Upon reading the original Hans Christian Andersen fairytales, any reader will note the unnerving tragedy underlying most of them. As timeless classics, their worth partly lies in the fact that they not only serve as idealistic moral allegories, but simultaneously capture life’s fundamental struggles in vivid and disturbing imagery. Hollywood replicas include such titles as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but to experience the modern animated equivalent to Andersen’s classics, anime fans should look to the exquisite Princess Tutu.
At face value, the story proceeds with the straightforwardness of a fable: Ahiru (literally meaning ‘duck’) spends each episode collecting pieces of heart belonging to Prince Mytho because, without them, he remains an emotionless shell. The narrative approach, however, is far from simple. In adopting the flamboyant style of classical theatre, Princess Tutu weaves a plot more majestic and vibrant than its girlish title suggests.
Princess Tutu’s most original accomplishment is its representation of climactic struggles through ballet. This is ballet as a skilful art form – not a corny gimmick – with melodrama neatly channelled through expressive dance. As well as being highly imaginative, these set pieces are pulled off with elegance; the theatrical mix of magical props (including sandstorms, vine pedestals, water bubbles), rousing dialogue, and realistic ballet choreography combine to create a captivating treat for the senses.
Significantly, Princess Tutu omits all the needless fluff that usually dogs the featherweight mahou shoujo genre – gone are the wince-inducing catchphrases, the infantile antagonists, the silly diversionary filler episodes. Instead, the series comprises a meaningful, streamlined adventure tinged with profound sadness: Ahiru not only grapples with emotive dilemmas regarding her identity, but the entire story revolves around her struggles to stop her world hurtling towards inevitable doom. As such, Princess Tutu exudes a momentousness more often found outside of the fantasy genre and almost never associated with mahou shoujo.
Not to say that tragedy is the only cuisine on the menu; in fact, Princess Tutu sprinkles its grave themes with light-hearted albeit exceptionally bizarre anecdotes. Its comedic style ranks somewhere between madness and ingenuity – how anime fans receive it will depend largely on their readiness to simply ‘go along with it’. In particular, fans who appreciate a little insanity mixed into their weighty narratives will find the spastic expressions and off-beat situational comedy a charming complement.
Naturally, even Princess Tutu suffers from minor weaknesses. These include the repetitive ‘heart of the week’ plot device used to kick-start the story and the brief transformation scene recycled in every episode. Nevertheless, they are trifling elements and have such little impact upon the overall quality that they are easily forgiven and, more importantly, easily forgotten. Princess Tutu may initially feel repetitive, but, in combining eccentric humour with profound art forms and traditional shoujo loveliness, it steadily matures into a breathtaking experience.
The inventive animation concept is an integral part of Princess Tutu’s composite delivery. Although it lacks the technological prowess of contemporaries such as Fullmetal Alchemist, the animation style, so full of contrasts, works magnificently with the bittersweet tone of the narrative.
A typical shoujo must have pretty characters, cheerful colours, and a world that any little girl would want to live in. Princess Tutu delivers all this and more, inserting darker, edgier colour tones, zany expressions, and abstract battle sequences. For example, while Ahiru looks wide-eyed and has a cute antenna for her hair, Drosselmeyer, the storyteller, is a gargoyle figure with sharp angles and unsettling eyes. Furthermore, Princess Tutu displays a rare appreciation for light, shadow, and adaptable colour tones to enhance the atmosphere of the emotional scenes. In one memorable sequence, when Drosselmeyer appears to Ahiru with premonitions of doom, the environment becomes an eerie wash of deep shadows and glaring lime lights.
In a way, Princess Tutu does with its music what it does with its themes – it borrows from the masters of the past. From Swan Lake’s waltz during a poignant conflict to ‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ used more as a motif in several episodes, each classical piece should be recognisable to almost everyone even if their specific names remain unknown.
Of course, Princess Tutu is not the only anime to employ renowned compositions for added poignancy. Neon Genesis Evangelion’s triumphant theme is none other than Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and the use of Mascagni’s ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ during one of Rurouni Kenshin’s farewell scenes is ingenious. Princess Tutu’s unique achievement, however, is to apply nothing but monumental ballet compositions throughout. While a lesser series would appear laughably contrived to continually pump out Dvorak and Wagner, given Princess Tutu’s ballet theme, the timeless melodies feel woven into the story as naturally as if they belonged there.
As devices in a fable, most of the characters only attain a minimal level of depth. In the early episodic phase of the series, all of the characters apart from Ahiru appear more allegorical than human. Still, the other key protagonists - Mytho, Rue, and Fakir – eventually take on layers and transform into intricate personalities.
Prince Mytho is the most obvious case for slow development; he only grows in nature whenever the courageous Ahiru finds another piece of his heart to implant in him. Initially, Mytho is an empty vessel, and, at most, a passive participant in his own rescue; later, his personal struggles become far more involving. The most emotional performances, however, belong to Fakir and Rue, whose interest in the prince glosses over two very tragic origins.
Aside from the four central protagonists, Neko-sensei, the ballet school teacher, and Ahiru’s two best friends, Pike and Lilie, also deserve acclaim for making some of the most repetitive jokes seem continuously funny. Whilst the supporting characters fail to achieve boundless complexity, they at least remain entertaining and well-acted at all times.
Most people will probably observe Princess Tutu’s fairytale premise and cute animation style and pass it by without a second glance, but doing so would constitute one of the biggest mistakes any serious anime fan could make. Princess Tutu is uniquely imaginative and crafted with the kind of elegance rarely seen since the great fables of the past. To enter this eccentric and compelling world, leave all preconceptions about shoujo at the door.
Once there lived an eccentric author called Drosselmeyer who wrote grand tragedies - one of them was the tale of a prince who sealed away an evil raven by breaking his own heart into tiny pieces. However, before the story could be completed, the author died and the tale took on a life of its own. Now, in a town where fiction and reality meet, the story continues on its tragic course with Ahiru, a duck who transforms into the beautiful Princess Tutu in order to restore the prince's heart. But will Ahiru's act of love be enough to defy the story's terrible destiny and lead to a happy ending?
I'll review anything as long as there are words in the dictionary to describe it. Disagree with me? Want to leave feedback? Please do, but take a look at my personal rating scale first.