WARNING: As always, you shouldn’t read spoiler notes if you haven’t watched the series.
Questionable Religious Interpretations
In a show that is as filled with symbolism as this one, it is not surprising that we will see things that look like religious allegories. Not all of these are necessarily intended by the creators; some may just be the accidental consequences of dealing with universal themes.
This will seem obvious to most Western viewers. The Prince, who possesses a heart capable of loving everyone, represents Christ. Of course the Raven represents the Devil and the Raven’s blood is Original Sin. Naturally the Prince sacrifices himself to seal away the Raven, but is eventually resurrected.
So when Rue marries the Prince, does that mean she becomes a nun?
If you find that interpretation compelling, you should note that this works even better as a Manichean allegory. All of the symbols given above continue to work. In addition, Drosselmeyer is the Demiurge, managing the world he has created with a mixture of cruelty and incompetence. In the end he realizes that he may be just a character in someone else’s story.
Of course, Japan has few Christians and probably no Manicheans at all. In anime you are more likely to find Buddhist symbolism. We probably shouldn’t expect to find a complete allegory for Buddhist teachings, but we might well find some Buddhist ideas that are familiar to most Japanese.
In that case the Prince probably represents a bodhisattva who comes to the human world to relieve the people’s suffering. The Raven represents the ego, which Buddhists view as a kind of false consciousness that blinds us to the true nature of reality and keeps us trapped in a cycle of suffering, focused on illusory and harmful goals.
Continuing the analogy, the Prince’s heart, which can bind the Raven, would probably represent the teachings of the Buddha. The Raven covets the heart, but only as a source of power that will let him achieve immortality and world domination. He has no understanding of what it is really good for.
Drosselmeyer’s clockwork machinery represents the workings of karma (that is pretty standard anime symbolism). Ahiru can perceive Drosselmeyer and his machine only in moments when the gears stop turning. This represents a moment of insight (samadhi) into how the world really works. In one such moment she realizes that she is a puppet, thus perceiving that free will is mostly an illusion; most of the time our actions are controlled by the blind mechanical workings of karma.
Limitations of Religious Interpretations
While some of the religious symbolism may be intentional, it is probably impossible to fit all the story elements into a meaningful allegory for Buddhist theology (or Christian theology for that matter.) I strongly doubt that the writers intended any such thing, and to try to force the story into such a mold would deprive it of much of its value and charm.
More Conventional Interpretations
Ahiru is a duck. This can be taken symbolically to mean that she is an ordinary clumsy girl who wants to be a ballerina, but totally lacks the necessary talent. She can use a fragment of the Prince’s heart to become Princess Tutu, a sublime dancer. Presumably she could keep the pendant and enjoy a successful career, but this would only lead to tragedy. To succeed by means of a power that did not belong to her would mean the abandonment of her ideals and the triumph of the Raven.
In the end Ahiru accepts herself as she is, gives up her dream and settles for an ordinary life with an ordinary man. But this is not a story about giving up. The real point is that Ahiru always acts with total dedication and integrity. In the climactic scene her dancing, though awkward and unbeautiful, saves the townspeople through its sincerity. Ahiru’s story is mainly about being true to oneself, and not being tempted by illusory goals into self-betrayal.
It is a near-universal anime convention that heroes cannot succeed by themselves, but only with the help of their friends. Ahiru needs Fakir’s help, even invoking the old “let’s combine our powers” trope. However instead of combining into a super-dancer, Ahiru just relies on Fakir’s writing to inspire her to persevere and succeed.
Fakir’s story is somewhat similar. Born an ordinary human, he dreams of being a superhero (knight) with the power to protect the Prince. Realizing that the Prince cannot be protected that way, he eventually learns to use Drosselmeyer’s power to write stories that come true. However he is smart enough to realize that this power would probably end up causing him to become like Drosselmeyer. So he gives up the power, destroys Drosselmeyer’s machine and frees the town from the spell.
In the end we see him settling down as an ordinary man, resolved to write a story that will fill mankind with hope. Like Ahiru he has accepted himself as he is, but is determined to accomplish as much as he can without relying on magical assistance.
The Ahiru-Fakir relationship is complementary in an interesting way. Just as she needs his writing to inspire her, he cannot write anything without having her to inspire him.
Rue’s story is completely different from those of Ahiru and Fakir. She is born an ordinary human girl, suffers terribly and ends up becoming a fairy tale princess. In effect, she ceases to be human and ascends to another plane of existence.
(This is not necessarily a better ending for her. According to Buddhist tradition a god should not be considered more enviable than a human because human life, though full of suffering, offers more opportunity for spiritual advancement, while a god’s more pleasurable life incurs much greater risk of spiritual degeneration.)
Like all traditional fairy tale princesses, Rue succeeds not by heroics but by enduring years of unfair suffering without complaint, while ultimately preserving the purity of her heart. In America today this is no longer considered a good moral lesson for young girls, but apparently it remains popular in Japan.
Unlike most fairy tale princesses Rue does one thing that is very bad: she corrupts the Prince’s heart with the Raven’s blood. She does this without understanding the consequences, and she is motivated by love, albeit a selfish love.
Since the Prince’s heart has been corrupted by selfish love, he can only be saved by an act of unselfish love. Drosselmeyer’s plan for a tragic ending was that the pure-hearted Princess Tutu should save him by declaring her love, which would cause her to vanish.
Instead Rue saves him when she manages to free herself from the Raven’s corruption, declares her love for him and offers to die in his place. This is Rue’s one heroic moment. At every other point in the story she is either doing the wrong thing or waiting passively to be rescued, in the usual manner of a princess.
Edel is an interesting character. She is a puppet, but not in the sense that everyone in the town is Drosselmeyer’s puppet. She is an Artificial Intelligence, sentient but lacking a heart. (The word kokoro means both “heart” and “soul”; the two concepts are closely linked in Japanese.)
Though she lacks a heart, she resolves to act as if she had one, probably not really understanding what that means. After she sacrifices herself to save Fakir she is reborn as Uzura, who does have a heart. Uzura has none of Edel’s memories, but Edel’s spirit continues to exist–as Uzura’s heart. (I won’t attempt to match that to any standard religious doctrine.)
I’m a bit reluctant to include this section for fear of ruining the story for some viewers, but I can’t in good conscience let it go unmentioned.
Rue (bad version)
Suppose we treat do not Rue’s story as a Buddhist parable about the bad effects of ego, and instead try to evaluate it as if it were a real-world relationship.
- Kraehe is raised by an emotionally abusive father.
- She seeks out a boyfriend who is emotionally unavailable.
- He starts showing interest in another girl.
- She responds by becoming more possessive.
- He starts to become emotionally abusive, just like her father.
- Then he starts acting self-destructively.
- At this point she demonstrates that she really does truly and unselfishly love him.
- As a result he turns into a perfect lover and marries her.
Clearly there’s some potentially bad advice hidden in here.
Now to be fair, I’m ignoring many crucial elements of the story. By being just as selective you could probably do the same kind of nasty deconstruction on the majority of traditional fairy tales. Still, it does seem possible that under some circumstances this story could be a bad influence.
I guess the bottom line is that you should never, never use fairy tales as a guide for real life.