Reviews Too Late: Princess Tutu

by wjw on March 1, 2010

Knowing my strange fascination with girly anime, Jane Lindskold told me I’d like this one. She was right.

I liked Princess Tutu not only for itself, but for the fact that it constantly references Revolutionary Girl Utena, which— as we all know— is the Greatest TV Series of All Time. Tutu is a post-Utena artifact, the first that I’ve seen.

The backstory is rather complex, and begins with a battle between the heroic Prince Mytho and the evil Raven. Mytho drives the Raven from the world into a kind of pocket universe, and then falls on his own sword— shattering his own heart in order to somehow seal the Raven off from the world. Mytho isn’t killed, but without his heart becomes emotionally blank and highly suggestible.

But that’s not the whole backstory, because the backstory is a fairy story, one told by the enchanter/storyteller Herr Drosselmeyer (borrowed from the plot of The Nutcracker.) Drosselmeyer has the ability to cause his stories to take shape in reality, which is probably the reason that someone— it isn’t clear who— kills him, and cuts off his hands.

But Drosselmeyer isn’t “100% dead,” as they say in Princess Bride, and he still has power in the pocket universe inhabited by the Raven and Prince Mytho. His assassination left the story unfinished, and he’s determined to finish it. And furthermore, he’s going to make it a tragedy. (Getting killed and mutilated probably does give you a bleak outlook.)

A cute little yellow duckling— conveniently named Duck (Ahiru)— sees the blank-faced Prince Mytho dancing by the shore of a pond, and falls in love. Drosselmeyer gives Duck a magical gem which allows her to turn into a tweenage girl— conveniently named Duck— and enroll in the ballet school where Mytho is both a senior and a star. Whenever she “acts like a duck”— usually by quacking in surprise— she turns into a duck again, and can only change into a girl once she dives into water. (This provides a lot of low comedy, with Duck acting ducklike, and then transforming into a sopping wet naked tween.)

The pocket universe in which the events take place looks like a quaint fairy-tale German village, albeit one with a ballet school the size of the Pentagon dropped into it. As soon as Duck becomes human, other characters begin to take on more fairy-tale aspect, especially the ballet teacher Mr. Cat, who is a human-sized talking cat. The other students vaguely remember a time in which their teacher wasn’t a talking cat, but this doesn’t seem to matter. (We also meet Miss Anteater and Miss Crocodile.)

Prince Mytho’s “heart shards” have flown into the universe at large, and have become attached to people who feel strong emotions, heightening their own feelings to the point of obsession.

Duck’s magic gem glows when she’s near one of the people who are pierced by a shard, which allows her to transform into the superheroine Princess Tutu. It’s Tutu’s job to collect the shards and return them to Mytho. She doesn’t do this by confrontation or violence, but by challenging the victims to a pas-de-deux, danced to the music of the classic ballet that mirrors the victim’s problem. Through the medium of dance, the victim confronts his/her own feelings, and surrenders the passion in question. Tutu then returns the shard to the emotionally blank Mytho, who thus begins to regain his own feelings.

But it’s not just passionate people who oppose Tutu. There’s the senior student Rue, who insists that she’s Mytho’s girlfriend and likes him just the way he is. There’s Mytho’s childhood friend Fakir, who has a weird, emotion-charged, possessive relationship with the lost prince. And eventually we meet the evil, calculating Princess Krahae, who seems to be an embodiment of the Raven.

Plus there’s Duck’s own ineptitude. When she isn’t being Tutu, she’s a singularly clumsy ballet student, and Mr. Cat is always sending her down to the probationary class. Duck is prone to panic and isn’t able to explain herself fully— which is perhaps lucky, since she’s been told that if she ever confesses her love for Mytho, she’ll disappear as a speck of light.

Which is, by the way, exactly the fate that Herr Drosselmeyer has in store. Remember that he’s writing a tragedy. So if Duck disappears and everyone fails, their creator is happy, albeit Still Dead. Duck and the other characters must not only solve the problems within the story, they have to solve the meta-problem that is Drosselmeyer and somehow evade their fate and regain their freedom.

Parallels with Utena are many and deliberate. Both stories take place within a pocket universe in which a fairy-tale prince has been exiled. Both feature a protagonist equipped with a magic token, and determined to rescue a captive. Both feature stories of heroism and hope vs. cynicism and despair. There’s a lot of water imagery in both stories, with water being the key to transformation. The antagonists in both stories are emotionally frozen— in Utena they’re caught by some powerful image in the past; in Tutu they’re transfixed by their own overamped emotion. In both, stories end with a duel— in Utena with swords, in Tutu a dance-off. Music is incredibly important in both stories.

And there are other parallels in the imagery— too many to number altogether, though I take note of phallus-shaped formal gardens and the fact that Krahae’s flight of crows resembles the flying swarm of swords that carry the hatred of the world in Utena.

I’ve only seen the first season, but I intend to see the second.

If you like nothing else, you’ll like the music.

Matt March 2, 2010 at 3:23 am

I just finished watching "Red Garden" on Hulu. Very strange. I think some things got lost in translation.

Other than that, I have been watching "Fullmetal Alchemist" as well. 43 episodes up on hulu so far.

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