by Rebecca Silverman,
Once upon a time. Il était une fois. C'era una volta. Mukashi mukashi. It doesn't matter what language the set phrase is spoken in, those words tell us that a story is about to begin, and most likely one filled equally with horrors and wonders. Princess Tutu, the 2002-3 magical girl series, draws from that tradition, creating a new literary fairy tale crafted from strands of older ones, and even eighteen years after it first aired, it still holds onto its magic.
In part that's because these first two episodes really do a good job of letting us know what we're getting into. When I say that Princess Tutu is a literary fairy tale, what I mean is that it's an original fantasy story that mimics a fairy tale in the folkloric sense, i.e. a story extant all over the world without any contact between cultures. Part of the reason it does such a good job of it is because the show itself is based on (in these episodes) several literary fairy tales itself: the obvious ones are E.T.A. Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling, but we can also see clear allusions to The Red Shoes in Rue's ballet slippers, and a few folkloric tales like The White Swan and The White Cat. And of course there are the ballets inspired by the tales, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker specifically. But even if you don't recognize all of these references, there's a wonderful sense of being told a story to while away the dark hours.
At its core, these two episodes are really a combination of Swan Lake and The Ugly Duckling. Duck, the heroine of the tale, is, in fact, a duck who has been granted human form by either the mysterious (and incredibly creepy) Herr Drosselmeyer or the magical fragmented heart of a prince who turned Gold Crown Town into a strange closed world where humans and animals coexist. Duck can also transform into the magical ballerina Princess Tutu, who appears to have been tasked with collecting the pieces of the prince's heart and returning them to him. Duck thinks she's doing this because she has a crush on Mytho, the current form of the prince in question; Drosselymeyer seems to be manipulating her into doing it in service to a story. That may be the more true interpretation of what's going on, because why on earth would a magical girl first return the prince's feelings of bitterness and disappointment? Sure, she doesn't necessarily have the choice of what she first finds, but that those are the emotions she initially encounters smacks of someone who may not have everyone's best interests at heart pulling the strings.
That makes a lot of sense, because this is a show about storytelling. Even without the ballet aspect, you have the narrator at the start of each episode recounting the story of the author who died and the prince and the raven who escaped the bonds of their text, influencing the world Duck inhabits. But then when you factor in the dance, things become even more layered – ballets, such as the two Tchaikovsky-scored works that form the majority of these episodes' background music, are all about presenting a story in motions and music rather than text and image. Anteaterina and Mytho's pas de deux (duet) in episode two shows how the characters' relationship functions, brief as it is – she's dancing the male part as a sign of how she's more aggressive than the emotionless Mytho, whose passivity comes across in the female role. (Yes, ballet can be sexist.) Then when Rue and Duck dance their duet, Rue's role as the more experienced dancer combines with Duck's innocence to give us an idea of who they are in the story: Duck is trying really hard, but she's not entirely aware of what's really going on, something we saw in episode one when she asks if their teacher, Mr. Cat, has always been a literal cat.
As with many magical girl shows, Duck's transformation into Princess Tutu is facilitated by a few things. One is certainly her earnest desire to help Mytho – she sees him in danger and that gives her the burst she needs to become Princess Tutu and save him. (Again, showing his passivity in this story.) The second is her innocence, which is a factor we see changing over time in magical girl series and relates directly to the third transformation trope: someone gives her the power. Herr Drosselmeyer, as the story's overlord, is no Luna or Jamapi, and unlike Fin Fish and Kyubey he's obviously creepy and up to no good. But Duck, despite all of this, trusts and accepts what he tells her because of her earnest innocence – and we all know how that worked out for the girls in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. (And if we look at the genre as a whole, I'd definitely say that Phantom Thief Jeanne influenced Princess Tutu, which in turn influenced PMMM.)
But even without all of this analysis and lore, Princess Tutu is off to a very promising start as a show. Duck is clearly still learning about her world alongside us, and the dance is beautifully done with attention to the details of skill levels, steps, and toe shoes vs. regular ballet slippers. There's even a little BL imagery for fans with Fakir, Mytho's highly overprotective friend who appears to hate Duck (and probably everyone) with a burning passion. Rue is still something of a cipher and Duck's friends are a little annoying, but Mr. Cat's threat to marry everyone (marriage is a big deal in The White Cat) is consistently funny, if only because he has to go act like a cat immediately afterward.
If you never got around to watching this for whatever reason, I hope you'll watch this story unfold with me. Whether you like magical girls, ballet, fairy tales, or just a good story, there's something to enjoy in Princess Tutu.
Princess Tutu is currently streaming on HiDive.
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