Princess Knight, Vol. 1
By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, 340 pp.
From the fine folks at Vertical comes another classic courtesy of Osamu Tezuka, Princess Knight! Often credited as the first ever shojuo manga, it tells the tale of Sapphire, a young princess born with two hearts, one male the other female. Forced to hide her true gender in an effort to stave off the attempts of an evil Duke Duralumin from inheriting her fathers throne, Princess Knight shows her trials and tribulations.
I’ve generally enjoyed all of the Tezuka releases I’ve read so far but I was a little hesitant about this going into it. The basic premise of two hearts and how each one instills a different set of gender specific attributes seems problematic to my slightly liberal and open sensibilities and, quite frankly, it is. There are moments in the volume where I couldn’t help but roll my eyes and groan out loud as Sapphire’s story played up the roll of the hearts to reinforce concepts of traditional gender roles and traits. There are moments in the story were certain characters knock the idea of traditional gender roles, including a moment where some people complain about the idea that only a male can rule a kingdom, but these brief moments of lip service are overwhelmed and quashed by such moments as Sapphire losing her male heart and becoming a scared, simpering, helpless “woman”. There is a whole raft of questions that the idea of the hearts brings to mind as well. For example, if a “female” heart is weak and helpless while the “male” heart is brave and strong, then what about the cowardly villains? Which heart do they have? In fairness to Tezuka this was written in the 50s and 60s so you shouldn’t exactly be looking for progressive and challenging ideas that smash the traditional concept of gender roles, but it’s still a bit disheartening at times nonetheless. Thankfully most of the story ignores the concepts of the hearts and simply plays Sapphire as a bit of a tomboy forced to hide her true gender due to the pressures of her kingdoms traditions and society. With that in mind the book reads pretty well and is surprisingly charming, whimsical and fun. Sapphire rolls from one bizarre situation and challenge to another, ranging from Duke Duralumin’s conspiracies to unseat her, to the machinations of a demon intent on gaining her “female” heart for her daughter, to a clash with pirates and more. At times the idea of the two hearts seems to play a minimal part in things while at other times it’s hugely important and crucial. Throughout the book there’s also a second underlying theme of a generational clash. The demons daughter wants nothing to do with the “female” heart and would be quite happy to continue being her tomboyish self and Sapphire’s love interest, a prince from a neighboring kingdom, clashes with his father over his interest in Saphhire’s wig wearing “female” alter ego. It’s something I’d like to see played up in the second volume.
Tezuka’s art is charming in it’s cartoonish ways and is incredibly easy to follow. On occasion he plays with the idea of movement and borders, featuring characters literally smashing through panel borders and more. Still, there’s something about the art that feels a bit more simplistic then what I remember in Black Jack or Dororo but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It just feels a bit more stripped down and streamlined than usual I guess. That said it’s still fun and interesting to look at and it fits the light hearted tone of the story perfectly. In addition the characters are all instantly recognizable from one another through both their looks and mannerisms and while that’s something that’s to expected with Tezuka it’s still something I enjoy and appreciate about the artwork and is something that both American and Japanese contemporary comic artists could stand to use more often.
In the end Princess Knight is surprisingly charming despite some incredibly uncomfortable and questionable moments with regards to traditional gender roles and the traits one usually associates with them. Since it’s so short, only two volumes, I’m pretty interested in getting my hands on the second volume and seeing where Tezuka takes the whole story and how it all resolves itself.
Princess Knight, Vol. 1 is available now from Vertical.