Magical Bird Maidens: Reconsidering Romantic Fairy Tales in Japanese Popular Culture

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Fairy-tales and romantic ballet have a prominent relationship with the material culture concerning girls' lives. Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake (1877), with its alleged influences from fairy-tales and folklores such as Russian The White Duck, is an epitome of such an association. With the cascades of white gauzy ballet dresses and lithe movements symbolizing the binary of swan/maidens, the fairy-tale-inspired ballet embodies an ideal mode of feminine beauty that still holds a currency today. Because of their association with 'princess culture', often accused of imposing the ideology of heteroromantic love, an unhealthy body image, and asymmetrical gender roles onto their main, female consumers, both ballet and fairy-tale-inspired fictions have been subjected to criticism. As a consequence, many such texts and their cultural significances in our contemporary culture are yet to receive adequate scholarly attention. By focusing on the nexus of fairy-tales and ballet in Japanese culture, this paper proposes another reading. Princess Tutu (2002-3) is an anime series that employs aspects of fairy-tale texts, including Ugly Duckling, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake. Particular attention is paid to two parallel narratives of transformation upon which the anime draws; from an animal to a human-its heroine as a duck transformed into a girl, and her beautiful friend/enemy as a 'daughter of crows', rather than victimized maidens cursed into being beautiful creatures as in conventional fairy-tales; and from a human to a magical ballerina heroine. Rather than simply thrusting on the (hetero)romantic ideology and capitalizing on the audiences' desire for makeover, Princess Tutu, I argue, attempts to draw a serious analysis of the romantic fairy-tale genre. Does it exemplify the idea that depictions of female characters are much more diverse in Japanese popular culture than in its Euro-American counterparts? Will it gainsay the common criticism of fairy-tales as primarily endorsing (hetero)romantic ideologies?
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