Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tezuka Osamu: Princess Knight

So, more Tezuka.  This too I read in English because it was around.  Princess Knight (Ribon no kishi リボンの騎士) is one of the classics - and as hard as I am on Tezuka, I should note that I'm really glad that so much of his work is being published in translation.  It's important that this stuff is made available, so fans and scholars can start to understand the history of manga, not just the contemporary stuff. 

This is entertaining, but to a fault.  It's one of those patented Tezuka frenetic plots, with a new twist on every page.  That keeps it moving, but curiously it doesn't exactly keep it from getting static.  Stasis is boring, and constant movement is just as static as constant stillness.  The plot twists are exhausting.  Sometimes the reader might wish to be a little less entertained.  But that's Tezuka.  I've come to expect this.

But chances are you don't read this today for pure entertainment.  You read it for its tremendous influence on girls' comics in Japan.  You read it for its still daring, still hard to completely process gender-bending.  You read it for the deliriously girly art - it's like a constant sugar rush.  There's so much that's important and interesting here on a conceptual level, in terms of influence and significance, that it's almost churlish to criticize it for not working better on the pure reading level.  It's an essential manga.  How can one ask for more?

The Takarazuka-style androgyny and critique of gender roles is the best-appreciated aspect of this work.  Certainly the most important aspect of it.  To that I'd add that it's also a great example of Japanese Occidentalism.

It's Occidentalist in the sense that it's appropriating its story materials entirely from the Western fairy-tale tradition.  Mostly (and this is particularly obvious in the art) from Western fairy-tales as popularized by Walt Disney, of course.  But it's not just a pastiche of Disney, because it goes places Disney would never go;  not just the gender thing, but also Tezuka's decision to include both God and the Devil as characters.  Right alongside Greco-Roman deities.  Theologically it's a mess, and that's a perfect example of Occidentalism:  to Tezuka, the Christian god and devil are on the same level as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White.  They're colorful, exotic myths, and he uses them to colorize and exoticize his story, just like Western writers will appropriate Eastern religious imagery with little sense of the weight of meaning and association attached to it.  Those of us who care about such things are sensitized - have tried to become sensitized, and rightly so - to Orientalism by Western artists.  But there's an equivalent Occidentalism in Japan that doesn't get talked about quite as much.  The power differential being so different both within and without Japan, it's not fair to say that Occidentalism is an equal and opposite thing to Orientalism, and they certainly don't cancel each other out.  But Occidentalism is a definite thing.  And Princess Knight is a perfect demonstration of it.

Which makes it kind of a strange read.  Because for long stretches it's so Western looking and feeling that it's easy to forget that it's Japanese in origin.  But then Satan will pop in with his curly mustache, and he'll turn out not to be a scenery-chewing villain but rather a Father Knows Best kind of paterfamilias, and you remember, oh yeah.  This isn't Disney.

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