Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, Dec 18th 2011
Princess Sapphire is a girl born with both a male and a female soul, the result of a practical joke played on God by the angel Tink. As it turns out, however, Tink did Sapphire's kingdom of Silverland a good turn, since only males can inherit the throne and Sapphire's dual hearts make her able to play a convincing boy. But the evil Duke Duralumin wants the throne for his son Plastic and will stop at nothing to prove that the “prince” is actually a princess.
The recent fondness for fairy tales in popular culture couldn't have been better timed. Princess Knight (also known as Ribon no Kishi), Osamu Tezuka's revolutionary shoujo manga's first widely available English edition corresponds with the rising popularity of two new fairy tale based television programs and the continued explosion of similarly themed young adult literature. While the story of Princess Sapphire is not strictly a retelling or based on any specific folkloric tradition, it still reads like a Disney film and can only benefit from the increased presence of fairy tales in the public consciousness.
Readers of Viz's now-defunct Shojo Beat magazine may remember reading two chapters of Tezuka's story in one of the magazine's issues. The first thing they (and other readers) should know is that Vertical's translation is from a different version of the story. Viz printed chapters from the original 1953 version while Vertical is using a 1977 reprint of the series' second run, a revised version that ran from 1963-66. This is the most widely available version of the series and the one that more typically gets translated – Soleil Manga's French edition is also based on this run. While it may be disappointing at first, rest assured that the story is engrossing and just as tantalizing as the Shojo Beat chapters.
Our story begins in heaven, where God, who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus, is passing souls out to children about to be born. Each child gets either a boy or a girl heart, and God seems to have some sort of plan as to who gets which. Unfortunately for him, practical joker Tink is present at the ceremony and gives the soon-to-be-born Sapphire a boy heart just before God gives her a girl heart. For his transgression, Tink is banished to Earth to retrieve the extra heart before it's too late. Naturally his timing is off, and due to a doctor with a terrible lisp, the people of Sapphire's kingdom, Silverland, assume that Sapphire is a prince rather than a princess. Since this means that she will be able to inherit the throne – succession is limited to males and the other option is the odious duke's idiot son – Sapphire's parents agree to let the deception stand. Fortunately her extra heart allows the princess to play a convincing prince, and for a few chapters life is good.
Tezuka's storytelling doesn't really come to the fore until about chapter 7, or page 115. This is when the deception is revealed and Sapphire must really come into her own. With her mother in peril, her true love against her, and her life worth nothing if Duke Duralumin or his minion Lord Nylon find her, Sapphire is forced to use both her male and female hearts to survive. Like all good Disney-style princesses, her kindness proves one of her greatest assets, but her skill with a sword also saves her several times. Her boy heart, it seems, gives her a male's greater physical strength, a conceit that may bother some readers, but the storytelling is good enough that it is easy to overlook some of the more misogynist ideals of 1960s Japan. It is worth noting that Tezuka also espouses some feminist statements in the book, with Sapphire's nurse exclaiming, “You, sir, are a terrible misogynist! The law stating a woman can't rule is ridiculous. I can't believe a learned man such as yourself would hold such prejudices.” It seems likely that one of the story's final morals will be proof of the nurse's words.
One of the greatest deterrents to modern readers without an interest in manga's history will be Tezuka's art. It has been well-established that Tezuka admired early Disney films' artwork, and that is very apparent here. Sapphire looks like a cross between Snow White and Betty Boop, villainess Madame Hell shares character design aspects with Sleeping Beauty's Maleficent, and all of the animals call to mind early non-theatrical Disney cartoons. Simply put, the characters with their hourglass bodies and en pointe feet are cartoony in a way that has not been the norm for a very long time. On the other hand, everyone has a great sense of movement, even when those movements are greatly exaggerated in a way that may seem outdated, and it is easy to see the origins of the basic “shoujo style” in Tezuka's drawings. Arina Tanemura would not be putting lights and sparkles in her characters' eyes were it not for Princess Sapphire.
Vertical has handled the production of this volume (the first of two) very well. The dusty rose cover may be too “girly” for some, but the embossed image and text make it feel very nice in your hands. The spine seems fairly crease-resistant, so this should continue to look nice on shelves even after being read. The translation is mostly fluid, but there is a disconcerting shift between more formal language (in keeping with the apparent setting) and random bits of modern slang. While it doesn't happen frequently, it is jarring when it does, and one could wish that Vertical had kept with the more old-fashioned tone.
Princess Knight, despite its slow start, has a bit of everything that makes shoujo manga so much fun. There's cross-dressing, supernatural elements, an adorable sidekick, and even a handsome pirate, not to mention love triangles and cosplayable outfits. While it very definitely bears the mark of the early 1960s in its heavy use of Christian iconography and gender stereotypes, Tezuka's pioneering shoujo work deserves the acclaim it has gotten. It isn't perfect, but it is very much worth reading.
Overall : B
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Engrossing story, art with a clear sense of movement. Sturdy edition should hold up well.
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