Every so often, you come across an anime that's so well-written, so well-executed and just so darn well put-together that it actually kind of scares you. And while your critical mind desperately tries to find nits to pick, you just keep coming up with a blank and all you can spew out is praise. Everyone has at least one of these animes and, for me, it seems Princess Tutu has won that place. Why? Because it contains everything that I love, not just in anime, but in storytelling and genres in general. Wonderful writing, tragedy, inspiring twists, underlying darkness concerning fairy-tales, adorable characters that you end the show cheering for, an absolutely genius use of music and beautifully executed artwork.
Our story centres around a little duck named Ahiru (literally translating to 'duck), who has fallen in love with a prince. That is to say, it's not our story at all. The story, in fact, belongs to a sadistic author named Drosselmeyer who has decided that Ahiru will help move his story of the Prince and the Raven forward by giving her the power to transform into the beautiful Princess Tutu. This is so she may return the pieces of the princes heart to him that the prince, himself, took out, thus driving the story to a halt. As all the characters we meet along the way realize that they are pawns being used by Drosselmeyer, they seek the will to fight against the roles they've been given and advert the inevitable tragic end that Drosselmeyer has planned for all of them and give his stories their very first happy ending.
The animation in Princess Tutu is something which I think is rather hard to appreciate on the first viewing. While the character designs and models look simplistic and childish and the designs of the cute animals look much the same, only when watching it for a second or third time do you notice the carefully and beautifully staged backgrounds and the elaborate care taken in the movements of the characters. This makes the combination of the imagery and music tell us portions of the story through dance with no dialogue needed, something which I find very fascinating and honestly wish more mediums did.
The colours also look wonderful. Whenever a dark backdrop resembling a carefully illustrated picture book is presented, the characters look vibrant and rich while dancing and, when we are taken back to the world of the ballet class, the colours are much more muted and restrained. Set-pieces are used to great effect and, even when the show has to rely on still-frames during the ballet scenes, the music manages to carry it along and make it look wonderful. And while I can see how the childish designs may put some people off, you warm up to it fairly quickly. Enchanting visuals.
It's not so much that the music in Princess Tutu is great (though believe me, it is), more how it is used throughout the show. The show heavily borrows from many famous ballets and classical from Tchaikovsky to Wagner and, instead of being inappropriate to the point where I wanted to throw my laptop out of the window in disgust at the gross misuse and go curl up in a corner for a while (I'm looking at you, Fujimi Orchestra...), every placement of music is near flawless. Whether it's blaring passionately over a climactic dance sequence or quietly playing as Ahiru wakes up in the morning, not one piece of music is misplaced. Not only that, the music itself is glorious, something which I believe goes without saying. Any lover of music will be able to recognise many of main themes almost instantly, even unconsciously so, with Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Nutcracker’ being used the most often.
Also, as a special treat, each episode has an opening narration of a classic fairy-tale which normally has its own corresponding ballet and the music from each ballet are used to reflect each chosen fairy tale through the current narrative, be it through main pieces, lesser known extracts or overtures. It's a wonderful little touch and it works excellently.
The voice work is perfect in both languages and sub and dub preferences will go their preferred way. In the case of stand-outs, both Nanae Katou and Luci Christian steal the show as Ahiru, both managing to be adorable as Ahiru and admirable as Princess Tutu, with Luci Christian especially giving a stellar performance. Both the Japanese and English performances manage to bring the fantasy-like natures of their characters to life while still making them sound warmly human, and never stray into overacting or underacting territory.
It’s rare for a story to be both original, brilliantly written and also brilliantly executed. As you’ve probably guessed via my earlier praise, Princess Tutu is that rare creation that seems to have captured all of those elements while also developing and moulding its characters through the narrative of the story. When the shows begins, we see an enjoyable yet still repetitive structure of Ahiru locating a piece of the princes heart, usually being held by someone who is unhappy themselves, and managing to cure them of their worries with her dancing and return the heart shard to the prince. The first few episodes mostly consist of this pattern, with one or two twists and turns throughout the way, and the characters start as the role they are assigned to in the story, with Ahiru being the noble yet tragic princess that Drosselmeyer loves to torment, the emotionless prince, the fallen knight and the evil princess, determined to claim the prince for herself. Throughout all of this, Ahiru is forbidden to speak of her feelings for the prince, as Drosselmeyer writes that it will turn her to a speck of light, doomed to never be with the one she loves.
The true strength of Princess Tutu is its gift for storytelling. It starts as a simple yet enjoyable fairy-tale fantasy and blossoms into an inspiring tale of fate and love, largely shown by the characters as they realize that they are simply characters of the sadistic author and nothing more. They grow out of the roles assigned to them and seek to write their story themselves in an effort to give a happy ending. They become independent of their author and become completely different to who they were when we first met them, with the exception of Ahiru who carries us through with her kind heart and loveable personality. The latter half of the series tends to focus more on this and shows us the human and sympathetic sides to the characters that we didn’t believe were there. And the result comes together to form a masterfully crafted ending that resolves the traumas of the characters while also providing a solid and complete conclusion.
As well as that, this is also a rare anime that is suitable for children, despite having some darker elements later in the story. The characters and story are simple enough for a child to follow yet still powerful and enchanting enough to entrance the older viewer, provided they can look past some stranger elements, such as the fairy-tale magic and the talking animals. From beginning to end, Princess Tutu serves up nothing but pure magic and it is a joy to watch right to the end, cheering and crying along the way.
The characters in Princess Tutu are more complex than Drosselmeyer plans for them to be. It’s said that every creation has a life of its own and this is an example of the characters created by Drosselmeyer not only gaining the life of their own, but forging past the basic roles they have been given. And this forms to portray them as complex, loveable characters that form their own ideas and act completely differently compared to their first appearance, as a result of their rich development.
And in the centre of it all is our heroine, Ahiru, who is the only character throughout the story whose goals and personality do not change a great deal as the show progresses. But this turns out to be much more of a strength than a weakness as we discover that we don’t want her to change. While her klutzy antics and the fact that she is a less than competent dancer emphasise her human side, her bravery and purity is the vessel which carries the viewer throughout the story as it twists and turns and gives us one of the most noble and loveable heroines ever conceived in anime.
A small mention also goes to the gleefully sadistic Drosselmeyer, who interrupts and changes the story as he sees fit and takes great joy in dashing our characters hopes to pieces while narrating the story for all to hear. His undeniably twisted sense of humour and his cheery demeanour make it almost impossible to dislike him, despite the terrible things he wishes on his characters, and makes him arguably the most enjoyable character to watch, particularly during the latter half of the show.
As you have most likely guessed, I am in love with this show. I struggle to find one factor of this show that I didn’t enjoy or end up enjoying. Does this make it perfect? Probably not. A story of this type will not appeal to everyone and I can think of many people who would not enjoy it to the extent I did.
Nevertheless, this does not change the fact that I consider Princess Tutu a beautiful viewing from beginning to end. The characters are loveable, the story is incredible, the animation is pleasing and the music is beyond beauty. It is appealing to both children and older viewers, provided that the older viewer is a fan of a story of this nature. If you are a lover of fantasy or fairy-tales or just plain good story-telling, there is not many tales I’d recommend higher than this one. I’ve gushed over it long enough, be sure to give it a try and maybe you’ll fall just as deeply in love with Princess Tutu as I did.