Princess Knight is a manga that feels like a movie, from the opening scenes of the storyteller creating the characters from clay, which are arranged vertically like a filmstrip, to the fast-moving slapstick that follows. More precisely, it feels like a Disney movie, which is not surprising, as creator Osamu Tezuka was a huge Disney fan. Readers will get to see for themselves this October, when Vertical publishes the first volume of the series; it is currently available for pre-order in the August Previews.
Often credited (incorrectly) as the first shoujo manga, Princess Knight began serialization in 1953 in the girls' magazine Shojo Club and was indeed different from anything that had come before. All the aspects that seem classic now—the gender-bender plot in which a brave girl dresses as a male to fight evil, the romantic complications that ensue, even the big, sparkling eyes—all were brand-new in this story.
Princess Knight begins with a mixup: Up in heaven, God is handing out hearts to babies who are about to be born: Boys get brave hearts, girls get gentle ones. (Yes, it was 1953.) A mischievous angel named Tink (renamed Choppy in the anime version) gives a baby a boy heart, and a few minutes later, God gives the same baby a girl heart. "That poor baby won't know if it's supposed to a be a boy or a girl!!" God thunders when he learns of the mistake, and he takes away Tink's powers and sends him off to earth to retrieve the boy heart so the baby can live as a girl.
Complications ensue! This isn't just any human baby, it's Princess Sapphire, the daughter of the king and queen of a vaguely medieval country that only allows males to inherit the throne. Shortly after the baby is born, a rumor circulates that the new royal family member is a boy, and Sapphire's parents decide to run with it, requiring her to live as a boy half the time and a girl the other half, although she always appears as a male in public. This is to prevent Sapphire's uncle, the evil Duke Duralumin, from muscling the throne away to his son Nylon, and it also allows Sapphire to build up her sword-fighting skills. This comes in handy after her father dies and she has to go it alone.
Princess Knight has the structure and feel of a Disney cartoon, which is not surprising, as Tezuka was a big fan of Disney's work. The story has a classic fairy-tale setting, a vaguely European country during the middle ages, with a king and queen, a Royal Guard who are a bunch of bullies, and quaint villages filled with peasants. The characters have the rounded, big-eyed look of classic Disney characters, and the pacing and slapstick humor conjure up such classics as "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." In one sequence, Sapphire is imprisoned in the tower and forced to do menial work, but after she is kind to a group of mice, they show her an escape route—a plot device very similar to a sequence in Cinderella.
As for it being the first shoujo manga story, Matt Thorn points out that manga for girls was well established long before Princess Knight, and he singles out Katsuji Matsumoto's 1934 story "The Mysterious Clover" as an example of manga that features an adventuresome girl, and there is a fascinating video interview at Masters of Manga with early shoujo manga creator Akira Maruyama, who says that the manga of that era is underrated. Still, Tezuka's story seems to have caught the popular imagination in a way that earlier shoujo manga did not.
The Princess Knight story was so popular it went through several different iterations. The first series ran from 1953 to 1956 in Shojo Club magazine. The sequel, Twin Knight (the story of Sapphire's children) ran from1958 to 1959 in another Kodansha magazine, Nakayoshi. The original story was revived and reworked in 1963, also in Nakayoshi. This version is the basis for the anime Choppy and the Princess. Vertical is publishing the original 1953 version in two volumes, each over 300 pages and priced at $13.99.
This is not the first time Princess Knight has appeared in English: Kodansha published a bilingual English/Japanese edition aimed at language students in 2001, but that is long out of print and goes for $50 a copy on Amazon. Shojo Beat magazine published several excerpts in its July 2007 issue, but this is the first time that English-speaking manga fans will get the full Princess Knight story in a translation created just for them.