I am a big fan of Osamu Tezuka, often called the father of manga. I desperately wanted to see the Tezuka museum since finding out it was a thing. And in the spring holidays, I did! I have photos to prove it. While there I really had two main takeways. First, for all I care about Tezuka and have learned from various books and histories, I have read very little of his work. And second, he wrote a lot, so it just seems statistically odd to have dealt with as a little of his work as I have.
I’ve watched pretty much all the Astroboy that exists, some Blackjack, and that is pretty much it in terms of his work. Not until a few weeks ago had I even read any of his manga. Since I’ve somehow always loved his work while consuming barely any of it, I thought I’d try and read what I can. I’ve been told Tezuka’s work is rather hard to read so I’ve been reading it in English.
So, I decided to start with one of his more iconic works that has a similar importance to Astroboy, Princess Knight (1953), which much like Astroboy is not the first of it’s kind of manga, but is what very much set the standard for a long time to come. Princess Knight is considered to be one of the first popular examples of shoujo manga, that is, manga aimed at girls.
It’s an interesting starting point for the genre in some senses, because while I see traces of it in a lot of modern anime, it’s major plot is frankly more in line with fairly modern work like Utena.
So, what is Princess Knight about? A young girl called Sapphire, while her soul is in heaven, is given two hearts, a boy heart and a girl heart. Before anyone notices, her soul is sent to Earth, and Sapphire is born as a girl but with the hearts of both. The short series uses boy and girl hearts more so to denote gender roles than anything else. However, when she is first seen, the court thinks she is a boy, and declares it proudly to the people, the parents well aware that their daughter can’t be the heir if she is a girl, decide to raise her as a prince.
What follows is a series of adventures that focus on unmasking her true identity while other forces try to take her girl heart, all while she doesn’t want to be forced to be either a boy or a girl but just herself. Most of it is very silly and fantastical. But with a lovely sense of charm and earnestness throughout. One common trope from shoujo manga this is certainly to blame for is that her beloved falls in love with her alternative identity, and the real her is something he hates. Like a lot of the plot elements in the story, this can come as being very dated since it’s not nuanced, but I am sure at the time it was rather unique.
While the tale woven was pleasant with a lovely cast of characters, as someone involved with LGBTI issues, and loving stories about gender roles in stories, the two hearts and gender politics at work here are hard to ignore. However, given this story is over 50 years old, some of it’s less forward ideas can be forgiven a little.
At various points in the story for instance, Sapphire loses one of her hearts, the main results of this are usually if she loses her girl heart she loses her empathy, becoming needlessly brash violent and crude. If she loses her boy heart she loses her bravery, swordsmanship, and mostly any kind of adventuring related skill. Alongside that, almost every other character is either extremely feminine, or masculine. With most men being idiots, and women being too kind for their own good. Later on, a battle breaks out between men and women in a kingdom. Upon the men threatening to throw all the women in the jail, the women ask who will wash their clothes and cook for them?
However, it is worth noting by contrast that Sapphire who occupies the unique position of being genderfluid, is ultimately shown as the straight man to this wacky highly gendered universe.
Needless to say while Princess Knight might not accomplish all of the goals it may have wanted. I am sure that for a generation of girls, it was about as empowering as you could get. You can find it on Amazon Japan and Amazon US in English.