Reviewing ‘classics’ in any type of medium can be very challenging for several reasons. First, the reviewer has to bear in mind the landscape of the time the said ‘classic’ was written in and how much it’s influenced the genre it’s in since then. There’s no use in comparing it with today’s examples from the same genre because the classic will most certainly have clichés and stereotypes that the modern audience would have seen many times before but would have been fresher back then. On the other hand, praising said ‘classic’ from top to bottom and not examining an older story in a new context will not only give a false impression to anyone who reads the review, but also do a disservice to the work itself. Everything that was ‘revolutionary’ for its time will one day, whether we want it to or not, eventually become dated. But that doesn’t diminish the good within the work itself. Take, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a 90s TV show that has shaped writing for television serials since its release and is also considered a feminist show with one of the earliest examples of positive gay relationships. However, by modern standards, it’s hard not to take notice of the lack of people of colour on the show, the arguments for bisexual erasure and so on. These criticisms don’t take away the wonders that Buffy succeeded in, but also don’t make it an untouchable piece of media that cannot be studied either. Examining and unravelling layers of what you like and don’t like about a piece of media is not only a healthy way to express love for it, but also a way to help us create better art in the future.
Now let’s look at Princess Knight, written by the ‘Godfather of Manga’ himself, Osamu Tezuka. The manga was originally written in in the early 50s, and was one of his first series aimed at a female readership after his success with writing manga for boys via Astro Boy. At the time of Princess Knight’s release, it had a huge impact on the industry: girls’ comics (or, as we know them now, shojo manga) back then mostly focused on gag comics and strips teaching ‘good behaviour’, but Princess Knight was a fantasy story, driven by characters with their own agenda. It not only featured a female heroine, but also an androgynous one that challenged gender binaries. Not only is Princess Knight considered the birthing of shojo manga as we know it now, but also a first look at what the Magical Girl sub-genre eventually evolved into, thanks to its heroine changing from male costumes to fight off villains to female outfits to escape capture or find love (not unlike a certain Moon-based heroine we know and love). But despite its massive influence, does this classic have any good elements that still hold up by today’s standards? Or is it just a relic of its time?
Let me make it clear that, despite the story originally being written in the 50s, Princess Knight was re-written by Osamu Tezuka himself in the 60s, and it’s this version that has been collected into one omnibus. The story remains largely the same for both versions but with small tweaks in plot details. Princess Knight starts off in heaven, of all places, where the babies that are due to be born are either given male or female hearts by God himself. However, the playful angel Tink decides to give one child a heart as well, and so the child is born with the heart of a boy AND a girl. As punishment, Tink is stripped of his wings and sent down to earth to collect the boy heart. The child with both hearts is Sapphire, born to the King and Queen of Silverland, but the rule says that only boys can rule the kingdom, and so Sapphire is raised as a boy in secret. But with Duke Duralumin from a neighbouring kingdom wanting to rule, can he prove that Sapphire is really a girl and take the crown for himself?
The omnibus collects all five volumes of the story, and is over 690 pages long, so it’s a very thick book, and a lot happens in it. For the first few chapters, you think it’s just going to be a gag-driven story with the duke finding new ways to try and ‘expose’ Sapphire as a girl, and failing one way or another, often in Looney Tunes style. But the plot doesn’t stay that way for long: it takes a drastic turn as Sapphire is about to be crowned king and before we know it, there’s masked vigilantes, pirates, witch curses, princesses turning into swans, Satan himself making an appearance, there’s even Roman mythology with Venus thrown into the mix and much more! The story never stops; once you think a conflict is about to resolve, then something else comes and takes its place. But there’s two important things to note here: one is that it’s a comedy fantasy story, so a lot of the conflict and new villains material is done in a fun, wacky way rather than taken seriously. Also, even though it’s all collected as one book now, the story was originally told over nearly three years in Japan so it might not have felt as rushed and chaotic in its original format. The story, I feel, is best enjoyed when you switch your brain off and enjoy the ride, because the moment I tried to apply a more methodical mind, the flaws became very noticeable. Characters come and go from the plot at a drop of a hat, most characters remain one-dimensional and despite sensing Osamu Tezuka’s eagerness on the page, I felt that his need to ‘one up’ himself with each new villain that he created ended up having the opposite effect. Saying that though, I do think the comedy works for the most part; I especially enjoyed some of the fourth wall jokes, and the more dramatic members of the cast – such as Hecate the witch’s daughter and the pirate Captain Blood – just bounce off our heroes very well and are drawn in a very lively, hammy way.
But what about the Princess Knight herself, Sapphire? How does the (arguably) first shojo heroine hold up in 2022? Let’s first focus on what I consider are positives, and that’s the little things: as the (very nice, if I might add) cover might suggest, she is torn between her ‘boy’ heart and her ‘girl’ heart. On the page, the hearts look the same when out of her body, and Sapphire herself does not have a massive change when the hearts are switched out across the story. Yes, she cross-dresses across the series, but she doesn’t suddenly get a giant pair of boobs when she only has a female heart or develop a rougher face when she only has her boy heart. Her androgynous appearance is kept across the book, and when she does end up with the prince at the end, she doesn’t have to compromise on her appearance to live happily ever after with him. And I also liked that the prince doesn’t have a sudden ‘gay panic’ either when he realises that the prince from a neighbouring kingdom, and the girl he falls in love with, are the same person. He questions at first, but then smiles and says ‘of course, how did I not realise it?’ which is lovely. The pirate who gives the story a brief ‘love triangle’ vibe in the middle of the story also falls in love with her, regardless of who she chooses to identify as, which is definitely a message that is more important than ever.
What I disliked however was the rest of it, to put it bluntly. The handling of the various ‘heart powers’ that came with each one, for example. When Sapphire just has the boy heart, she’s super rude and strong, but with the girl heart she comments on how ‘weak’ she feels and suddenly can’t fight back. This is repeated across the story and it’s a very dated concept of what a man and woman are capable of. Outside of Sapphire, you also have many dated dialogues with the side characters, such as women called ‘naggers’ and wanting constant attention from men, who are just good at being aggressive and dumb. I found myself either rolling my eyes or speed reading over sections (like the chapter where the castle maids hold Sapphire in their room for safe keeping, Sadly, their goodwill is overshadowed by the casual misogynistic dialogue across the chapter). I also felt that the idea of two hearts and the characterisation of Sapphire went very flat towards the end; in the beginning I liked the conflict she experiences, the constant push and pull between what she wants and what society expects her to be. I also liked how with both hearts she seems to be a more complete person: she’s as strong as any man could be but likes girly things too. However, as the story goes on and becomes crazier and more like a fairy-tale, it becomes less about her personal, emotional struggles and more about how she’s going to get out of the current situation. Unfortunately, a lot of the time she’s rescued by some other character rather than by herself. The ending also felt very sudden to me. There’s no revelation as a result of her ordeal, or an acceptance of who she is, with or without the hearts. It’s all overshadowed by her recovering from the latest ordeal she’s been through with the final villain in the last chapter rather than the conflict over the whole series, and a quick ‘happily ever after’ is stuck on the end like a last-minute bow to tie up the story.
Art-wise, especially when it comes to the comedy, it’s very much Looney Tunes meets Disney, but it’ll still be very familiar to anyone who even has a passing knowledge of Osamu Tezuka’s work: big-eyed heroes with round faces and very lively movements. The art looks like stills of an anime show as every frame is full of life, playful chaos, and full facial expressions for every character, even the most minor ones. So even if you don’t love the story, you can’t argue that each panel is fun to look at.
The translation is the same as the 2011 release by Maya Rosewood for Vertical, so if you own that release you’ll be getting the same translation in this new edition. Overall, the translation is good; there’s a few odd edits where a bubble has one part of a sentence and then another in a completely different bubble but it’s still an easy-breezy read. But I do not understand why its rated as 13+ as, aside from one random swear word at the end (which can be edited easily) there’s nothing here to suggest it’s for teens only. Characters die in this book maybe? But there’s no blood, the deaths are very Disney–style with characters disappearing into smoke, for example.
Princess Knight is a manga that I’ve been wanting to read for a while, due to its place in shojo history, and I’m glad I did, in such a lovely new omnibus edition. I can’t say I would ever read it again, but I can say that, despite its dated gender politics, if you’ve ever wanted to give this classic a go, and don’t mind switching your brain off for the fantasy journey, then there’s no better time to check it out.