Monday, August 30, 2010

0064. Prince/Princess Sapphire

Sapphire is the main character of Osamu Tezuka's 1950's comic Ribon No Kishi, a tale of a youth born with both a boy's and girl's heart.  While her biological gender is female, she is raised as a boy by her father, the king, in order to prevent an evil man from inheriting the throne.  There's subplot about an angel that is trying to correct his mistake by retrieving her extra heart, but she refuses to let him take her boy's heart away.  She also dons a mask and fights crime at night!

In theory, Ribon no Kishi sounds incredibly progressive.  A dual-gendered girl-prince who moonlights as a masked crusader?  What about that isn't progressive?  Actually, the narrative. In practice, Sapphire is very much a girl dreaming of being a princess and a wife, and her boy heart seems incidental.

What makes Ribon no Kishi interesting to me is the place in holds, or doesn't hold, in the history of shoujo comics.  Shoujo manga (lit. girl's comics) is a genre with a history rooted deep in the Japanese gender roles cultivated at the turn of the century. The genre features sparkles and flowers, overflowing emotional narrative, flowing pages often without panels, and stars delicate, gentle girls with those signature giant starry eyes.  From a masculine retelling of shoujo manga history, Ribon no Kishi is a landmark tale that set a standard for the genre.  In reality, and an only recently accepted feminine perspective, Ribon no Kishi is an exception to the genre, rather than a contribution.

Past the jump, more on Ribon no Kishi's place in the history of girl's comics in Japan.  Historical perspectives and facts for this entry are heavily drawn from the fantastic essay Opening the Closed World of Shoujo Manga by Mizuki Takahashi, in the book Japanese Visual Culture, Ed. Mark MacWilliams, 2008.

The origins, and much of the visual language and narrative tropes that contributed to what was known as shoujo manga, had been developing far before Tezuka began Ribon no Kishi, back in the late 1800's.  And though the golden age of shoujo manga didn't come until the late 1960's into the1970's, Mizuki Takahashi says it best:
"A key sign that Tezuka is an exceptional rather than a key figure in the world of shoujo manga is his disinterest in the expression of the inner feelings of his heroines.  In Ribon no Kishi, a straightforward narrative without any temporal or spacial ambiguities, the interior monologues of the heroine Sapphire are expressed in thought balloons pointing to her head, rather than in free-floating text.  By using thought balloons, Tezuka ties the interior monogues  to the passage of time in the frame, appropriate for an adventure story.  Most Shoujo manga, however, use free floating text to indicate the main character's vague inner thoughts, approximating first-person narration (p.128)."
Tezuka essentially writes what is a boy's comic starring a girl, instead of a girl's comic.  At least, this is true in the context of shoujo manga history– it was published in a girl's anthology, but that doesn't mean if was ever part of the club.

Shoujo manga history is complicated, because the ambiguous and abstract shoujo genre was ill received by critics of the day who didn't recognize the unique space it occupied in comics history.  Compared to boy's comics,  they found it hard to read, poorly drawn and awkwardly paced.  Which it was, essentially (perhaps with the exception of the "poorly drawn" part), but it was also a visual code, a language meant to speak to particular perceived feminine sensibilities– therefore, it could not be fairly compared to boys and adult comics of the day on those terms.

What made Ribon no Kishi interesting to me, and Sapphire an icon, is how it helps define the shoujo genre in contradistinction.  I came to understand what shoujo meant only by seeing the ways in which a boy's manga author wrote and drew a girl's comic.

More on the topic of shoujo manga, a genre dear to my heart, in Wednesday's post.

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