Ay me! for aught that I could ever read,
Could ever hear by tale or history,
The course of true love never did run smooth;
– Lysander, A Midsummer Night’s Tale, Act 1, scene 1, 132–140
After finishing the last of my finals, I took the liberty of marathoning a popular TV show called Once Upon A Time a couple of months back. The premise revolves around a town named Storybrooke and its residents – all whom happen to be characters from various fairytales, such as Pinnochio, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan, and so on. Storybrooke is (quite literally) shrouded in a place of mystery as these characters attempt to live out their magical counterparts but also struggle with living in a normal realm where magic doesn’t exist. While cheesy and often badly acted out, Once Upon A Time at many times chooses to focus on these characters’ ultimate goal of attaining happiness, whether that happiness is preemptively written into their own story or not. What happens is not just the clash and reversal of good versus evil as moral ambiguity comes into effect, but also the personal story of a hero attempting to fight their own written fate.
Princess Tutu reminds me of a similar concept. It holds its place firmly tied between two worlds: a Shakespearean one, well versed in theatrics and themes, and a fairytale one, in setup and configuration. Connecting the two is the thread of magic and surreality, allowing us to immerse ourselves fully within the mysterious plot of character versus author, fate versus freedom, and selfishness versus altruism.
The very beginning of Tutu hints strongly of a fairytale existing within a fairytale. The narrator verses the history of a writer and his unfinished story like the beginning of any storybook: starting with “Once upon a time…”. We’re then introduced to a stage, that like Storybrooke, is frozen in time, skewed by the whims of its inhabitants, and is at the mercy of the writer himself, an impulsive character that intrudes whenever and wherever he finds convenient. In the world that Ahiru lives in, little is known about where or what time she lives in – she just does. Our world as an audience is limited by her perspective. We see a garden, a ballet academy, and a strange little forest outside, but that’s all we really know of the setting of the story. Time does not exist in this place. Night and day come and go in moments; the time and space continuum is even manipulated, as we flash forward and backward in Ahiru’s life to see how she transforms from a duck to a girl.
If the setting isn’t enough to imply that Ahiru lives amongst fairytales, if not in one, then the show secures its place with absolute surreality by introducing characters that aren’t human. Ahiru’s ballet teacher is a cat that threatens to marry whomever disobeys. The Author is a man that for some reason or the other, decides to have a certain flamboyant aesthetic while carrying a goofy set of eyes. From the get go, Princess Tutu makes it very clear that its world isn’t just fictional – it is a place that defies logic and goes against the flow of time.
But what of our main character? Ahiru is a duck who is plucked from a pond in a battle to defy fate. Why her? Surely there are other characters that could have been chosen. Princess Tutu shows that our heroine who, unluckily picked by an impulsive creator, and at his own amusement, is placed into a story that has no beginning nor end. She fits the typical hero in a fairytale – unchosen yet driven by a certain need, while possessing unremarkable traits. After all, Ahiru is often pointed out throughout the first episode that she is not the smartest, the most beautiful, the most graceful. She is a duck, and ducks are populous, common, and lowly. Our minds thus instantly link her plight with the story of the Ugly Duckling, or the tale of the underdog and his transformation into the most beautiful and talented of swans. Ahiru’s transformation into the swan-like and graceful Princess Tutu suggests the same. From there, we can gather that Ahiru’s transformation will obviously lead to victory and a happy ending. It’s an easy connection, and yet I feel doubtful; it’s too easy, especially when Princess Tutu sets itself up so perfectly to that of a fairytale that I cannot help but wonder if Ahiru is Princess Odete of Swan Lake – the tragic heroine whose love is her ultimate undoing.
In this sense, the story seems to follow a more sinister and tragic undercurrent of Shakespearean dynamics. If we compare her to Odete, Ahriru embodies all the typical traits of a typical Shakesperean Tragic Hero. She is kind, humble, determined, faithful, friendly, and easily manipulated. We could say the same with the Prince, who is emotionless and yet possessed by a virtue to save others, at the expense of putting his own life in danger. His honor remains intact despite lacking his personality (perhaps a reference to Henry IV?) Fakir at first appearance seems selfish, impatient, and controlling, while Rea seems mysterious, sensual and no doubt extremely clever (as she seems to represent the Raven). One thing these characters all seem to share in common however, is the firm belief that whatever they are doing is right and for their own (and perhaps others’) good – a theme that was prevalent in The Tempest, which used magic to convey storytelling. The show offers us little to chomp on otherwise but no doubt plans to invert these stereotypes later on (just as The Tempest did).
Tutu seems to mirror other Shakesperean elements too, especially from A Midnight Summer’s Dream, which like The Tempest, firmly relies on magic as a wheel for its themes about love. In order to believe in love, you must believe in magic. This is not to say that love holds no substantial meaning – on the contrary, in both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Princess Tutu, the story seems to suggest that love is as powerful as magic – a belief that can overtake the real and turn it into the most surreal dream. It eludes, it transforms, it captivates, it brings fruit to new beginnings – just like an imagination, or a fairy tale. Love cannot be measured by numerical terms. It can however, transform reality into a dream itself, as Titania falls in love with Bottom so suddenly that to her from that point onward, everything becomes a dream. Much in the same way, the minute Ahiru recognizes that she was originally a duck, but throws that reasoning away and accepts that for her, the Prince is all that matters, her love transforms her into the swan-like Princess Tutu, capable of saving Mythos with dance.
It is empathy, in the end, that saves Mythos, regardless of which element it comes from – Shakesperean or fairytale. However, that same empathy comes with the blissful naivety. The Ugly Duckling after all, was naive, and often taken advantage of by his peers. So were Caliban and Titania. The question is – will Ahiru be able to overcome these manipulations and transform into the Swan needed to write her (and her friends’) happy endings? Or is tragedy imminent for all of our characters as they already have predetermined fates?