Princess Tutu is a 26-episode anime about ballet, fairy tales, and hope. It is metafictional like whoa, very peculiar, and not for everyone, but I ended up loving it, enough that it is a close second to Fullmetal Alchemist on my list of favorite shows.
Let me start with the premise. All of the episodes start with sepia drawings accompanied by a woman's narration. Here's the narration from the first episode:
Once upon a time, there was a man who died. The man's work was the writing and telling of stories. But he could not defy death.
The last story he was working on was about a brave and handsome prince who vanquishes a crafty raven. But now, it seems their battle will go on for eternity.
"I'm sick and tired of this," cried the raven.
"I'm sick and tired of this," cried the prince as well.
The raven escaped from the pages of the story, and the prince pursued the fell creature.
In the end, the prince took out his own heart and sealed the raven away by using a forbidden power.
Just then, a murmur came from somewhere. "This is great!" said the old man who was supposed to have died.
Which I thought, and still think, is fabulous.
And then, after the opening credits, the prince is dancing on water while a duck watches sadly, wishing that he would smile. The old man appears to her and turns her into a girl who is studying ballet at an arts school, where the prince is also a student. She turns back into a duck if she acts like one (see icon), but she also turns into Princess Tutu when there's need—principally when a shard of the prince's heart, shattered when the raven was sealed away, is nearby. Princess Tutu is another character from the story that the prince and the raven escaped from; she is fated to turn into a speck of light and vanish if she ever confesses her love to the prince.
That is just the briefest sketch of the plot, which develops in a number of interesting and unexpected ways over the series. Numerous ballets and fairy tales are referenced and rewritten (Swan Lake first and foremost), with a particular emphasis on subverting gender roles. The use of ballet and European classical music is very well done, at least judging by the extras and bits of online research. Even the choregraphy is sometimes allusive, at least judging by a post about episode 25 [spoilers, obviously].
(I wasn't spoiled at all for this show and I really enjoyed being taken places I didn't expect. I recommend strictly avoiding spoilers, and only put in that link for those who've seen the show.)
The revised fairy tales and ballets are implicitly metafictional, but the anime is also very explicitly metafictional, starting with its premise of characters breaking out of a story and extending all the way through the finale. The metafictional elements aren't merely a cute gimmick, but turn out to be central to the theme and plot. I referenced it a couple of times at the Worldcon metafiction panel and could have spent much, much more time talking about it.
Besides the chewy and fun plot, there's the characters. Duck [*] is adorable, but some other characters develop interesting backstories and surprising depth, shifting again and again over the course of the series. This is related to another thing to note about the series: it develops patterns only to break them. For instance, after the first disc (five episodes), I was finding the episode structure repetitive—and the next episode moved away from that repetition. The series as a whole strikes me as remarkably well-constructed: cohesive, consistent, and satisfyingly-paced. I had only a few minor plot questions at the end, and nothing that affect my overall opinion of, or satisfaction with, the series.
[*] Many fans refer to her as Ahiru, the untranslated Japanese word for duck. The producers of the U.S. DVDs decided to translate her name to reproduce the effect on Japanese viewers, and also because some dialogue wouldn't make sense otherwise.
The final reason why I love the series is also a reason it's not for everyone: it is utterly and unashamedly emotional. Almost every significant conflict is resolved through emotion, usually empathy expressed by dance, and by the finale, I realized that this is a show that doesn't just wear its heart on its sleeve, it parades it through town on a whole series of banners. I should note that there's also a fundamental core of common sense underlying it all, but nevertheless: very emotional. I loved it but I still half wanted to be embarrassed on its and my behalf.
The other major reason it's not for everyone is that it's very peculiar. It takes place in a town that's been warped by all the loose metafiction, and so, for instance, several characters are anthropomorphic animals. The most prominent is the ballet teacher, Mr. Cat, who threatens misbehaving students with marriage to him—which no-one seems to find as weird as they should. (It is apparently a Japanese folklore reference.)
And then there are the anime and shôjo conventions, such as exaggeratedly-simplified faces for strong emotion, characters being able to dance flowers into existence, and the entire "Magical Girl" concept. I would be reluctant to recommend this as a first anime, especially because the first few episodes are filled with slapstick. While the slapstick diminishes over time—and I think the darker side of the show is present from the beginning—I think that the genre conventions plus the peculiarity would make it a risky proposition. (I know it worked for at least one person; but I also know it didn't work for another, and Chad only watched the first two episodes.)
On the other hand, if visual realism is not particularly important, and if the description sounds interesting, it's definitely worth a try. As I said, the slapstick and the repetitiveness drop off sharply after the first DVD, and things keep getting more complicated throughout. I didn't really fall in love until the end, though I got steadily more involved as the series progressed.
The series is available through Netflix, and a box set is coming out at the end of November.
Questions? Comments from those who've seen it? (Remember: no spoilers, please.)