Tuesday, December 11, 2012

I like characters to fight their story

I finished watching the anime Princess Tutu the other day, and it made me a bit more aware of what exactly I love about my favourite anime (and possibly favourite serialized work overall), Revolutionary Girl Utena. Princess Tutu is about a town that has fallen halfway into the world of stories, with the main story called The Prince and the Raven. The prince could only trap the (obviously evil, as ravens are) raven by using his own heart, leaving it scattered in the town. So the prince lives, devoid of almost all emotions, protected by his knight from the story (doomed to die at the claws of the raven), and with the raven's daughter hovering around him, looking to claim his love. You know, a fairy-tale. Into this story comes a brave duck who wants to help the prince so much that she's turned into a girl to be able to do it, as well as getting the powers of ballet, as so commonly happens.
More to the point, the story of Princess Tutu revolves around how set in stone a story is. The main antagonist in Princess Tutu isn't necessarily the raven, but the storyteller whose influence still shines through in every part of the town. The characters try to break free from the confines of the tragedy that the storyteller has made for them, especially the knight in finding a new purpose after having avoided a glorious death. It's about characters refusing to be defined by a story and roles others have written for them, whether consciously or not. In Princess Tutu, however, unlike Revolutionary Girl Utena, the story is a bit more straightforward; we know that the antagonist is the storyteller (who is a character himself, after all), at the end the characters hew quite closely to the roles they were supposed to play, having only replaced the storyteller with a more benevolent writer, and it's more the story that has been challenged, rather than what happens in Utena.
With the ending of Revolutionary Girl Utena, what is challenged is more completely the roles and archetypes that the characters are assigned by the story as it's "meant" to be told. There's no official storyteller who believes himself to be in total control, it's understood by the main players that Utena, for instance, has agency, but they believe that in the end she, and everyone else, must conform to the roles set. As a viewer, you are also led to believe that Utena should be the prince of the tale, with her princess and enemy (the evil one, the witch), and that's what you're supposed to root for. It's quite brilliant when the most visible antagonists use the approach of trying to get Utena to be their princess to defeat her, putting them as the prince and turning Utena's princess into a witch (since there can be only one princess, after all). Revolutionary Girl Utena uses the core concepts, the brave prince, the beautiful princess, and the evil witch, of fairy-tales, but doesn't otherwise use fairy tales as much as Princess Tutu, yet manages to thoroughly penetrate the problems of these archetypes when applied to characters who are multi-faceted. And in the end, instead of more or less going with the brave prince rescuing a princess, Revolutionary Girl Utena manages to deliver a message that what's wrong is not if the wrong person wins, but that limiting ourselves to roles and archetypes is what should be fought to the last breath. And that's what I love more than anything.

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