This review covers all volumes of Princess Knight.
Tezuka was not afraid to try anything. Alongside shounen, seinen, gekiga, political works, psychological, medical dramas, fantasy, and science fiction, he also published quaint shoujo adventures in the form of Princess Knight. The god of manga was prolific and bursting with schema-changing messages to impart to his readers. Who would not be thrilled to see what he had to say to little girls? Will Princess Knight be a revolutionary account of female strength? Will the heroine, Sapphire, prove emotionally robust, physically capable, clever, and quick-witted? Or will she be a bumbling wreck as girls usually are portrayed by both shounen and shoujo authors? Will her masculine garb be a cheap excuse for her uncharacteristic strength or will her transformation be a heartening message about how gender is as variable (albeit far more pervasive) as the clothes we throw on and off every day?
Well, I will admit to feeling a certain anti-climax upon closing the second and final volume of Vertical Comics’ pretty paperback edition. Between the glossy and elegantly minimalist covers are buried a series of whimsical plots that move in a direct beeline from trite conflicts to mundane resolutions. And though likeable enough, most of the characters remain strictly one-dimensional: the brave, handsome prince is brave and handsome; the ugly, evil usurper is ugly and evil. Casual manga fans will find Princess Knight unconvincing because the manga industry has simply grown up and moved on in terms of narrative and artistic style. Only the prepubescent or adult manga connoisseur appreciative of its historical context would see any inherent worth.
This is not the same as saying that there is nothing to take away from Princess Knight. It survives today as an antique laudable more for what it represents than what it delivers. Princess Knight offers an explicit challenge to sexism that is both surprising for its time and still rare even in today’s manga industry. But I agree to some extent with the blurb’s description of it as a ‘proto-feminist’ work, because, as the ‘proto’ suggests, Tezuka is not entirely successful. Princess Knight revolves around Princess Sapphire’s struggle against social forces keeping her from the throne, not least the law of the land which states that only males can rule. Here, Tezuka attempts a refreshingly frank argument that Sapphire’s sex should not prevent her taking the throne because that is illogical as well as morally corrupt.
But the reason Tezuka essentially fails to say what he means to say is that he accepts the strict binary gender divide. Sapphire possesses two hearts through divine accident, a boy heart and a girl heart. While she has the boy heart, she can fight with a sword, ride horses well, and is brave and fearless. When she loses the boy heart, she becomes a noodle-limbed victim, swooning and sighing for someone to save her. By portraying her as hapless unless she has a boy heart, Tezuka only succeeds at perfectly equating the female/femininity with weakness and dependency. The essential contradiction in Tezuka’s message is this: girls should have equal opportunity to rule, but girls are weak and incompetent when compared to boys.
I don’t believe Tezuka was being insincere – in fact, I’d argue he was, like with many of his works, brave to tackle this issue at the time and in the culture within which he was working (when he began his career, men dominated the shoujo genre and their stories reflected the ideal of young women as only interested in marriage and child-rearing). Rather, I believe he did not fully think through the implications of the philosophy he was espousing. Luckily, Princess Knight‘s influence has allowed others to pick up where Tezuka left off. How can we not recall the outstanding Rose of Versailles or Revolutionary Girl Utena every time we watch Sapphire struggle with her gender identity? And there are other female characters worth mentioning who do not quite fall so quickly into the same trap as Sapphire: Hecate the delightful tomboy daughter of the evil witch who consistently takes control of her own life, and Friebe the knight whose imposing appearance brings to mind Norihiro Yagi’s ‘Claymores’.
Another timeless gift lies in the illustrations. Tezuka was not just capable of rapid action and giant robots, but able to depict young women as exquisite as China dolls, their eyes like sparkling galaxies, flying horses that leap through cotton-like clouds, and men handsome as the sun is bright. Although Tezuka did not spawn shoujo manga, he was responsible for some of the genre’s habits, including that of sprinkling sparkles on everything. These volumes are worth multiple rounds of rifling simply for the touching delicacy in the lines and the melodrama of the expressions. Princess Knight looks every bit the dreamlike romantic adventure that its title implies, so that, even with a limping narrative, it remains a beautiful work of art.