Saturday, June 9, 2012

Princess Knight: Not the most feminist girls' comic, but still a lot of fun

Princess Knight, volume 1-2
By Osamu Tezuka
Published by Vertical

This series ended up being a bit different from what I was expecting, which was a Robin Hood-esque tale of the central character posing as a man and fighting evil while hiding as a princess. Instead, it's one of the most freewheeling, anything-can-happen comics I've read from manga master Osamu Tezuka (which is saying something), with a plot that starts from the silly supernatural contrivance of a princess being born with the heart of both a boy and a girl due to a mixup in heaven, and then proceeding from there in any direction that struck Tezuka's fancy. First, Sapphire poses as a prince so she can eventually take the throne (the laws of her kingdom only allow for male rulers), but is exposed and sent to prison early on, then escapes, falls in love with Prince Franz Charming from the neighboring kingdom, and has a crazy series of adventures that involve witches, magic, pirates, demons, swordfights, amnesia, treason, multiple assassination attempts, constant cross-dressing and warping of gender identification, people being turned to stone, gods and goddesses, and a literal battle of the sexes. It's totally nuts, with the reader never knowing where it will go next, but always entertained by Tezuka's cartoony energy and his mixture of goofy humor and poignant drama.

This series, which originally came out in 1953, is known as the starting point for manga for girls, but while it has a great female lead, it's not exactly a masterwork of feminist progressivism. The problematic elements start with the main character, who is brave and strong not due to her basic nature, but because she was accidentally given a boy's heart. This could have simply been a conceit to get the story started, but there are multiple points in which, through various plot contrivances, the boy heart is taken from her, and she becomes weak and unable to stand up for herself. It's kind of embarrassing, even if it does give Tezuka some chances to play with the ideas he created, like when she loses her girl heart and becomes a rude, brash fellow who spurns any offers of aid, or when her boy heart is given to the imbecilic, childlike puppet ruler who was placed on her throne, transforming him into a brave, honorable ruler. There is a definite push and pull between ideas of feminism (the law forbidding women to sit on the throne is repeatedly called misogynistic) and conformity to gender norms, with the latter even tainting some of the big moments of female empowerment, such as when the women of Sapphire's kingdom band behind her and stand up to the army to protect her from the duke who has taken over the throne and wants to have her executed for treason (it's a long story); unfortunately, this act of rebellion is seen as less of a threat than an inconvenience, since the men will now have to do all the cooking and the laundry. But most troubling is probably Sapphire's inability to solve her own problems; while she is strong and decisive, always taking positive actions to reach her goals, she is regularly reduced to the role of damsel in distress, with others fighting to control her destiny in her stead. It's frustrating, since Tezuka has created such a great character, but then regularly sidelines her to let others fight her battles for her. It's an unfortunate relic of the times in which the series was created, especially since the surroundings are so lively and innovative that it seems ahead of its time.

Luckily, even though the gender-based material is often troublesome, it can mostly be ignored in favor of everything else. The plot is incredibly enjoyable, never sitting still in one setting or conflict for long, but constantly rushing on to the next idea, whether it's a witch named Madame Hell scheming to steal Sapphire's girl heart in order to turn her obnoxious daughter into a lady worthy of marrying Prince Franz, a pirate captain aiding Sapphire and falling in love with her, Prince Franz being in love with Sapphire's alter ego "the flaxen-haired maiden" and considering Sapphire an enemy due to various misunderstandings, Sapphire being turned into a swan that Prince Franz still finds strangely familiar, or any number of other ridiculous twists, none of which seem out of place, since Tezuka establishes early on that anything can happen, and probably will. This unpredictability extends to the tone of the book itself, which can swerve unexpectedly from exciting action to slapstick humor to touching drama, leaving the reader believing that Sapphire will end up all right in the end, but ready to accept any new dangerous attacks or wacky situations that get thrown at her.

The wild, kinetic energy of Tezuka's art is already on display here, even in this earlier work (although it was apparently reworked and re-serialized in 1963, so this edition reflects some updates to his style since the original publication), with art full of cute, cartoony animals, rushing speed lines, dramatic angles, and nifty costume design. One definite treat is his depiction of swordfights, in which the blades move so fast that we see multiple images at once:

There are also some gorgeous fairy tale settings like castles, forests, and cottages, many of them filled with all manner of magical mayhem:

The various fantasy creatures are pretty great too, like this dragon (which seems to be a notable example of Tezuka's Disney influence):

Or the crazy collection of ghouls that attend a supernatural wedding:

It's also interesting to see some of the early shojo manga motifs being introduced, like the saucer eyes of Sapphire and some of the other female characters, or the flowers that occasionally fill the backgrounds or form the borders of panels:

It's a lovely comic, and while it's a bit too of its time to be an unimpeachable classic, it's still a wonderful read, full of adventure, romance, comedy, excellent art, weird Tezuka flourishes, and complete and utter unpredictability that keeps one turning pages up until the end, never sure what is in store for the Princess, but always ready to find out along with her. Nobody could make comics like Tezuka, but he broke enough ground and inspired enough people that we're all richer for the fact that so many keep trying to meet the standard that he set.

Hyoutan-Tsugi watch:

I didn't spot the little bugger for much of the first volume, which made me wonder if he was more of a later tic of Tezuka's, but he started showing up pretty regularly in the back half of the series, whether as a guest at the demon wedding (hiding behind the king's cape):

A visualization of insulting dialogue:

A pirate ship figurehead:

Or just chilling with some animals:

Other Tezuka characters make cameos here and there, like Mr. Mustachio:

Dr. Ochanomizu and Inspector Tawashi:

This weird little guy (his name is Spider, according to Wikipedia, and his catchphrase is "At yer service!"):

And even Tezuka himself (in the upper left corner of this panel), also attending the evil wedding:

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