It’s been 20 years since Princess Tutu, which means it’s been over 28 years since its first draft, and many more decades since Ikuko Itoh picked up the interests that would lead to it. Let’s take this anniversary as an opportunity to retell the long history of this lengthy production, and how a personal distraction and her relationship with Junichi Sato led to anime’s most unique, rebellious, and emotive series about the act of storytelling.
There is no denying that Ikuko Itoh’s claim to fame is her work across Sailor Moon. It’s always worth noting that a storied career like hers, spanning over 4 decades and featuring key contributions to all sorts of interesting titles, deserves more than being reduced to one single title she left behind ages ago. And yet, the truth is that not all shows are created equal, and her first major role in this industry just so happened to be the most major of them all. Itoh only had experience as a supervisor in 5 productions prior to taking up the job, but not only did she become a central figure in Sailor Moon’s adaptation, she arguably became the face of its animation. Decades later, it’s still her style that immediately pops up in the collective imagination of the fandom when prompted about Sailor Moon—and that’s a position of honor she wasn’t really meant to have, but rather one that she earned on her own.
In the project’s inception, the very transformative adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s designs was in the hands of then Studio Live-affiliated Kazuko Tadano, who also stuck around to act as an animation director for a couple of seasons. Now it’s important to remember that, as we recently noted, the attitude towards the role of Animation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element. and the expectations of stylistic homogeneity were completely different in the 90s than they are now. Like its luckiest peers, Sailor Moon benefited from a rotation of talented supervisors with unrepressed, uniquely charming styles of their own. And among them all, Itoh’s versatile excellence was quick to win everyone over, gradually raising her standing until she reached the very top. Over Sailor Moon’s first couple of years, Itoh progressed from just another animation director to one expected to supervise pivotal moments; and even if they weren’t, she’d make them shine as such. By the time of the third season, and with Tadano being phased out, Itoh was nominated as the chief animator of the show. And in her fourth and final season, she got crowned as the new character designer.
In retrospect, Itoh’s friendly takeover of the show’s visual identity is no surprise. For as much as we’ve praised the visual diversity that Sailor Moon owed to the freedom granted to each supervisor, it’s astonishing to look back on just how many of its greatest visual gags were directly penned by her; be it her Key Animation (原画, genga): These artists draw the pivotal moments within the animation, basically defining the motion without actually completing the cut. The anime industry is known for allowing these individual artists lots of room to express their own style., corrections, or deliberate inaction as supervisor, memorable executions of gags from the storyboards and adlibs alike. Although it’s reductive to pin down the charm of an entire show’s animation to a single person, Itoh gets close to justifying that with her iconic comedic style, which enamored both fans and her peers. Her output simply embodies people’s idea of Sailor Moon’s loose and expressive animation, because it came to define it in the first place.
While that’s what she’s best known for, it’s far from her only major contribution to the show. Itoh also increased the gravitas like no one else with her gorgeous, dramatic art, was extremely efficient in action scenarios thanks to her sharp effects and striking compositions, and even became a regular presence in the show’s stock footage. Even outside the screen itself, many memorable snapshots of Sailor Moon can be directly traced back to her—including the iconic Laser Disc cover art. There is a reason that her name broke through the relative anonymity that animators can rarely escape, and is spoken in the same tones as Yutaka Nakamura and Naotoshi Shida: individual animators who don’t lead any production on paper, but whose dazzling style and crucial role in mainstream titles has caught the attention of audiences way beyond dedicated animation fans.
When we look back at major successes of the past like Itoh’s history with Sailor Moon, there is a natural tendency to romanticize them, but pretending everything was perfect will never paint the full picture. The planets did align to some degree: the climate was perfect for individual animation directors with a strong personality to rise up, and Itoh’s—admittedly quite wide—skillset was tailor-made for Sailor Moon’s range of expression, as even Takeuchi’s melodramatic storytelling left room for visual goofs. That said, there were points of friction as you’ll encounter in any production, starting with something as basic as the way the studio itself operated. Itoh found Toei Animation’s strict limitation to 2,500 animation sheets—a practice they’ve maintained across the years, although raising the limit and being less aggressive in its enforcement—to be fundamentally incompatible with a lively, action-packed series like Sailor Moon. To address that and live up to their own standards, animators like her would have to go off the record and do things like in-betweening their own scenes, greatly reducing the evidence that they spent more resources than the studio wanted to. While their massive success earned them some leeway in the end, it’s no surprise that Itoh was open to moving on to other jobs before Sailor Moon was done for good, be it less demanding styles or projects at different studios altogether.
Another major contribution of Itoh was the Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime's visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. More of Sailor Moon R’s opening, which she also provided lots of key animation for. By the second season of the show, she had already grown into a major asset of the production.
Itoh’s next major gig was a request from an acquaintance from Bikkuri-man, World Fairy Tale Series, and of course Sailor Moon: the one and only Junichi Sato. A chance to handle one’s first wholly original designs alongside a reputable director on his way to becoming a legend is not one that anyone would pass on, but as Itoh has acknowledged in multiple interviews, she really struggled with the job. After all, it was her first attempt to envision entirely new characters for someone else, so it took her a while to grasp the quirky, energetic vibe that SatoJun was going for. That arduous process made Itoh ask something to herself: if she were the one calling the shots, what would she go for? While trying to get her actual job done, Itoh would doodle concepts based on her own passions. For one, she’d always had a habit of listening to classical music while drawing, so that had to be part of it. In addition to that, an important childhood memory of hers was having to imagine what ballet narratives were all about, since her dad wasn’t able to answer all the questions she would bombard him with while listening to music—and that was another element locked in. A name popped up in her head in the midst of these personal brainstorming sessions: Princess Tutu.
As you’d imagine, Itoh’s coworkers caught wind of these distractions that she would keep on her desk. Their reaction was mostly supportive, insisting that there really was potential to her ideas, but there were two major caveats; one, that it was an extremely vague concept, and two, that moral support alone does not lead to ideas becoming realities. While some did wish her luck, it was the type of blessing that implies that you will need that luck, and that they were not the ones to provide it. Time did prove them right, as it would take nearly a decade for Itoh to turn those promising ideas into a complete TV show. Fortunately for her, the various struggles she went through weren’t enough to stall her career, which still progressed nicely within that span of time. SatoJun’s request manifested into Mahou Tsukai Tai! / Magic User’s Club, a series of OVAs and subsequent TV show that embodied the exuberant qualities Itoh had exhibited in Sailor Moon; if anything, her work was even more refined, adding a delicacy to it that people remember to this day. Itoh was a leading voice in other projects as well, such as Yukio Kaizawa’s wildly underrated Fun Fun Pharmacy—a lovely show that, similarly to contemporaries like Ojamajo Doremi, brought back some of the majokko charm in an era of action magical girls.
But what about Itoh’s passion project, then? Her pitches underwent many major revisions and redesigns before finally becoming something that satisfied both creators and investors; and even once they got to that point, its tale evolved in a way that already greenlit anime projects rarely ever do. The first known iteration of Itoh’s pitch can be traced back to mere months after she began absentmindedly doodling, still in the year 1994—which is to say, 8 years before the eventual broadcast of Princess Tutu. As highlighted in various disc releases, her first vision already contained familiar elements for everyone who has seen the series, as a ballet series based on Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Her sketches at the time already showed Princess Tutu and a dark alter ego, as well as characters with cartoony bird personas.
Truth to be told, though, the general feel of those early ideas was completely different from the work they eventually created. Its initial setting was Japan as well as the world of Balleriland, a fantastical place the protagonist would be able to access once the old clock in her home struck midnight. Her tale, as the daughter of a ballet studio household, was headed in another direction as well. And, perhaps most importantly, the intended tone was completely different: Princess Tutu was meant to be a pure gag comedy, which is not the way anyone would define the show as it was eventually broadcast.
Don’t get me wrong, Princess Tutu did not end up becoming a humorless series. If anything, one of its greatest strengths is how fundamentally amusing its moment-to-moment delivery is. SatoJun’s surrealism and fundamentally sound comedic timing is acknowledged by greats such as Kunihiko Ikuhara, and through its very long design process, Itoh refined a perfectly balanced style; slender designs befitting the elegance that ballet demands, but also quick to deform into silly noodles and loose smears. Add to that their excellent grasp of posing and cartoony expression, present in his storyboards and even more so in her execution, and you’ve got a show that is often bound to put a smile on your face. That said, the finished work uses this charm to counterbalance a heavy, poignant, and often dark story, so it’s hard to say that this early version really resembles it despite some recognizable elements.
Itoh jokingly admitted that one of the reasons she gave up on this comedic angle was the 1996 release of Mitsuru Hongo’s Crayon Shin-chan: Adventure in Henderland, which included a ballet routine so ridiculous that she couldn’t really top it with a similar approach.
While trying to settle on a general direction, Itoh’s designs underwent many revisions. Its cast initially appeared much younger, and even as the general aesthetic was already more or less defined, the protagonist herself took a long time to reach her final form; up until the year 2000 she went through all sorts of pigtailed looks, though once Itoh settled on her final appearance, it barely took any revisions from that draft to the design sheets. By that point, some major changes had already happened. It was around 1997 that she began drawing from the influences that would define the main themes of the show. Princess Tutu’s unique mix of fairy tales and ballet pieces started as she overlapped Swan Lake with The Ugly Duckling, imagining a story where a duck would helplessly long for a sullen prince, falling for a dubious figure promising a way to reach him—none other than Drosselmeyer, playing a similar role to his character in The Nutcracker. Princess Tutu’s constant intertwining of fictional pieces with its own realities had already started.
When it came to defining the show’s final identity, though, the biggest event came the following year. SatoJun, who had been the coworker who’d taken Itoh’s pitches the most seriously, joined her for good in 1998. Together they would form the dual pillar at the center of the creative process; she would continue to come up with concepts, and he would refine them into a narrative with the help of series composer Michiko Yokote, finding the common threads in the pieces of Itoh’s imagination and as they said themselves, piecing together a puzzle.
SatoJun also brought with him an attitude that the whole team would share: Princess Tutu was meant to be a challenge to its creators—not in the sense that they would make the job more miserable on purpose, but rather that they deliberately put themselves in a position of trying new, perhaps scary tasks. Itoh had of course already been doing this since the start, because for as sweet as it sounds to get a fully original work of yours animated, she was someone with no storytelling experience suddenly entrusted to create the foundation for a serialized commercial work. For SatoJun, this challenge was to direct a rather somber work unlike the bright titles he was known for, admitting that he fought against his instincts—and Itoh’s inflexible refusal—to make it more comedic and light.
The musical and ballet themes also implied challenges of their own, forcing the team to figure out unique workflows. Rather than having a straightforward choice of background music, the episodes were built around pieces chosen during the scenario stage according to their themes and messages. The script would be written accordingly, and when it came to storyboarding, the inclusion of long, uninterrupted ballet pieces forced SatoJun to readjust events and dialogue to fit the music, again disrupting the usual order of operations. Things wouldn’t be much easier when it came to animating the show. Co-series director Shougo Koumoto, the last member of the core team to arrive and unfortunately the one with the implied role of the level-headed one in an eccentric crew, had to face a shocking truth as they started animating the series. Despite being such a big fan of ballet, Itoh had no real technical knowledge about it, so they had to completely wing it for the show’s animated pilot. To prevent that mess from derailing the show itself, staff members actually took ballet lessons, and also recorded all sorts of reference footage to boost the authenticity of the show. There really was no end to the new challenges.
Besides fostering that adventurous attitude, as well as acting as a reliable centerpiece in the production, SatoJun’s greatest contribution was granting Princess Tutu the intentionality that served as the connective tissue for Itoh’s isolated ideas. He stated that his goal was simple: a return to the origins of storytelling. While understanding why we tend to establish narrative structures—in his point of view kishoutenketsu, while western readers would refer to a three-act structure—he felt that those rules inevitably stifle the power of fiction. Princess Tutu became an attempt to recapture that precious capriciousness of storytelling, the oral tradition of parents making up stories to entertain their children without worrying about how stories are supposed to be, of stories as a living being that constantly evolves and laughs in the face of structural coherence.
The reason why we emphasized the background of this work, besides all the interesting trivia and the likes of Itoh really deserving the praise, is that this is the point where Princess Tutu’s production circumstances become inseparable from the show itself. It’s a series about storytelling informed by the staff’s experience in telling this story, continuing to make adjustments as they went in a way that commercial anime with a script completed beforehand can’t afford to; hard to change those habits, when the production was preceded of so many years of preparation where changes to refine their ideas were the norm.
Princess Tutu became the story of a duck, not a misunderstood swan but a quacking bird, fighting against her role in a story both as a metatextual tragic heroine and a helpless bird, and rebelling against expected narrative structures and genre conventions—just like her creators did. Ahiru’s quest to restore the heart of Mytho, the emotionless prince she fell in love with, was drafted by a god-like authorial figure who interprets the rules of storytelling in the cruelest way possible. Even when she achieves a positive goal, she finds herself questioning her agency; and again, how could she not, in a world that blurs the line between reality and fiction, between person and character, after her own role was rewritten multiple times before Princess Tutu even existed? The show and the long struggle to make, the in-universe myth, and the character herself: these are all Princess Tutu, so you can’t really separate them. Even the show’s visual delivery revels in the artifice of storytelling, down to using dated page-turning effects as scene transitions.
For as interesting as its rebellion against storytelling practices is, especially how that intersects with Itoh’s ideas and the quest to get unique this show made, it’s worth noting that this is not the source of Princess Tutu’s emotional resonance. It’s once this bold approach becomes the vehicle for more universal statements, still under the theme of the power of narratives, that the show also hits on an emotive level. Fortunately, its thesis about storytelling goes hand in hand with its desire to tell a compelling character story, and naturally leads to its kind messages.
Many early episodes already highlight that the morality of a story is inseparable from the perspective that frames it, which gets across beautifully through the heightened subjectivity of the storyboarding; most notably, in moments such as that very oppressive first look into the world of the supposed rival and in-story villain, Rue. And yet, within a seemingly standard magical girl confrontation of the week setup, the compassionate protagonist grows to understand those rather than impose her truth. The constant fight against the roles imposed on character archetypes makes for compelling drama, and also has a very obvious reading not to let ourselves be constrained by societal expectations—so screw you, Drosselmeyer.
In the end, there’s nothing quite like Princess Tutu out there. A very casual and personal pitch was stuck in pre-production limbo for many years, with all the issues we’ve detailed and then some; for one, there’s also the fact that some producers intended them to shift what they’d always envisioned as a show for girls to enjoy into something more aimed at guys. While all those struggles aren’t something to celebrate, this team led by Ikuko Itoh and Junichi Sato turned them into fuel for their bold disruption of storytelling and anime production practices. Situations like this happened quite literally all the way through Princess Tutu‘s existence. As older viewers might remember, that includes the second arc of the show being delivered in a bizarre fashion on TV; the greed of its committee leader Starchild led to its original TV slot reconverting into a half-length once meant to fit twice as many shows, with the slight problem that the pivot happened while they were broadcasting full-length titles they had to chop in half. And that’s how Princess Tutu, a 26 episodes show, aired for 38 weeks—culminating a decade of unusual happenings that feel as if a higher power was obsessed with making this story about telling stories as transgressive as possible. Given the team’s goals, that does sound like a smashing success!
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