The party line is this: Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight, originally serialized from 1953-56, transformed the shojo comic market in Japan. What was originally considered a minor, niche market for gag strips and didactic lectures on good behavior was turned almost overnight into a rich, vibrant genre. Still one of Tezuka’s most popular works, Princess Knight opened the doors for even more groundbreaking work, most notably from female creators like Moto Hagio, and its influence can be seen in more modern manga like Revolutionary Girl Utena. Indeed, Knight’s influence is so strong that Tezuka is often miscredited as having invented the entire shojo genre from scratch.
That’s quite a historical burden for any work of art to bear, let alone a 60-year-old comic, and certainly it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise if it turned out that Knight, in bridging the cultural and language divide after all these decades via a new two-volume release from Vertical, failed to live up to the hype. The good news is that Princess Knight remains a thrilling and at times exquisite fairy tale, if perhaps rather episodic and occasionally troubling in its gender politics. It’s also the most family-friendly of Tezuka’s books to be published in English thus far (and yes, I’m including Astro Boy in that assessment).
The book begins thusly: A young soul in heaven preparing to be born is accidentally given both a boy's and a girl’s “heart.” Born into a royal family, the young princess Sapphire must hide her true female gender and pretend to be a boy in order to inherit her throne. Although she grows to be skilled in several “male” pursuits, most notably fencing, she nonetheless feels at war with herself, and possesses a strong desire to indulge her female side, usually exemplified by wearing frilly dresses and picking flowers. Things are made all the more complicated when a) she falls for Prince Franz Charming from the kingdom next door, and b) the rival Duke Duralumin, aided by his crafty underling Baron Nylon, attempts to uncover and reveal Sapphire’s secret so that his own son can take over the throne.
At times it feels like Tezuka is running through a list of fairy tale checkpoints, as Sapphire gets turned into a swan, meets up with pirates, has her mother and friends turned to stone, becomes a Zorro-like crusader, enters a near-deathlike coma, loses her memory, and more, mashing up classic mythology, folklore, Disney and Christian motifs. There’s even a bit of Errol Flynn evoked in Sapphire’s various sword fights.
But Walt Disney and his animation empire is clearly Knight's greatest model. It’s well known how much Tezuka revered Disney and certainly that influence can be seen in the bulk of the latter’s work. But it has rarely loomed as large as it does here. Take, for instance, Madame Hell, an evil sorceress that is a direct rip off of the Malificent character from Sleeping Beauty (she even turns into a dragon at one point). The entire landscape abounds with cute, doe-eyed animals — Sapphire even comes across a group of helpful mice while imprisoned in a tower, echoing Cinderella. The entire style and design of the manga evokes the classic Disney style, right down to the little cottages in the woods.
Tezuka’s manga, at least most of what has been published in the U.S. thus far, has been problematic in its portrayal of women. Aggressive, especially sexually aggressive, women in his comics tend to either be evil temptresses (Zephyrus in Swallowing the Earth) or damaged goods (Reika in Ode to Kirihito). Conversely, most of the heroines tend to be virginal, demure innocents, seemingly incapable of fending off danger (Izumi in Ode).
And yet at the same time, Tezuka shows a clear interest in blurring gender roles — think of the androgynous robot Mitchy in Metropolis or the title character in Dororo. Many scholars and critics have argued that this interest stems from having attended performances by the all-female theatrical troupe Takarazuka Revue as a boy, and Princess Knight is generally regarded as a flat-out homage to that troupe. This, perhaps, is why Sapphire looks not so much androgynous as like a girl in drag. With her dainty figure it’s clear to the reader, if not the supporting cast, that Sapphire is a woman, male heart or no.
More troubling, perhaps, is what happens when Sapphire loses that “male heart.” In one sequence when it’s removed, she suddenly becomes demure and incapable of holding a sword. Then there’s the big Lysistrata-like battle between a pack of soldiers and their wives, who are trying to protect Sapphire from harm. The women win, but only by using unconventional weapons like frying pans and brooms instead of swords and shields. Eventually the men give in only because they don’t want to hurt their spouses and, it’s implied, they need someone to take care of the kids and do the washing. Even the book’s happy ending seems to suggest Sapphire throwing off her role of swashbuckling heroine for that of wife. The implication seems to be for all of the playing with gender roles Tezuka indulges in, at some point the proper status quo will and must assert itself.
Contrast that, however, with the character of Friebe, a swashbuckling noblewoman who unwittingly falls for Sapphire. An expert swordsman, Friebe clearly doesn’t need a man’s heart to defeat her competitors, nor does she seem to have any confusion about herself. Confident and comfortable in her own skin, she serves as a confounding counterbalance to some of the sexism presented in the comic.
If there’s a central theme in Princess Knight, however, it’s not that of sex roles but of parental expectations and filial duty, and how the characters challenge or outright rebel against it. Sapphire must hide her true self in order to fulfill her role as the heir to the throne. Prince Franz Charming is expected by his guardian uncle to marry a woman of appropriate social standing, which Franz himself has little interest in doing. Madame Hell desperately wants her daughter to become human, but the demonic teen balks at the idea and thwarts her mother’s plots repeatedly. Duke Duralumin spends the better part of the story grooming his son for the throne only to have outright reject the job and attempt to hand over the crown to Sapphire instead. No doubt this idea of rebelling against parental expectations carried a strong resonance in Japanese society at the time, where fulfilling the role society and family had laid out for you was of the utmost importance. I suspect it had some personal resonance for Tezuka as well, who perhaps had his own bit of family drama to deal with when he decided to abandon medicine for a career as a cartoonist.
Visually, Knight is a stunning achievement, like most of Tezuka’s manga, full of stunningly realized scenes and sweeping, detailed vistas. Although it was one of the master’s early works, it was reworked and redrawn several times and this Vertical edition is the officially revised 1977 version. As a result, it’s hard to talk about the book as far as Tezuka’s development as an artist since he was a seasoned pro at that point.
Up till now, Vertical has been content to release Tezuka’s grittier, more “adult” work, like Ayako. Princess Knight is the first really all-ages friendly manga of his they’ve released thus far (I’m not counting the “sex-ed for kids” work Apollo’s Song, sorry) and I hope it signals more to come down the road. Beyond its historical significance, and despite questions regarding it’s sexual politics, Knight remains a charming, captivating comic.