Sunday, January 11, 2015

Anime Review: 'Princess Tutu'

Dude.  I mean, seriously, duuuude.

Princess Tutu, directed by Shogo Koumoto. Starring Nanae Kato, Noboru Mitani, and Takahiro Sakurai. Story by Ikuko Itoh. Hal Film Maker, 2002-2003. DVDs produced by AEsir Holdings.  26 episodes of 25 minutes (approximately 650 minutes). Rated TV-14.

After I got an Amazon gift card for Christmas, I thought to myself that I could use it to buy some edifying, uplifting literature, or I could use it to acquire more brain-rotting magical girl junk.  It's no mystery which choice I made, and I have no regrets:  I picked up a complete DVD set of Princess Tutu, which I knew by rumor and reputation, but had not previously seen myself.  Just to warn you, this is going to be less a review than an example of a guy fangirling all over the place, and I might even drool a little bit.  So if you don't want to see that, go read something else.

The first time I heard of Princess Tutu, the tale of a clumsy girl who receives the power to transform into a magical ballerina, I assumed it was a saccharine, fluffy, and disposable story on a par with something like Lilpri.  I would have been cool with it if that were the case—since I'm totally into that crap—but in fact my assumption was entirely incorrect because HOLY COW IS THIS FREAKING GOOD.  Go watch this show.  Like, right now.  This is easily one of the best anime series I have ever seen.  It is the best magical girl series I have ever seen.  This is an anime that rises, at least at times, to the level of high art.

Duck in duck form.

As the story opens, a duck watches a boy dancing on the surface of her lake.  She wishes she could dance a pas de deux with him, and her wish is granted when a mysterious and menacing figure named Drosselmeyer gives her a pendant that transforms her into a girl.  In human form, Duck is clumsy, socially awkward, and blessed with a scratchy voice that sounds like a duck quacking.  She studies ballet at an arts academy, where she is the worst student.

Duck in human form with her Obsessive Best Friends.

Duck hangs out with two other students, Pike and Lilie, who simultaneously fill the role of Those Two Girls (normal characters meant to contrast with all the weirdness) and a common figure in magical girl anime that I have come to call the Obsessive Best Friend.  As a rule, magical girl heroines have a tall order to fill:  on the one hand, they are supposed to be ordinary girls such as might live on your street, whereas on the other hand they are supposed to be ideal personifications of the power of love and friendship.  To make sure the audience gets it, the protagonist usually hangs out with another girl who has no purpose in life except to advertise protagonist's pure-heartedness or physical beauty or whatever virtues she's supposed to have.  I think these characters are meant to be funny, but I typically find their monomania disturbing.  Pike and Lilie, however, are amusing because they live for the sole purpose of watching Duck screw up.

Duck being Duck.

Duck herself is an endearing character, adorably klutzy and spastic.  In a riff on the typical technique of displaying a heroine's virtue by depicting her as a friend of animals, Duck opens her window every morning to be mobbed by flocks of birds that knock her to the floor.  Furthermore, the town where the story takes place, a town designed to look like the walled village of Nördlingen in Germany, is full of funny animal people, and the most frequently appearing is Mr. Cat, a ballet instructor with the curious habit of threatening to force his worst students to marry him.  The most common recipient of this threat, of course, is Duck.

"I will make you . . . mai waifu!"

The mysterious boy from the lake, Mytho, is also a ballet student, and he is furthermore a prince from a fairy tale who escaped into the real world.  Having shattered his own heart to defeat an evil raven, Mytho can feel no emotions, but he retains, by force of habit, a compassion that drives him to throw himself into danger to protect others.  When he hurls himself out a window to rescue a baby bird, Duck runs to save him and thereby discovers that her pendant contains an additional power—the power to transform her into Princess Tutu, a character from the fairy tale with great magic but a tragic fate.  Only Tutu can find and restore the missing fragments of the prince's heart, but she cannot confess her love for him, or she will turn into a speck of light and disappear.

Most of the townsfolk are unaware of Mytho's identity, but Tutu soon finds herself opposed by others who have designs on the prince—Mytho's roommate Fakir and another magical ballerina named Princess Kraehe, both of whose motives remain for a long time obscure.

That prince guy has some serious trouble keeping his pants on.

Princess Tutu takes place in a sort of ballet universe.  The soundtrack and many of the plot elements are taken from ballets, especially The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.  Tutu uses her magic by dancing ballet, the action sequences are choreographed like ballet, and most episodes climax with a dance sequence, though all but the most important of these are told largely through still frames, the animation budget presumably not allowing for much more.  A real ballet studio assisted with the production, and it shows:  I do not pretend to be knowledgeable of the artform myself, but at least to the layman, the dancing looks like the real thing, and not simply like the animators put the characters on their tippy-toes and had them bounce around.

Duck and Fakir.  Because love triangles.

But strictly speaking, Princess Tutu is not a dance show; that is, the story is not an excuse to showcase dancing.  Tutu is first and foremost about good storytelling, and I mean that in two senses:  it is good storytelling—really, really good storytelling—and it is also about storytelling.  Drosselmeyer, the man who gave Duck her pendant, is also able to watch her every move, and we soon learn he is the author of the story from which the prince escaped.  He is intent on finishing his tale, only now he means to use real people in place of the fictional ones.  His plan is to create a grand tragedy, but the people forced into his story have other ideas, the question throughout being whether Drosselmeyer or the characters will get the upper hand.  In a sense, Princess Tutu depicts a writer as a type of sadist; since stories require conflict, the writer can only do what he does by making his characters miserable.  Princess Tutu depicts characters who become aware that they are being manipulated by the author.

Seriously, dude, get some pants.

As its plot gradually develops and its mysteries are gradually revealed, Princess Tutu turns really weird.  On account of its surrealism, it is often considered a spiritual successor to Revolutionary Girl Utena, the first of the "deconstructive" magical girl shows, but I am inclined to suppose its dreamlike quality, bizarre visuals, and metafictional concerns are inspired more by the German Romanticism that influences some of the ballet to which it pays homage.  The choice of the name Drosselmeyer for Princess Tutu's sinister narrator may be a clue:  he is of course inspired by the Drosselmeyer of The Nutcracker, who is himself a mysterious and arguably sinister figure who appears to be manipulating events from the background.  The Nutcracker is ultimately based on the short story "The Nutcracker and the Kind of Mice" by the German Romanticist E. T. A. Hoffmann, in which Drosselmeyer is clearly an author self-insert.

Pretty sure he isn't wearing pants in this one, either.

Princess Tutu has a few big ideas on its mind.  The characters spend some time digressing on the nature of true vs. selfish love, but the show is most especially preoccupied with the subject of free will and fate.  Early in the first act, a strange character named Edel, who shows up at odd times playing a street organ and speaking in riddles, announces, "May those who accept their fate find happiness.  May those who defy their fate find glory."  That line, in different forms, gets repeated on occasion throughout the series.  As the story draws toward its climax, the characters caught up in Drosselmeyer's tale fight to escape the tragic ends Drosselmeyer has mapped out for them.  Admittedly, the situation depicted in the show is so singular that I am at a loss to say whether it is trying to make any kind of comment on real life.

Princess Tutu dancing.

Princess Tutu is not without some small defects.  It contains dancing mostly in short snippets, and some scenes told through still frames could probably have had more impact if they were animated.  There are moments of obvious CGI, though that is, fortunately, limited mostly to water and fog effects.  A handful of episodes, particularly in the first half of the second act, are repetitious and feel like filler.  These are, however, minor complaints.  This is a well-structured show, especially for one having such an ambitious storyline.  Unlike some other surreal and self-consciously weighty anime that preceded it, it never collapses into incoherency.  By the end, everything is satisfactorily explained and wrapped up.

Say what you like, but I still think Duck and Fakir make a cute couple.

But more than that, this is a show containing much beauty and a heavy emotional impact.  I was not far into the series before I was committed to the characters, and the grand finale, though absurd if taken in isolation, had me weeping.  I can't describe it; I can only urge you to watch it.

Content Advisory:  Princess Tutu is pretty tame.  Violence is mild and bloodless.  There is some occasional slight innuendo in the dialogue.  A running gag involves Duck losing her clothes when she switches from human to avine form and back again, but it isn't particularly graphic.  Rating is TV-14.
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