Osamu Tezuka – Vertical – 2011 – 2 volumes
I’m late to the party with this, but I should point out that DMP is having a Kickstarter drive to fund a few different early Tezuka series, all meant for children. All three are things I’d love to read, but it looks like they’re going to come up too short to publish the third. If you are at all interested in reading Unico, Atomcat, or Triton of the Sea, head over there and pledge to publish them! Secretly, I’m hoping if they don’t make the Triton goal, they’ll try it again as a separate Kickstarter. But! Maybe they’ll get the last $10,000 in the next few days. Every little bit helps, and Unico and Atomcat are still very much worth reading. Probably.
I would happily devour all three series, and I’m paying ridiculous amounts of money with the hopes of doing so. Having said that, the earlier Tezuka work that I’ve read has been my least favorite. This includes the early sci-fi trilogy, Astro Boy, the early version of Phoenix, and… well, Princess Knight.
Now, one of my absolute favorite Tezuka books is Swallowing the Earth. That book is so batshit crazy I don’t even know where to begin, and that’s one of my favorite things about his series. The thing is, Princess Knight is, too. Except it has a structure and purpose, unlike Swallowing the Earth. So the crazy is all the more puzzling here. It’s trying to tell a story about how Sapphire has both a girl and boy heart, so she can be strong even though she’s a girl. Except when her boy heart gets stolen, she turns into a weak little girl that can’t do anything. They emphasize this. Then it seems like the story forgets that she doesn’t have her boy heart anymore, and then she can fight again. There’s no reference to the fact that she’s not herself, or she might need both, or doesn’t need the boy heart to be strong. She simply needs it at first, and then after awhile, doesn’t need it anymore.
At one point, Sapphire gets fatally wounded with an arrow. For some reason, the story veers off here, and Captain Blood has to make a mad dash to an island to get a special balm that heals arrow wounds. There he’s held captive by a race of women who enslave him and his crew. Captain Blood escapes with the balm, but nothing about his enslaved crew is ever mentioned again. The balm is used, Sapphire gets better, then both Captain Blood and the balm are forgotten once again, as if this never happened. Stranger still, Captain Blood is revealed to Be Somebody, and he exits the story without any of the relevant characters finding this out. Uh.
There’s… a witch wedding. An entire kingdom is turned to stone. The fact that the only way to turn the people back is by spilling the blood of true love is heavily alluded to, then a lengthy story line completely forgets/avoids this. The wedding involves the king of hell, prankster demons, and lots of page-to-page WTF-ery. Literally, this wedding makes no sense. It’s one of my favorite things about the series, but seriously. Wow.
The ending to the series is spectacular. After going through villains and characters like some characters change clothes in other series (most villains meeting with bizarre, unlooked-for deaths), the final villain is the Goddess of Love. This section is somehow worse than the wedding in terms of completely random insanity. Then it just… stops. Venus is dealt with, the characters ask aloud about one other loose end, which is answered, nothing is done about Venus’s kind servant who was literally brought down one page before that, and then the series ends.
Seriously. This is some full-out insanity. Again, I’m a big fan of insanity, but this is also clearly supposed to be a fairy tale, and following some rules. And… uh, it sort of does. And then it does its own thing. It’s clearly highly inspired by Disney and classic western fairy tales, but it also kinda reads like someone described these things to Tezuka, and then Tezuka interpreted them without having seen or read them. I enjoy things like that immensely, so that’s not exactly derogatory, but that was also not the case here.
The bigger problem for me is not the crazy, but that it lingered too long on certain things. The plots with the evil witch just kept going. And going. And going. Some of the subplots were a bit repetitive. Prince Franz Charming was hanging around a lot, often going after Sapphire after having her snatched away at the last minute. It’s a bit of a chore to read, even with all the crazy. I imagine the crazy putting some people off even more.
Women’s roles in this book are strange. I mentioned the part about Sapphire’s boy and girl heart, but there are other things, too. There’s a women’s revolt, where the women of Silverland revolt against the men and their unfair treatment of Sapphire. The threat of the women rebelling is seen not in how they fight, which is with brooms and whatnot, but rather in that they do all the cooking and cleaning. When it’s over, one of the soldiers comments that the laundry was piling up. While there is a law in Silverland that lets women ascend to the throne as a result of the revolt, they are still obviously not the equal of men.
And while Sapphire needs her boy heart in order to not be a total waschlappen, there are other strong female characters. There’s Hecate, the spunky daughter of the evil witch that always does what she feels is right and has it in her to thwart anybody. She’s a tomboy, but not a literal “boy” in the sense that Sapphire is. There’s also an entire island of scary women that enslave pirates. And yet, Sapphire struggles on. I was puzzled by this.
Honestly? I’m not the biggest fan of these books. Language issues and the fact that they are really slow and/or crazy make them not exactly suitable for the intended young audience, either. And if you’re an adult, there are better things to read by Tezuka. Sapphire is a classic character, and Princess Knight is definitely one of Tezuka’s signature series… but seriously, pick up Black Jack or Ode to Kirihito or pretty much anything else first. It’s not bad, and I was entertained, but I would say this is not for most people.
Osamu Tezuka – Kodansha – 1999 – 6 volumes
this is the bilingual version, published in Japan
Ooh, it’s been awhile since I picked this one up! It’s got such a nice spine design (when you line all six volumes up, they form an illustration) that I put the next two volumes on the shelf and forgot I hadn’t read them. I’ve got the last two volumes coming in the mail right now, so I’m looking forward to the second half of the series.
Poor Sapphire still can’t catch a break, and the story is still winding itself in interesting ways through a fairy tale landscape. After being turned into a swan, Sapphire finds herself in a situation where the witch has the upper hand and is very close to marrying her daughter Hecate to the mesmerized Prince Charm. Luckily, Tink shows up and is the only one that can fight Madame Hell’s evil magic with his angel… uh, stuff. Madame Hell turns into Maleficient a big dragon when they fight, and of course everything winds up okay. Except Prince Charm is still angry at Prince Sapphire while being completely smitten with Sapphire’s blonde, female alternate identity.
Other chapters focus on an evil island where Sapphire’s mother is taken and promptly turned to stone, a band of pirate allies, and a chapter where Tink has to make the tough choice to follow God’s wishes or to continue to support Sapphire. This also features one of the weakest/old-fashioned moments in the volume: when Sapphire is completely dominating the evil Sir Nylon with her swordfighting abilities, God freezes time and takes her male heart. When time starts back up, she completely loses the will to fight and all her strength, promptly taking a beating from the annoying Nylon. This brings up the question of whether Sapphire is actually a strong female, or is only strong because she is also part male.
The pace is pretty slow, and the story is very old-fashioned, but the story is still very charming, and Sapphire makes for a wonderful heroine. This is a long stretch of story featuring nothing but bad breaks for Sapphire, so I’m even more caught up in what’s going to happen next… because it can’t all be bad news.
Osamu Tezuka – Kodansha – 1999 – 6 volumes
This is a bilingual version published in Japan
This continues to be a wonderful mix of Walt Disney and fairy tales. Specifically, this volume had a lot of elements that reminded me of Sleeping Beauty. I’ve only seen that movie once or twice, but… there were a lot of uncomfortable similarities. At one point, Sapphire is saved from a tower by an evil witch that flies in the window in the form of a huge dragon. She looks and acts a lot like Maleficent. She gets my favorite line in the book: “Don’t be scared, I’m Madame Hell, and I’m here to help you.” Like Madame Hell appearing out of thin air in a tall tower is a good thing. To be fair to Madame Hell, she’s not nearly as evil as she seems. She wants to help Sapphire in exchange for her female heart, so she can give it to her daughter Hecate and turn her into a proper young lady. She’s extremely forceful about it, and later goes so far as to kidnap Sapphire, but she really doesn’t seem to want to do her a lot of harm otherwise.
I liked Hecate a lot. She has a fun design, and she’s very strong-willed and rambunctious in a way that Sapphire is not. Sapphire is strong-willed, but she also does a lot of the right thing, whereas Hecate is a little mischevious. The gender role themes are reinforced a little more with Hecate, who is a little nicer to Sapphire than Madame Hell is. She’s not interested in being changed into something she’s not, and continually asks her mother why she should have to act like a proper lady. I suspect that Chocolat from Sugar Sugar Rune might have been partially inspired by Hecate.
Franz Charming reappears in this volume and crosses paths a few times with both the beautiful blonde maiden (Sapphire in full-blown princess mode, sporting a fancy blonde wig) and Prince Sapphire. He still doesn’t like Sapphire, and blames her for Sir Nylon’s treachery last volume, but knows that King Plastic, Duke Duralmin, and Sir Nylon are not going to give her the fair treatment she deserves. There’s a plot about sneaking into King Plastic’s quarters as the perfect young lady that goes awry, and an escape that is plagued by Madame Hell, who eventually kidnaps her. Towards the end, we get a taste of Swan Lake, which I liked. If it wasn’t enough of a fairy tale for you, there’s also lots of dancing animals, good angels versus evil witches, damsels in distress, and a literal Prince Charming. At one point, Tink, the angel that’s sent to retrieve Sapphire’s heart, prays to God and recieves a really cosmic vision of a dozen Jiminy Crickets playing in an orchestra, so he carves a wooden flute and plays it for the forest animals. Pure, undiluted children’s entertainment.
There are strange pacing issues, which I think has a lot to do with its age. There’s a lot of abruptness in the scenes and some jumping around without a lot of explanation, something that you notice a lot in Tezuka’s early work. This isn’t helped out by the literal translation, which can be downright hilarious and very appropriate in spots, but I can’t begrudge a book meant for people learning English its literal translation. The charm of the story more than makes up for these flaws though, and I genuinely enjoy reading this super-girly fairy tale mish-mash.
Osamu Tezuka – Kodansha – 1999 – 6 volumes
This is a bilingual version published in Japan
I kind of don’t want to write about this here. I only cover work that has been released in the US on this site, since as a young fan I was always frustrated with sites that covered material I didn’t have access to. I hate it when this is included in lists of Tezuka’s work in English, because it wasn’t distributed outside Japan and was never meant for an English-speaking audience, but as an aid for those learning English. It’s extremely hard to come by. My copies are used and weren’t expensive, but I had trouble locating them even in obvious secondhand marketplaces, like the Yahoo Japan auctions. Unfortunately, I thought this was the 2-volume version of Princess Knight from the late ’50s since I could only find listings for the first two volumes. It’s not, it’s the 6-volume remake from the late ’60s (supposedly the superior version). After learning that, I found the listings for the rest, but the later volumes are quite expensive, even used in Japan. Sigh. And the volumes are only a little over 100 pages long! There only needs to be three! Geez.
Anyway, how’s the story? My first tip-off that it wasn’t what I thought was when it started completely different from the segment that I read in Shojo Beat. The first scene takes place in heaven, with a mischevious angel that gives a baby a boy’s heart just before God assigns her a female gender and sends her down to Earth. As punishment, God sends the angel down to fetch her boy’s heart back, but the damage is already done, and the angel simply sits back and watches the girl (named Sapphire) live her life.
It’s exactly like a children’s fairy tale. The characters all have really appropriate and slightly absurd old fairy tale-ish names (Sapphire, Tink the angel, the prince from the neighboring kingdom Franz Charming, King Plastic, Sir Nylon). The plot follows the familiar arc, with an evil uncle that threatens to ursurp Sapphire and make his son king in her stead plotting her downfall while she begins dealing with forbidden feelings for Franz Charming, a boy she can’t marry while she’s pretending to be a prince.
The art goes well with the fairy tale story, too. While it’s not nearly as flowery and ornate as Tezuka’s early shoujo work, it’s still got an adorable, cartoony charm to it, and it does look a lot more controlled than the early work. Some of the costumes look like they were ripped straight from Disney movies (quite literally, I’m pretty sure the palace women’s costumes are taken from Cinderella), and I love Sapphire’s character design. Fun fact: one of the first bits of artwork I saw from a Tezuka comic was the first version of Princess Knight, and I was blown away by how it looked like a cross between Disney and Max Fleischer. After hearing how important he was to the manga industry, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the obvious… homage.
The one interesting difference between Princess Knight and a standard western fairy tale is its themes of gender identity. It’s interesting how such a complex theme is woven into what seems like a simple story. It’s also out-of-place here since it is otherwise such a western story, and such a topic is extremely uncomfortable among a large portion of the western audience (at least Americans, anyway). In the story, the reason given for Sapphire to act like a prince and keep her gender secret is that her cousin Prince Plastic will become king and put the evil Duke Duralmin in a position of power. She makes for a wonderful prince, and not even the Duke’s best efforts unmask her as a princess. Her character design is extremely feminine, however, and it’s no real secret to the reader that Sapphire is a female at any point in the story, which is an interesting choice. By the end of the volume, Sapphire finds herself in a difficult postion in her kingdom, so I’m very curious how the rest of the series will play out.
I enjoy the translation, which is the most literal I have ever read. Again, this wasn’t meant for an English-speaking audience, really, so the literal translation is likely far better for understanding the meaning of what’s being said. The Japanese dialogue is printed around the outside of the panels. The literal translation makes it somewhat difficult to get too absorbed in the story, and is also hilarious in spots. My favorite part is Franz Charming exclaiming “shit!” when he finds himself in prison.
I’ll talk a little more about the pacing in the next volume, but as I said, I’m having a hard time figuring out where this is going, since pretty much everything that I was expecting to happen was undone at the end of this volume. Maybe that means exciting things are in store.