Princess Knight Volume 2

I think reading the first volume of Princess Knight prompted me to enjoy the second volume more, because I was primed to enjoy all the insane plot developments, and I was no longer expecting Princess Sapphire’s gender issues to be dealt with in a serious way. Instead I opened the book expecting to find more fun fairy tale pastiche, and that’s exactly what I got. I grew to have more affection for Prince Franz, because I decided that Tezuka was deliberately portraying him as an idiot. He finds out that Sapphire’s been cross dressing and spurns her, not realizing that she’s his long-lost “flaxen haired maiden.” Captain Blood promptly slaps a wig on her head, causing a comically abrupt change of heart from Prince Franz as he proclaims to the woman he was yelling at seconds before, “I won’t let you go, I’ll carry you back to my castle and mend the wounds in your mischievous, beautiful heart.”

Sapphire continues to have issues holding on to her hearts, as she becomes comically masculine when her female heart is taken from her, then shifts over to being feminine when her female heart is restored and her boy heart is taken instead. Sapphire finds some unexpected allies in her homeland as Prince Plastic becomes extra noble and manly when he consumes her boy heart and decides that he’ll change the laws of their country so Sapphire can assume the throne instead of him. There’s a war between the sexes as Sapphire is barricaded in a tower with the palace women, who use domestic implements to fend off their husbands in their defense of their princess. This is no great blow for women’s liberation, because while they might be fighting for Sapphire’s right to rule, their methods involve going on strike from household duties which are promptly resolved once Sapphire’s situation is resolved.

While her country might be in better shape, Sapphire’s love life is a shambles. Captain Blood still loves her, and fills her in on his past life as an adopted son being raised by Italian nobility before turning to a life of piracy. Franz is blackmailed into agreeing to marry Hecate who is less than thrilled about her prospective bridegroom. Franz and Hecate actually fall into a sort of odd companionship with each other as they deal with their own adventures, which was nice to see. There are plenty of references to fairy tales in this volume, as Sapphire falls into a coma and Tink fights of a briar hedge. The last section of the book is particularly ridiculous, as the Goddess Venus falls in love with Franz and is determined to secure him for herself and Sapphire almost finds herself married to a brave female knight. One of the things I liked about this series overall was the goofiness of the plot combined with the clarity and iconic quality of Tezuka’s art. It seems like there’s no scene he can’t pull off, from a literal battle of the sexes to fending off overly amorous goddesses. Once I found myself accustomed to Princess Knight’s silliness, I ended up finding it extremely charming.

Princess Knight Volume 1

It is the Tezuka Manga Moveable Feast week! Fortunately I have been hoarding the two volumes of Tezuka’s Princess Knight for just such an occasion.

We live in fortunate times, with so many Tezuka manga translated in English, and Vertical has certainly taken on the bulk of the work to produce so many influential titles. I’ve been wanting to read Princess Knight for a long time because I understand that it had a huge influence on the development of shoujo manga. Tezuka titles can sometimes be a bit tricky for me to appreciate. I love the unbridled insanity of Black Jack and appreciate Tezuka’s artistry in general but sometimes the cultural attitudes on display can be a bit off-putting, leading me to appreciate some Tezuka manga more as an important cultural artifact as opposed to a manga that I enjoy purely as a reader.

Princess Knight
is the story of a princess named Sapphire who is born with the unfortunate condition of having both a boy and girl heart. Through a misunderstanding as an infant she was announced as a Prince to her subjects and as a result is a boy in public and a girl in private. Sapphire fences and rides horses and attempts to fend off attempts to penetrate her disguise by the evil Duke Duralumin. Many of the early chapters of the Princess Knight read as a fun fairytale mashup filled with Disney-influenced costume design and woodland creatures. Sapphire goes to a ball as a girl and meets a prince from the neighboring kingdom named Franz Charming. But she finds herself fencing with him as a man the next day, and after Duralumin frames Franz for murder Sapphire decides to help him escape. Like Disney’s Snow White or Cinderella, Sapphire finds animal helpers where ever she goes, if she’s in the woods relaxing or shut up in a dungeon after her true nature is discovered. When her true gender is unmasked, Sapphire goes on an adventure to try to save her kingdom and her mother. She dresses up as a knight in a mask, escapes prison, tries to break into her own palace again, and deals with an evil demoness who wants to claim her heart for a demonic daughter.

Tezuka packs plenty of physical comedy into Sapphire’s adventures, and the pacing of the chapters is almost frenetic. Looking back, I tend to single out a few favorite moments or characters rather than a consistent storyline. I enjoyed Hectate, the daughter of the demoness Madame Hell. Hectate introduces herself to Sapphire by throwing fireballs at her, and when confronted with the prospect of receiving Sapphire’s girl’s heart declares that she doesn’t want to become a feminine princess because “I won’t be able to ride brooms, play tag with bats, or kill toads anymore! How stupefyingly dull!” I don’t tend to enjoy Prince Franz very much, as he seems to be insanely obtuse in not being able to tell that Sapphire is the “flaxen-haired maiden” that he’s fallen for. Sapphire does take up with a pirate captain who recognizes her as a girl and promptly proposes marriage, offering to help her overthrow the evil Duke. I have a feeling Sapphire’s sojourn with pirates won’t last very long though.

It was fun to see elements in Princess Knight that still show up in contemporary shoujo. Cross dressing and phantom disguises are common, and Sapphire bears up bravely under an overwhelming sequences of adventures and problems. I’m suspecting that the series will end with her ditching her extra boy heart and masculine characteristics, which would be a bit of a shame since I tend to prefer her personality when she’s in male mode.

Twin Spica Volumes 4-6

Twin Spica is one of those series that is so uniformly excellent I sometimes have a hard time writing about it because I really just want to say “Go read this!” But that wouldn’t make for a very long blog post, would it?

Twin Spica Volume 4

Asumi and her classmates start their first real day of astronaut training. They are submerged in water wearing space suits and forced to complete a simulation of the type of movements they’d be expected to do in space. Asumi notices that her left hand is too weak, and this triggers a wave of memories of her childhood with her companion Mr. Lion. He showed her how difficult fine maneuvers are in space by having her wear a puffy glove and pick up marbles. Asumi’s father comes home to see his tiny daughter sitting against a wall working on grip exercises with a resolute expression on her face. Her dad comments “Life’s tough, eh?” Asumi washes out of the exercise but she’s determined to improve. These first few scenes really highlight what I like best about Twin Spica. Asumi’s childhood memories blend and inform her desire to get into space, and even though she’s not in the optimal physical shape to be an astronaut, she won’t back down from her goals.

On a class outing Asumi encounters a boy who comments that the uniforms of Tokyo Space school make him sick. Asumi’s classmate Marika is hiding her own health issues, and Asumi’s friend Mr. Lion appears to have a strange connection with Marika way back when he was alive. One of the things I like about Twin Spica is that while the story unfolds with some potentially weighty symbolism, the slice of life tone keeps it from being too precious. Instead an interlude with Mr. Lion and the spirit of his father seems appropriately mysterious, and Asumi’s adventures in Zero G plane training end up forging a bonding experience with her classmates through vomit.

Twin Spica Volume 5

Asumi’s encounter with the space hating boy Kiriu continues to effect them both. They’ve run into each other a couple more times, and he’s saving a rocket key chain that she dropped. He’s bullied at school, and it turns out that he was affected by the same space tragedy of “The Lion” that overshadows Asumi’s life. Despite his initial defensiveness, Kiriu and Asumi end up bonding a little bit. Asumi heads out to a more serious test of her skill as the trainees are placed in capsules and dropped of at random points in the wilderness. This is to simulate what might happen in the event of a crash landing, and Asumi is all alone without anyone to support her. An extended flashback sequence brings up more questions about Marika and Mr. Lion, as he’s shown as a young boy befriending a sick girl who seems to be trapped in her house most of the time. The boy builds a giant rocket model clubhouse out in the woods near her house, and the girl sneaks away to join him. Mr. Lion thinks “I never knew her name…their faces look similar but the age difference is too great.” When he visits his old clubhouse he sees the names Marika and Mr. Lion etched into a metal panel. Asumi’s struggles in the woods contrast with the young Mr. Lion’s attempts to befriend a lonely and sick girl.

Twin Spica Volume 6

Every few volumes Twin Spica will make me feel all weepy. Asumi manages to work her way through the wilderness challenge without a compass. When she meets up with her friends she’s surprised to see that they were all given compasses. I wonder if someone is deliberately trying to make Asumi wash out of the program. When Asumi sees that everyone is there except Marika, she decides to head back and search for her missing friend along with her other classmates. Marika has already been rescued and is resting safely, but when she sees what is happening on a monitor, she’s overcome with emotion. Shu quietly notices Asumi’s skills and concludes that she’s his biggest rival in the astronaut program. Kiriu and Asumi continue to spend some time together. Asumi has an encounter with a stoic astronaut who used to be a friend of Mr. Lion. He comes to lecture at the school and isn’t a particularly good storyteller, but Asumi runs into him after class and positions him on a bench with the ghost of Mr. Lion next to him. The ghostly Mr. Lion plays his harmonica and the astronaut is able to remember the days back when he was younger sitting with his lost friend on a roof. Mr. Lion quietly observes Marika. She’s affected when she hears a comment Asumi makes when her class completes an exercise of putting together a piece of equipment from spare parts, “Even though it’s the same thing with the same parts, it feels totally different.” Mr. Lion struggles with telling Asumi what he knows about Marika. There’s a constant tension between the past and the future in Twin Spica, as the different lives of the characters become more connected and intertwined. It makes for very rewarding reading, and Yaginuma’s simple and sometimes childlike character designs allow him to explore heavy emotional territory with a light and subtle touch.

Twin Spica Volume 2

Twin Spica Volume 2 by Kou Yaginuma

I am woefully behind on this series, but I guess that can be a good thing as I can look forward to reading plenty of volumes to get caught up. One of the things I was struck with in this volume is Yaginuma’s economy when packing the story full of emotional beats. He manages to create many genuinely affecting scenes in only a few pages. Twin Spica might be a little sentimental, but the sentiment is earned. Asumi has been admitted to space school and prepares to follow her dream of becoming an astronaut. The second volume starts out with a melancholy note as Asumi has to say goodbye to her spiritual companion Mr. Lion. He runs along her train yelling at her not to cry and to do her best. Asumi promptly gets her skirt stuck in the train door.

When she arrives at space school, she’s reunited with her fellow recruits. They have to face grueling physical training and hard science classes. Even though Asumi is one of the smallest in her class, she’s one of the quickest due to some of the training exercises Mr. Lion has put her through. Asumi’s natural tenacity might not be enough to overcome her being singled out by a teacher who doesn’t approve of her father and her need for an expensive custom flight suit. The flashback episodes in Twin Spica are the most affecting. While the first volume dealt with Asumi’s trauma over losing her mother, the second volume focuses on a friend from Asumi’s childhood who was also affected by the spaceship crash that overshadows Asumi’s current life and dreams. Asumi’s relentless pursuit of friendship and her refusal to give up even when facing rejection will hopefully carry over into a triumph over her issues at space school.

There’s a contrast in Twin Spica between Asumi’s natural innocence and optimism and the cynical approach of many of her teachers at space school. Asumi’s persistence despite her obstacles makes her a heroine you want to root for. While she may be starry-eyed in her quest for space, the administrators at space school aren’t willing to make sacrifices for a promising student that doesn’t fit the exact physical profile for an astronaut. Asumi stands out, and that can be a bad thing as she learns more about her father’s involvement in the crash. This was a good second volume, but I have a feeling that the series really starts to get going in the next couple volumes. I need to get caught up soon!