October 4th, 2007

Bluezula always lies

Princess Tutu? More Like Ballet Ballet Revolution!

About a month ago, hobviously (Tris) and latropita (Tropie) suddenly got very into this anime series I had never heard of called Princess Tutu. Tris described it thusly:
- at least three or four levels of nesting doll stories-within-stories
- draws from A) ballet and B) fairy tales
- both intensely meta and intricately plot-driven
- put in a blender and braided like whoa
- garnish with a generous dollop of wtf

Omg epic fairy taley Swan Lakey vaguely lesbonic mythological philosophical existential structural thematic narrative clusterfuck featuring a hot raven-black swan villainess future member of the Susan Pevensie Club For Awesome Girls — my brain hasn't gotten such a workout from fiction in a long, long time.
Now, initially, I received this input into my brain, and the output was: blah blah blah anime ballet ballet ballet anime. Yeeeeah, I think the whole "ballet" thing put me off at first, like the football in Friday Night Lights. Looking back, however, I think this description, when not being discounted on the presence of ballet, is very apt and should be enough in and of itself to recommend the series. Besides, I knew almost nothing about the series before I watched, and that was fun. But let us continue anyway.

What hooked me was her second post, in which she described it as a "story about stories," and...you know I love that shit. I am no ballet junkie, so the aspect I love about the series is the fact that it's a meta-fairy tale about fairy tales.

The basic premise of the series is laid out in the prologues to the first two episodes (each episode begins with a prologue that summarizes a fairy tale, always ending on a dark note or question that sets the theme for the episode): once upon a time (they all begin this way, of course), there was man named Drosselmeyer (named after the character from The Nutcracker) who wrote stories. One of his stories, "The Prince and the Raven," was unfinished when he died. So the raven escaped from the story, and the prince chased after him, finally sealing him away with a forbidden power by breaking his own heart into many pieces. This magic has thrown Kinkan, the setting of our tale, way out of whack, and now some of the old fairy tales have a tendency to come true.

Here, however, is the kicker: although Drosselmeyer died...he still appears to be monitoring his story. In some of my favorite parts (due to the juicy meta goodness), we cut to Drosselmeyer watching the story in a world full of gears, and he comments on the direction on the story is taking, usually rejoicing in the pain the characters are going through, because he loves a good tragedy. It gets better, though: Drosselmeyer sometimes interferes with the story to make sure it goes the way it's "supposed" to.

In fact, that's how the series begins. Drosselmeyer kicks the whole plot into gear by granting the wish of a duck to make a boy smile. Yes, the main character is a duck. It's awesome. This is anime. Roll with it. Anyway, he turns her into a girl named Ahiru (which means "duck" in Japanese) enrolled in the same ballet school as Mytho (pronounced "Myuto"), the boy who won't smile.

It's hard to talk about the characters without spoiling, since a lot of who the characters are is wrapped up in who they are, if you get my drift. You probably don't. I can talk about Ahiru, though. Ahiru is totally cute and extremely hyper in the way that anime girls often are. But she is also the titular Princess Tutu! And she gets the obligatory anime-transformation scene every episode, usually highlighted and perhaps even instigated by Drosselmeyer himself.

Here is the thing about the show: Princess Tutu FIGHTS WITH DANCING. She dances ballet with her opponents in order to understand their feelings. It's so not Dragonball Z.

Another character I can talk about in a non-spoilery way is Neko-sensei. Neko means "cat" in Japanese. And Neko-sensei is, in fact, a cat. A cat who teaches ballet. And in one of the most consistently amusing running gags I have ever seen, he constantly threatens his students that if they do poorly, THEY WILL HAVE TO MARRY HIM!!! What makes the gag work is every time he gets all het up about marriage, they play Mendelssohn's "Wedding March."

Which makes a nice segue into the use of music. Now, as I said, I'm no ballet junkie, but I was still familiar with a lot of the music they used. They pull from a variety of ballets and operas musically and thematically, including but not limited to the following: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, La Sylphide, Scheherazade, Coppelia, Carmen, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Bartered Bride, and Ruslan and Ludmilla. Each episode features one musical piece in particular and highlights it throughout the episode; one episode even awesomely features Danse Macabre. The musical selection is always appropriate to the story being told. So, the music rocks, clearly.

There's also quite a bit of ballet, but it never overwhelms the story. This is my "Don't avoid this because you don't care about ballet" paragraph.

But I was never in it for the ballet. I was in it for the story. The story about stories. And just for me, they threw in a generous dose of Identity Issues and Being True to Yourself and REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE SIMBA. And this is a series that gets better and better with every episode, basically, because it can't help but not. Each new installment enriches the story and carries it forward as it builds. Complications arise, and Drosselmeyer rejoices. The first season appears to come to a pretty sound conclusion of the tale, and then the second season pulls the rug out from under the narrative. Drosselmeyer constantly comments on the progress of the story and what roles each of the characters has. Is this one truly the protagonist? Is this one truly the villain? It's good fun.

Now, with a metatextual delight such as this in which the audience is made to view the characters in the story as characters in a story, I was waiting for the moment to arise when they would just smash the fourth wall to holy hell, and I would like to take this sentence to assure you: it totally fucking happens omg. As Tris says, "Stranger Than Fiction WOULD BE Princess Tutu if it were animated, set in weirdo Germany, and replaced taxes with ballet."

My experience watching Princess Tutu was very similar to my experience reading American Gods. For most of the run, I was enjoying it quite a bit (I started this Saturday, you guys, and I'm already done) and really liking it (it at least had more of a defined plot than American Gods), but I wasn't in mad squeeful love. Some of it was pretty repetitive, with each episode leading to a pretty standard Tutu confrontation of some sort. But then the end of the series was just so amazingly awesome that it retroactively awesometized everything that came before it, just on principle. This was a meticulously crafted story after all; how could I properly judge it until it came to an end?

That ought to do it, don't you think? If you can deal with anime, this is totally one worth checking out, as it appears to be far from typical and is apparently well known for subverting common anime tropes, not that I'm familiar with most of them. Someone on Wikipedia says one character is "one of the most complex characters ever"..."[i]n anime terms." If you can't deal with anime...this is still worth checking out because it's an example of the awesome things anime can do that you just don't find in traditional animation. Seriously, do Americans score their episodes with ballet music? Hell, one of the climactic moments in the finale just would not work anywhere else, and it's practically the climax of the entire series. If I told you what it was right now, you would laugh your ass off, but in the context of the show, it's awesome and perfect and works so beautifully.

Princess Tutu is a mere 26 half-hour episodes (though the second season has its episodes split in two), and you can find them all on Veoh or find a torrent. Fansubs are love.

If you do not check out this show, YOU WILL HAVE TO MARRY ME!!!