Secret identity

Princess Knight Vol.1 Artist/Author: Osamu Tezuka Publisher: Vertical

PRINCESS Knight is the story of a princess who pretends to be a prince, and it was written and illustrated by the prolific godfather of manga himself: Osamu Tezuka.

See, that last part of that sentence was precisely why we were so darn excited to review Princess Knight. The manga was written by Osamu Tezuka, people! He’s the genius behind several beloved anime and manga series, such as Astro Boy and Black Jack. His works are praised by critics and manga readers alike, and we counted our non-Japanese reading selves lucky that publishers, Vertical, managed to get the rights to publish this baby in English.

Surely Princess Knight – a story that’s generally acknowledged as one of the early prototypes for shoujo manga everywhere – must be nothing short of magical, right?

Unfortunately, going in with such high expectations might have been one of the reasons we couldn’t fully enjoy Princess Knight.

Let’s start at the beginning. Early on, we’re given a glimpse into heaven, where the souls of children await to be born. Unfortunately for one baby, the antics of a particularly mischievous angel called Tink causes the baby to possess both the heart of a boy and girl. Tink is subsequently booted down to Earth to sort out the mess, and on that same day Princess Sapphire is born to the benevolent rulers of the kingdom of Silverland.

Due to some comical misunderstandings and the kingdom’s “no girls as rulers” policy, the king and queen decide to secretly raise their daughter as a prince, so she can inherit the throne and prevent it from falling into the hands of the evil Duke Duralumin.

At the offset, we have the foundations for a really solid, exciting story. Prince(ss) Sapphire’s conflicting male/female identities help develop her character; mistaken identities and gender bender shenanigans set the stage for comedic moments; and the evil Duke’s constant scheming to steal the throne opens the door to both adventure and political intrigue.

Sure enough, the first few chapters of Princess Knight are very enjoyable, and it’s entertaining to see Prince(ss) Sapphire struggle to keep her identity a secret while embarking on boyish adventures against the scheming of the Duke and his henchmen.

Unfortunately, before we’re even halfway through the 16 chapters (340 pages) of the first volume, things start to go off track. (Warning: massive story spoilers.) Sapphire’s identity is suddenly revealed to the public, and as a result the Duke’s son takes the throne while Sapphire and the Queen is sent to jail. We expected this to be the start of the next story arc with jailbreaks and daring adventures to reclaim the throne, but that only lasts for about two chapters.

Sapphire dons the mantle of the mysterious Phantom Knight – the masked hero who fights to protect citizens from the oppression of the Duke – for a stunning eight pages, and then that subplot is never mentioned again. Suddenly, Sapphire gets caught and sent to jail (again) and we’re introduced to a new villain, the witch subtly named Madame Hell.

Then, apropos of nothing, Sapphire gets turned into a swan; has to rescue her family who got turned into stone; tries to retake the kingdom again; and has an on-and-off four-way romance/rivalry with the prince of Goldland. (It’s a complex love polygon between the prince, her female self, her male persona, and another fake female persona.)

Occasionally, Tink would remember he was sent to Earth to turn Sapphire into a girl, and sometimes he’d remember he has magic powers.

Suddenly: pirates! (Where did they come from? We don’t know!)

What we’re trying to say here is that a lot of things happen, and we’re never really sure what we’re supposed to expect. A good story arc follows a typical set-up, conflict and resolution structure, but Princess Knight’s problem is that it tries to juggle a dozen different story arcs at the same time. New story elements are introduced and abandoned at an almost schizophrenic pace, but if the narrative was in a good mood it’ll revisit an old story arc and give it some sort of conclusion.

Heck, even after Sapphire’s secret was revealed to the entire kingdom, the characters are never really consistent on whether they realise she’s a girl or not.

As we write this review, we can’t shake the feeling that we’re being rather unfair to Princess Knight. Perhaps our expectations were too high. To the manga’s credit, Princess Knight has many of the high points common in Tezuka’s works. The manga features people with memorable characterisations; the adventure sequences are engaging and exciting; and there are comical moments of levity to balance the tension and drama. Also, as always, Osamu Tezuka’s artwork – with its big eyes and rounded, cartoon proportions – is instantly recognisable and a joy to read.

All in all, Princess Knight is a nice addition to our manga collection, but we wished it was so much more. The memorable characters, adventure, drama and comedy (not to mention a framework for exploring issues such as feminism, gender equality and identity) are all there, but the barrage of story arcs made it difficult for us to be invested in the narrative.

If Prince(ss) Sapphire is a girl who can’t decide on whether to be a boy or girl, then Princess Knight is a manga that can’t decide which story it wants to tell.

Princess Knight is available at Kinokuniya KLCC

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