Anime Fairy Tales: Fighting Fate and Convention

Curator's Note

Many anime series and films utilize fantastic generic structures which feature magic, alternate worlds, heroes, heroines, princes and princesses, to varying degrees. For this theme week, I decided to go back to one of my favorite shoujo titles which plays most clearly with typical “Western” fairytale structures. Princess Tutu is one of many anime series which feature a magical girl heroine in a seemingly normal high school setting that actually obscures dark secrets and alternate realities of the attendees’ real identities.

Ahiru (meaning duck), is a duck in love with prince who has lost his emotions and memories. Ahiru makes a wish to be near her love, and through Drosselmeyer, a doomed storyteller with magical powers, she becomes magical-girl-cum-prima-ballerina, Princess Tutu. It is soon revealed that Drosselmeyer has trapped all the characters in a storybook tragedy. The players resist their former roles and struggle against what seems to be inevitable. Princess Tutu is the only one who can enact real change, using selfless love and determination to fight the doomed fates of those around her.

Each episode begins, “mukashi, mukashi,” or “long ago,” and each episode is themed with orchestral pieces from famous ballets. Clearly the premise is a playful perversion of Swan Lake, but the show also touches on Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, The Nutcracker, and others. In the beginning, Duck/Tutu’s primary opponents are the dark princess Rue and Mytho’s bodyguard, Fakir, who both hold secrets as to the role they play in Mytho's shattered heart and thus his tragic ending. Ahiru/Tutu can never be with her prince and knows her time as a human is only temporary, so how will she defeat the curse? (Watch it! It’s on Hulu.)

I especially appreciate this series for inverting the prince/princess structure of who saves who, featuring a girl heroine who takes up the mantle of active savior for herself and those she loves. Princess Tutu even goes one step further and inverts the typical fairy tale happy ending. Semi-spoiler: As the audience takes leave of our favorite little fowl her future is unknown, but there is the hint of a possible new story and a new love.


Hi Amanda! Thanks for the post! It's been forever since I've seen Princess Tutu, so my question for you is a bit more generally about fairy tales and anime and manga. Thinking about Princess Tutu, as well as any other anime series and/or films and manga, what do you think about how fairy tales work as transcultural objects? They get passed around and adapted and tweaked to fit cultural expectations over time, and I'm curious about how you think Japanese media has done with this lore from other countries (like its use of shoujo tropes in Tutu), and whether we see many exchanges of Japanese lore and fairy tales in non-Japanese media.

i think it's safe to say that fairytales spring up in their original contexts as national and cultural touchstones for morals/lessons, etc. so the appropriation into another national context always brings interesting readings. this week was really difficult because "fairytale" can be read as a very specifically Western (Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson) connotation, and while there are plenty of outright adaptation of Western fairytales in anime (anyone remember Grimm's Fairytale Classics on Nickelodeon?) I wanted to choose something that played with these more classically Western tropes but brings a new face to it.

When Once Upon a Time began airing my first reaction was that it was very similar to the premise of Princess Tutu (and maybe even Revolutionary Girl Utena--which I almost wrote about but the story is sooo complex it necessitated more than 350 words!). I think its fair to say in anime the use of fairytale fantasy is often geared towards shoujo audiences. Fairytale rhetoric such as "Prince" and "Princess" get appropriated even into "slice of life" anime where a beautiful/talented/genius person in high school is referred to as such by the rest of the student body. Whereas more folk/fairytale can be for any audience, really.

Anime is such an elastic medium that it can allow for reality and fantasy to coincide in parallel worlds with the minimum of suspension of disbelief, if that makes sense, which just makes it all the more fun to see. In Princess Tutu, Ahiru takes ballet lessons from a giant cat in her "reality," so there's that. The fantastic thing about so many anime is that it isn't hindered by any boundaries, so fairytales and folklore adapt well, with the added ability of twisting, updating or bending for modern audiences.

Of all the Japanese "lore," the only thing I can seem to think of  that gets used, in the U.S. at least, are ninjas--which have a real basis in Japanese history, but have become more mythic in scope since, esp to Western audiences. TMNT, turtle power!

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