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Monday, February 27, 2017


Though I'm obliged to judge certain stories to be relatively undeveloped in terms of their mythicity, that doesn't mean that they aren't necessarily of societal consequence.

Take as example Osamu Tezuka's PRINCESS KNIGHT series, which began in 1953, was reworked at least three times (the 1963 version is apparently the one translated by Vertical Inc.), and given one sequel, THE TWIN KNIGHTS, about the two children of the previous series' heroine. Fred Schodt attested that before PRINCESS KNIGHT-- as the manga-series became known in the U.S.-- Japanese shojo ("girls' comics) lacked the narrative drive of the boys' comics. The franchise's entry on Wikipedia is full of many other such accolades as to the series' importance to fans, and I included a short writeup on the character here.That said, the 1963 version is extremely episodic, and I suspect that the earliest version may have rambled about even more.

If PRINCESS KNIGHT is known at all to audiences outside of both Japan and the world of hardcore comics-devotees, it's only from the 1967 animated adaptation. However, despite running for 52 episodes, PRINCESS KNIGHT did not attain the cult fandom experienced by other anime shows of the period, such as SPEED RACER and Tezuka's own ASTRO BOY.

KNIGHT begins with a strong concept. A mixup in heaven-- a heaven right out of early animation shorts-- causes Princess Sapphire of Goldland to be born with two hearts. Normally every child, even before being born, has his or her gender determined by being given a "boy heart" or a "girl heart," which imbue the child with the fixed qualities of the gender. (In Tezuka's world, then, essence does precede existence, though it will be seen that existence can radically modify essence.) As it happens, Sapphire's dual nature comes in handy, for only a prince can inherit his parents' throne. The king and queen of Goldland agree to conceal Sapphire's physical femininity and pass her off to the kingdom as a boy-- which is easier than one might expect, since Sapphire's "boy heart" gives her a macho fortitude rarely seen in average females.

That said, Tezuka is writing to a largely female audience, so he doesn't entirely want to alienate them from their desires-- whether socially created or not-- to like "girly things." Thus Sapphire is constantly alienated by her inability to do girl-things like wearing pretty dresses-- suggesting that the "girl heart," the one in tune with her actual body, is the one in ascendance.

Yet the fantasy of being able to do "boy things" is ever-present. At one point, the bumbling angel Tink succeeds in removing Sapphire's "boy heart" from her body, which will enable her to live as a full-fledged female. However, Sapphire happens to be engaged in a deadly swordfight at the time, and losing her "boy heart" saps her of her fortitude. Tink has to return that heart to her so that she can win her battle. To be sure, this isn't pure gender essentialism at work. Later in the story Sapphire loses her "male nature" and seems to win her battles as easily without it as with it-- which is where the matter of existence modifying essence comes in.

The downside of this promising concept is that Tezuka has too many irons in the fire to allow for a strong symbolic discourse. It would be contrary to my task as a myth-critic to assert that any author ought to bulldoze over his expressivity in order to accommodate some didactic theme. But I suspect Tezuka plotted PRINCESS KNIGHT somewhat on the fly, without much thought as to what was going to happen overall. Throughout most of the early chapters of this version, Sapphire's most persistent foe-- aside from courtiers who want to dethrone her-- is a witch named Madame Hell. I couldn't find an image of what she looked like in the 1953 version. But given Tezuka's stories love for all things Disney, there's not much serious doubt that the 1963 version was modeled on "Maleficent" from the 1959 animated classic SLEEPING BEAUTY. Not only does the Good Madame have the supernatural power to manifest huge thorned plants as did Maleficent, Hell even perishes in almost the same way: transforming herself into a huge beast-- this time a monstrous owl rather than a dragon-- only to be killed by a prince. Madame Hell is even more overtly affiliated with the Christian Devil, while Maleficent merely looks devilish and makes an oblique reference to "the powers of hell."

Unfortunately, Tezuka kills off Madame Hell too soon, so that for the remaining chapters he must introduce a new opponent out of the blue. Madame Hell was an indirect threat to Sapphire's relationship with her true love Prince Franz Charming, in that Hell wanted the prince to marry her daughter so that the latter would become a queen. However, this relatively mundane motivation hurt the Bad Madame's potential to be a superior villain, and once both she and her daughter perished, Tezuka had to introduce a new "Big Bad." For the final chapters of the series, the goddess Venus herself falls in love with Franz and wants to steal him from Sapphire-- thus making her the worst kind of "bad mother:" the kind that poaches on the younger generation.

I could imagine Tezuka having created a truly mythic story had he focused on one or the other of the two major villains, while continuing to use the lesser courtiers as comic foes. However, Sapphire's struggle is vitiated by the serials "and then this happened" approach. In some ways the problematic structure of PRINCESS KNIGHT and certain other Tezuka works, such as APOLLO'S SONG, may stem from the same "problem" one finds in the works of Jack Kirby: both artists were just so damn creative they sometimes overwhelmed their own narratives with "new stuff."

The irony is that a lot of real fairy-tales and romances may tend to ramble as much as PRINCESS KNIGHT does, but one can excuse that, since many of those stories descended from oral cultures.
Still, Tezuka certainly does create in Princess Sapphire a liminal figure with which many Japanese girls obviously did identify. The story is certainly not "ideological correct" enough to please many modern readers, but there are indications that Tezuka was willing to endorse feminist concerns-- at least, as long as they served the purpose of delivering an entertaining story.

TWIN KNIGHTS, on the other hand, is not nearly as wide in its scope. Years after Sapphire marries Franz, she bears twins, a son and daughter, both given flower-names (the boy is "Daisy," the girl "Violetta.") Thanks to the actions of two courtly conspirators-- whose motives are extremely hard to fathom-- the male child is exposed in the forest, only to be raised to adolescence by a magical deer. In Daisy's absence, the king and queen compel Violetta to pose as her brother so that she can take the throne, which means that she has to learn all the demands of being a boy without the advantage of a "boy heart." This is also a very rambling adventure and suffers from the lack of a strong villain. Additionally, Tezuka tosses out loads of flower-metaphors-- there are even two "flower-spirits," brothers who respectively love and hate Violetta-- but none of the symbolism comes together, and even the fated reunion of the siblings is fairly disappointing. KNIGHTS' only saving grace is Emerald, one of Tezuka's gamin-type characters, who exists to help Violetta through her exploits but is actually much more interesting than either sibling.

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