Ikuko Itoh’s Princess Tutu, which aired in Japan from August 2002 to May 2003, is a lesser-known yet widely praised addition to the mahou shoujo genre. The series pays tribute to various classic ballets and fairy tales, such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, while simultaneously weaving a new fairy tale-like story that upends gender roles and rejects the archetypal tragic narrative found in most ballet. In doing so, Princess Tutu embraces feminist ideals of individual freedom, rebellion against archaic tradition, and the construction of a new, more liberating society.
Spoilers: Detailed discussion of the entire Princess Tutu series.
Princess Tutu tells the story of Ahiru (or “Duck” in the official English translation), who, in her desire to save the lonely prince Mytho, is turned into a young girl by the enigmatic wizard Drosselmeyer. He also gifts her with the ability to become the magical ballerina, Princess Tutu. Using the power of dance and love, Princess Tutu can seek out Mytho’s shattered heart pieces, which were scattered after a battle with an evil raven, and return them to him.
From the beginning, the story is set up as a gendered reversal of the stereotypical fairy tale, presenting a young girl who must go on a quest to save a prince. Additionally, Princess Tutu reverses the setup of Swan Lake, as it’s not a girl who’s cursed to become an animal, but an animal who’s gifted with the ability to become a human. This places Ahiru in a much more empowered position than Odette in Swan Lake, as she transforms first from a physically weaker form (duck) to a stronger form (human girl) and finally into a magically powered form (Princess Tutu). She is not a victim under a curse, but an active agent in her tale.
Nevertheless, Ahiru’s transformation, and the gender-reversal that it signifies, still plays into the dialectics of tragedy. In fact, Drosselmeyer’s goal in empowering Ahiru is simply to let her succeed for a while so that her fall is all the more tragic. As the story progresses, we learn that Drosselmeyer is actually a famous deceased fairy tale author (a la the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen) who has reached out from beyond the grave in order to complete the story he failed to finish before his death.
To achieve his goal, Drosselmeyer gives Ahiru her powers and manipulates the actions of many of the other characters in the series. He plans to have Ahiru fall in love with the Prince, try her hardest to save him, and then fall into despair when she turns back into a duck and Mytho loses to the Raven—thus creating a “beautiful tragedy” along the lines of Swan Like or Romeo and Juliet. To Drosselmeyer, Ahiru and her friends are merely puppets created to act out his script and entertain him with their suffering.
However, Ahiru refuses to fall into her fate so readily. She consistently undermines Drosselmeyer’s imposed narrative as she develops friendships with the other characters and fights for a better future for them all. One of the most obvious ways in which she rejects her fate is in her love for Rue, a.k.a. Princess Kraehe, Mytho’s girlfriend and Ahiru’s supposed “rival” for his affections.
Drosselmeyer tries to create a sort of Madonna/Whore dichotomy between the two women, setting them against each other in both the quest for Mytho’s heart pieces and his love. Ahiru transforms into the beautiful, white-clad, benevolent Princess Tutu, while Rue eventually discovers her alternate identity as Princess Kraehe: a sexily dressed, black-clad crow who wants to possess Mythos and keep him from recovering his entire heart.
In Episode 13, the conflict between the two women reaches a crescendo as Tutu and Kraehe dance-battle for Mytho’s love, with Tutu eventually coming out on top. The episode ends with Tutu and Mytho sharing a romantic dance together, Tutu seeming to have “won” the affections of her Prince.
The second half of the series quickly shatters this supposed “happy ending,” though, as we learn that Mytho has been infected with raven’s blood, which will slowly turn him into an evil raven. As a result, Mytho joins Rue’s side and the two of them try to revive the Raven King.
Ahiru, of course, once again works to rescue the Prince—but she also works to help Rue, whom she believes can be saved from her fate as the evil crow princess. Ahiru has never viewed Rue as a rival for Mytho’s affections; even at the start of the series, she admires Rue and wishes to befriend her. As such, Ahiru doesn’t try to “defeat” Rue/Kraehe, but rather save her along with Mytho. Like Mytho, she loves Rue, and considers her a precious friend.
Drosselmeyer largely ignores Ahiru’s desire and, in his asides to the audience and his discussions with Ahiru, continues to act as if the two girls view each other as rivals and Rue’s evil actions are a result of her evil nature instead of the narrative that he’s imposed on her. But in doing so, he doesn’t notice that Rue has also come to see Ahiru as a friend, which leaves her conflicted about both her fight with Ahiru and her own feelings for Mytho.
Rue eventually chooses to defy her (adopted) father, sacrificing herself to the Raven King in Mytho’s place. Her actions reverse the effects of the Raven’s Blood and restore Mytho to his princely self. In the end, it’s the “villainous woman” who truly saves the prince, thus undermining her archetypical role and destroying the dichotomy between the two princesses. Additionally, because it was Ahiru’s friendship (in addition to her love for Mytho) that helped Rue reject her role in Drosselmeyer’s narrative, Princess Tutu shows that female friendships are just as important and potentially redemptive as heterosexual romance.
Ahiru continues to defy Drosselmeyer’s narrative in her relationship with Fakir, Mytho’s best friend and the reincarnation of the knight in the story Drosselmeyer is forcibly recreating. As the story progresses and Fakir overcomes his fears of death and failure, becoming a hero in his own right, he and Akiru join forces to save Mytho, forming an equal partnership based on mutual respect.
Along the way, Fakir learns that he’s actually a descendant of Drosselmeyer who similarly has the ability to make stories come to life. Fakir uses this ability to aid Ahiru in her struggles, finding the necessary inspiration in her courage and tenacity to help him write a proper ending for the story.
Fakir and Ahiru take turns saving each other using their respective abilities—Ahiru saves Fakir from an oak tree and a secret cult, while Fakir rescues Ahiru when she becomes trapped as Drosselmeyer’s puppet. Later, Fakir and Ahiru team up to save the town from the Raven King when he awakens, with Ahiru taking the more active/masculine-coded role as she faces down the raven-morphed townspeople while Fakir stays at home and gives her the additional power she needs through his writing. Fakir and Ahiru not only defy traditional gender roles in this scene, but destroy the hierarchical relationship between the two roles, as both work in tandem in order to defy Drosselmeyer’s tragic ending and save the day.
Ahiru and Fakir’s equal relationship is further illustrated by their final dance together at the bottom of the lake, where the series at last depicts Ahiru as her dance partner’s equal. Before this scene, Ahiru always struggled as a ballerina when not transformed into Princess Tutu—in her previous dances with Rue, Mytho, and Fakir, she took a passive role and let her partner lead and control her movements.
In this scene, however, Ahiru is finally able to match her partner step-by-step as they dance the pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet, demonstrating that she’s finally found her equal in Fakir. The ideal couple in Princess Tutu is not the Prince and his savior, but the two partners who support and strengthen one another in order to fulfill their goals.
In the end, the Raven King is defeated, Drosselmeyer leaves, and the characters are freed from his restrictive narrative. Rue and Mytho return as a couple to the world of the story, while Fakir and Ahiru, who has turned back into a duck, remain in the real world. To some, the ending may appear bittersweet—Ahiru’s ballet friends have forgotten her, and she and Fakir are forever separated from their beloved Mytho and Rue. However, I’d argue that this conclusion is more realistic and therefore far more satisfying, as it wisely acknowledges the hardships that come with liberation. As Fakir notes in Episode 25: “Everyone is scared of returning to their true selves… because they’re used to being given roles in stories.”
The roles society imposes on us—whether they’re based in gender, class, nationality, or something else—can seem comforting in their familiarity. Yet, as Princess Tutu demonstrates, such imposed roles keep us trapped in harmful narratives and at the mercy of outside forces. Princess Tutu demands that we resist our prescribed roles and narratives and work towards self- and communal-liberation. Although the journey may seem hard, and the results not immediately comforting, it is still healthier, and perhaps more “human,” to live a life according to one’s own feelings rather than simply submitting to the expectations of a larger narrative.
Or, as the catchphrase of the show promises: “May those who accept their fate be granted happiness… may those who defy it be granted glory.”