by Osamu Tezuka; adapted by Maya Rosewood
published by Vertical; $13.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Because of a mischievous angel, Princess Sapphire is born with two hearts: a boy’s heart and a girl’s heart. In the realm of Silverland, only males may become rulers. Since Sapphire is the King’s only child, she’s raised as a boy. Her boyish heart allows her to excel at fencing and other ‘manly’ activities. Her girlish heart and body wishes she could admit to being a girl, so she can wear dresses and go to dances.
Lurking in the shadows is Duke Duralumin, who wants his son to be king. He suspects that Sapphire is really a girl and sends his henchman, Sir Nylon, to discover the truth. However, Sapphire and the royal household are too clever to fall for Sir Nylon’s schemes. The Duke’s desperation for the throne leads him to plot the murder of Sapphire. And that’s just the opening chapters of Sapphire’s incredible adventures.
Princess Knight is Tezuka’s love letter to Disney and Western literature. Everything from the artwork to the characters to the plot reads like an epic fairy-tale adventure. Here are just a few of the references I found in this book: the Disney films Cinderella, Snow White, and Pinocchio, William Tell, Captain Blood, Hamlet, and Swan Lake. It’s fun to watch Tezuka weave these influences together to create a rich and cohesive tapestry.
The art is Tezuka at his most Disneyesque. The character designs remind me most of the “Pastoral Symphony” section of Fantasia. It’s a cutesy realism. There are some breathtaking panels and splash pages. As with all his works, you can just flip through the book and get a sense of the story. Tezuka believed in having the visuals tell the story more than dialogue or narration, and he pulls out all his cinematic techniques in this manga.
While the book has one continuous storyline, it’s told in a very episodic manner. Each narrative arc within the greater story feels like a different story genre, which keeps the series exciting. We start out with royal intrigue and romance, then move into the adventures of a masked crusader for justice. Next is a fairy tale complete with an evil witch, and finally, swashbuckling adventures on the high seas. The book is a roller coaster, constantly delivering thrills at each turn.
If Astro Boy is the superhero who is seemingly perfect, then Sapphire is the very human hero with frailties. She can be a fierce swordswoman one minute and a hapless damsel the next. She is kind, loyal, and pure of hearts (remember she has two). She struggles to determine what the right thing to do is. She even wrestles with understanding herself and who she wants to be.
At first glance, it appears Tezuka is asserting traditional gender roles. In Sapphire, it seems only one heart may be active at a time. While her boy heart holds sway, she is one of the finest swordsmen in the country. If her girl heart takes control, she is barely able to defend herself. However, it’s all the same person, Sapphire.
Looking more closely, we discover that Sapphire is not responding to which heart is more dominant. Whether she realizes it or not, both hearts are equally active all the time. Instead, Sapphire is acting as the people around her perceive her. If she is seen as a boy, then she is able to be strong and fierce. If she is seen as a girl, then she is frail and submissive. Tezuka is critiquing the false dichotomy that society creates among male and female. Sapphire needs to learn to be true to herself and not let others dictate who she is or what she can do.
It’s this message of gender equality that’s the secret to Princess Knight’s appeal. Tezuka is telling girls that they have the potential to be what they want. The only limits women have are the ones they place upon themselves. Helen McCarthy mentions the influence of the Takarazuka Revue. Perhaps it’s a lesson he learned while watching the female actors portraying men and women equally. He saw women being kings, warriors, fathers, princesses, maids, and mothers. As a young boy, seeing women be anyone on the stage shaped his belief they could be anyone in real life.
As Helen McCarthy points out, Princess Knight is one of the most influential shoujo manga of all time. It inspired series like Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Tezuka has created a gripping story that is almost impossible to put down. When the book is over, you’re left anxiously waiting for volume two. It’s truly a masterpiece. With its pseudo-European setting and numerous references to Western literature, Princess Knight is Tezuka’s most accessible work for American readers. This is a master of the comic genre at his peak. All comic fans owe it to themselves to read Princess Knight.