Princess Tutu created by Ikuko Ito and Junichi Sato. Released in English by ADV. Entire 26 episode series available at Amazon for $28.49. Manga adaptation available but really, don’t go there.
I’m cheating today. This blog is for book reviews, things you read. And so I’m going to review an absolutely terrible manga adaptation so that I can also review the anime of the same name, because it’s just a wonderful series that’s so overlooked, and it would make a great Christmas present for anyone who loves storytelling, ballet, or classical music.
First, the manga. I’m not even linking to it. It’s terrible. It takes an enchanting story and wipes all emotion and excitement and meaning from it. Take, for example, the climax of the first story arc of the series. This is a tremendous episode in the anime, with the “light” and “dark” ballerinas battling through dance for the heart of their prince. In the manga, when the light ballerina comes and dances with the prince and his knight tells the dark ballerina those two belong together, what does the dark ballerina do? Does she get up and fight like she has for the entire book? Does she even try for the man she loves deeply? Does she at least weep in anguish and gnash her teeth? No, she says “Yeah I guess you’re right.” End of conflict. Boy, there’s some drama for you. So, the whole manga is like this and I hate it. F.
Now for the anime. Where the manga is flat and lifeless the anime dances and soars and teases your preconceptions and reshapes all you think you know, and it’s set to some of the most beautiful music written in history.
The story is almost completely different from the manga, framed by a storyteller of dubious motives and frightening powers, modeled after the manipulative uncle in The Nutcracker. He tempts a duckling who dares to dream of dancing with a prince and who says she would give her life to make him smile, and she accepts the storyteller’s bargain and amulet. Duck is given the form of a human girl in order to restore the prince’s heart which was shattered in a battle with a Raven. And whenever she’s near a fragment, she senses it and can change into Princess Tutu, a ballerina of highest caliber, able to touch the hearts of everyone she dances with.
Here’s the opening song of Princess Tutu, to give you a feel for it:
Notes of whimsy are added by a great collection of side characters, including the marionette with a heart, a variety of anthropomorphic animal students, like the anteater girl who also falls in love with the prince and especially Mr. Cat. Mr. Cat, almost creepy at times, is the school’s ballet teacher and a real cat. He threatens his students with marriage if they fail, almost hoping that they will so he might find love. He’s one of the oddest characters I’ve ever seen, dispensing wisdom one minute then licking himself the next.
Duck’s quest for the prince’s heart comprises the first arc of 13 episodes of the story, a beautiful standard fairy tale.
The second arc of 13 takes this story and rips it to shreds, examining what it means to be a hero and heroine, a story-teller and one within the story, and all the assumptions we as readers make about all of those. This section can just be seen as simple continuation by those who are too young to grasp otherwise, or it can be enjoyed by adults as a beautifully done exploration what it means to live at the whim of others.
The story is marvelous. The way it’s told makes it even better. The music in Princess Tutu is all classical ballet and orchestral pieces, mostly from the 19th century. Its drama and romance lends itself perfectly to setting the moods for all the episodes. This music has stirred audiences for decades, and it doesn’t fail to do so here where the musical selection is paired so well with the storyline.
A note about the extras. ADV came up with some great ones and they’re all included in the thinpak. There are animated shorts about ballet terms and the music in the episodes, as well as films of the voice actors in the studio. There are commentaries and interviews, as well as extra shorts about things like how to watch ballet, and notes about how Princess Tutu came about. These DVDs are loaded.
Drawbacks: There are two in my opinion. One, a couple of the episodes are repetitious, seeming like filler, completely skippable. Two, when side characters are involved, Princess Tutu almost always solves problems the same way, and the footage of Duck changing into Tutu is stock used in every episode (a standard anime practice). But while she might easily dance away the problems of the side characters, her own problems and those of the other three leads aren’t dealt with as easily, and it’s there where the series excels.
The saddest thing about this is how little this series is watched. No one seems to know about it. So I’m spreading the word. This one is for children who will love it for its excitement, beauty, scariness and humor, and especially the emotion I think. And it’s for adults who’ll love it for those same things, along with the cleverness and satisfaction of seeing something well told. And I have to say I literally sobbed for joy at the last episode, which was just perfect, and that really stunned me to be so affected by, well, anything.
Here’s an award-winning AMV (anime music video) created by a fan named Marisa Panaccio who calls this Princess Tutu in Three Minutes. The music is not from the anime, but it’s very cool.
OK, if you’re not convinced now you won’t ever be. But pick up the anime if you’re the least bit interested, or if you know someone who might be, because sadly it will probably disappear soon from shelves, and this is a series you would truly regret missing. Manga: F. Anime: A.