ANIME REVIEW: "Princess Tutu"

(Author's Note: This piece was also published by the Stake here.)

“Once upon a time, there was a man who died.”

The anime series Princess Tutu, created in 2003 by Ikuko Itoh and animated by the studio Hal Film Maker, tells the story of a young duck named Ahiru (Japanese for duck) who falls in love with a prince without a heart. The duck, watching the prince dance sadly on her pond, wishes that she could somehow see the prince smile. With that wish, an old forgotten story begins to creak back to life, and its author, now dead, reappears to grant the duck’s wish.

Princess Tutu is a difficult series to describe. The show uses a Magical Girl template for the plot and action over the course of 26 half-hour episodes. With a soundtrack of classical music and the art form of ballet as backdrop to the story, Princess Tutu combines all of the disparate elements and themes of its story– destiny, free will, true love, and sacrifice–in a masterful way. It is one of the best-told, internally logical and emotionally complex anime series ever made (I believe I am familiar with enough anime and manga to stake that claim).

Clockwise, from top left: Drosselmeyer (the author), Ahiru the girl, Mytho, Fakir, Ahiru the duck, Rue, Princess Tutu

But its plot is complex. Essentially, Ahiru (the duck) is granted her wish by the mysterious dead author, who promises that she will be able to make the prince smile by giving her a pendant that turns her into a human girl. The dead man had previously written the story The Prince and the Raven, the tale of the kind, brave, loving prince who fought the evil raven. The prince and the raven escaped the story into the real world, where the prince defeated the raven by shattering his own heart with a sword and using the pieces to seal the raven away from the town. 

But the duck’s wish does not end there, as the pendant also has the power to sense where the prince’s heart shards are, scattered about town, and then Ahiru transforms into the prima ballerina Princess Tutu (hence the Magical Girl aspect of the show), also a character from The Prince and the Raven, to return the pieces of the prince’s heart back to him, thus returning the prince’s emotions back to his empty shell.

Princess Tutu returns a heart shard to Mytho.

Along the way, there are those who would stop Princess Tutu from returning the prince’s heart to him. Enemies will become friends; former friends will become enemies; enemies will reveal themselves to be tragic figures. And through it all, Princess Tutu is determined to restore the prince’s heart to him, selflessly, because if she confesses her love to him, she is fated to turn into a speck of light and vanish, as she did in the original tale.

Got all that?

Good. Now let’s move on. Anime fan or not, Princess Tutu is worth your time. It is gorgeously animated and extremely well-drawn. The way ballet is incorporated to help tell the story is ingenious and accurately rendered; as someone who studied ballet for over seventeen years, I appreciated the clear study that went into creating the series (along with plenty of visual and plot-related references to famous ballets that serve as bonuses for viewers like me). The character designs fall within the shojo genre: everyone has large eyes and slender frames, and is expressively drawn to display a full range of emotion. The backgrounds are also attractive and use a watercolor or pseudo-watercolor technique to convey atmosphere and ambiance.

Lest you think the story of Princess Tutu is overly serious, there is plenty of off-beat comedy to balance the tragedy and epic scope. Itoh includes some surreal elements (aside from the duck who becomes a girl who becomes a character from the story), such as Neko-sensei, the ballet teacher who is also a cat. In an early episode, one of the heart shards is being held by a dancing anteater; and Ahiru’s friends at dance school, Lilie and Pique, have a comically sadistic streak that ends up getting Ahiru, an admittedly terrible dance student, into all sorts of trouble. Additionally, Ahiru’s intense crush on Mytho unearths some truly hilariously drawn reactions, and Ahiru and Rue’s burgeoning friendship in the first season provides plenty of moments of cuteness and laughs.

Ahiru (the duck) and Rue.

Watching Princess Tutu is just… endlessly surprising in the best of ways. While it does conform in some ways to the Magical Girl genre, and while much of the first season follows a simple plot of finding a heart shard and returning it to Mytho, all four main characters—Ahiru, Rue, Fakir, and Mytho—go through incredible character development, often in unexpected ways. Ahiru begins as a duck whose simple wish thrusts her into a world of stories that she does not understand, leading her to challenge the nature of destiny itself; Rue’s love for the emotionless Mytho drives her to unforeseeable actions that nevertheless earn the audience’s sympathy; Fakir’s often cruel protectiveness of Mytho masks a truly complex inner self, one who struggles with the role he has been assigned; and Mytho goes through perhaps the most change over the course of the series as the prince saved by a princess, who begins as an empty shell and struggles toward self-actualization and towards regaining his former role as the brave, loving prince.

Don’t be afraid of the title. Princess Tutu is ultimately a show for anyone who loves anime, ballet, or just wants to curl up on the couch and be totally, utterly engaged in a fantastic story.

Additionally, I am pleased to report that having watched the series several times over in Japanese with English subtitles and dubbed in English, that the English dub (available to watch for free on Hulu, with the strange exception of the fifth episode) is nearly as good as the original, with only a few minor awkward translations and, overall, very good voice acting, especially from Luci Christian as Ahiru and Chris Patton as Fakir.