Stop me if youve heard this one, a duck falls in love with a prince she sees dancing so the extradimensional ghost of a writer turns her into a human who can also turn into a magical ballerina but with the caveat if she ever tells the prince she loves him she’ll turn into a speck of light and vanish. I know, same old story weve all seen a dozen times.
Princess Tutu (プリンセスチュチュ) is a 26 episode 2002 magical girl1 anime by by Hal Animation.
A writer died while in the middle of writing a book about a Prince fighting a Raven, with the story unfinished the two characters eventually burst forth from the pages to continue their fight wherever they could before the Prince managed to seal the Raven away by shattering his own heart. The town they were in is now overrun by blurred lines of reality and storybooks, something no one notices, while the writers ghost has turned an ordinary duck into a girl who can find the shards of the Princes heart in order to finish the tale- or really just to amuse himself, seriously Drosselmeyer is an asshole.
Whats up with it then?
This might be the most cult cult show that has ever cult’d, a series that is barely known by anyone and sold so poorly initially that ADV was hesitant about even finishing releasing it only to have everyone who had watched it turn out to be such massive fanatics they practically willed the last couple DVDs into existence. That gives the show a bit of a reputation, one which is still holds up to upon even recent rewatches largely because its greatest strengths are its trifecta of 4 engaging leads who all grow and change significantly throughout the show, a subtly strong direction, and its awe striking use of ballet and music. The cast really is just four main characters with a handful of minor supporting ones who dont matter much, that lets it keeps its focus only on their growth and boy do they really change over time. This is a very dialogue heavy story with people talking a lot, heck the ‘battles’ in episodes are often extended discussions as each shard is connected to one of the Princes emotions so Tutu needs to coax them into agreeing to return, and its not idle conversations as the implications of what returning the Princes heart will do weigh on everyone. Some very strong writing is at hand here balancing a bunch of tones and developments with the grace of a ballerina.
The writing is extra important because much of the animation shows its 2002 vintage badly, it can get really jerky and obviously skimping on money in scenes when its not important, though even at the cheapest the direction is stupendous. It uses multiple angles and forced perspectives within the same shots to really convey a lot of tone with minimal animation effort, even finding ways of slipping in very small animation cues that are easy to miss or not understand if you dont know ballet- primarily whenever Duck is transformed as Tutu she walks like a ballerina performing and moves her hands in a kind of dance language. Which brings us to the third part, the one which really makes its impact felt the most in any individual episode vs the other two being more appreciated over time, ballet. For a magical girl show there’s no stock magic attack sequences or anything, instead they resolve all of their disputes through dance (and aforementioned talking) with some really well animated dancing sequences all set to an OST of classical ballet music. Its really unlike anything else out there and incredibly striking to watch.
It sits in a very unique world too, with reality in the town being a mess no one bats an eye at a cat teaching a ballet class or an electric eel being a troupe master/energy generator. This fantastical nature fuels the mood of the whole show while also coyly lampshading why no one seems to care about the weird things happening since the town is nothing but weird. Watching over everything is Drosselmeyer, the dead writer whos somehow still existing in an extra-dimensional space with a manic giddiness. He doesn’t get depth like the others do but hes still a delight every time he shows up thanks to how much he revels in whats going on; he helps both sides almost equally as long as it amuses him with an infectious glee.
If the show falters it really is in its animation in places, usually the first half of episodes as its well tuned to spending all its money on the dances near the end. Its other main fault is alas Mr Cat, the dance teacher. On one hand Mr Cat is 90% of a great character, a human sized cat teaching ballet while still acting like a cat leads to some hilarious stuff; alas 10% of the time he’s yelling at teenage girls and threatening them with marrying him as a punishment that got old fast 20 years ago and <i>really</i> has not aged well. We get it show, hes lonely and desperate, you dont need to hammer it in like that anymore.
Weeb Level: With the early aughts character designs youll never forget youre watching an anime. It surprisingly has almost none of the usual magical girl tropes though and so much character work you dont need to be an anime fan to like it.
Content: Violence is non-existent, with everything resolved by dance the few actual moments of violence tend to be people just getting knocked around. Nudity is a little more of an open question, when Duck transforms between her bird and human forms she appears naked, something the show never lets you forget either as a joke at her embarrassment or more likely a reason why she can’t transform back so easily. You dont really see much in the way of actual nude content, and certainly nothing remotely sexual with these stick figure designs, it just might make for an awkward explanation if someone walked in the room at the wrong time2.
Worth Watching: Seek it out if you like magical girl shows, or hidden gems, or great character work, or anime in general. Watch it if you like ballet or classical music. Skip it if you have no soul.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime and HiDive both have it streaming… dub only3. For odd reasons the subtitled version is not available anywhere online, but there was a blu-ray set of the whole shot released a few years ago that should be possible to find if you really want the Japanese language version.