Princess Knight was always a series I desperately wanted to read. After all it inspired so many creators and I’d heard its name when discussing things like The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. Vertical re-released it in English just this past year and so I was finally able to see for myself the influence. I realize now after reading it, that I had no idea what to expect from it; tt was unlike anything I had conjured up in my mind. The only thing I had consistently heard was it’s the story of a girl with the heart of a boy and through my own assumptions I figured she wanted to be that boy when really she just wants to be the typical princess. Does it take on gender politics, definitely, but does it do so in the ways I thought it would, not as much. It being, what I concluded to be, a satire of the fairytale genre was a surprise.
Princess Knight has gained this almost mystical reputation as this prototypical shojo manga. For a time it was even incorrectly labeled at the first shojo manga by American fans. It did not help that one of the few ways to read the manga was buying the very out of print and insanely expensive Kodansha bilingual manga release. This all led to Princess Knight gaining a legendary status as if was often referenced by other works but was almost impossible for the average fan to get their hands on. So much of the series reputation came on what people thought it was more than what it actually was. In a way I think most fans saw the works that were inspired by Princess Knight and extrapolated what they thought it would be. And so the actual gender politics are far less progressive and the themes far less complex than some of fandom might have imagined.
At first, I had trouble getting on board with Sapphire, it just felt like she wanted to be the stereotype of a woman. She masquerades as the handsome, gallant, brave prince and the beautiful, demure, helpless princess in turns. At one point during a fight in which she is winning, she loses her boy heart then proceeds to say how weak and scared she is and how she has lost the will to fight. But by the end, I realized that her dual hearts were being used to highlight the ridiculous standards of gender. The problem for Sapphire isn’t that she has two hearts but that her identity is in constant limbo, people have been telling her what she should and shouldn’t do and be since the moment she was born. This is certainly a reflection of her royal status, but also a look into how the world tells us who we should be as men and women. The fact that the story does it with humor and a break-neck pacing keeps it from falling too heavily. But still it is there, the search for identity. Sapphire doesn’t know herself and it isn’t until the end of the series that she realizes she can be a combination of traits.
I myself was struggling to figure out what exactly makes Sapphire feel so very different that then women who come after her like Utena or Oscar. Despite the fact that Utena and Oscar seem stronger than Sapphire it is very clear in all three stories that the masculine is the strong and capable and the feminine is weak (although Utena plays and examines with this concept more than the other two.) I think the major divide comes down to an issue of agency. Sapphire rarely if ever feels in control of her position as someone who has insight into both genders. By an accident of her birth she is born with two souls and due to a misfortune is forced to pretend to be a boy. While her boy’s heart often makes her very capable in the first book she often treats it like a burden and hardly seems attached to it. It seems more the necessity of the plot keeps her from simply giving away her boy’s heart. She spends so much of the series wanting to be demure but never truly striving for that path. Even her balance at the end if more through the contrivance of other characters than her own prerogative. Oscar on the other hand is also forced by her father to be raised as a boy but she owns the role and embraces her path. In fact she is given several opportunities to leave the life of a woman living as a man but chooses duty over comfort. Oscar owns her path as opposed to be forced upon it. The character with the greatest agency and balance is Utena. She is the only one of the three that not only chooses her path but strives to live as a prince while identifying as a woman. Her issues in the show are far more complex than Sapphire or Oscars but she also has the greatest control over her decisions.
I actually found Hecate to be a more interesting and inspiring character throughout the series. By making her not a human but a demon she is essentially allowed to act as a the more progressive woman, she is outside the conventional system already. In her fashionable Audrey Hepburn-like tap pants with backbone and independence, she is a reflection of the modern times in which the manga was made and not the medieval fairy-tale setting of the story. She doesn’t know much about the human world and her encounters with people always show her to be quite the mischief-maker. But while making her a demon might sound like a step back, the fact that her mother, who is shown to be an evil twisted witch and major villain of the series, is constantly trying to turn her into the perfect human girl keeps it from (for lack of a better word) demonizing being unconventional. Hecate rejects marrying the prince multiple times over and in the end executes a plan to help him escape. She does none of this because she has the heart of a man or a woman, but because that is simply who she is.
If anyone is a heroine in the mold we first expected from Princess Knight it is Friebe. She may be hot-headed, selfish, and only participating in a tournament to find a husband but she has much of the agency that Sapphire lacks. She is a warrior by choice and is fighting to find a husband as opposed to hoping one comes to her. Her standard attire is that of black plate armor. She also has the arrogant bravado and chivalry associated with male knights. But at the same time she is willing to accept her feminine side and devoted herself to studying domestic chores as much as martial prowess. She more than Sapphire seems to have a very balanced soul between that of a man and a woman and all by her own choice. She seems to contribute to the archetype of the woman proudly living her life as a man to throw away gender roles and be who she wishes to be not who society tells her to be.
There are many other women in the series worth exploring from the organized ladies at the palace that defend Sapphire to the island warriors to the seductress Venus. We decided to focus on these few because they stood out to us for various reasons. Princess Knight presents a lot of different roles for women. And for the women we talked about, each is to really look for who they are and what they want. I didn’t fully grasp this until reading the second volume but I think it was worth it.
The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena come from a later era that had much of their path laid out by Princess Knight. It is easy to forget that it is often a string of small changes that lay the path for revolutionary turning points in the future. Osamu Tezuka was able to popularize the concept of an adventure manga for girls. He introduced a character whose fluid gender would inspire later authors to take the radical ideas that he set forth and go even farther with them. Princess Knight might not have been the radical text we thought it was but it is still undoubtedly paved the way for so much of the shojo we love today.