#1 Fairytale meets reality
Long, long ago, there was a writer named Drosselmeyer. He wrote many stories, among them the tale of a handsome prince destined to do battle with a cunning raven. However, Drosselmeyer passed away before this story could be completed; locking the prince and the raven into an eternal, unending conflict. Tiring of their war, the prince used a forbidden spell to seal the raven away, though this in turn left him without a heart.
Princess Tutu takes place in a quaint, German town where a girl called Duck—Ahiru, in the Japanese audio track—studies ballet at an academy. She has a crush on the handsome Mytho, but he is already in love with the prima donna Rue and his every step is determined by his abrasive roommate Fakir. Then something strange happens. Duck learns that she is actually a literal duck. She is made Human by the power of a magical pendant, which she can also use to transform into the magical Princess Tutu.
She also discovers that Mytho is the prince from that unfinished story, still left without a heart. So Duck takes it upon herself to help Mytho, by hunting down the scattered shards of his heart one piece at a time. But this is not so easily done. Not only are the shards troublesome to find, Rue and Fakir both attempt to prevent Princess Tutu from achieving her goal. Both of them know about the story, yet are content with Mytho being a heartless husk of a man. And, if Mytho is the prince, then the Raven must be lurking somewhere as well…
It’s a fascinating story, steeped in the tropes and fantasy drama of classic fairytales. Each episode is even introduced by way of a short story. All of these read like fairytales that could well be real, though how they might play out in reality is often a surprise.
These aren’t the only fairytale influences that have leaked into the “real world” of this anime. As the story progresses, more and more people in the town inexplicably turn into animal versions of themselves. Even people journeying to the town from outside suddenly find themselves transformed, or at the very least suddenly feel as if it’s perfectly normal that a person could be an anteater.
The small town setting and lack of technology further add to this fairytale atmosphere. It’s not medieval, but the town has a charming, rustic feel to it. Broad, stone streets, colorful houses, churches and inns. The town even has its own blacksmith.
#2 Restoring a character’s emotions
If I may be blunt: Mytho is a boring twit. All the girls fawn over him, but since he has no heart, it’s all just good looks. He is a slow, unsociable person with no interests, wants, or initiative in the story. He just does whatever Fakir and Rue demand he do without question.
As Princess Tutu achieves success, you get to see him slowly change. One by one he regains emotions and begins expressing them again, often excessively at first. You’re watching his character being shaped as the story progresses, which is very interesting. For example, when he regains his feeling of pride, Mytho realizes that he has become a passive player in his own story and immediately sets out to try and regain his heart shards himself.
This process is also not without its surprises. Some emotions are corrupted or leave Mytho open to further manipulation. Some emotions are unpleasant, which makes Duck / Princess Tutu doubt if she’s doing the right thing after all.
#3 Meta elements
Another fun detail is that Drosselmeyer is dead only in the strictest sense of the word. He’s still part of the anime’s story, acting as some kind of magical overseer that directs the plot. He is not all-powerful however, which puts him in a difficult position.
Drosselmeyer wants to see his story completed, but can only encourage the cast to do what he needs in order to move the plot forward. He is also overly-selfish; more concerned with good drama than the emotions of “his” characters. In one episode he desperately attempts to stop Duck when she wants to give up on being Princess Tutu, but is so transparently dodging her concerns that it only makes the situation worse for him. He panics and stresses, and that all makes him so much more fascinating. An author who has lost control of his story and is now bitterly watching from the afterlife as his characters mess everything up.
He is a fascinating character and I was very curious to see where Princess Tutu was going with him.
#4 Strong animation directing
The story is already atypical of traditional anime, but that’s not the only aspect in which Princess Tutu differentiates itself from its peers. Long before Shaft would become known as the arthouse studio, Hal Film Maker turned this anime into a beautiful, surreal experience.
Though it’s not as present as in the likes of Madoka Magica, there are plenty of moments where Princess Tutu can feel akin to it. Impossible architecture, avant-garde directing styles, or scenes dominated by magic. It’s a beautiful show already, but filled with spectacular moments that elevate it even further. I was constantly pausing to admire the visuals or reversing the bluray to get a second look at a particularly-captivating scene.
My favorite moments by far involve the presentation of the anime’s ultimate villain. I won’t spoil, of course, but the way its presented really hyped my up for the inevitable showdown.
#5 Ballet dancing
So… ballet dancing? Not something I knew anything about at all going into this anime. Also one of the reasons for why I put off watching it for so long. Fortunately, this anime does a great job at selling the appeal of ballet to its audience.
The titular heroine’s power is all tied to her ballet skills. Fights in Princess Tutu are more like dance performances fueled by magic. Princess Tutu battles and reasons with her enemies by performing ballet, who in return try to stop her by evoking magical attacks with dances of their own. Even the monsters that she sometimes has to fight are designed like costumed dancers.
These sequences are well-animated and often benefit from the anime’s excellent color composition. The often dark backdrops match perfectly with Tutu’s pure-white dress and orange hair. It’s enchanting to look at.
The music is what you’d expect. Kaoru Wada put together a wonderful soundtrack that features many classical songs by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and other legendary composers. Even if you aren’t into classical music much, you’re sure to hear some familiar songs. Somebody even went out of their way to put an entire Spotify playlist together of all the tracks in order.
Love is often a central theme in tales of princes and princesses. Princess Tutu is no exception in that regard. Much of the plot is already born from Duck’s crush on Mytho. A crush foiled by Rue already being his girlfriend.
That’s not where it ends though. The story keeps building on this romantic core, which begins to change as we learn more about the characters and their relation to the main plot. Is the romance between Rue and Mytho invalid because it started when he was heartless? Can Duck get her feelings across to Mytho, even as he is always flanked by Fakir? And what about Fakir, really? Where does he stand?
I can’t get too far into it because that’s a minefield of spoilers right there.
Side-characters also frequently lend romantic touches to the plot of any given episode. Several episodic stories deal with love confessions or troubled relationships, as one might expect from a school setting. There are also interesting outliers, like an episode centered around a husband and wife who run a troupe together.
More anime & manga like this
Kemono Kingdom: Animals can be people and nobody finds that even slightly weird.
Legend of Light: Plot revolving around young girls learning to dance.
Madoka Magica: Surreal magical girl series.