The thing that frequently strikes me about Osamu Tezuka’s comics is how fresh they feel, no matter when they were created. I suspect this is because, while he was as solid and conscientious an entertainer as has probably ever worked in the medium, he was also always pushing to bring new ideas to manga and to infuse new levels of ambition into comics. This isn’t always true, and there are some Tezuka works that feel locked in the time of their birth (Swallowing the Earth, Ayako), but it happens with a frequency that just about any creator of any kind of entertainment would envy.
Princess Knight (Vertical) exhibits that lively timelessness that I associate with Tezuka at his best. I have no idea if he sat down one day and decided that he wanted to take comics for girls in an entirely new direction or if it just happened because he wanted to take all comics in entirely new directions, but the comic exudes that feeling of opportunity and transformation.
It’s hard not to think of the princesses of Walt Disney’s motion pictures, mostly because Tezuka references them so often. Disney was an influence and inspiration to Tezuka, but Tezuka didn’t seem content to merely mimic Disney. Princess Knight seems like the best example of that. While Disney’s princesses were titular, they were never the heroine of their own story, at least with Disney at the rudder. Tezuka’s Sapphire may be pulling plot points out of a Disney grab bag, but she’s nothing like her American sisters.
Before Sapphire is born, a mischievous angel named Tink gives her the heart of a boy shortly before she receives her assigned girl’s heart. Beyond the supernatural complications, her earthly parents are hoping for a son, or rule of the kingdom will pass to a craven moron. The king and queen love their daughter, but archaic tradition forces them to raise her as a boy. Sapphire’s extra heart makes this easier than it might have been otherwise.
She’s great with a sword, and she stands up for what’s right. She’s smart, tough, and good-hearted, though she keenly feels the call of her feminine side. She falls for the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but she can never act on those feelings. And she’s constantly wary of her unscrupulous, ambitious uncle, who would love to expose her and open up the throne for his idiot son.
Things go from difficult to impossible when her charade is exposed. Loss piles upon loss and peril upon peril, and she’s imprisoned and exiled. Fortunately, adversity brings out the best in her, and she takes steps to reclaim her kingdom, not because of any air of entitlement but because it’s right and the best thing for her people. She’s not passive and she doesn’t want a prince to save her; you can’t come close to saying that about any of her Disney princess contemporaries.
That’s not to say her adventures don’t draw on familiar princess tropes. Like Cinderella, she gets to don glamorous disguise to connect with her handsome prince. Like Snow White, she’s targeted by an evil and ambitious witch. Like Ariel, she loses her ability to communicate. Beyond that, there are pirates and assassins, scheming courtiers and incompetent angels, magic and monsters. Sapphire faces more difficulties than the entire coterie of Disney princesses combined, which makes for an insanely lively narrative flow.
Of course, another fascinating aspect of Tezuka’s work was the way his well-intentioned thinking regarding women’s roles was betrayed by execution that wasn’t quite as involved. Sapphire’s agency is entirely connected to her boy’s heart. In moments when she loses that heart, she becomes as passive a victim as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty ever were. And it’s not entirely clear what Tezuka is trying to say in those moments. Is it just another form of peril to keep things moving, or did Tezuka wholeheartedly own those gender roles, even if he regretted them? It also makes me wonder about likely outcomes in the next volume – will a happy ending for Sapphire constitute a satisfying conclusion for me as a reader?
Jarring as those considerations are, they do give the reader an extra layer to ponder. You don’t really need to think about Princess Knight in the context of its time too often, since Tezuka the entertainer is in such fine form here. But the chance to consider Tezuka the figure of his era, no matter how progressive he may have been in relative terms, is always intriguing to me. It’s kind of like how you can ride along with the madly entertaining antics in Dororo (Vertical) only to be occasionally slapped with how genuinely bleak Tezuka’s world view must have been.
Speaking of aspects that could date the work, I have to take issue with the packaging here. Vertical has an admirable history of crafting vibrant covers for classic titles, so why does Princess Knight look like a paperback textbook from the 1970s? The washed-out palette and the minimalist cover design aren’t up to Vertical’s usual standard, and the design does nothing to communicate the excitement contained within. Vintage manga is always a tough sell, so why make the book look so blah? It wouldn’t look out of place in a book stack at a suburban garage sale.
That sounds harsh, but I’ve got a protective bent for this book. I’ve wanted someone to republish it in English for ages, and I think I imagined it being perfect. And it is almost perfect – wonderful characters, a terrific story, and Tezuka’s wonderful illustrative style, packed with action and humor and feeling. Vertical has done a marvelous job making a range of Tezuka’s work available in English, though it generally falls in his seinen vein. That’s great and entirely welcome, but I feel like it’s equally important to showcase Tezuka’s work as an entertainer for a wider, younger audience. Because even those pieces feel fresh and ambitious, just like Princess Knight.