There’s been any amount of talk lately about how comics, science fiction and fantasy, movies, and all the rest of pop culture constitute a new mythology for the age. I go back and forth about this one myself, because one of the things a mythology seems to imply is the presence of some larger belief system about what is being mythologized. Maybe it’s a matter of terminology: would a fairy tale for the modern age imply that much less baggage than a new mythology?
It isn’t as if I think fairy tales sit further down the ladder from full-blown mythos — more like they occupy different seats on the same general bus. One thing I can say about Osamu Tezuka is that he seems to have been comfortable in any of those seats, as well as comfortable driving the whole bus. He created works that were not only mythology for the new age (Phoenix) but which dealt with real-world myth figures (Buddha) — and on top of that created a whole slew of manga which we could comfortably call fairy tales without feeling like either his work or the term itself was being demeaned.
I’d long heard about Princess Knight being one of the most exemplary entries in that category, back when the only way to read any of Tezuka’s work was to either get it from Japan yourself or become friends with the tiny circle of people who were passing around photocopied, hand-retouched samizdat-style translations of his work. (That was in the 1970s, when the term torrent brought to mind a violent weather condition and not a copyright violation.) Knight has since been added to the ever-expanding lineup of Tezuka’s work in English, which has come to us mainly courtesy of four different publishers: Dark Horse (Astro Boy), Viz (Phoenix), Digital Manga Publishing (the aberrant Swallowing the Earth), and Vertical. Vertical’s own president Hiroki Sakai has mentioned that one of the main reasons Vertical was founded in the first place was to bring as much of Tezuka’s work into English, and after seeing so much of the fruit that desire has produced — Black Jack, MW, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, Ayako, The Book of Human Insects — I have more gratitude than I know what to do with. Princess Knight is a cheery and spirited addition to that list, and I’m glad they made the effort to bring it Stateside.
Like many of Tezuka’s stories, Princess Knight’s form is simple enough that it’s easy to be misled. It has the presentation and the format of a children’s story, but with the complexity and greater moral implications of classic mythology. A child would see an enormously entertaining romp; an adult would see a bit more — and maybe a child would, too. It opens in Heaven, where a baby-to-be is mistakenly given the heart of both a girl and a boy. To straighten things out, Heaven sends down Tink — the cherub responsible for this whole mess in the first place, which is a little like asking the guy who robbed your bank to guard the teller booth, but never mind.
Tink’s a spirited and dutiful sort, and wants to set things a-right, and so down he goes to Earth in the guise of a human. When he finds Sapphire, though, he’s faced with a real problem. The baby in question — Princess Sapphire — was indeed born as a girl but raised as a boy in order to avoid problems of succession to the throne. They do a good enough job of this that everyone outside of the immediate family is fooled, but inside Sapphire despises the lie and simply wants to live as she chooses without any of these silly charades.
Sapphire’s issues are not because she has two hearts, but because she’s stuck in a society that has such deterministic views of men and women. By our standards, she’s more balanced than most of the people she meets or is at the mercy of. She can appreciate the beauty of a well-made dress or a rare flower, but she’s also a solid fencer (something that comes in handy when a snotty suitor figures out the Crying Game early on and tries to horn in on her). When a prince from another kingdom, Franz, comes to town to attend a ball, she dresses up as a princess — shades of Victor/Victoria here — and inadvertently captures Franz’s heart. This is complicated further by Franz meeting the “real” Sapphire — the male version — and being forced to duel with him. It turns out the duel is in fact an assassination plot: Sapphire’s sword is poisoned. As a result, she’s banished from the kingdom, and then her adventures begin in earnest.
There is a lot of plot to recap in Princess Knight, spread out over two 350-page volumes, but rather than plow through all of it here I will instead cite some highlights. The biggest threat to Sapphire’s existence comes not from Franz or even Tink, but rather the demoness Madame Hell. Hell’s plan is to steal Sapphire’s female heart, give it to her own rather unfeminine daughter and marry that girl to Franz, but everyone — daughter included — has other plans. Even more convoluted is the story of how Sapphire falls into a coma and a pirate named Blood (who sees through Sapphire’s disguise and is enamored of her) defies the goddess Venus to rescue her. There were a lot of things I was not expecting from this book, but among the most unexpected is the way pagan and Christian cosmologies are cheerfully forced to coexist side-by-side in Sapphire’s universe.
The vast majority of the story, though, is just plain fun — the kind of swashbuckling, and-then-what-happened? storytelling most commonly associated with Tezuka works like Astro Boy. I mentioned how Venus and Captain Blood enter the story, and even those aren’t some of the most convoluted things that happen. What’s also appreciated is how the deeper themes of identity — not just sexual identity, but social identity as well — weave themselves naturally into the story and aren’t used as a tract to bludgeon the reader. If Sapphire and Franz end up happy together, it’ll be because they’ve earned it and because that’s the ending that makes sense, not because the politics of the story demand it.
It’s the sort of story the label “shamelessly entertaining” was intended for — not in the sense that the story doesn’t care about anything other than pleasing us, but in that we have no qualms about being pleased this thoroughly by it, and because we know it’s quietly attempting to do more than just entertain.