[Synopsis]: Princess Tutu tells the story of Ahiru (Katou Nanae), a simple duck who is one day transformed into a human girl by a mysterious man named Drosselmeyer (Noboru Mitani). Gifted an egg-shaped pendent that allows her to transform into the graceful Princess Tutu, a narrative begins to form around her as she endeavors to return the missing heart shards of the prince she admires. What follows is an unnatural fairy tale about a prince bereft of his emotions, a knight destined to die, a girl desperate for love, and a duck who is powerless to save them as the story’s twisted author steers it towards an inexorably tragic end.
To start off, Princess Tutu’s core cast of characters are certainly a key strength of the show and the manner in which it revolves around them in the typical fashion of a fairy tale is pretty effective. The show employs a handful of supporting characters alongside them but their roles are fairly inconsequential by comparison, and they mostly lend themselves to either episodic development or the show’s light comedy. What’s most important about the central cast including Ahiru, Myuuto, Fakir, and Rue is the manner in which they develop throughout the story. Princess Tutu is very active in this way and its the degree to which some of those characters change which sets it further apart from the archetypal fairy tale it presents at face-value.
Ahiru’s characterization I think is the most indicative of how unconventional a lot of the characters can be. For the most part, she’s quite simple – a duck granted the ability to transition between her original form, that of a school girl attending ballet classes, and Princess Tutu. What’s interesting is this kind of crisis of identity that arises as Ahiru attempts to interact with others and realize her own self-image. Is she the duck, the girl, or the princess? Were she to tell Myuuto, the prince of the story and primary target for her affection, who she really is – would he scorn her? And when he becomes infatuated with Princess Tutu, is it her that he loves or who she becomes? Were she ever to admit her own love for him, she would vanish from the story, rendering her unable to speak her own heart. This kind of self-wonderment and concern makes what would have normally been a very stereotypical narrative transformation into something more complex and Ahiru all the more endearing because of it.
What’s additionally interesting is Ahiru’s actual role in the story. Though she does possess the appellation of ‘princess’ upon transforming, she hardly presents anything resembling a princess from a fairy tale. Her personality is kindhearted yet clumsy and boisterous but more importantly – who would want to be such a character? Unable to profess her love, unable to reveal her true self before those she admires, and for the greater part, utterly hopeless and desperate to bring change to Myuuto despite the obstacles in her path. She’s a fragile character who aims to play her part the best that she can and this really comes through in how she struggles to bring about what she thinks is right.
The other central characters are interesting as well. Myuuto can be a little dull at times because, by narrative necessity, he lacks emotion and therefore doesn’t have a whole lot going for him before Ahiru begins gradually restoring his heart. Fakir is perhaps most representative of how roles can change during the show whereas Rue speaks to what characterization lies beneath the surface. They are all pretty memorable and the way in which they change and transcend their initial definitions is somewhat indicative of the kind of story that Princess Tutu is.
While the show can look a bit dated in its visuals, its actual animation is relatively consistent and fluid. What initially worried me most about the show was its heavy emphasis on ballet in both story and presentation but what I found was that Princess Tutu integrated it quite cleverly and in such a way that it would not isolate those who had no interest in dance. What the characters do aren’t so much dance sequences as they are dramatic poses, dancing from shot to shot as they speak their heart and converse with one another. The ballet and music that accompanies it exists merely to lend drama to their words rather than exist for its own sake and its very effective at doing this.
Princess Tutu’s actual narrative is where it most noticeably sets itself apart. It’s initial episodes establish something quite predictable – Ahiru is transformed into a girl and in order to help the prince of her dreams, she aims to episodically collect the shards of his once shattered heart in order to restore his emotions and identity. This is about where the cliche’s end however as the story almost immediately evolves beyond an episodic narrative through several complications. The most interesting of these is that, in returning Myuuto’s emotions to him, Ahiru must reconcile with giving him the bad with the good. In the same way that she must return his feelings of curiosity, affection, and love, she must give him sadness, fear, and uncertainty. This along with Fakir’s objections and the interference of Princess Kraehe make Ahiru question her own motives and whether what she is doing is truly right.
Beyond this, there is a sort of meta narrative that develops as the episodes unfold. The world in which Ahiru, Myuuto, and Fakir exist is one derived from a story written by Drosselmeyer who looms over each episode in observance. What Drosselmeyer wants is a compelling story and what happens to each character, whether good or bad, is only a means to that end. The story becomes far more complicated when the characters begin interacting with Drosselmeyer and the meta narrative itself as his will bends the story towards tragedy and Ahiru attempts to prevent this. The interplay between these two sides of the story isn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked but it is none the less interesting and sets Princess Tutu even further apart from its archetypal elements.
The second half of the show relaxes back into the episodic format that was bucked by the show’s early episodes however this time has far more staying power. This causes the latter episodes to feel a little stale compared to what came before until the story begins developing substantially again but it isn’t as if these episodes aren’t doing interesting things. The themes of love and fate that are addressed early on eventually become kind of muddled in the second half of the show though the manner in which they arise makes their presence far more important to the story at hand than whatever messages Princess Tutu is actually trying to articulate. All of the characters feature pretty entertaining story arcs and the show’s conclusion wraps most of them up rather nicely.
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the show, Princess Tutu is entirely set to classical, ballet numbers. This makes for an incredibly memorable soundtrack as, whether you’re familiar with ballet or not, you’ve almost certainly heard many of the tracks featured in the show. The music is wonderful and lends itself just as well to the everyday scenes of Ahiru going to school or interacting with her friends as it does to the actual ballet sequences themselves. With composers like Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, and Debussy, each episode is great to listen to however this does mean that Princess Tutu doesn’t invent anything original and memorable itself.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
Princess Tutu was an interesting show, both because of its unconventional narrative structure and how surprisingly twisted it became given its generally lighthearted aesthetic and atmosphere. The first half of the show is surprisingly busy in how many developments there are and the way the show’s many different attributes come together at the end makes for an entertaining ending.
I gave Princess Tutu a 6 because the central cast of characters were engaging, the way in which the show incorporated ballet into its dialogue was charming, and the soundtrack was a nice accompaniment to the show’s themes and subject matter. The first half of the story featured a lot of plot advancement and intrigue whereas the second half felt like it stalled for a while before pulling things back together for the conclusion.
I think Princess Tutu is almost a must-watch for those interested in the mahou shoujo genre and for anyone who is often captivated by the storytelling of fairy tales. The other major draw would likely be the show’s pervasive use of ballet and ballet music and it’s definitely worth watching if those things sound appealing.