Today we embark on one of my most anticipated backlog titles, Princess Tutu. By reputation, I know Princess Tutu to be one of the most highly regarded anime of all time, and easily one of the best shows specifically intended for children. I also know that it is a story about stories, and that it’s one of the crown jewels of its director Junichi Sato’s catalog. Sato would be magical girl and children’s anime royalty even without Princess Tutu – after all, he directed both the first two seasons of Sailor Moon and a great deal of Ojamajo Doremi, two other towering standouts within the field. And even today Sato remains an influential figure, from his highly lauded slice of life productions like Aria to his ongoing work with the Pretty Cure franchise.
All that is to say that even outside of its own reputation, Sato’s presence gives me a clear reason to be excited about this production. And indeed, this first episode demonstrates a variety of the same strengths that make Ojamajo Doremi such an enjoyable experience. There’s a noodly looseness to the show’s character designs that seems to follow directly on from his work on Doremi; characters bend and distort like the cartoons they are, with actual bone structure and musculature only becoming apparent in moments designed to evoke the beauty of a ballet artist in motion. The show’s overt jokes seem a little simplistic, but its visual comedy is dynamic and flavorful, lending significant personality to its lead.
Beyond the character designs, Tutu’s overall aesthetic sensibilities also echo the strengths of Doremi. Tutu’s simplified pastel backgrounds create a natural sense of heightened fairy tale wonder, perfectly matching its iconic storytelling. Sato never seems afraid of drawing attention to the artificiality of the “camera” frame, and in a story that’s overtly preoccupied with storytelling, that confidence finds room to express itself through ostentatious tricks like pocket watches being used as wipes, partitioned frame-in-frame compositions, ornate frames, and juxtaposition of pencil-sketch and more realistic background elements. Even the lighting often draws attention to itself, regularly favoring a theatrical raising and lowering of the “house lights” to more naturalistic light sources. Tricks like these are rarely used because they tend to pull the viewer out of a show’s internal reality, but Tutu counterbalances its attention-grabbing techniques through equally compelling, depth-asserting layouts that emphasize the physical space of Tutu’s world. All in all, the production very convincingly evokes a living storybook.
So what story is actually being told in this lovely world? Well, that’s a good question. Princess Tutu opens with a fairy tale monologue about a man who writes stories, literally beginning by introducing a story about a story creator. Attractively simplified sepia pages tell us that before this man died, he was crafting a story about a brave prince who vanquishes a craft raven. But having died before finishing his story, these characters were left trapped in an unending battle. Both raven and prince despaired at these circumstances, but the raven eventually escaped his pages, and the prince pursued, taking out his own heart to seal the raven away. And even in death, the creator of these characters seems pleased with this, and satisfied with the finality of his work.
Princess Tutu’s “origin story” establishes this anime as a work about myths, about stories, and about the characters that populate them. Obviously most narratives are about characters in a general sense, but Tutu seems to specifically sympathize with characters as vehicles in a narrative. It sympathizes with the intractability of their fate, and the necessity of there to be a teller to give them life. Later on, our heroine Ahiru (Japanese for “duck,” meaning she’s also often referred to as Duck) seems to be specifically granted agency by another mysterious storyteller – a character who seems to exist beyond the pages of Ahiru’s own narrative. Though a narrative being aware of its own artifice isn’t an inherently positive or negative quality, Princess Tutu seems less interested in sending up genres than exploring the emotive and mutable nature of stories, how they possess and define us, how we can escape their grasp.
Our heroine Ahiru seems deeply bound in her own fairy tale. Our first introduction to her presents her as she truly is: a humble baby duck alone in the forest, enchanted by a dancing prince. Ahiru longs to dance with this prince and his sad eyes, but she is just a duck. Ahiru’s story thus begins by evoking other stories, from children’s fables like the Ugly Duckling to works of ballet theater like Swan Lake. Her story is the aspirational pluckiness of the first married to the tragic duality of the second, a story of growth and finding your greatest possible self that also must contend with the devil-dealing repercussions of a Faust, and the time-bound glory of a Cinderella. As ominous figures echo Ahiru’s willingness to give anything, “even my life,” to dance with the prince, her story already seems bound to well-trod and inescapably unhappy paths.
The next act of the episode holds much closer to the Ojamajo Doremi template, as we meet a now-human Ahiru and follow her through a mishap-laden school day. The all-encompassing morning fog offers a mystical sense of atmosphere to Gold Crown Academy, with striking backgrounds and expressive character art leading us through a true introduction to our upbeat young ballet dancer. The first meeting with Ahiru’s crush-slash-goal-slash-prince Mytho feels like an intentional merger of this show’s two modes, with fanciful gestures evoking both ballet and boarding house melodrama contrasting against overtly cartoonish character motions. In narrative terms, all we learn is that Mytho is soft-spoken and mysterious, Ahiru is clumsy and not very confident, and Mytho’s caretaker Fakir seems to possess both some power over Mytho and a bone to pick with the world at large.
Ahiru spends the rest of the episode attempting to apologize for injuring Mytho’s foot, and not doing a terribly successful job of it. We’re introduced to a cat teacher, whose biggest note of interest is Ahiru idly wondering “a cat teacher? Is that how it was” during his introduction, thus once again highlighting the mutable nature of fiction and the dreamlike space this particular reality inhabits. We meet the impressive Rue from the advanced ballet class, and Ahiru gets to show off her snark in a second clash with Fakir. Things only really come into focus in the episode’s last act, in a pair of scenes that demonstrate Princess Tutu’s unique twists on its fairy tale formula.
The first key scene focuses on Mytho, lying in bed as Fakir berates him. Trapped behind a high window and ruled by a possessive caretaker, Mytho is clearly being presented as this show’s version of the “princess in the tower,” the damsel who must be rescued by a brave hero. Soft-spoken and mysterious, defined by his “sad eyes” more than any directly articulated feelings, he is an object onto which Ahiru can project her own dreams, in a gender reversal of how these stories usually go. And yet the show consistently emphasizes how he is the “prince,” a gendered and altogether loaded term, and one already explored by Sato collaborator Kunihiko Ikuhara in his own Revolutionary Girl Utena. I’ll be interested in seeing how Princess Tutu follows through on the unique framing of Mytho’s nature.
While Mytho is made distinct through his shifting of the traditionally masculine, heroic role into a passive and traditionally feminine one, Ahiru stands as a powerful counterpoint. As her Faustian accomplice returns, clearly tied to both the malicious raven and the ominous clock, Ahiru wishes for the power to save her prince. Taking the story into her own hands, she becomes Princess Tutu, and cushions Mytho’s fall with a bed of roses. Like with many great magical girl series, Ahiru is thus able to claim and embody power without framing that power in an impositional, masculine context – Ahiru conjures flowers through dance, thus simultaneously embodying femininity and heroism, and challenging the traditional prince/princess script. Her triumph ends in a shot that unifies Ahiru’s own powers and her storybook cage, her flowers literally spilling out over the loosely drafted background art. Whether this story leans into its compelling role reversals, embraces the complexity of stories about stories, or simply revels in its beautiful scenery, I’m already eager to see where the pages lead.
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