Once upon a time, at an old public library, sitting on a shelf way out of sight, there was a lonely anime DVD. It waited there, for someone to notice it and experience all the love it had to offer, but it kept getting skipped over for other titles.
Then, one fateful day, a young Narcissist walked into the library, looking for a new anime to watch. He spied the lonely DVD, and picked it up off of the shelf. He almost put it back, after seeing how girlie it looked… How could he enjoy a show that was clearly about ballet? But as luck would have it, he examined the case just long enough to notice that it had been released by his favorite dubbing company! Overjoyed at the possibility of hearing some of his favorite actors in action, he took that DVd, and brought it home with him.
The DVd had found someone to love, but what of the Narcissist? Did he suffer through the anime version of Ballerina Barbie? Or would this lonely, misunderstood DVD become the greatest thing he had ever watched?
Hello and welcome once again to The Fullmetal Narcissist Anime Review! I’m your host, Naru the Narcissist, and today, we’re going to be taking a look at a critical darling from 2003 that has somehow managed to keep most anime viewers at bay, out of fear for their reputations. Does it deserve this stigma, or is this one book that deserves to have it’s cover ignored? Let’s take a look.
Duck is… Well, a duck. She was swimming along one evening, doing duck like things, when she happened upon a lonely, broken prince dancing alone in a shallow pond. Her heart was immediately stolen by the handsome prince, and seeing his solemn, empty frolic, she wished there was a way she could help him… To make him happy once again.
Her selfless wish was heard, as the mysterious being known as Drosselmeyer dubbed her worthy of a role in his ongoing story, gave her human form, and set her about the simple task of retrieving every single shard of the young prince’s shattered heart. She doesn’t remember her past life at first, but as she begins transform into the lovely Princess Tutu, the truth of her past… And the purpose of her future… Become very, very clear.
As a human, Duck… Her name is Ahiru in the Japanese track, and it makes more sense there… possesses many duck like qualities. She’s flighty, featherbrained, and can’t dance for the life of her. Despite this, she’s enrolled as a low-level student in a dance school, where her Prince is studying as one of it’s most exalted seniors. His name is Mythos… It’s pronounced “Mew-toh,” the derp is silent… And without his heart, he actually seems to be a dull, unemotional young boy. He’s kept under lock and key by his best friend and roommate, Fakir, who excersizes a disturbing amount of control over him. He tries in vain to keep him away from his girlfriend, Rue, a beautiful star dancer who he seems to only love because she tells him so.
For some reason that little Duck can’t quite seem to understand, neither one of these two want him to get his heart back. But as Duck begins to transform into the lovely prima ballerina known as Princess Tutu, and the shards of his heart are returned to him one by one by her hand, this murky plot will only become more and more obscured, even as it clears.
Princess Tutu was produced by a company I had never heard of until today, called Hal’s Film Maker. Despite being active for very nearly twenty years, they’ve released a surprisingly limited range of titles, only four of which I’ve actually seen. Based on what I have seen… Slayers Premium, Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan, and Yamada’s First Time… Their animation style is usually a pretty well managed one. They use still frames where they won’t be noticed, and just enough movement at any given moment to carry through a scene. By following this formula, they have money to spare whenever they need it, and it really shines through with the dancing scenes in Tutu. The character designs they use are cartoon-y rather than realistic, with the typical big heads and exaggerated hairstyles that you’d expect from a childrens’ anime. This can make their overproduced and highly detailed artwork look really awkward as it clashes with the characters walking across it.
Thankfully, this isn’t the case in Tutu, as the blend of the artwork is a lot more smooth. The characters look a bit more sophisticated than Hal’s other works, and the design of their fairy tale inspired town complements them to a T. The music used throughout is equally appropriate, as it consists mainly of instrumental tracks from ballets throughout history, used just as perfectly to reflect their respective scenes. A few of the tracks get repeated throughout, but they’re generally used as character themes.
And as far as the English dub goes? It’s phenomenal. I don’t want to take anything away from the Japanese, which is also highly listenable, but the English dub is just too wonderful to pass up. Her Highness Luci Christian has a great understanding of her character, regardless of whether she’s playing the innocent and happy-go-lucky Duck or the warm and comforting Tutu. For as long as I live, I’ll never be able to hear a human being make quacking noises without saying “Luci did it better.” Jay Hickman keeps up perfectly with every emotion his character acquires, running the gamut without ever sounding like he ever has more personality than he logically should have. His ‘Sexy Garfield’ voice doesn’t hurt, either.
Although she’s not the star of this dub by far, Jessica Boone’s portrayal of Rue has only served to further convince me that she’s the only actor in anime who has never put on a bad performance. Chris Patton has perhaps the most subtle and nuanced performance as Fakir, whose development is probably the most compelling in the story. Marty Fleck’s campy-yet-throaty cackling makes for a deliciously intriguing Drosselmeyer. The anthropomorphic animals who walk freely around the town are all portrayed as a human hybrid probably would sound, but the star of THAT side of the coin would have to be TJP… Or Todd Waite, for those who are curious… In his role as Mr. Cat, a lisping, anxiety-ridden ballet instructor who threatens poorly performing female students with marriage, only to revert to feline behavior (licking, grooming, rolling around) when they refuse. I can’t recommend this dub enough, but even for those of you who hate dubs with a passion, Mr. Cat should do all the talking for me.
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, Princess Tutu is a magical girl anime, and furthermore, it’s primarily about ballet. So, what, is it 26 episodes worth of sweet, sappy melodrama with cute girls who take absurd amounts of time transforming into manipulatively sexy and highly impractical outfits? No, not in the slightest. The drama here is anything but melo, the constant plot twists are anything but saccharine, the transformation only lasts 20 seconds, and Princess Tutu’s outfit… While somewhat revealing… Is entirely appropriate and practical. In fact, it’s her enemy Princess Kraehe who has the really sexy outfit, but since their outfits are designed to express the yin/yang aspect of their feelings towards Mythos, it’s excusable.
And while the typical ‘rinse and repeat’ plot aspect of most magical girl shows is definitely at play here, it’s anything but repetitive… Every time she transforms, Princess Tutu must dance to coax one of her prince’s emotions out of whatever damaged soul they’ve attached themselves to in order to return them to him. But the challenges she faces each time are different, and the development of the story and characters never takes a break even for a moment. The story actually gets very dark, even during the much lighter first half, and yet it never gets dark enough that a child couldn’t watch it.
As for the writing, it may appear at first to be really loose and whimsical. Well, that’s how it’s supposed to look. Under the surface, the writing in Princess Tutu is meticulous and purposeful at every turn, with little to no filler in sight. Every character, and there are a lot of them, serves an important purpose to the story, regardless of how much screen time they’re given. Hell, even that random guy complaining about the noise in the library eventually joins the main cast. The one-episode characters are rarely ever forgettable, and I’m not just saying that because a lot of them are anthropomorphic animals. Fairy tales and classical ballets are lovingly referenced and cleverly subverted, often in ways that reflect Drosselmeyer’s unfinished epic The Prince and the Raven, which is the very story he created this world to finish.
The story unfolds through joy, triumph, complacency and despair, building itself up and falling back down as every turn of the page drags our four main characters kicking and screaming into the roles that have been fated for them. I know metafiction isn’t always a good thing, but it’s done very well here, as each of them reacts to their unchosen path differently. They may accept it, or openly defy it, or even just look for some kind of a compromise. These individual arcs grow and develop at their own pace, with their own stakes, eventually converging into a climactic ending that’s sort of a happy tragedy.
When I say that Princess Tutu subverts all of the magical girl tropes while ending in a tragedy, you may start to draw comparison to a much more recent and much more successful effort, Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica. And you’d be right, they’re quite similar in a lot of ways. But to be perfectly honest, as much as I love Madoka Magica, I actually consider Princess Tutu to be superior to it.
See, Madoka Magica had the perfect ending… A heart breaking tragedy that still had room to be uplifting and hopeful, and it was masterfully built up by the story. But to me, it always felt as if that ending was the most important part… Like the story was written for the sake of it. Like the ending was written first, and the story leading up to it was written in accordance with supporting it. I can’t prove that this was the case, and even if it is, I can’t argue with results… Madoka Magica was amazing, and highly recommended.
On the other hand, while Princess Tutu also had a perfect ending, it didn’t feel like the ending was the point. It felt more like the ending was written for the sake of the story, instead of the other way around. With twice as many episodes, it was able to take it’s time, developing the characters and environment into fully fleshed out people, rather than just metaphorical mouthpieces or martyrs. It never had to result to the kind of emotional manipulation that Madoka Magica used, and it was able to go dark without ever getting to intense for younger audiences. So, to compare, Princess Tutu has just as perfect an ending as Madoka’s, but the journey there is infinitely better.
Princess Tutu is available from ADV Films. There are two versions of the collection set, both of which are available on Amazon, but I think the only differences are the cover art and the price. most people tend to prefer the newer, cheaper version, but personally, I prefer the original version, as misleading as it may be. What can I say? I think Rue is hot.
Whichever version you prefer, there’s a surprising amount of extras on the DVDs, from your standard commentaries and trailers to your somewhat more rare bloopers, but there’s also some unique options like recording videos, ballet terms for beginners, and a handy guide to the music and references of each episode. Oh, and there’s also a manga, but I’ve never read it, and I’ve heard that it’s really bad, so try it out at your own risk.
There’s a good reason I have Princess Tutu ranked as my fourth favorite anime series of all time. It’s one of those rare shows that’s not only perfectly made, but also perfectly enjoyable to any anime fan… Of any age, gender or sexual preference… Who’s willing to try it out. It lends itself to a very high degree of rewatchability, as with every viewing, you’ll notice something new… A trend, a theme, some foreshadowing, or just something funny going on in the background. In short, it’s a masterpiece. This is one instance where I enthusiastically encourage you to ignore the cover, and dive right into the book. For that, I give Princess Tutu a 10/10.