Plot: Ahiru (or Duck) is, well, an actual duck who wished to be a human girl when she fell in love with the lonely and handsome Mytho who danced by her lake. She was granted her wish by the mysterious Drosselymeyer, and given the power to transform into Princess Tutu, a magical girl who saves the day through dance. It turns out Mytho was an actual prince who had escaped from within his story when the author died, and sacrificed his heart to seal away his enemy. It is up to Princess Tutu to save Mytho by gathering the shards of his heart and restoring it. Her obstacles include Mytho’s controlling friend Fakir and closed-off girlfriend Rue, neither of whom think it is right for Mytho to regain his emotions.
Princess Tutu should be noted for it’s massive character development and dark deconstruction of fairy tales. It heavily incorportates both literary themes and themes of classic ballet into its storyline and the characters often act out their conflicts through ballet dancing. It deconstructs the nature of storytelling itself.
Women and Gender: Princess Tutu features a female hero and protagonist, as well as following the character arc of other female characters and focusing on their relationships with each other. Fairy Tale/Classic Ballet Gender roles tend to be subverted, the most obvious one being the princess as the protector and savior of the Distressed Dude prince. A big theme of Princess Tutu is agency and reclaiming it, and since a lot of the characters struggling to reclaim their agency happen to be female, there’s obviously a bit of a feminist component to that metaphor.
Ahiru or Duck is the hero of the story. She’s like the Swan Princess/other ballet heroines if they actually got to do stuff- she subverts a lot of tropes those heroines suffer from. Like a lot magical girls, she’s a clumsy girl with low self-esteem as a civilian, which is only magnified by her actually being a duck which she feels is inferior to humans. She struggles a lot with her identity: is the real her a duck, a girl, or Princess Tutu? She tends to feel unworthy. So though the impetus for her journey is to help Mytho and she tends to focus on him at first, her journey becomes one of struggling with accepting herself. The story’s interpretation of this journey as it goes on is fairly subversive of the typical moral, especially if you contrast it to the Ugly Duckling and Swan Lake where it obviously draws inspiration from.
Ahiru also obviously rescues distressed dudes practically every episode, taking the active hero role often denied women while the guys around her take up the role of damsel in distress. Ahiru struggles to reclaim her agency and defy the role she was given by the storyteller, which obviously parallels a larger feminist theme of women defying the roles they were forced into by men (especially since the storyteller appears to be an old white guy).
She also fulfills common magical girl theme of wielding her femininity as source of power rather than being restricted and shamed for it. Tutu rarely fights, but rather dances with her opponents and draws their true feelings out of them. She wins the day by relating to her tortured enemies and bonding with them, making them see it her way and reconsider the root of their problems. While the “chick” power of empathy usually condemns a woman to the ineffectual background, Tutu’s method is shown to be FAR more effective than the swordfighting and violence methods of rescue other characters employ. It’s not sacharine either, Tutu has to enact her method with an iron will and unshakable skill, and it ends up revealing some nasty things and sometimes gets Tutu pretty beat up in the process. Also she does some impressive midair rescues and dance moves.
Finally, Ahiru is a very strong proponent of female friendship and looking out for other women. She and Rue want the same guy, but Ahiru never once tries to undermine or resent Rue for this. In fact, quite the opposite- Ahiru deeply loves Rue and admires her (to the point it becomes quite shippy), despite Rue’s occasional coldness. She wishes nothing more for Rue to be happy and often encourages Rue in regards to Mytho (this is partly because she feels she is unworthy, but there’s no denying she does value Rue and doesn’t mind her relationship with Mytho). She never stops trying to help Rue, no matter what Rue does to her and always supports her. She is also friends with Edel in all identities, and encourages Edel in similar ways.
Rue is the Black Swan to Ahiru’s White Swan- she fulfills a lot of the tropes of Femme Fatales- jealous, aggressive, wears a plunging neckline costume and lots of black- but the fact that she’s played as a complex and sympathetic character averts this trope. Rue’s insecurities are incredibly similar to Ahiru’s- she also has very low self esteem and considers herself unworthy, she just covers it up with being a haughty ice queen. She is terrified of losing love/never being loved. Male forces around her exploit her insecurity and confusion and force her into a specific role. She struggles with it in the same way Ahiru does, and it is clear that some small part of her does reciprocate Ahiru’s affections to some extent. Rue’s character arc is as much about agency, reclaiming who you are and accepting yourself as Ahiru’s is, and it’s a really good one. I think people will find it subversive.
Edel is a puppet created by Drosselmeyer. She believes she can only follow his orders as an object. However, Ahiru insists otherwise, and Edel’s friendship with Ahiru inspires her to struggle against her role as well. Obvs there’s feminist themes there, with a female friendship allowing a woman to fight being a man’s puppet.
Other female characters pop up throughout the story, and Ahiru is always supportive and helpful to them, and often helps them break out of roles they are forced into.
As for the guys of the story, they tend to get rescued and protected (or helplessly kidnapped) by the ladies- and their character arcs tend to involve them becoming better as they get in touch with their emotions, and one arc specifically involves the guy learning that his “masculine” methods aren’t really getting anywhere and opting for another method with the help of Ahiru. The guys also learn to love respective ladies as whole and equal people, flaws and all.
Race and Culture: It’s impossible to know what the race of the characters are supposed to be, though the town gives off a sort of German vibe. Fakir is the slightest bit darker than the others and it’s been speculated because of that and his name he’s Middle Eastern- I believe the author has denied he’s from the Middle East but conceded he might have some Middle Eastern heritage. He’s a good character. Ahiru’s friend Pike is noticeably darker than the others, though I don’t know what race she’s supposed to be. She’s the more sensible and supportive of Ahiru’s two friends.
LGBTQ: No relationships beyond subtext, though gayness is alluded to a few times and not derided. When Ahiru lands in the arms of an attractive older woman, she blushes heavily and all the girls squeal about how lucky Ahiru is- “being held like a Princess by that woman!”- clearly crushing. Lilie, who had just been accusing Ahiru of two timing with Mytho and Fakir, loudly declares that Ahiru is now “three timing!” Also, Mytho ends up (somewhat unintentionally?) making an “I love you” sign to bishounen parody Femio, sending all the girls into an excited tizzy.
Disability: None that I can recall- too bad, it would have been interesting in such a ballet driven setting.
Size and Weight: Not much to speak of, if I recall correctly- all of the main characters are the archetypal whippet thin ballet dancers. A lot of the animal characters are obviously big and bulky (and in Anteaterina’s case, she is struggling because of this and Ahiru helps her love and accept herself) and Uzura could be a slightly chubby little girl, though I can’t tell if I think that only because of her balloon pants. Nothing significant, though.
Awesome Things: This anime that subverts the hell out of classic fairytales and the roles the character are assigned. Several fascinating themes are bought up, played with and turned inside out for the better. Forget “Black Swan”, this is the best deconstruction of classic ballet and best use of the archetypes of Swan Lake you’ll ever find- especially since it really challenged to prince/princess, good girl/bad girl and black swan/white swan dichotomies in a REAL way. It’s focused on the nature of stories and reclaiming agency, which is awesome. It plays with a lot of tropes and shows a lot of research and thought went into it. It’s quirky and philosophical and dark. The characters are well defined and developed, and they often don’t develop in the way you expect. Ahiru is adorable, Fakir and Rue have great arcs and Mytho…likes not wearing pants. The ballet is incorporated well, and the animation is pretty nice. One of my top ten animes, for sure. Also, Ahiru sometimes gets naked, but never feels particularly sexualized to me, which is quite a feat. I felt the character arcs were incredibly subversive and well done. I liked the conclusion and how it played with the conventional fairy tale ending.
Trigger Warning: The character act in a pretty abusive way towards each other at times, especially Fakir towards Mytho at first (he completely acts like an abusive boyfriend), though it’s always presented as bad. There’s a part where Rue’s naked transformation looks VERY painful, and some other slightly sexual violence, mostly with Mytho as the victim (example: when he is kidnapped and then shown naked on a pile of crow feathers with Princess Kraehe on top of him, his eyes blank and totally shut down). Be also prepared for tales of people being ripped in half and having their hands cut off, one character coming very close to getting their hands cut off, and someone stabbing their own hand. Dark psychological themes in general.
Seriously, watch this anime. It’s super good, you won’t regret it. Don’t read the manga that was adapted from it, apparently that’s not so great. I’d also suggest the sub, I found the dub pretty grating, and I liked how Ahiru really had a quack-y raspy quality to her voice in the Japanese version.