Thursday, March 31, 2016

[Anime] Princess Tutu Review

Princess Tutu - 7.5/10

Princess Tutu is a traditional family friendly fantasy with modern finesse.  What is most charming about Princess Tutu is its earnest simplicity.  The setting is that of a fairy tale: princes are noble, princesses are beautiful, love is eternal, and dreams come true.  In a word, it sounds cheesy.  And yet, I found myself sucked into it as it executed its premise expertly.  While watching it I likened it to coming on a child playing make-believe.  At first you find yourself only patronizing them.  Clearly you know better; you just don't want to hurt any feelings.  But strangely, against your will, you find that the enjoyment is genuine and that perhaps you're not so superior after all.

I think the other key to appreciating Princess Tutu is just knowing that it isn't trying to be subtle or deconstructionist.  There are some twists and turns in the story that keep things interesting (more on that below), but these are merely the evolution of the genre.  They are not a grim negation of what has come before such as what Evangelion or Madoka aimed to do for mecha and magical girl respectively.

Finally, where I watched the series only had the English dub.  At first I considered this a bad thing but it grew on me rapidly. The anime has such a Western tone that hearing it in English seems natural after a short time. In addition, Luci Christian knocks it out of the park with her performance as Ahiru/Duck; after just a couple of episodes I had a hard time imagining this character with any other voice.

The Good:
First, let's get the obvious out of the way: the music.  The entire series is based on various ballets, and many of the episodes feature orchestral music to match.  I am far from being an expert on the pieces, but I did enjoy them as they added some variety to each episode.

Next, I'd like to tip my hat to the child characters.  I normally criticize young characters in anime, saying time and time again how the choice of adolescents is to the detriment of the plot.  This is one of the few series where I would say the age choice is entirely appropriate.  The simpler emotional structure of the series would be drivel if coming from adults, but from 12-14-year-olds it is more believable.  Fakir's development in particular fits the mold perfectly, although the arc they took him on was unexpected.

And finally, I would like to give some praise to Princess Tutu's plot.  The most surprising thing about it was the lack of major plot twists.  They told us from the earliest episodes what would happen: Tutu returns the shards, Prince fights Crow, the story ends happily.  Drosselmeyer isn't reinterpreted as the good guy, the Crow isn't secretly a tragic figure.  But what makes the plot different are the small wrinkles thrown in along the way:
  • Tutu doesn't end up with Myuuto as his princess.  She reverts to a duck with no special powers.  I was confident that a way would be found to avoid her fate, that she would overcome her inability to confess her love and live happily ever after.  Instead she really does sacrifice her abilities, fulfilling her mission in spite of her fear, and ends with no regrets.  When reading others' comments I found many to regard this as a negative result, but I found it to be a very sincere conclusion to the anime.
  • Fakir's development was similarly surprising.  Most stories would resolve Fakir's plight by having him overcome this weakness and finding the courage to be a great knight.  Instead he finds out he really is a mediocre knight, and that his ability lies elsewhere.  Again like many of these modifications, it was simple but unexpected in light of traditional stories.
  • The events of the story are actually being written by Drosselmeyer, a character within that story.  While the story is intelligible without this aspect, it neatly explains why some of the coincidences occur, such as why people are saved at the last second and how they never quite give up.

    One interesting effect of this storybook setting is how easily we overlook the strangeness of the animal people wandering around town.  When first confronted with them I was surprised, but when the characters didn't act surprised I simply assumed there was an explanation.  At the end the series draws your attention to this oddity, reminding you that this is not normal and that no explanation was ever offered.  In short, it uses our own suspension of disbelief to trick us into accepting something outrageous.  A small, but delightful, twist to be caught in as the viewer.
  • Tutu doesn't use violence in any way.  I'm not sure if this was a personal surprise, but when some of the interactions turned ugly I expected her to break out some sort of special magic or something.  But no, her only power is emotional comfort.  It was an aspect of her personality that made so much sense but it was so easy to expect something otherwise.
This gives a taste of how the practical execution of these small modifications on a traditional framework kept Princess Tutu recognizable but fresh at the same time.

The Bad:
If I had to level a criticism at Princess Tutu, it is that there were some aspects that were overused.  Through the entire series, all 26 episodes, they skip Tutu's transformation scene once (it is in the second to last episode; trust me, I was watching).  This obviously isn't a major sin, but it reflects the fact that at times Tutu's scenes are remarkably repetitive.

Initially the repeated approach of Tutu showing up, asking them to dance, and solving their problems was to be expected.  It lays the foundations so when things don't always follow that formula later it has more impact.  After these deviations the second half of the series returns to this pattern as the corrupted Myuuto tries to steal the hearts of various girls and Tutu must save them.  Unfortunately, these situations were nearly identical, evoking a sense of déjà vu as similar scenarios are rehashed.  Entire episodes dedicated to flower girl or love-letter-carrying girl were unnecessary and made the middle of the series drag.

There are also some times where I would have to criticize the use of stills, again as part of the repetition issue.  However, I don't judge the series to harshly for this.  It is merely something I noticed.

In closing, Princess Tutu is a series that I feel doesn't get nearly enough recognition.  It might not sound or look like much at first, but it dances circles around many flashier series.

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