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"Princess Tutu" Vol. 1 Defies One-Line Description

Princess Tutu defies words. Now, I know what you’re thinking; how could a magical girl anime with classical ballet and fairy tale references be hard to describe? I’ve got one name for you: Chiaki J. Konaka. The chief writer behind Lain, Texhnolyze, Big O II and the upcoming Shadowstar Narutaru, Konaka is known for his ability to totally mess with the viewer’s perception of reality, and for his tendency to weave some fairly heavy existentialist and post-modernist elements into his works. He only writes one episode on the first disc of Princess Tutu, but he didn’t really need to write every episode. The whole show is very much in his mode of storytelling. Of course, that makes for a strange magical girl show, but also one that is surprisingly intriguing and almost addictive by the time I hit the end of the first volume. Well, once I got over the fact that the town is being saved by a ballet dancer girl who is actually a duck transformed into a person.

The show starts with a story about a man who died while writing a story. That story’s characters, a noble prince and an evil raven, literally escape the pages of the book because they want to finish the story somehow. The prince shattered his own heart to try to seal the raven away, an act that took the prince’s own memories and emotions with it. Then we’re introduced to a cute duck named Duck. She sees some pretty boy dancing in the pond she lives in, and she wishes she could be with him. Suddenly, the spirit of the dead writer decides to make it so, and Duck suddenly wakes up as a girl. Yeah, I was confused too. However, that’s basically the governing force behind Princess Tutu. It’s a world where fiction and reality have been woven into one in both a random and controlled manner. The random element is that the Prince shattered his own heart into fragments that have scattered themselves about the town and attached themselves to various people, who then start acting somewhat irrationally. This is where the organized melding of reality and fiction comes into play and Duck enters the stage. She not only wakes up as a real girl, but she also has a set of school friends, and she’s a student at the ballet school where the boy from the pond learns to dance. She’s been given an entire life and backstory she didn’t even have previously. It also turns out the writer has endowed her with the special power to become Princess Tutu, so she can collect the fragments of the Prince’s heart and return his emotion to him.

Guess what? That boy from the pond, though he doesn’t know it, is the prince. Betcha didn’t see that coming. Just to twist the knife, Duck can’t confess her love because the unfinished story says that should the Princess ever confess her love of the Prince, she’d disappear in a flash of white light. Given all that, the basic framework ends up being a fusion of magical girl anime, Inu-Yasha-esque jewel shard collection and something something between Simon De Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed and Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In other words, it’s an adorable, funny, and formulaic, but at the same time hyper-intellectual and hyper-philosophical, exploration of self and the separation between reality and fiction, all in a delightful old-world European setting. Any other show would buckle under the weight of all that, but instead it thrives, making it one of the more interesting pieces of anime storytelling I’ve seen in a while. It’s intellectual for intellect’s sake, but that is part of what sells the show.

From the technical perspective, Princess Tutu is a delight as well. The animation is pretty solid outside of a few pieces of clumsy key-frame and tween work, and the background and foreground elements are excellently composed and layered thanks to Gonzo Digimation. Though it’s clearly digitally-painted cel animation, the studio doesn’t lean on the computers so heavily that it becomes noticeable. The character designs are almost too cute at points given some of the heavier content in the show, but they are perfect for the magical girl and ballet aspects of the show. The music is wonderful, with lots of orchestral arrangements for the ballet battle scenes (yes, I said ballet battle scenes) and a great opening and closing from Ritsuko Okazaki, best known for her work on the Fruits Basket opening and closing, that weave her signature style and classical ballet music. The voice acting out of both casts is great, but I really enjoyed the performance by Duck’s Japanese VA, as it’s both cute but undeniably duck-like.

The disc itself is also assembled quite well. It’s got lots of great special features including two commentaries, some background information of the ballet elements of the series, credit-less opening and closing, outtakes and the obligatory trailers. It’s also got wonderfully artifact-less video encoding and very nice audio.

Now, the trickiest part of this whole thing is figuring out who would be interested in this show. I guess if you like Sailor Moon, ballet, Sartre, and cute comedy, Princess Tutu is for you. All I know is that I’m hooked. Tutu not only puts some of my favorite things together, but it does so masterfully. That’s Konaka for you I suppose.

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