CONTENT WARNING for discussions of sexism and queerphobia. SPOILERS for the ending of Princess Knight and portions of Dororo.
Osamu Tezuka—often called “The God of Manga” or “The Godfather of Manga”—is considered one of the most influential artists in the manga and comic industry. Artists such as Go Nagai and Naoki Urasawa claim he has inspired them, the latter even drawing upon Tezuka’s Astro Boy as inspiration for Pluto. Not constrained to Japanese creators, Astro Boy was made into a Hollywood movie, and Tezuka himself was invited to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
But who inspired Tezuka? It is known that he was a huge Walt Disney fan. He even claimed to have watched Bambi more than 80 times according to the Tezuka Productions website. However there is an influence on Tezuka that isn’t as well known: the Takarazuka Revue.
The Takarazuka Revue is an all-woman theatre troupe based in the city of Takarazuka in Hyogo Prefecture where Tezuka was born and raised. According to Lorie Brau’s essay on Takarazuka, the troupe was originally billed with the idea that the actresses would end up as “good wives and wise mothers” when leaving the company, but it eventually also became known more for its progressive depictions of gender and sexuality.
This reputation did not come without scandal for the Takarazuka. Stories about cast members in lesbian relationships, love letters exchanged with female fans, and rumors of them influencing young girls into becoming lesbians led the troupe’s management to make the lives of the actresses more private.
Brau notes that its administration made a point of stating the Revue is not feminist, but its influence on progressive voices is apparent today. The city of Takarazuka was the fourth Japanese municipality to begin issuing same-sex partnership certificates in 2016 and the city’s administration declared its support of queer minorities. Alumni performers such as Koyuki Higashi also have become prominent LGBT activists in Japan off the fame of being former Takarazuka members.
And though its management does not officially promote progressive values, the theater’s performances themselves inspired the deconstruction of gender identity in a patriarchal society through its performances. From early on in the troupe’s history, many of their plays include androgynous characters and ambiguous sexuality, since all the parts are played by women.
During a time when theatre was a male-exclusive art, such as in Kabuki or Noh, Brau writes that Takarazuka broke away from the patriarchal ideas about gender and sexuality in Japan. Its performances continue to do so today.
The Takarazuka Revue is also known to put on musicals sometimes inspired by manga and video games. They have made plays based on The Rose of Versailles, Phoenix Wright (I actually recommend this one a lot), Sengoku Basara, and even some of Tezuka’s work, like Black Jack.
Takarazuka has influenced other creators as well, such as the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena and Sailor Moon as well as in games such as Sakura Wars. Sailor Moon especially draws inspiration from the Revue, with its original creator Naoko Takeuchi saying Haruka and Michiru had originally been written as members of Takarazuka.
But before manga inspired Takarazuka, Tezuka was inspired by them, as he frequently went to their plays with his mother. These plays would go on to encourage Tezuka to create a new kind of manga aimed at girls.
Princess Knight (or Princesa Caballero as it’s known in Mexico) was a different kind of shoujo manga that allowed Tezuka to explore gender politics. The story follows Sapphire, a princess who was given both the heart of a girl and the heart of a boy by an angel.
When God commands the angel to retrieve the extra heart, Sapphire refuses to give it up. Meanwhile other characters, such as revolutionaries, try to exploit Sapphire because she is a woman and unable to ascend to the throne.
Sapphire is comfortable having her two hearts. She is at times a noble fighting prince and a kind and sweet princess at others. Even though the series ends with her marrying Prince Franz, her adventures take her into dangerous duels and fights against evil doers.
Tezuka said that Princess Knight was “his experience with the Takarazuka Revue” that he wanted to transpose into manga. Wanting to incorporate the concept of the “beauty in male clothing” that Takarazuka was known for in Sapphire, he created a princess who could be considered non-binary or genderfluid today.
Princess Knight would go on to influence other works like The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena, both of which have characters with similar traits and deal with topics concerning gender and sexuality. And it’s not too hard to think that queer girls in Tezuka’s time were able to find themselves in Sapphire, as we do now with Haruka from Sailor Moon or Utena.
But Princess Knight isn’t the only work by Tezuka in which we can see an example of this. In Dororo, the orphan Dororo joins the protagonist Hyakkimaru, who has to kill 48 youkai to regain his humanity. Dororo reminds me of myself when I was little. He’s violent, rude, and not afraid of anything, including authority figures. The series also states that Dororo is not a cis male and I especially could understand his issues with gender identity.
Throughout the story, several characters question Dororo’s gender. While the manga doesn’t show us what happens in the end with Dororo, I think it’s important to note that Dororo asserts his identity as a man. Itachi, the bandit who killed Dororo’s father, asks the child to undress and questions him if his parents raised him “like that,” to which Dororo yells back “I am a boy!”
Hyakkimaru, too, notices it while bathing together, though he doesn’t mention it outright. Dororo otherwise rejects taking off his clothes throughout the series, something that I could totally understand as someone with a lot of gender identity issues myself.
Elsewhere in Tezuka’s universe, Dororo was apparently born a cis boy, at least in the Black Jack universe where he and Hyakkimaru are a pair of juvenile delinquent brothers. But Black Jack is host to its own genderqueer character as well.
Black Jack is one of the most famous works by Tezuka. It follows the story of a surgeon with no license with incredible abilities and incredible fees. While one of the reasons why Black Jack doesn’t have a license is because of his desire to avenge his mother’s death, he also lost his license after performing an unauthorized surgery as an intern.
In one episode we meet Dr. Kei Kisaragi, a ship doctor, who is a friend of Black Jack. Kisaragi tells Pinoko, the girl living with Black Jack, about “his sister” Megumi, and that she had a condition that put her life in danger. When Black Jack became aware of this, he decided to do an experimental procedure, removing her entire reproductive system despite objections from the medical faculty. As Black Jack begins the procedure, both of them confess their feelings to each other.
At the conclusion of the story, Black Jack reveals Dr. Kisaragi was Megumi all along.
We see Dr. Kisaragi again some volumes later, when a sailor comes to Black Jack saying he’s in love with Kisaragi and that he plans to marry her. Black Jack recalls his feelings for Kisaragi, and despite being portrayed as a man, he refers to him as “Megumi” in the sailor episode, while reminiscing about the procedure. The story makes it a point that Black Jack’s feelings for Kisaragi never changed, even after his transition to live his life as a man.
This perspective is further cemented in another story where they meet again in a dream. Kisaragi comes to Black Jack in the dream and expresses he’s really happy he “stopped living as a woman,” but his feelings of love have never stopped. Though problematic in its depiction, Black Jack having reciprocal feelings with him could be easily seen as a trans gay relationship today.
Translation of above manga:
Dr. Kisaragi: While I might only be able to understand a tiny fraction as you do, Doctor, but as I’ve come to associate with sailors and port towns across the globe… I’ve learned what human beings are like. I… think I’m happy that I did away with my female self.
…Had I remained a woman, I likely only would have seen life with a woman’s view. But let me tell you this, Doctor… I love you, Doctor, since and now.
Take care Doctor.
That said, it’s hard to say just how “progressive” Tezuka’s works were for their time. As demonstrated by the many first-person accounts in Queer Voices from Japan (edited by Mark McLelland, et. al.), it’s not as if LGBTQ narratives and activism didn’t exist in the mid-to-late 1900s. There were also other contemporary manga (like Riyoko Ikeda’s Claudine) that contained complex LGBTQ characters and stories, and many of them didn’t feature the stereotypes and misconceptions found in Tezuka’s works.
However, these were often niche titles and publications. To the general public, sex and sexuality was rarely (if ever) discussed. While physical violence against LGBTQ people was relatively rare (especially compared to many Western nations), queer identities were still considered a “perversion” or “mental illness,” and those who deviated from the strict social pressures of heteronormativity were ostracized (as Dr. Amy Sueyoshi explained in another AniFem article).
In this cultural landscape, I’d argue there’s something to be said for Tezuka’s decision to feature sympathetic queer- or queer-coded characters in his mainstream, popular series. When everyone is pretending you don’t exist, positive visibility matters, even if it’s flawed.
And, while I can’t speak for the kids of Showa-era Japan who grew up on his stories, as someone who comes from a country where sexism and societal roles are still ingrained, I find his stories valuable even today. Where I come from, some women aren’t allowed to wear pants nor receive a formal education. These kind of stories, while outdated, are still important to society.
Bigotry doesn’t stop existing just because a man created a manga aimed at girls. In fact, a lot of media aimed towards a non-masculine audience still receives a lot of backlash today. But it’s important for these kind of stories and these kind of characters to exist. It’s not only for the sake of younger generations who might identify with these characters, but also for the larger society itself to become aware of the kind of prejudices that have and continue to exist.
Tezuka created manga with the idea of “caring about the world” after WWII. Acknowledging the different kinds of people there are in this world, respecting them, and making them visible is a form of care for the world. While the question of whether Tezuka was an ally or not may remain as an incognite for the time being, there is no denying the gender politics Tezuka included in his works.
We now have shows like Steven Universe and She-Ra, but growing up as a queer geek kid in Mexico, I had a harder time, as all the kids when I was little were talking about Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball. What if I didn’t want to be a magical girl pursuing her (cis het) romantic interest? What if I wanted to fight villains, get into fist fights or duels, and date other girls?
Maybe Takarazuka and Tezuka’s characters were something little girls and queer kids could relate to; something they could watch and think “yes, that’s me” during their time in the same way we depict different genders, bodies, and personalities in shows and manga today. It’s now up to us to keep making these kind of works, and to keep making people feel included.