Princess Tutu Vol. 1
I'm fairly certain that were I to merely summarize the plot of Princess Tutu without attempting to first put it into the context of the work as a whole, I'd drive away eighty percent of its potential viewers.
That said, I'm still going to risk it - so long as you promise to read this review beyond my summary.
Ahiru, a young girl living in a small town, is an awkward young girl enrolled in a ballet academy who has a crush on one of the most talented boys in the school - the emotionless Mythos. In essence, the story is about Ahiru's quest to find a way to reunite Mythos with his ability to feel.
Sounds sappy, doesn't it? Well, that's because there's far more to this story than just the simple tale of Ahiru and her quest for love.
Luckily, the series itself does a far better job of pulling viewers into the tale. It begins by saying: "Once upon a time, there was a storyteller who died."
Huh. Well, that's morbid, isn't it?
It continues, however, explaining that Drosselmeyer, the writer, was in the middle of crafting a story about a valiant prince and his battle against an evil crow. In order to defeat his enemy, the prince sealed away the crow using his own soul. Shards of the noble boy's feelings were scattered throughout the land, filling emotional voids in the souls of the various townsfolk.
When Drosselmeyer died, his unfinished story took on a life of its own in its desire to be completed. The boundary between fantasy and reality is tenuous in the world of Princess Tutu, which helps to explain why Ahiru's ballet instructor (appropriately named Neko-sensei) is a human-sized, speech enabled, bipedal cat.
Drosselmeyer is portrayed as being rather cruel, as storytellers often are. They put their creations - the children of their imagination - through the worst situations imaginable for the sake of telling a story. Sometimes they save them, sometimes they don't. No story worth listening to is guaranteed to have a happy ending, and readers who are familiar with classic myths and fables know that of all tales, fairy tales have a high probability of ending tragically.
After all, tragedy is a part of life, just as valid a component as elation - though certainly not as welcome.
It's hard to tell what's real in the story and what parts of Ahiru's world are being manipulated by the unfinished fairy tale. It seems as if Ahiru is, in fact, a duck made human by the power of the story. In ADV's subtitles, they translate her name directly as "Duck" instead of calling her by her literal Japanese name. Sensing her desire to help Mythos - the prince in the story, of course - Drosselmeyer (perhaps his spirit, at least) writes her in as the only person who can save him. However, she can only maintain her human form as long as she doesn't exhibit any duck-like behavior. Given her penchant to say "quack", this is not as easy as it sounds. Only water can change her back into a human.
Yet as a human, she has the ability to change into the graceful and powerful ballerina, Princess Tutu. When Ahiru becomes Princess Tutu, she can regain the lost pieces of the prince's heart from the people who possess them - typically by convincing the wrongful owners to relinquish the captive parts of his soul via dance.
Princess Tutu is a strange story - just like many of the most beloved fairy tales. While it has consistent moments of humor - Ahiru is a really cute character - the show radiates a sense of playful dread that feels somewhat like a Tim Burton film. Even at its cutest, the show conveys a sensation that something is not quite right, and thus it avoids coming off as too sweet for viewing.
The animation in the show is nothing spectacular - in fact, it's downright pedestrian at times. Princess Tutu isn't a very colorful show, either. For the most part, Ahiru's world consists of browns, grays and pastel colors. The dancing animation for the series works well, though other shows have done it a little better - such as Gonzo's Kaleido Star. Viewers who are not versed in the art of ballet are bound to learn new things as the series moves along.
Character designs lean more towards caricatures and less realistic human forms, but as this is a fairy tale fantasy setting, it's all right to have a cast that consists almost entirely of kid-sized characters. Still, the characters depicted are certainly cute, especially for anyone who enjoys a good bishounen yarn.
Music for the series is excellent. The opening and ending themes capture the mysterious, melancholy mood of the show, while simultaneously hinting at the hope that there may yet be a happy ending to the tale. If you're a fan of classical music, then there's loads of it to be found in this show. This is only the first disc, and I can't say if we're going to be forced to listen to the same classical ballet pieces. "The Nutcracker Suite" is a fantastic composition, but it will lose its appeal if it's all that we get to hear every time that Princess Tutu dances. So far, there's been plenty of variety, but you never know. Background music for the series is good, however - it's just as moving as the classics playing at times in the show, and it is quite appropriate for the story.
The Japanese voice acting is also better than average. Nanae Katou stands out in particular with her distinct performance as Ahiru. I never thought I'd be paying a person a compliment by saying they have a wonderful voice for a spunky little duck, but Katou is certainly the right woman for the job. She brings Ahiru to life with a voice fraught with uncertainties about herself and obvious concern for the well being of others. Noboru Mitani provides a good performance, as well, voicing the creepy storyteller, Drosselmeyer. Even if he wasn't a ghost, hearing that guy talk would creep me out.
Ultimately, this show turns out to be far more than the sum of its parts. Even though the animation isn't top-notch and the story is a little weird, altogether it was wholly satisfying. Princess Tutu is a unique show, and while I'm not sure where the story is going just yet, I'm eager to see how it gets there. It's not surprising, however, as a series coming from Junichi Sato - creator of the imaginative Kaleido Star and Pretear, but also a director for Sailor Moon, one of the Slayers movies, and Keroro Gunso. There's enough magic in the series without making it corny, but characters with believable emotions are what carry the work in the end.
Technically, this is a pretty standard quality release. The visuals and audio are solid (as to be expected from ADV). As far as subtitles go, I wish that companies would either finally start putting honorifics in the subtitle streams, or just not bother adding "Lady" in front of names. In all fairness, ADV isn't the only company that does this. It's not really a big deal - and pretty much anyone who's read manga or watched anime knows the social implications of -chan, -san, and -sama when added to names in Japanese, but it never comes across right when translating culture as a part of the language. Either drop the translation altogether - we'll figure it out when we hear it in Japanese - or go ahead and add the honorifics to the subtitles, instead of adding "Lady" or "Lord" in front of a name.
Really, I have no other complaints - and the fact that I mentioned that one above shows how little there was to whine about on the disc. Extras include a staff commentary with Shoko Oono (the show's translator) and Mike Yantosca (an ADR writer); voice actor commentary with Luci Christian (Ahiru) and Chris Patton (Fakir); clean opening animation; clean closing animation; ADR outtakes; and a few special segments: "Etude," "Ballet for Beginners," and "In the Studio."
With a deft blend of fantasy and reality, Princess Tutu excels at lulling its viewers into the misconception that this is a typical shoujo love story. Truthfully, I'm not quite sure what it is - I just know that I like it.