BY CATHERINE KYLE Human relationships with nonhuman entities are a prominent motif in Osamu Tezuka’s manga. From Metropolis (Metoroporisu, 1949) and Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, 1952-1968) to Kimba the White Lion (Junguru taitei, 1950-54), nonhuman characters play significant roles both thematically and narratologically, be they mammalian or mechanical. As Susanne Phillipps observes, these characters do not only serve to create enticing and imaginative narrative landscapes; they also infuse Tezuka’s work with broader social relevance (80-81). She writes, “Using this fictional device, Tezuka is exploring real problems in contemporary Japanese society,” such as racism, and adds that his heroes who straddle the line between human and nonhuman existence “attain an unusual psychological depth because they are liminal figures. They stand between different groups” (81). In addition to naming Kimba (a lion) and Astro Boy (a robot) as figures who stand “between humans and animals” and “between humans and machines,” respectively, Phillipps also mentions Princess Sapphire of Tezuka’s shôjo manga, Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi, 1953-56), as one who “stands between men and women” (81). In the manga, the biologically female princess is raised as a boy, her sex concealed from ill-intentioned nobles, so that she can ascend the throne in adulthood.
To complicate matters, she was born with both a “male heart” and a “female heart”
(depicted as literal, valentine-heart-shaped objects that can enter and exit the body) due to a mix-up in Heaven. In these simplified terms, Sapphire is configured as an unconventional, “tomboyish” princess due to both nature and nurture. In her cross-dressing exploits and gender-bending adventures, Sapphire troubles the line between male and female, a fact that has caused some fans and reviewers to laud the text as forward-thinking and feminist (Bryce 139; Dacey; McCarthy).
Throughout the manga, Tezuka toys with notions of gender essentialism and performance to expose the arbitrariness of traditional gender roles.
In addition to the exaggerated changes that occur in Sapphire when one of her hearts is removed, costume changes, masks, and mistaken identities abound in Princess Knight, all serving to question the flexibility of the human personality.
Significantly, not all of these changes are limited to characters’ clothing, nor the presence/absence of Sapphire’s hearts. In the case of several female characters, the shift in presentation from one life form to another affects the physical body itself, turning characters from women into furry, feathered, and even scaly creatures. Given Tezuka’s general fascination with the animal kingdom (Knighton), and the concern he expresses over sexism in Princess Knight, it seems unlikely that the intersection of these themes is coincidental. Adding this to the author’s extensive knowledge of (and allusion to) western fairy tales, theater, and literature, this conflation of women with nonhuman life appears even more fraught.
I suggest that Tezuka’s inclusion of female-to-animal transformations contributes to the feminist underpinnings of Princess Knight by revealing—and subsequently complicating—the traditional binary that divides “good” from “evil” women in western folklore.
In order to better understand this interpretation, let us first consider the transformations undergone by two of the main characters: Princess Sapphire and her adversary Madame Hell.
On the most basic level, it is interesting to note the animals into which these two women transform, bearing in mind that these creatures carry symbolic implications. Sapphire changes briefly into a swan, while Madame Hell turns into a bat, a dragon, and an enormous owl. The bat is her favored nonhuman disguise, and she assumes this form on numerous occasions. Given even a peripheral knowledge of western culture and legend, readers are likely to identify Sapphire’s animal form as more innocuous and delicate than Madame Hell’s. Swans are commonly associated with grace and elegance (and damsels in distress, as will be discussed), while bats and dragons are more frequently linked to vampirism and destruction. The owl carries mixed connotations in western mythology; however, the monstrous size and ferocious behavior of Madame-Hell-as-owl clearly mark this one as negative. Readers’ reception of these females’ transformations is influenced by other visual cues, as well. For example, Sapphire’s swan form is white, while all of Madame Hell’s animal manifestations are primarily black. Admittedly, while these colors may carry different symbolic meanings in traditional Japanese lore, Tezuka’s ubiquitous borrowing from European fairy tales indicates his assumption that audiences would have enough understanding of western symbolism and visual rhetoric to be able to comprehend this coded chromatic discrepancy—i.e., the deeply entrenched “light/dark as good/bad” binary. Given the tremendous influx of western culture (including Disney films and Hollywood musicals) that surged into Japan following the end of World War II, this assumption was likely a safe one. Disney films and western musicals are frequently cited as major influences on Tezuka’s work (Hikari 301; Schodt 255; Valenti), and both would have been available to readers of the 1950s. However, even setting aside external cultural knowledge, Tezuka takes steps within the text to ensure that readers will associate Sapphire’s white swan form with goodness and order, and Madame Hell’s darker animal forms with wickedness and chaos.
By electing to portray Sapphire as a swan and Madame Hell as a bat, Tezuka associates them with the Christian God and Satan, who appear as characters and who reflect diametrically opposed systems of values in Princess Knight.
His methods of achieving this are subtle but effective, and the parallels between these winged creatures and their respective deities recur over the course of the narrative, emphasizing the cosmological leanings they embody. In the opening pages of Princess Knight, for instance, the souls of unborn children are transported to Earth on an enormous ship in the shape of a white bird (Part I 11-12). Later on, Tink, Sapphire’s angelic helper, comes to the princess’s aid riding on the back of a long-necked, white bird with webbed feet (178). Additionally, when Tink prays for God to bestow a supply of surplus food to the hungry, the meals transform into flurries of doves that soar out the window (311-312). There are other examples of white bird-related imagery that accompany episodes of divine intervention, but these are a few of the more overt ones. If only because they notice that Tink invokes the help of amiable birds more than once, or at the very least, if they observe that God and his entourage of angels sport white, feathery wings, readers are likely to recognize the correlation between Sapphire’s transformation and the sorts of animals that are deemed “good” and “holy” in the text.
In contrast, Madame Hell’s bat form is linked to the “Demon King,” Satan (Part II 135). At one point, Madame Hell and Satan invite an army of monsters to help them celebrate their invasion of a castle. In the panel where the nefarious guests arrive, nearly half of them have bat-like wings (178). Furthermore, all are shown in silhouette, stressing the connection between evil and darkness. Additionally, when Tink comes to save the day, it is a bat who warns Madame Hell about his arrival, enabling her to raise defensive barriers (183). This positioning of the bat as a direct enemy of the angel, Tink, implicates the creature in wickedness and categorizes it as a demonic agent. Madame Hell’s dragon form, with its black body and bat-like wings, is correspondingly labeled as a symbol of evil (Part I 256-258). As for the owl form, though there are some ornithoid creatures in Satan’s congregation, a clear line is drawn between the bird-like creatures who signal holiness and those who are conflated with evil (Part II 178). Again, this distinction is primarily achieved through the use of color. In one telling scene, one of Tink’s helper birds—who is all white, but for a few tail feathers—is attacked by a falcon, who is almost entirely black (Part I 134). Other visual cues indicate that the falcon is the aggressor while the smaller bird is the innocent victim, such as the former’s downward-bent brow and nasty-looking smirk. Vultures are also portrayed as black, wicked, and violent; the dashing Prince Franz of Goldland even shoots them down when they assault Sapphire in her swan form, although he is unaware of the swan’s true identity (Part I 215, 223-225). Franz has no clear reason for defending the swan nor resenting the vultures; it is simply taken for granted that he rescues the swan because it is somehow morally proper. These scenes clearly illustrate the difference between “good” birds and “bad” ones, such that when Madame Hell transforms into the gigantic, shaded owl near the end of her story arc, it is unlikely to be mistaken for a symbol of benevolence (Part II 197-199). All told, even these basic visual and narrative representations of Sapphire and Madame Hell in animal guise reveal much about Tezuka’s intentions regarding the reception of their characters. In short, he invokes a familiar binary frequently seen in western fairy tales where women fall into two categories: the damsel in distress and the purely evil witch.
As many feminist critics have noted, this binary is problematic on many levels. Though Tezuka eventually challenges the strict delineation of damsel and villainess, he first solidifies their discrepancies even more.
The binary between “good” and “evil” women is bolstered in several ways, one of which involves clarifying the magical status of Sapphire and Madame Hell. Tezuka ensures that while Sapphire is the object of magical spells, she is never the subject that causes them. While Madame Hell uses magic to exert her will over others, manipulate her reality, and of course, transform spontaneously into various nonhuman forms, Sapphire only extracts herself from trouble using ordinary, mortal means—sword fighting, disguises, and so on. This serves to distance her from one of the features that defines Madame Hell as a villain: her participation in witchcraft. In the text, a traditional, pointy-hatted witch on a broomstick is seen among the ranks of Satan’s army, aligning this archetype with the demonic (Part II 178). To further communicate the idea that Madame Hell is evil because she is a magic-user while Sapphire is laudable because she is a passive magic-recipient, Tezuka employs several devices.
First, there is the issue of the transformation scenes and contexts themselves. Tezuka takes care to distance Sapphire from the frightening image of the shape-shifting witch. When Sapphire turns into a swan, her transformation is portrayed as unnatural; it is facilitated by a magic potion, not by any innate power that resides within her (Part I 221-222). The potion serves as an enabling object, an external catalyst that forces the transformation. This indirect process shows the artificiality of Sapphire’s conversion; her morph is not organic, but rather, chemically concocted. Though she accepts the potion in order to escape her enemies, she cries out, “It hurts!” as her body changes, illustrating the incompatibility of her new bestial form with her original human one (Part I 222).
By framing Sapphire as the reluctant victim of this magical act—the enchanted rather than the enchantress—in her encounter with interspecies flexibility, Tezuka maintains her position as the archetypal “good,” the damsel in distress.
In contrast, each of Madame Hell’s transformations occurs spontaneously and without the aid of a magical object, signaling the inextricability of her sorcery from her body and soul. Her shape-shifts are often accompanied by puffs of smoke and tongues of flame, further conflating her morphs with satanic imagery. Moreover, there is the simple fact that Sapphire only transforms once, whereas Madame Hell transforms multiple times. Most importantly, Madame Hell’s animalistic transformations are the direct result of her status as a supernatural entity, whereas Sapphire’s are indirect. This difference in the means by which transformation is achieved also ties into a larger thematic discrepancy that divides the two women’s changes: their convincingness.
Natsu Onoda Power observes that even when Sapphire is posing as a man, her performances are “never very ‘convincing’ to readers…if anything the images call attention to the incongruity between her masculine speech and her womanly figure” (121). While they may fool other characters in the text, Sapphire’s attempts at acting like a man read to audiences as exactly that: acting.
In the sequences involving animal transformations in Princess Knight, Tezuka plays with notions of staginess and theatricality in fascinating ways that reveal even more information about his complex representations of gender and morality.
In short, Sapphire’s transformation is once again depicted as temporary, contrived, and even somewhat ridiculous, while Madame Hell’s are portrayed as more serious, legitimate, and ominous. The imbalance between the levels of realism reflected in these transformations helps to express the stark separation between Sapphire’s goodness and Madame Hell’s evil.
Theatricality is a recurring theme in Tezuka’s oeuvre. The author’s early encounters with the Takarazuka Revue, Japan’s famous all-female performance group, were a source of significant inspiration to him, and the influence of these elaborate staged productions on his manga is apparent, both visually and narratologically (Power 115; Schodt 254-255). Princess Knight provides abundant evidence of this. In an afterword following the graphic novel in a Collected Works edition, the author reflects, “I spent my childhood and young adulthood in the sweet, extravagant ambiance of musical dramas. The characters and costumes in my works are greatly influenced by the stage. My girls’ comics, in particular, contain great nostalgia for Takarazuka” (qtd. in Power 116). Kristy Valenti notes several examples of this, observing that Princess Knight’s “fairy tale world is inherently stagier [than Tezuka’s later manga]; the backgrounds look like animation backgrounds (the Disney influence is can’t miss)…swordfight scenes look like flashy choreography, complete with dramatic entrances.” Power comments on the exaggerated nature of “Prince” Sapphire’s male affectations, comparing her “use of masculine pronouns,” “big hand gestures,” and “wide strides” to an otoko-yaku, a member of the Takarazuka Revue who played male roles (Power 121). Costumes in Princess Knight are almost stereotypical in their simplicity, cleanly delineating hero from villain, and the exaggerated facial features of certain characters similarly mark them as wicked, comical, or undignified, not unlike theatrical masks. Visually speaking, the manga is replete with cues that associate it with the world of the stage.
Given Tezuka’s passion for the performing arts, it is interesting to note the varying levels of “theatricality” represented in Sapphire’s and Madame Hell’s transformations. Though both women change from their ordinary forms into animalistic ones to conceal their true identities, the totality of each character’s shape-shift varies. When Madame Hell transforms, the effect is complete. Whether she is a bat, a dragon, or a fearsome owl, her animal shapes are entirely devoid of any visual markings that might identify her as human or betray her true nature. Moreover, narratologically, no one is able to see through her disguises; her deception is airtight. When Madame Hell becomes the animals, she is literally turning into them, and there is nothing playful about her other-bodied representations. Her dragon form has jagged teeth and sharp claws, and her fiery breath almost murders Tink and Sapphire (Part I 256-257). As the owl, she nearly destroys Prince Franz, shattering his treasured sword with her oversized, clenching beak (Part II 198). In bat form, her minimalistic features in no way resemble her human face. The completeness of her transformation allows her to invade private spaces, including Sapphire’s bedroom (174-175).
Her undetected entry into such a vulnerable and intimate setting arguably represents the total ease with which she may slip past characters’ defenses, and possibly even readers’.
Visually, it is impossible to distinguish Madame Hell’s bat form from anonymous, ordinary bats until a speech or thought bubble betrays her. These instances of violence and intrusion indicate that she has no trouble acting as these monsters, not simply like them. They are not mere “costumes”; the animals are Madame Hell, and she is them.
Contrastingly, Sapphire’s shape-shift is theatrical and campy. Her body changes into that of a swan, yet she retains several features that blaringly betray her as human.
Valenti observes that during Sapphire’s time spent transformed, she “looks like she’s just in a swan costume—human legs are visible, and she can speak, although the other characters ‘see’ her as a swan” (and hear her as one, too). Indeed, not only does the swan-Sapphire sport a pair of humanlike legs, but also a small crown and her signature wide, sparkling, and heavy-lashed eyes (Part I 222). The crown is particularly noteworthy here because prior to her transformation, the human Sapphire was not wearing such an article. Ironically, rather than obfuscating her identity, Sapphire’s transformation into the swan makes her more readily recognizable to readers as the princess she truly is.
Furthermore, it adds an element of intertextuality to the story—the deposed princess as crowned swan is a direct reference to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet, Swan Lake. This literary allusion continues when Prince Franz is almost tricked into marrying Sapphire’s doppelganger (244-255), a deception that also occurs in Swan Lake. Far from being a poor attempt at narrative plagiarism, this nod to European folklore and to Tchaikovsky’s staged performance only contributes to the assessment that Tezuka both admired and purposefully tinkered with these cultural texts.
Like Swan Lake’s Princess Odette, Sapphire is not “really” an animal; she is a pure-hearted and innocent maiden, forcibly transmuted into bestial form. Sapphire’s symbolic removal from her animalistic appearance is further expressed through Prince Franz’s interactions with her during her time spent as a swan. Though Franz hears Sapphire’s attempts at communication only as unintelligible honks, he “sees” through his loved one’s shabby disguise. After saving the swan from vultures, he takes her back to his palace, feeling strangely drawn to her. At one point, he confesses, “Dear Swan, if you could understand human speech I’d pour my heart out to you…How now? Do you cry? Are you sad too? If you were human, we could comfort each other” (Part I 238). With these words, he articulates feelings of empathy and affinity that transcend the artificially constructed interspecies gap. Finally, he rejects the doppelganger bride on account of her unfamiliar eyes, shouting, “It’s not [Sapphire]!…I would know it was her just by looking into her eyes. Her eyes were pure and clear, yet sad. Just like this swan’s” (252). Though Franz does not fully realize the identity of the white bird, he senses that there is more to her than meets the eye. He is not taken in by the performance she puts on, and as readers, we share in his unconvinced stance due to Tezuka’s careful visual rhetoric. Through the ridiculousness of Sapphire’s “transformation” and the perceptive insight of the prince, the author portrays his heroine’s shape-shift as laughable and false. We know that it will be temporary, and that Sapphire is about as much animal as she is male. Both are acts, and we need not fear for her “true” (human, female) identity hiding intact beneath both roles.
For just as Sapphire casts off her animal guise, so too does she step outside her masculine role by the end of the narrative, supplying us with one final piece of authorial commentary on gender roles and social scripts. In the end, Sapphire’s male heart is removed, and she happily declares to Franz, “Let’s get married! I’ll wear a gown and say my vows to you as a woman!” (Part II 346). Paul Gravett dubs this a “fairytale ending,” and concludes that Sapphire “was no feminist rebel after all” (77).
Power, too, asserts that Sapphire’s “true happiness comes from being in a traditional feminine role” and writes that “In constantly ‘failing’ to imitate the male gender in readers’ eyes, and ultimately choosing happiness in the traditional role of a wife and mother, Sapphire’s drag reinforces, more than unsettles, the status quo” (121-122).
Though Ed Sizemore’s suggestion that “Sapphire is not responding to which heart is more dominant,” but rather that she “is acting as the people around her perceive her” is insightful, I agree with Power in her belief that “Sapphire must have sent complex, if not conflicting messages to the young female readers of the 1950s,” and of today (122). Kumiko Saito argues that shōjo manga in general treat girls’ freedom from the expectations of traditional gender roles as a pleasurable but inevitably fleeting, unsustainable phase. In spite of the intriguing character development allotted to both Sapphire and Madame Hell, ultimately, they both function as somewhat predictable archetypes, suggesting that women can only hope to adhere to gender norms or die.
However, this binary is disrupted by the presence of Hecate, Madame Hell’s rebellious teenage daughter. This defiant youth subverts both the narrative trajectories of the stereotypical female villain and the stereotypical damsel in distress, drawing from both and yet charting new possibilities for female readers. Just as Sapphire and Madame Hell’s participation in the good/evil binary is reflected in their interspecies transformations, Hecate’s departure from these limiting social scripts is expressed, in part, by her animalistic morphs.
Upon first glance, it seems as though Hecate’s shape-shifts code her as more of a demonic figure than an angelic one. Over the course of the narrative, she turns into a cat, a goat, and a serpent, all of which are linked in some way to western and Christian conceptions of evil. Cats are commonly associated with witchcraft, and in Tezuka’s text, feline creatures appear at Satan’s celebration (Part II, 179, 186). Goats, too, bear connotations of wickedness due to their historical links to paganism, and these creatures appear on Mount Resin, the so-called “devil’s lair” and home to Satan himself (132).
The serpent is, perhaps, the most loaded symbol in terms of gender and morality, bringing to mind the Biblical fall from grace—a tragedy attributed to female weakness.
In addition to this religious implication, snakes are affiliated with Madame Hell (and thereby, with evil) when she sends them to attack several protagonists (29). Like her mother, Hecate can shape-shift without the aid of a potion, though her transformations are unaccompanied by the same dramatic presence of black smoke and fire (138, 197). Furthermore, since Madame Hell is the bride of Satan and we are not told of any other lovers she may have had, it seems likely that Hecate is their biological daughter (133). When Hecate first meets Sapphire, she barrages her with hellish fireballs (Part I 210-211). Given these numerous facts, it initially appears as though Hecate will be positioned as a villain.
Yet, the representations of this character in nonhuman form complicate this understanding. Though Hecate changes into animals popularly associated with evil, all of them are colored white, which as has been previously discussed, inclines them toward “good” and holy imagery. When Hecate first morphs into feline form, she even makes a point of announcing that she will turn into a “white cat” (Part II 48). Her transformations are also overtly theatrical, similar to Sapphire’s. In each of her nonhuman forms, Hecate is still adorable, cartoonish, and easily identifiable. As a cat, she retains her bangs and flowing ponytail (complete with girlish ribbon), along with human-style eyes. These eyes, again, prove the window to the soul, as Prince Franz realizes that Hecate and the white cat he encountered earlier are one and the same after the two lock gazes (106). Her hair and eyes are also present in her serpent form (197). When Hecate appears as a goat, her whole human head is intact, allowing Franz to recognize her immediately (138). The girl even quips that she was merely “kidding around as a goat,” highlighting the performative and fleeting nature of her “disguise.” Unlike Madame Hell, Hecate uses her ability to help others, rather than to spy, harm, or destroy. In her straddling of the line between sweet and monstrous femininity, Hecate echoes Phillips’s identification of the liminal figure.
Rather than standing between humans and animals, humans and machines, or even men and women, she stands on the boundary between female social scripts.
Discontent to bend to either extreme of gendered morality, Hecate carves out a new path based on her own desires and dreams. Though her mother wishes for her to devour Sapphire’s “girl heart” and marry Prince Franz, Hecate rebels against these commands vehemently and repeatedly helps Sapphire. She scoffs at the idea of a “stultifyingly dull” married life, yet she also rejects the option of her mother’s tyrannical sorcery (Part I 220). Acting independently from either social script, Hecate smashes the artificial line between unquestioned good and indomitable evil with regard to female subjectivity.
As Valenti observes, Hecate is the only individual who wears 1950s attire, a conscious visual choice that may signify the author’s hopes for her character. In spite of the “conflicting messages” that Sapphire may send, perhaps Tezuka meant to express a clearer message to his contemporary female readers by dressing Hecate in the clothing of their day. Given his inclusion of a successful women’s rights movement and an entirely matriarchal society in Princess Knight,
one would be hard pressed to say that Tezuka’s manga does not carry feminist undertones. Yet, there is the curious fact that Hecate dies in the manga, complicating her status as a symbol of hope. Perhaps this tragic ending is meant to inspire readers to create a social climate where liminal women could instead live and thrive.
Indeed, in the anime adaptation of the series that ran from 1967-1968, Hecate survives. A romance is implied between her and a young soldier, but she does not wed. Even this small alteration to the character’s ending suggests that the range of options for young women were expanding at this time. By the 1970s, feminism experienced a resurgence in Japan (Kuninobu 14-15), one that Hecate’s revised fate seems to anticipate.
In his review of Princess Knight, Sizemore writes that “Tezuka is critiquing the false dichotomy that society creates among male and female,” and that the narrative carries a “message of gender equality.” Certainly, throughout the graphic novel, Tezuka’s playful prods at gender performativity and the fluid nature of identity invite readers to contemplate the origins of their own biases, expectations, and perceived norms regarding romance and sexuality. While Sapphire can reasonably be read as a progressive, feminist character, Tezuka’s more provocative commentary may lie in his less obvious female hero, Hecate. By defying the binary so frequently propagated by western fairy tales and other cultural narratives, this character does much to advance Tezuka’s symbolic call for equal gender rights.
Catherine Kyle is a Ph.D. student in English at Western Michigan University. She has published articles on the representations of female superheroes in popular culture in Colloquy and the anthology Heroines of Film and Television (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). Her website is www.catherinebaileykyle.com.
I would like to thank the Library of the College of Western Idaho, the Graduate College of Western Michigan University, and the Children’s Literature Association for their contributions to this essay.
Two of the female characters mentioned in this discussion—Madame Hell and Hecate—are technically demons, not humans. However, they assume human form and display human behavior and emotion.
This may, of course, be intended to represent the mythical stork of infant-delivery, but regardless, it is significant insofar as it is a serene-looking, pure white bird.
For example, Duke Duralumin and Sir Nylon, two main antagonists, have exaggerated facial features (extremely bushy eyebrows and an impossibly long nose, respectively), on which others comment throughout the story.
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