly pink design, inability to carry out even the most basic tasks, and gurgling “Myuuu!” every time she screws up like an idiot. And no, her being a robot only marginally excuses this, but the story doesn’t bother to even do that much with her. The characters are so devoid of any depth to them that it’s practically impossible to care about them. Seriously, it says a lot that a Pokemon short film managed to give its characters more depth, personality, and nuance in 13 minutes than this show could ever hope to do in 12 episodes.
The piss-poor writing even extends to the overall story as well. Prima Doll’s biggest problem is that it’s convinced it’s great at tragedy and pathos when anyone with half a brain can see its attempts at doing so for the half-assed, empty, shallow tragedy porn that it is. It’s trying way too hard to make the audience want to sympathize with its characters, begging you to shed tears, like it’s trying to beat you with a hammer and shouting at you “FEEL SAAAAAAD!!” Especially in episode 1, where the main conflict is a little girl reuniting with her beloved caretaker automata, only for it to be revealed that the robot in question is losing her memories, similar to a grandmother going through dementia and possibly dying. What’s the show’s solution to this problem? Instead of explaining to the child that their caretaker is suffering from a mental disease—or in this case malfunctioning—and working to manage the situation as best they can, the show decides to flat out lie to the child by saying the robot is going on a trip, and then lock her away in the basement, which is basically the equivalent of telling a kid that their grandmother is going on a trip, puttng her in a medically induced coma, and locking her in a hospital room forever. This is pretty shitty if you use your brain cells, but the show makes it seem like the right thing to do, complete with cheesy music and overwrought monologues from Haizakura, utterly convinced its pulling every heartstring on the planet, and as a result, any emotional beats the episode tries to hit fall completely flat on their face. Because of the terrible execution, the show’s moral comes off more like “keep the dying or mentally enfeebled away and hide hard truths from children.” Blegh. Bite me.
This shallow mean-spiritedness doesn’t stop there, either. In episode 2, when Gekka tells Haizakura about her experiences in the war and how it affected her, Haizakura, in her infinite wisdom, just…tells Gekka to get over it. Like, what? She goes into a cutesy wootsy monologue about how Gekka can shape her life how she wants to after the war now that she’s no longer fighting, and the show wants us to agree with her, but the way the show depicts Haizakura in that scene makes her come off as incredibly insensitive in how she just flat-out dismisses Gekka’s very traumatizing war experiences, treating them like a switch she can just turn off and on. That’s like telling a Holocaust survivor who lost their family and developed PTSD and health issues to just forget everything and move on, not taking into account how they’re probably going to need therapy, counseling, and medical help for the rest of their life. The story itself has barely any stakes or tension, and you can predict every single story beat coming from a mile away. Oh, and do I even need to mention the utter trainwreck that’s episode 6? Way to shoehorn in barely disguised nudity involving underage-looking girls and shoving them in skimpy outfits, producers!!
Oh, and I feel really bad for the voice actresses being made to overact and push their voices to almost unsustainable levels here. Because we can’t have cute anime girls without making them sound like five-year-olds, right? And dear lord, Chiyo’s voice actress in particular plays her with the most ear-splittingly chirpy chipmunk squeak that I’m pretty sure would break your ear drums. As someone with auditory sensory processing issues due to being autistic, Chiyo’s voice really grated on my ears, and I can’t imagine it being a pleasant experience for others either. I’ve heard someone criticizing Misaki Kuno in another show she was in, and at first, I thought they were exaggerating with how bad her voice was, but…after hearing it here, I totally understand now (Sorry, Lenlo!). It’s not the worst forced voice I’ve heard (Looking at you, Hikaru from Star Twinkle Pretty Cure), but it’s up there. Misaki Kuno is much better taken in small doses, and…this is not one of her better performances by a long shot. I will say Prima Doll does have one thing going for it in this regard: I’m glad they didn’t have Ayumu Murase pitch his voice so high that he sounds like a broken Elmo toy. Thank God. But considering this show in general, that’s not saying much.
Honestly, the show’s only real redeeming qualities are the animation and parts of the soundtrack. Bibury Animation has made several anime such as The Quintessential Quintuplets, Grisaia Phantom Trigger, Azur Lane, and Black Rock Shooter Dawn Fall. Their work here is…alright. The backgrounds are nicely detailed without being overbearing, and I do like the show’s aesthetic of steampunk with kimonos. I want to like the character designs, but the main robot girls look more like overly designed plastic toys than anything else, and the show makes it clear it’s mainly there to look pretty and sell products. The animation is at the very least competent and does its job. I admit, this is the first show I’ve seen that Bibury produced, so I can’t comment on how it is compared to their other work. The background music is fine, but not very memorable, and many of the songs are well sung. Well, any song that’s not Haizakura’s unbearable squeaking, that is. Not gonna lie, Houkiboshi has the best song in the whole ensemble, with Karasuba’s coming a close second.
At this point, you’re probably wondering “Wait, Julia. If you hate this show so much, why are you rating it higher than stuff like Lapis Re:Lights or Japan Sinks?” For the former, several reasons. One: Prima Doll doesn’t have 24 main characters to follow, so it’s not as cluttered as Lapis Re:Lights is, for what little that’s worth. Two: as uninteresting as Prima Doll’s story is, it at least has the wherewithall to adhere to its own rules and make sure its lore is consistent instead of going out of its way to contradict them for its own convenience. Three: There’s no creepy siscon girl who gets off on stealing her younger sisters’ panties. Petty reasons? Probably. I don’t know. In the case of Japan Sinks, it promised a realistic character drama with a disaster backdrop but massively jumped the shark, was littered with pointless subplots, its characters were inconsistent and deplorable, and its animation was terrible. Plus, as one-note as the characters are, Karasuba was my favorite out of them, even though she’s supposed to be seen as the Negative Nancy who’s constantly exasperated by Haizakura’s uselessness, though I actually sympathized with Karasuba, because her concerns about Haizakura were absolutely valid. So yeah, most of my ratings are based on my own feelings, thoughts, and personal preference. But yeah, the few positives Prima Doll has absolutely cannot make up for the huge flaws holding it back.
I really wanted to like this show, I really did. I never go into something wanting to hate it. But dear lord, Prima Doll was an absolute chore for me to go through. In the end, the show’s just not for me. Is it somebody’s cup of tea? Sure. If you like it, more power to you. There’s probably a ton of stuff out there involving sentient robots that tackle this premise way better. Prima Doll is not one of them, and for anyone who can’t handle over the top saccharine moeness, you’d best steer clear. Prima Doll is the very essence of cloying capitalism; cold, soulless, and calculated, cynically produced by a production committee for the purpose of corporate satisfaction and nothing else.
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