The Princess Knight Anime, Gender and Disappointment

The 1967 Princess Knight anime is an adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s second rendition of the manga Princess Knight. While the anime’s plot diverges from its source material, the premise remains the same: To inherit the throne of Silverland, the princess has been raised and presented to the public as a prince. Only her close family and servants know she is really a girl. However, the evil Duke Duralumin seeks to reveal the secret of the “prince”, so that his son can claim the throne instead.

Princess Knight is falsely acclaimed by many as the first shoujo manga. As academic Deborah Shamoon puts it, “to single out Tezuka alone is to ignore the work of many other artists in the 1950s and 1960s who created manga for girls such as Takahashi Makoto whose visual style is much closer to subsequent trends in shoujo manga than Tezuka’s.”

Indeed, the original Princess Knight manga shares little resemblance to modern shoujo manga, beyond the fact that it features a female lead in a fairytale setting. To solely credit Tezuka with the beginnings of shoujo manga is to commit an injustice to Junichi Nakahara, Rune Naito, the aforementioned Takahashi Makoto and many other artists whose influence on the modern shoujo genre is more direct than that of Tezuka’s. Thus, it is much more practical to examine Princess Knight as a work from the God of Manga, rather than as a precursor to any modern genres.

Another common misconception about the Princess Knight franchise is that the anime is actually about the titular character. True enough the story follows Prince(ss) Knight, as she is referred to in the English dub of the anime. (From here forth, I will be referring to her as Sapphire, name she is given in the manga.)  However, Sapphire isn’t always the focus of what’s going on and, as I will address later, her character lacks the depth one might expect. Her limelight is frequently stolen by various villains as well as her cherubic sidekick, referred to as Choppy in the English dub.

Choppy, a genital-less angel in Robin Hood attire, stars in both the opening and the ending theme of the series and has entire episodes dedicated to his antics. He serves as the child companion character, found throughout many of Tezuka’s works. (And he is just as annoying and creepy as his fellow munchkins.) Believe it or not, Choppy is crucial to the plot of Princess Knight.

The real reason behind Sapphire’s boyish mannerisms is due to Choppy causing a mix up when the princess was born. Instead of receiving a red heart meant for girls, Sapphire received an additional blue heart meant for boys. Thus, implying her masculine behavior isn’t solely a matter of nurture, but an accident on the part of heaven. Tezuka’s attempt at explaining gender with a color-coded binary, bestowed by a divine patriarch, fails to address the complexities of gender in any meaningful way.

Gender refers to the internalized social expectations for appearance and behavior that align with the societal roles associated with a person’s perceived sex. Sex is meant to dictate gender and gender is meant to portray sex. But by virtue of being comprised of two-dimensional lines, the characters of Princess Knight have no biological sex from which to derive their gender. Anime characters are described by scholar Susan Napier as “stateless” and while Napier uses this word to describe characters’ lack of national identity, I believe the same idea can be applied to describe characters’ lack of biological sex.

It is through suspension of disbelief that we believe drawings represent human beings and all the biological fanfare that comes with being human, when in reality anime characters are effectively “stateless” in regards to sex and all other genetic states. Anime characters must be portrayed performing a gender that implies their sex or have their canonical sex outright stated, else the audience is left to speculate. With no state to tether to the concept of gender, the anime characters of Princess Knight dismiss human biology almost entirely. Princess Knight makes no real attempt to suspend the audience’s disbelief that its characters have realistic biological qualities to begin with.

Aside from Sapphire being born from her mother, there are no allusions to biological sex in the series. Keeping in mind that this is a program made for television in the 1960s, Duke Duralumin cannot publicly strip Sapphire to reveal her secret to all of Silverland and the families watching at home. By extension, he cannot use the sound of her voice, her measurements, or her theoretical period as evidence against her claim to the throne. (After all this wouldn’t be a very long anime if all it took for Duralumin’s plans to succeed was a single pair of bloody tights.)

So instead of the more obvious routes for determining if Sapphire is a girl or boy, the villains of the series use more roundabout methods such as asking the opinions of ghosts and magic mirrors. There’s also things like magic pens that would make Sapphire write down that she is really a girl as well as a topical cream that turns blue when it touches a boy. Through these creative methods, Tezuka consistently portrays gender as something supernatural rather than something sociological.

If we step away from Tezuka’s interpretation of gender and instead use a more contemporary understanding of gender such as that popularized by feminist philosophers like Judith Butler, we can gain a better understanding of Sapphire’s character.

Our genders are not innate. They are the result of how we have learned to habitually react to our social environments. The gender we develop over time then informs our identities which serve to reinforce our habitual behavior. When gender is “performed” it is not a conscious act where everyone within proximity is aware of the façade. Gender is a constant series of small behaviors that are meant to go unnoticed and if ever noticed, be dismissed as inherent qualities inseparable from our sense of self, rather than the result of the rigorous teachings we absorb from birth through socialization.

Due to her circumstances Sapphire learned to present herself as either a boy or a girl depending on who she is around. She has developed two behavioral personas of conflicting gender: the Princess whom is known within the walls of the palace, and the Prince whom is shown to the outside world. When interacting with anyone outside of her private circle, Sapphire wears tights, a large brimmed hat, carries a sword and is read as masculine. (It’s important to recognize that attributes associated with any gender are highly dependent on societal context. Silverland’s setting is inspired by Medieval Europe and so within that context it’s understood that Sapphire’s daily attire is to be read as masculine within her society, even though her lack of pants and flamboyant hat would be read as feminine in a modern American context.)

While presenting her persona of the Prince to the outside world, sapphire is never unsure of her true status as a girl. She simply portrays a boy as necessity dictates, like many real-life women have had to do throughout history. It is because of her identity as a girl that Sapphire is so desperately committed to convincing others of the Prince’s masculinity. As the Prince she cannot brush off accusations of being unmanly, for they could raise suspicions and endanger her secret and by extension her kingdom. When fearful her secret could be discovered, and her country’s future could be at risk, she consciously attempts to act manlier. She competes in sports, challenges adult men to duels, and even starts bar fights in order to prove that she can perform feats that girls cannot. (Because obviously girls aren’t capable of any of those things, or at least those are things girls are not expected to do in Sapphire’s society.) It’s Sapphire’s ambition and rowdiness that successfully keep suspicion of her girlhood at bay. But by repeatedly performing the act of the Prince, Sapphire internalizes the masculine behaviors she puts on and they become a part of personality.

Ironically, Sapphire’s feats of toughness only prove to the audience that a girl can indeed do all the things she claims to others are proof that she must be a boy to her fellow countrymen. However, Sapphire’s accomplishments do nothing to challenge perceptions of women as it’s made clear to the audience that Sapphire is a very special exception and not the rule.

All the other women portrayed in the series fall neatly into the categories of: wicked witches, wise mothers, or daddy’s girls. For example, the characters of Queen Icicle, Sapphire’s mother and Zenda embody each of these categories respectively. These stereotype-based character’s do nothing to convince the audience that femininity has the capacity for competence. This unfortunate lack of depth to Princess Knight’s female characters even extends to Sapphire when she embodies her private persona of the Princess known within the palace walls as Princess Knight in the English dub.

In a hidden chamber connected to her bedroom is a wardrobe of wigs and dresses that Sapphire dresses up in when no one is around. In the anime, this hidden wardrobe is treated as an infatuation of Sapphire’s. Her servants grieve for Sapphire’s situation, wishing she could be a princess all the time, implying that Sapphire’s performance of femininity in the secret chamber is somehow a persona closer to her true self. It’s apparent that the servant’s view on Sapphire’s inner desires is shared by Tezuka himself. Tezuka wants the audience to pity a girl that has responsibilities beyond playing dress up, and that a girl who cannot be a princess destined to marry a prince is one allotted a cruel fate.

When Sapphire takes on her persona of the Princess all her personality traits fade to emphasize her beauty. As a Prince Sapphire doesn’t qualify as beautiful, but after quickly changing into a dress and a wig, she is suddenly beautiful enough to make a foreign prince, by the name of Prince Frank in the English dub, fall in love with her during a Cinderella-esque night of dancing.

Prince Frank only falls for Sapphire once he perceives her as a girl. When he initially meets her as the Prince of Silverland the two share a rivalry where they compete with one another as equals. When Frank perceives Sapphire as a boy he fights alongside her or tries to outdo her, but once he perceives Sapphire as a girl he becomes smitten and goes out of his way to discourage Sapphire from attending the battlefield, even when her own country in on the line. As her love interest, Prince Frank compliments Sapphire’s good looks above any other quality.

In a Snow White inspired episode, the mirror on the wall deems Sapphire’s Princess Persona the fairest of them all, emphasizing that Sapphire’s sole accomplishment as the Princess is her beauty. A shallow and stereotypical beauty, which is dependent on her state of dress and the opinion of those around her. What’s more, Sapphire’s beauty is purely due to her status as the heroine. Being a character on the side of good, Sapphire is spared of any imperfections that are found on the faces of the series’ various villainesses. Sapphire’s Princess persona is defined as a character solely by her looks, despite her literally being the same person and having the same face as Silverland’s Prince.

The audience is meant to sympathize more with Sapphire because she has the two traits deemed most desirable in women by patriarchal society, young and attractive. (Unfortunately, ugly female protagonists in anime are all too rare.) One of the most common mistakes made by men writing female characters is that they can forget women have their own perspective from which they look at things, as opposed to their existence revolving around being looked at.

At the halfway point of the series, Silverland’s sexist laws regarding the inheritance of the throne are changed and Sapphire’s secret is revealed to the public with no consequence. Once her secret is out, the show drops the surrounding conflict, and Sapphire finally represents a non-traditional take on gender within her own society, at least in appearances. Sapphire no longer must pretend to be a boy and begins to go by the title Princess full time, yet she doesn’t change her daily attire. When venturing into foreign countries where her reputation doesn’t precede her, she is still referred to as a boy. She doesn’t correct those around her, perhaps out of habit. But as for Sapphire’s masculine behavior, particularly her acts of heroism in combat, she finds a new persona to replace the Prince.

The Phantom Knight is a masked swordsman Sapphire developed in order to outwit a villain’s scheme. But even after the Phantom Knight is no longer needed, Sapphire continues to dress up and fight as him. Instead of consistently defying the sexism she encounters Princess Knight will humbly obey her orders to leave the battlefield on account of the fact that she is a girl and the Phantom Knight will miraculously appear to fight in her place. Indeed, Sapphire finds a type of individual freedom in seamlessly slipping from one persona to another to best fit her purposes without causing upset, but this does nothing to actually liberate Sapphire from her obligation to keep parts of herself a secret from everyone around her.

It’s no longer her country’s throne on the line but her reputation as a girl who upholds the role given to her. Sapphire’s clandestine heroism as the Phantom Knight is an outlet for when she doesn’t want to accept the social constraints of being perceived as a girl, but it’s not a remedy for the narrowminded people around her responsible for those constraints.

Sapphire continues to masquerade as a boy with the only real difference being that her two genders have traded spaces. She now presents her girl persona to the public and keeps her boy persona to herself. The Phantom Knight takes on the burdens of adventure, combat, justice and heroism so that Princess Knight can tend to her romance with Prince Frank, which she can freely pursue now that she’s perceived as a girl in the public eye. And as Sapphire displayed so adamantly in the first half of the series, girls are incapable of feats performed by a man such as the Phantom Knight.

With her new secret identity, Sapphire’s gendered personas are more cleanly split than before, and traditional depictions of gender are never really challenged by Sapphire or the series as a whole. After all, what Tezuka wants for Sapphire is not for her to have a secret identity or to lead the life of a prince/knight, but for her to ultimately take on the traditional goal of womanhood, marriage.

At the end of the series the final fight for Silverland’s future becomes dependent on a magic axe. Even during the most critical point of saving Silverland, when Sapphire is to use the axe to save her country, Prince Frank tries to take the weapon away from her as he deems it unfit for a girl to handle. Sapphire must take it back by force before she can run off and save her kingdom. Once the conflict is over, Choppy takes Sapphire’s blue boy heart with him as he returns to heaven. With her canonical source of masculine behavior gone, Sapphire marries Prince Frank. It’s heavily implied that she never takes on the persona of the Phantom Knight now that her country is at peace.

While the audience is supposed to be happy for Sapphire who has found love and can finally live the fantasy once confined to a secret chamber in the palace, it feels more like Tezuka has only made Sapphire finally submit to a traditional female gender role he always intended her for. Sapphire’s conservative ending is actually the second of the anime. It closely follows the solution to Zenda’s character.

Zenda is the daughter of Satan. After daring to show kindness toward a human boy, Zenda is punished and placed in an irreversible situation where she has lost all magical powers, cannot return to her family nor live on her own. The last we see of Zenda is her walking off in to the distance with a boy she barely knows. Sapphire’s and Zenda’s fates where they must trade power for a male partner parallel each other and make for a dissatisfying, if not depressing, ending to series.

Again, Princess Knight ultimately exemplifies a very simple view of gender, where once Sapphire trades her sword for a bouquet, all her stereotypical qualities of masculinity are discarded and the act of doing so is easy and magical.

It feels odd to compare Princess Knight, with its cliché fairytale wedding as its finale and ultimate lack of commentary on gender, to other manga and anime that properly tackle the complexities of crossdressing and gender. One such series that delves into gender as one of its main themes and is frequently brought up in conversations about Princess Knight is Rose of Versailles. The comparisons between these two specific series often feel misguided since Prince Knight is much less a story about crossdressing and gender performance as it is a story that happens to include those things. And yet many people not only compare Princess Knight to Rose of Versailles but even go as far to claim Princess Knight to be Rose of Versailles’ spiritual predecessor. This claim is most likely due to the similarities these two works share in their premises. In Rose of Versailles, the Commander of the Royal Guards fails to produce a male heir, so he decides to give his daughter the name Oscar and raise her as a boy.

Beyond their initial setups, the two series have little else in common. Oscar’s sex is not kept a secret. She was raised as a man, acts as a man, but is still indeed a woman. So all of Oscar’s accomplishments are as a woman, thus bending the gender expectations assigned to women, and ultimately defying the limitations placed on women by their social role in 18th century France. When it comes to Oscar’s masculine behaviors, Rose of Versailles argues nurture as the source while Princess Knight canonically argues nature.

Sapphire does not take on adventures and face danger because she was raised as a prince but because she was mistakenly given the heart of a boy. Tezuka’s simplistic approach to Sapphire’s identity means that her gender, despite being the crux of the story, it isn’t very crucial to Sapphire’s character. In a story like Rose of Versailles, swapping the protagonist’s gender would change the story entirely. But in Princess Knight, you could change the storyline to be about a male prince who happens to like dressing as a girl, but the secret could shame him out of the throne and the plot would play virtually the same. Sapphire doesn’t defy gender roles the way Oscar does. Sapphire is merely trying to uphold two roles at the same time.

As previously mentioned there is a distinct lack of sex and by extension sexuality in Princess Knight. Sapphire’s struggle with gender is never sexual. Where as in Rose of Versailles Oscar’s troubled relationships are dripping with sexual tension. Part of this is because Oscar’s struggle with gender is an internal one. She must struggle with her own self-image and how that image will affect the relationships she wants and the duties she must uphold. But Sapphire’s struggles in the Princess Knight anime are almost completely external. She only fears her secret being outed because of the threat of external backlash that’s presumed to follow. Sapphire is never unsure of who she is and what she wants, she just has to wait for the right time to reveal such things. Much like crediting Princess Knight as the first shoujo, crediting it as the spiritual predecessor to Rose a Versailles is a stretch at best.

Overall, I believe Princess Knight’s reputation over-hypes the anime series. I don’t think Princess Knight is a good introduction to Tezuka’s work, it’s certainly not his best, and I don’t think its aged very well to boot. (I think Black Jack in any of its iterations is a better place to start for those uninitiated to the God of Manga.)

The Princess Knight anime covers little new ground in its storytelling, especially when it comes to depictions of gender. Almost every episode’s premise is directed lifted from a classic fairytale and its conservation ending does nothing to challenge to audience’s nor society’s expectation for Sapphire as a female character conceived in the 1950s. Thankfully the decades that followed produced better anime with more to bite into when it comes to gender such as Rose of VersaillesRevolutionary Girl UtenaOuran High School Host Club to name a few. Rather than looking backwards to Princess Knight’s depictions of gender and women, we should look forwards to the improved representations that have and will continue to be created as the landscape around such topics expands and deepens.


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