Before God sends children down from Heaven, he gives them hearts. A child who swallows a blue heart will be a “brave boy,” while a child who swallows a red heart will be a “graceful girl.” However, when the mischievous angel Tink decides to play a trick, a child destined to be a girl ends up with both, and she’s on her way to being born before God can stop it. God thus curses Tink to life on Earth as a human; the only way for Tink to become an angel again is to reclaim the girl’s boy heart.
This task is not as easy as it seems, for the girl has just been born to the royal family of Silverland. This family needs a boy to continue the royal line, or else risk being usurped by the evil Duke Duralumin. The king and queen thus decide to keep her true gender secret, raising her as Prince Sapphire to protect their crown. Thus begins a fast-paced tale of adventure, mistaken genders, and the hijinks that ensue.
I usually don’t enjoy gender-bender manga, as the gender-bending aspect is often played for silly humor, but Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight, Part I is a rare exception. It reads like a twist on even modern fairy tales, where the princess is both damsel in distress and literally her own prince, and where her ever-changing gender is a source of legitimate drama, rather than an amusing plot point.
This permeates nearly every conflict she faces. Most prominently, the constant threat of Duralumin finding out that she’s not really a prince looms heavily, not only because of what it means for her but what it could mean for the kingdom. This conflict affects her in even small, if convoluted ways, too. At one point, a prince of a neighboring kingdom falls in love with her female “disguise,” only to pledge to kill Prince Sapphire in a later (unrelated) plot twist, not realizing that he and “the flaxen-haired maiden” are one and the same. (Talk about a complicated relationship!)
Despite the gendered nature of its plot, though, the novel is surprisingly unconcerned with gender roles or politics (at least, beyond the basic OMG A GIRL CAN’T RULE A KINGDOM LET’s PANIC ABOUT THAT trope). The closest it comes to commenting on such topics is in a scene where Sapphire briefly loses her boy heart and thus, with only the girl heart remaining, becomes weak. At first the scene inspires an “UGH of course she would become all faint and pansylike without her boy heart,” but upon rereading, it also begs the question, “Is it better to have the associated qualities of only one gender? Or is it better to have a combination of both?” Though it’s a small scene and a simple question, it’s thematically very relevant, and the whole book is a positive answer to this question.
Refreshingly, it’s also not loudly self-aware of its theme, like many Strong Female Character books can be. More than anything, the novel is concerned with taking readers on an adventuresome romp through a fairy-tale-inspired fantasy land, rather than offering any commentary at all. And romp it does! Sapphire teams up with pirates, fights evil witches, swordfights through pretty much everything, and never once stops being anything but a swashbuckling hero/heroine (even though she occasionally does stop to cry over stuff). At 346 pages, it’s a pretty good size for a graphic novel, and yet I was still surprised by how much action was packed into it.
Because of its structure, Princess Knight is bound to appeal to both male and female readers who like this kind of story. There are some hurdles to jump, though, especially for readers who are accustomed to modern manga. Tezuka’s art, while iconic, may look a bit too cartoony and dated for some readers today. In fact, I’d initially avoided his work myself for that reason. Something about the art in Princess Knight, though, was absolutely charming to me, perhaps because it matched the storybook flair of the setting so well. It should also be noted that the art is printed very cleanly, and though the style is simplistic, many of the panels are quite pretty to look at. Another hurdle is the themed naming of the bad guys—Duke Duralumin (a type of alloy), Lord Plastic, Lord Nylon—which doesn’t contribute anything to the story other than inexplicable goofiness. (There are plenty of other goofy elements in the story, but they’re much better handled than this.) Lord Nylon also has a lisp that is rather insensitively played for humor, but it also contributes to a significant early plot point, so it’s not like it’s there without a reason. Still, after that plot point happens, it does read a bit unkindly.
These bumps are minor compared to the delight that is the rest of the book, though. With plenty of adventure, several unexpected twists, and a fun storybook quality, Princess Knight has quickly become one of my favorites.