One of the most widely fascinating but rarely explored themes of fiction is the idea of “Metafiction”, which is a form of fiction in which the text, through it’s narrative, visuals or characters, is “aware” that it is a form of fiction. It’s a pseudo-genre widely used in many mediums of entertainment, and certain projects along the years have become beacons of excellence in the exploration of this concept. Some examples are the subtly terrifying and bizarre House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Carpenter’s dizzying and world-ending film In The Mouth Of Madness, and Daniel Mullins’ underground mischievous masterpiece Pony Island, amongst others.
Specifically, though, I want to narrow down my net of reference and only focus on Japanese anime, seeing as there are a plethora of examples in other mediums while it remains relatively untouched, or at least, undiscovered, in the medium of animation. Also because this is an anime-centric blog. Deal with it.
What I mean by “Metafiction” in this case isn’t what some lowbrow, late night TV anime calls “meta”, taking place in the real world and featuring characters that watch anime (like OreImo, or Umaru-chan), or even shows that provide commentary on the medium of animation itself and it’s inner workings and dilemmas (like Shirobako or Girlish Number). Of this extremely specific section of the thematic spectrum, one show comes to mind, that utilizes the actual definition of metafiction as a concrete baseline for it’s theme and story: Princess Tutu.
*WARNING: SPOILERS BEYOND. WATCH THE SHOW BEFORE CONTINUING*
Princess Tutu is a story drenched in the nature of fairy tales and legends. Episodes begin with a short and ominous piece about a tragedy on some way or another, the major aesthetic of the show is ballet dancing and appropriate music, and the main villain of the story is the very writer of the show’s plot: A mysterious and blabbering madman/genius named Drosselmeyer, the most crucial piece in the puzzle.
Drosselmeyer impersonates the concept of a tragic ending. He is the metaphysical writer that has blanketed the town where the protagonists live inside of. It’s a hazy and foggy aura, as citizens are turned into anthropomorphized animals, select teenagers are hosts to powers beyond their control, and time itself has been tampered with in order to create the most beautiful tragedy ever conceived. This is Drosselmeyer’s masterpiece, The Prince and the Raven. And the character Princess Tutu herself is the catalyst for the tale that he wants to tell. (Here is Drosselmeyer’s complete fan-recreated story for reference. Read it before continuing.)
Tutu’s role in the story is one of brief but meaningful importance. She is meant to appear momentarily, cause en event, and subsequently die. She is by far the least present character in The Prince and the Raven. Despite this, her name is the title of the show itself. This subtle detail is to emphasize the idea that even the actions taken by the least prominent characters in a story can have unparalleled ramifications, and that they are characters in their own right, with their own story to go along with the one being told. Not to mention the final confrontation, as she and the then-useless knight Fakir (the two least narratively important characters in Drosselmeyer’s story, by the way) are the ones that persevere against fate itself to turn a tragedy into a happy ending. If that’s not subversive, I don’t know what is.
The story itself is about characters stuck in, and then breaking apart the realized ballet-inspired fantastical narrative of the antagonist, whom expresses curiosity about whether or not he himself is also part of a story at the end of the show. They are not only questioning their existence inside fiction, but the writer of that world is also questioning his fictional existence. It’s a double metafiction!
Princess Tutu also utilizes these ideas to weave together a greater theme of morality in fiction, debating whether or not the authors of such stories create tragedies out of morbid curiosity, a greater artistic purpose, or mere fetishistic obsession, much like Re:Creators (2017) lightly touches on in it’s more heartfelt conversations before turning back into a Fate knockoff.
I’m sorry, I just really have a problem with Re:Creators.
Anyway, all of this evidence is proof that Princess Tutu explores most, if not all of the avenues of metafiction, integrating them into the story through it’s characters, episodic scenarios and climaxes. It’s one of my favorite shows of all time for this reason. Oh, and also because it balances all of it’s contrasting tones (whimsical and melancholic) and atmospheres (bouncy and somber) perfectly, and because the episodic storylines all hold golden nuggets of romantic wisdom, are seamlessly integrated into the overarching narrative, and have an ending that is just the right combination of bitter and sweet.