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  Princess Knight Girl Power, Tezuka Style
Year: 1967
Director: Osamu Tezuka
Stars: Yoshiko Ota, Takako Sasuga, Noriko Shindo, Chieko Kitagawa, Goro Naya, Kyoji Kobayashi, Masahi Amenomori, Reiko Mutoh, Ryusuke Shiomi
Genre: Animated, Fantasy, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: As a result of an accident in heaven Princess Sapphire (voiced by Yoshiko Ota), heir apparent to the kingdom of Silverland, is born with two hearts: one male, one female! So God orders mischievous sprite Tink (Takako Sasuga), the fairy responsible for this mishap, down to Earth to convince young Sapphire to embrace girlhood and hand back her male heart. However since royal law precludes a princess from inheriting the throne, the King (Kyoji Kobayashi) and Queen (Noriko Shindo) tell the people their child is a boy in the hope of keeping the kingdom away from the corrupt Duke Duralumin (Masahi Amenomori). Raised as a boy Princess Sapphire becomes an excellent acrobat, horse-rider and sword fighter, sharing adventures with Tink whilst hiding her secret identity.

Known in Japan as Ribon no Kishi ('A Knight in Ribbons') this is one of the most beloved works by pioneering manga and anime creator Osamu Tezuka and among the most influential anime of all time. Inspired by the Takarazuka troupe, Japan's all-female theatrical revue where young women play both male and female roles, Tezuka's original 1953 comic serial pioneered shojo manga (girls comics) which quickly blossomed into a thriving sub-genre siring similar gender-bending, quasi-European fairytales like Riyoko Ikeda's seminal The Rose of Versailles (1978) and the wildly surreal Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997). In its original incarnation as a television serial Princess Knight proved especially popular in Europe though remains sadly less well known across English-speaking countries. American distributors Joe Oriolo and Burt Hecht edited several episodes into a movie re-christened The Adventures of Choppy and the Princess (Choppy being Tink's new name in the dub) which is how many fans, including myself, first encountered Tezuka's masterpiece. That version made it to DVD in a riotous if occasionally shrill English dub that regrettably jettisons one of Tezuka's most amusing conceits wherein all the good guys draw their names from precious stones or metals with the villains named after cheap synthetics like plastic and nylon.

With its adorable dewy-eyed heroine, menagerie of wacky animal characters and fanciful pastel-coloured fairytale setting Princess Knight finds Tezuka at his most Disneyesque. Yet his familiar philosophical and sociopolitical concerns remain to the fore as the unfolding story questions the idea of prescribed gender roles. In some ways Tezuka tries to have his cake and eat it casting Sapphire in a dual roles both celebrating traditional Japanese concepts of femininity as she endures hardship with grace, optimism and resilience and waving the flag for more progressive feminism as a swashbuckling masked superheroine. Given the story arc ultimately embraces traditional conceits like love and marriage its gender politics are not as radical as many modern feminists might hope (for that you have to look to The Rose of Versailles) but were progressive for their time and Japan in particular.

In any event Tezuka crafts a rip-roaring adventure laced with thought-provoking musings on the conflict between desire and duty, identity and morality. As with all compilation movies the compressed plot results in an episodic, occasional uneven viewing experience but the emotional intensity and sheer delirious invention of Tezuka's stories (particularly when Sapphire and Tink visit an undersea kingdom terrorized by fascist sharks!) compel from start to finish. Towards the finale Tezuka lifts ideas from Shakespeare (the villains' use of a puppet show to expose Sapphire's secret is straight out of Hamlet), Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo (Sapphire and her mother are imprisoned in a tower run by an irate hunchback) yet again foregrounds his own steadfast humanist beliefs wherein kindness and decency can turn even the most brutal foe into a nice guy.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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