WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW
When I first heard about Princess Tutu, it wasn't exactly something that leapt to the top of my backlog. All I really knew about it was that it was a magical girl show about ballet. Based on that alone, it sounded like just another one of the cutesy, boring, formulaic never-ending macguffin quests that characterize the genre. These preconceptions were quickly shattered, however; Princess Tutu is one of those gems that rewards you for stretching outside your comfort zone, becoming not just the best magical girl show ever made, but a true animated masterpiece.
Obligatory plot summary time! Princess Tutu is about Duck, a bird (guess which) who turns into a young female student at a ballet school. She becomes infatuated with her emotionless schoolmate Mytho, and transforms into Princess Tutu to restore the lost pieces of his shattered heart. In her way are Rue and Fakir, both of whom wish to keep Mytho heartless for their own reasons, Rue in order to keep him as her soulless companion, and Fakir in order to protect him from a much greater threat. Orchestrating everything from afar is the storyteller Herr Drosselmeyer, who introduces Duck into the stagnant story to move it towards the grand tragedy he so desires.
Let's start with what I think is Princess Tutu's biggest selling point (though there are many): the music. This was the reason I watched this show when every other aspect of the show's premise sounded like snooze central. Tutu has, quite possibly, the best, most well-scored soundtrack in Japanese animation. The only rival in this respect I've seen is that I've seen is Cowboy Bebop, and even then I don't think there's any contest. Princess Tutu is very much like Fantasia in how it beautifully delivers its story not just through what's happening on screen, but through the music as well.
Not only is the show's aural design exquisite throughout, it essentially functions as a crash course in classical music. If you pay attention and are interested enough to do some googling, you're guaranteed to learn something from every episode. Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, and Capriccio Italien were all on my MP3 player shortly after finishing the show. I'd never heard of Erik Satie, and his Gymnopédie
is used in one of my favorite moments of the show. Mussorgsy's Pictures at an Exhibition suite, Camille's Danse Macabre, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmilla were all other wonderful pieces (and composers) this show introduced me to.
The Opening and Ending themes by Ritsuko Okazaki are some of few original elements of the score, and thankfully they're spectacular. The Opening theme "Morning Grace" is excellent and perfectly sets up every episode with its slow, captivating melody and enchanting visuals. The Ending theme "Although my Love is Small" on its own isn't as great, but the gorgeous hand-painted animation makes up for the less-inspired theme. Suffice to say, every single episode, from beginning to end, is an absolute treat to listen to and if none of the other stuff I'm about to say interests you in the least, know that the soundtrack alone makes the show worth watching.
The visuals are a great example of making do with what you have. Tutu clearly didn't have much of a budget, and there aren't really many examples of great animation. It works around this intelligently with smart use of animation shortcuts such as pans over stills, speedlines, etc., and the visual design is brilliant enough that the unimpressive animation isn't a problem in the least.
The dance sequences are particularly pretty. In these segments, the lighting shifts so as to render the scene as a staged ballet, which fits the musical score marvelously. The animation does what it needs to do, and that is to avoid distracting from the great visual and aural design, at which it succeeds admirably.
However, no matter how well Princess Tutu presents itself, if the characters and story don't work it can't be the masterpiece I seem intent on painting it as. I watched this show expecting to be enthralled by the music, but I didn't have high hopes for the story. Well, I was happy to find out that Tutu's story is just as magnificent a treat for the mind as it is for the senses.
Contrary to how I may have described it in my first paragraph, Princess Tutu is really a European fairy tale ballet with some Japanese magical girl elements thrown in, rather than the other way around. The story starts out light and cheerful, and for the first five or six episodes it even seems formulaic. Duck finds a piece of Mytho's heart inhabiting some despondent soul, she turns into Tutu and retrieves the shard with her dancing, and then gives it back to Mytho.
The good thing about these episodes is that the macguffin quest is far from the only thing going on. Every episode is filled to the brim with character development and foreshadowing, and every one of the brief, episodic stories are memorable and extremely well-done (the story of the sentient lamp is my personal favorite out of these early episodes). There's a good bit of super-deformed humor going on, maybe a little too much for the first couple episodes, but it's helped by being genuinely funny rather than typical moe "wackiness."
However, from the very beginning Princess Tutu hints at something dark and sinister just beneath the surface, and it doesn't take long to get there. Around episode seven the show substantially ups the drama with the introduction of the villainess Princess Kraehe, and from there it's one continuous buildup towards the mindbogglingly good season one finale.
The second season amazingly only gets better. The first episode features the introduction of Kraehe's father, the Raven, the show's main antagonist (at least as far as the "real story is concerned.) The Raven fits the fairy tale mold to the T, and he (it?) is very much like a top-tier Disney villain. Think Dragon-Maleficent and you won't be too far off. In that vein, he's as genuinely frightening as a PG-rated show can get. His onscreen presence is terrifying and real, his wings, claws, and eyes all remind you why the Prince was so willing to shatter his heart if it meant locking this monstrosity away. When he finally appears in the main story in the last few episodes, it's clear as day (I mistyped that as "death") that shit is going down.
The second season also has Mytho being poisoned by the Raven's blood Kraehe soaked into the heart shard returned to him at the end of Season One, and his slow transformation is heart-wrenching and tearful for Duck, Mytho, Kraehe, and the viewer alike. Every character develops around this crisis, and by the end of it you'll genuinely care for each and every one of them and want them all to have their happy ending. The show's conclusion is by the far the best I have ever seen in a Japanese cartoon, tying up every aspect of the show flawlessly and if you haven't cried by the end of it then you have less of heart than Mytho.
Just this story alone would have been brilliant, but Tutu goes even further by introducing a more meta element to its storytelling. The central story isn't really about the Prince's battle against the Raven; it's really about Duck and Fakir's struggle against the machinations of Herr Drosselmeyer. Drosselmeyer is using the town and the cast as the parchment for his final story. He's literally an author who pits the cast against each other so he can have his perfect tragedy. The main cast is all aware of Drosselmeyer on some level or another. Some accept him, some defy him, and some try to rewrite his story entirely.
This where the true emotional strength comes in the final episode. Pitting the cast against a villain as sinister as the Raven would be tense enough, but to have a being like Drosselmeyer orchestrating the fray makes the fight for a happy ending vastly more powerful. Going against the Devil is one thing, but going against God is another entirely (as is proven by the ending to nearly any Shin Megami Tensei game.)
Another layer to Tutu's enjoyment is its dependence on European folklore and fairy tales, both in its overall story and in its episodic ones. While it sometimes uses fairy tales straight, it more often totally subverts and deconstructs them. Every episode begins with a set of (beautiful) charcoal drawings accompanied by a narrator who tells a fairy tale that relates to the story of the episode. Even when it's not using a specific, real-world fairy tale, the stories all feel like something you'd find in the Brothers Grimm (hence why all onscreen text is in German.)
This functions for the main story as well. The show functions in some ways as a sort of ironic parallel to Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake ballet. Let's go over the setup. I know there's a spoiler warning up top, but if you haven't seen the show I really recommend skipping the next two paragraphs.
Let's see. Two girls, a white bird and a black bird, (it's worth noting here that according to the commentary, Duck and Rue are based off the same original design) are both in love with a prince. The white bird is sweet and innocent, the black bird is sensual and possessive. The black bird's father wants to trick the prince into taking his daughter's hand in marriage. In the end, the black bird succeeds in obtaining the prince's love, and the other reverts to a bird forever.
The ending of Princess Tutu and the ending of Swan Lake are essentially identical (minus the suicide), but while Swan Lake is a tragedy Princess Tutu's ending is very resolutely happy. Tutu is about true and false love, fate and free will, but most importantly about being your true self, and the parallels with Swan Lake only serve to reenforce that. (By the way, did you see Black Swan? You probably should.)
Even beyond all that, the level of polish present in Tutu is astounding. The amount of love and care that went into crafting this show is palpable in every aspect of the show. What's the Greek word for story? Mytho. The grandfather in the Nutcracker who sets the story in motion with the titular gift? Herr Drosselmeyer. The German word of crow? Kraehe. The theme for a character named after a quail, reborn from the puppet who never obtained the heart she wanted? Ballad of the Unhatched Chick.
You could spend hours researching the fairy tales, ballets, and classical music pieces this show constantly alludes to (I know I have). Many people compare Princess Tutu to Revolutionary Girl Utena, and in this sense the comparison is completely accurate. For both shows, their symbolic and cultural depth renders them endlessly rewatchable, since you can dig as deep as you want into every episode.
Of special note is the show's terrific voice acting. The sub is excellent, absolutely spot-on, but the actors in the dub are incredible in just how much heart you can feel in their performance. Luci Christian as Duck is especially fantastic. She balances cute, sweet, and innocent well in the light segments, but never fails at carrying the dramatic segments as well. She has three different roles in Duck-Duck, Girl-Duck, and Princess Tutu, and they are each played to perfection. With one minor exception
, there's not a single problem in the whole dub, and I wholeheartedly suggest checking it out.
This isn't you hear mentioned in anime reviews too often, but the DVD extras that come with Princess Tutu are well worth noting. Bloopers, interviews, short video segments on the classical music used in each volume, concept art, and total of EIGHT episodes of staff commentary. The complete collection is only thirty dollars (which thankfully forgoes the creepy original cover art
) and even if you don't regularly buy anime I assure you you're getting your money's worth here.
Also, there's a two volume manga by Mizuo Shinonome, and it's absolute garbage. It was based on the show rather than the other way around which is never a good sign, and Shinonome admitted that she didn't actually watch the show before doing her adaptation. The art is atrocious, the characters are completely butchered, and it strips away all the show's depth and sophistication in favor of the exact idiotic magical girl antics I was afraid of in the first place. Stay away.
Alright, it's been seven hours and my brain is beginning to ooze out of my ears, so let's wrap this up. Princess Tutu is a show with as much heart as a top tier Pixar film, (nearly) as much style as Fantasia, and a surprising amount of intellectual depth. It manages to be that rare high quality anime that's well-suited for adults as well as children. It's a story that works on a half-dozen different layers, its surface story, its music, its fairy tale parallels, its metafictional element, and they work flawlessly together to deliver one of the tightest, most well-designed, emotionally-effective works of animation you'll ever have the pleasure of watching.
Going back over everything I've written here, I'm worried that I'm overhyping the show - I'd hate to build it up to the point that it can't possibly live up to expectations. The thing is, I can't think of anything here that is any sort of an exaggeration. Princess Tutu is simply nothing short of a masterpiece, and I have no qualifications to make with that statement. I needed to write this review, partly because I've been thinking about this show for two weeks and I need to get this stuff out of my head, but mostly because I hoped I could get at least one person to watch it who wouldn't have otherwise.
It deserves a spot on your shelf. It deserves to be seen. Go watch this show.