Page 45 Review by Stephen
"Once upon a time, I dreamt I was a butterfly. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man..."
It remains to be seen whether that famous, quizzical, open-minded perspective - quoted halfway through this first beautiful blizzard - carries any pertinence to the proceedings whatsoever, but if in any chaotic doubt, quote someone profound: it looks ever so impressive.
This too looks ever so impressive from cover to cover and the first three sky-bright, green-grass pages will have young eyes hooked. It's all exceedingly Hayao Miyazaki, isn't it? Those landscapes are lush!
It is quite evidently Spring, with pink cherry blossom blowing on the breeze before being buffeted further, almost psycho-kinetically, by Tutu's first temper tantrum. Upon her second outburst at the position she has found herself in - away from home, her potential return coming only at a cost - those feathery flakes are then joined in the cerulean splendour by a cloud of radiant white butterflies on some elusive, migratory path. This isn't accidental, but it is all quite, quite magical.
I love that the three-page sequence begins looking up from the verdant meadow as if kneeling (c.f. Monet's 'Woman With The Parasol') with majestic, snow-capped mountains rising in the distance under breathless, billowing clouds, and concludes in gazing down into the valley town whither she and her talking cat must evidently, so reluctantly return and such is the delicate detail that it almost demands a double-page spread of its own:
A clean and crisp island citadel surrounded by deep blue water, joined by bridges to its adjacent concentric rings and other outlying areas, all encompassed by more glacial mountains but, in between, similarly sweet Spring pastures.
Six months earlier, and what Tutu has accidentally tumbled into instead is a city, albeit extraordinary, which lies gripped under a bizarre dictatorship and in an eons-old winter, whose consequent, insatiable demands for heat energy has enslaved so much of its population to a daily grind of, umm... hamster-handling.
I'm not even kidding you.
Earlier that day, on a bright winter's morning:
"Hurry up, children. Today we're going to explore outside..."
Out into the snow dash a dozen children lead by their teacher. They are excited! Strangely, they have left Tutu behind. She emerges from her comfy bed in the shared dormitory (evidently this is a boarding school) to dress and discover that the only occupants left are the cooks.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! A whole day of freedom! Finally!"
And out into the snowscape strides Tutu too. Except that an un-forecasted storm suddenly closes in, the teacher finally thinks to do a head-count (because you always do that halfway through your field trip, don't you?) and Tutu who's solo is lost in the freezing-cold gale and wanders into that previously undiscovered town.
It's an odd place indeed, populated by hostile, anthropomorphic animals which don't appear to like little girls, not one jot. Ugly little girls aren't allowed to have names, and they're certainly not allowed out at night. They aren't actually allowed, basically. And no one, it seems, likes strangers.
"Just what do you have against people who aren't from here?"
"Well... they're not from here, right?"
"Yes, that's it! They're not from here!"
Possibly the finest creation here, these are the Emperor's Secret Police, initially arriving to arrest her. Ears flopping all over the place, they're a bumbling bunch of albino rabbits which reappear over and over again to cause chaos wherever they go. Conversational and kindly, but largely clueless, they take her to court whereupon Tutu is billeted with a maternal budgerigar who is immediately on hand to meet and greet her and put her to bed. It is, at least, a very efficient care system!
The next morning she's promptly pushed out on the street and told to work at The Factory. What Tutu isn't told, in this archetypal lost-dream scenario, is how to get there, but it's here that the Secret Police begin to come into their own because they're the least Secret Police of all time! Sent by the Emperor to spy on her, they instead break cover continually to help Tutu catch the right bus or boat on her way while trying to keep tabs on what she might be up to.
Most of the townsfolk remain far from friendly, scattering from the bus in horror, but a giant panda - himself on his way to work - is on hand to introduce Tutu to her new daily routine. Unlike the rest of this candy-like city, the industrial waterways are a grim, smog- and soot-clogged nightmare. This is odd, given that the whole system is powered organically by hamsters running frantically in tiny, treadmill wheels. It's a bit barbaric, to be sure, but there's no carbon or coal being burned, so why all the smoke? From an environmental viewpoint, it's ecologically ideal, while its distribution system seems to be a stream of self-powering, air-borne Chinese lanterns.
If you haven't yet twigged then, beyond the beauty, I am having a fair few problems here.
In my review of Joe Todd-Stanton's excellent ARTHUR AND THE GOLDEN ROPE I opined that "In every all-ages / young-readers' great graphic novel there must be certain things present including wit, rules and exploration for eyes." Rules can be broken - they almost demand to be broken - but without establishing these boundaries first, dramatic tension quickly dissipates.
And I can see that the chaos of this city brings with it the most unexpected delights - you never know what to expect in this endless series of odd interventions! - but so much here does not add up. The only rule that seems to apply here is that Tutu needs to sleep every night in her bed (and so dream of Spring) but she doesn't appear to need to eat: everything offered is so revolting that I don't think she's eaten for a week.
I think I've figured out the environmental conceit: the lost butterflies which Tutu's been charged with finding and why this city is in perpetual winter. I think it's something similar to Daishu Ma's silent graphic novel LEAF but I could be wrong.
Look, this is lovely. It's pretty. There's certainly no lack of exploration for eyes. I like that the city looks like Bratislava with all its candy-coloured domiciles and exceedingly hostile inhabitants. (Trust me: I've been there.) I love that the Budgie's house is built around a living tree topped with a giant nest, and that bath time at Mrs B's comes with bog-eyed, sentient suds. I adore that some of the civilians are automatons - one a bipedal gas lamp in a raincoat and hat.
But in this first of four parts at least, it lacks a certain degree of grist and that vital credibility needed to ground the otherwise fantastical. Still, first of four parts: hopefully the second will give me good cause to eat, then rewrite my words.