Taking place in a medieval fairy-tale setting, Princess Knight is the story of young Princess Sapphire who must pretend to be a male prince so she can inherit the throne (as women are not eligible to do so). This deception begins as soon as she is born, as her father the King announces his baby is a boy instead of a girl. The reason for this is that the next-in-line to the throne, Duke Duralumin, is an evil man who would repress the people if he were to become king, and because of this the King will go to any length to prevent him from taking over. (Source: Wikipedia)
Spoiler warning: Some spoilers for the Princess Knight manga beyond this point.
This weekend, I spent some time finishing Osamu Tezuka's Princess Knight series, published in two gorgeous paperback tankoubons courtesy of Vertical Inc., as well as sending waves of unbridled WANT towards my pre-order for the first Rose of Versailles DVD set. Wait, how are these two related? Because thinking about Rose of Versailles' gender-bender ways spurred even more thoughts on its predecessor, Princess Knight, and the ideas of gender in shojo manga.
Princess Knight aka Ribon no Kishi is commonly held up as one of the earliest shojo titles and one that many later titles draw inspiration from. It's hard not to examine the series without taking into account that its one of the most definitive works in the genre. Without Princess Knight, we wouldn't have Rose of Versailles. We wouldn't have Revolutionary Girl Utena. We wouldn't have Princess Prince (Tomoko Taniguchi) or Hana Kimi or Basara (Yumi Tamura).
In Princess Knight, we clearly have the prototype for both Utena Tenjou and Taniguchi's Lori in our heroine, Prince(ss) Sapphire, who due to a mishap at birth must live her outside life as a boy despite being a girl, especially since only princes can inherit the throne. She spends a lot of the series taking her gender issues in stride, although she does sometimes wonder what gender she really is thanks to having the double hearts. (I think the Doctor Who jokes kind of write themselves at this point. Spoilers, sweetie!)
For a series written in the early fifties, it's not completely screwy with its idea of gender roles. In the second volume, there is a movement in Sapphire's kingdom to destroy the 'misogynistic' rule of male-only throne inheritance and there is a women's uprising in the castle to protect Sapphire and bring true gender equality when it comes to chores and work in and out of the home. Black Pearl Island is a women-only society where they are warriors who operate independently of any kingdom.
Having said that, there are moments when Sapphire loses her blue boys' heart and immediately becomes weaker and frightened - like having a woman's heart automatically makes her inferior in strength and fortitude. Conversely, when a normally weak-willed prince accidentally eats the blue boys' heart, he becomes much stronger in will and voice than ever before. The series equates maleness with unbreakable strength and femaleness with waif-y spells of fright. Sapphire is only truly a knight when she carries both female and male heart, which can be seen as the ultimate in gender equality but how does it highlight the strengths of being a woman?
The strongest woman that isn't Sapphire in terms of will and body is actually the witch's daughter, Hecate. She knows what she wants and doesn't let her mother, Madame Hell. She doesn't need the girls' heart that her mother keeps stealing for her; Hecate is extremely comfortable in her gender. Hecate isn't evil, just raised by someone who is; she's the Marceline the Vampire Queen of Princess Knight, if you will. I honestly think Hecate and Sapphire could have been eternal besties, if the plot had allowed it.
Perhaps what Princess Knight tries to show is that gender isn't physical, it is what is in your heart. When Sapphire temporarily loses her girl's heart and only carries the boy's heart, she declares herself a man throughout. There has been no physical change whatsoever - the only change has been in her chest, where once two hearts lay.
Now, do I think Tezuka was trying to rock the manga world with a stirring treatise on gender roles and transgender issues? Hell no. He doesn't even do that good a job on it. But it's entertaining and it's ahead of its time by decades and there's nothing terribly wrong with that on its surface.
Honestly, we could talk about gender issues in Princess Knight until we're blue in the face. But can someone explain the introduction of Greek deities in a series that up to that point had an established Judeo-Christian faith base? Like, seriously, that entire Venus and Eros story arc made no sense on that basis, especially when up to that point the series had been so obviously Christian? For goodness' sake, Tink the angel fights Madame Hell off with a cross. She is physically repelled by church bells! SATAN! Come on, Tezuka, what's going on? Are you trying to be Saint Seiya before Masami Kurumada was born? Because it's not working.
You can pick up both volumes of Osamu Tezuka's Princess Knight at the Vertical Inc website (www.vertical-inc.com/books/princessknight.html) or at your local comic book store. If you want to read more thinky thoughts on Princess Knight, it's been reviewed by Warren Peace, The Comics Journal, and Manga Xanadu among others.