Saturday, June 07, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #157: Princess Knight by Osamu Tezuka (2 vols.)

Everybody had to come from somewhere. And even your most favorite creator did some work that isn't quite as impressive or wonderful. In fact, when you look far enough back in anyone's career, you'll find works that are just fine in context, but can look awfully thin ripped out of it.

I'm on record as being a big fan of Osamu Tezuka's mature works for adults -- mostly from the 1970s, at least what I've seen -- including The Book of Human Insects, Ayako, Ode to Kirihito, Buddha, Dororo, Black Jack, MW, and Apollo's Song. But Princess Knight is from the other end of his career: originally serialized in 1953-56, unabashedly influenced by Disney animated movies, and equally unabashedly for kids and kids-at-heart. (It also comes off as not a little sexist, these days, though Tezuka does get partial credit for making his main character female and giving her agency at least some of the time.)

In the usual pseudo-medieval kingdom, a queen is expecting her first child. If it's a boy, he will be the heir to her husband the king's throne. If it's a girl, something like Salic Law will apply, and the throne will instead pass to the useless son of a clearly evil noble. (Tezuka is swinging for the fences throughout Princess Knight; you won't find anything the least bit subtle here.) Sapphire, due to a heavenly mix-up, has two hearts: one for a boy, and one for a girl. But she's born female -- the heart thing seems to just govern temperament, and not have anything to do with biology, so it could have been interestingly ahead of its time if Tezuka had gone that way -- and a very conventional bushy-bearded God sends cherubic angel Tink to grab back her boy's heart and turn her into a normal girl.

That's the bad news: the good news is that Tink doesn't want to do that, and, at least for a while, seems to think that the two hearts make Sapphire who she is. But the more important news is that Tezuka is mostly concerned with spectacle and action here, so the deal with the hearts is just treated as another complication or plot coupon: each of Sapphire's hearts is stolen from her several times, and she's left at least once entirely heartless. (No one else's hearts ever enter the plot; perhaps they're only removable if you have two to begin with?)

So Sapphire's actual sex is concealed from birth -- due to a very Tezukian comedy mix-up, not through any plan -- and she grows up in public as a dashing prince and privately as a girly lover of frills dreaming of the day she will find true love. And her story is crammed full of events and characters: after a brief set-up in heaven and at her birth, the story jumps to her fifteenth year and then sets off at a sprint.

There's the standard dashing prince from the next kingdom over -- glaringly obvious as Sapphire's destined One True Love the moment he shows up -- plus a nasty evil witch and her interesting (and short-shrifted) daughter Hecate, an almost equally dashing pirate captain, the requisite bumbling minion of the evil noble, comic relief doctor and nurse, Sapphire's long-suffering and utterly bland mother, a dashing swordswoman (who, sadly, is only really seeking a husband), Sapphire's blonde-wigged female alter ego, the actual goddess Venus (who does not entirely fit well into a cosmology with a clearly Christian God as her boss), and a cast of thousands of spear-carriers, pirates, women of the town, demons, evil soldiers, black-skinned women warriors, and peasants. Oh, and Satan himself -- can't forget him.

It all goes on too long and gets too complicated along the way, though Tezuka is always razor-sharp about who all of these people are and what their relationships to each other are. (Something his modern followers would do well to study.) It also overruns what should have been its real ending -- the witch and Satan are defeated, and that should have led to the big wrap-up, but instead Tezuka drags Venus in for more complications and a secondary villain.

Princess Knight is not a great example of what Tezuka can do at his best, but it's a very fast-moving and entertaining series, with a very clean, expressive, Disney-esque art style and a story that always has another card to pull out of its sleeve. I'm sure there are many people who can appreciate that, and probably not a few who will prefer it to MW. (They're wrong, but I'm sure they exist.)

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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