It’s hard to imagine Tezuka with heroines. People often associate Tezuka with heroes like Astroboy (Atom), Black Jack, and Buddha. In the last five years, the most fervent of readers would possibly have heard of Sapphire from Princess Knight. Unless you’re Japanese, she is a mystery. In many books, Sapphire is deemed as a representative of the ambiguous gender identity in Japan and she is celebrated as an icon of feminism in Japanese Popular culture.

However, Sapphire is not the only heroine that Tezuka has penned. There are many others who may shock us and they are far from the Disney ideals that we often associate with Tezuka.

This is a tale of three ladies written and drawn by Tezuka. All of them have different stories to tell but all of them present a dimension of our femininity.

A primer


It’s not as though I have chosen these women particularly because of their traits and stories. There are many women in Tezuka’s stories who have championed the odds the writer has thrown upon them. Fond memories such as Melmo’s transformations in Fushigi na Melmo (ふしぎなメルモ) has amused many Japanese memories but as a reader outside of Japan, I thought it might be best to read what is easily available to us.

Currently, there are three widely available titles who have introduced us to some of Tezuka’s heroines: Ayako, The Book of Human Insects, and Princess Knight.1 I felt it best to look into these titles and try to understand why they were heroines and what they represent. I must confess that I was driven to look deeper into these titles because they personally perplexed me. This set is an odd lot.

I personally find it strange that rather than Princess Knight, the English-speaking audience first caught wind of Tezuka’s heroine Ayako.2 Published in 1972 in Big Comic (a seinen magazine), the title presumes that the story revolves around the heroine herself but the title is more loaded than the girl’s name.

Ayako is the youngest member of the Tenge clan. Her scandalous origins is kept as the clan’s biggest secret. Postwar Japan unfolds around Ayako and just when you think that a child should be free of worldly politics, it eventually snowballs on her. Ayako is then trapped in a cellar for years and is abused and ignored by her family. She manages to escape from their trap but even in her freedom, she still seeks for the darkness. It’s a fascinating tale about innocence, deceit, and absent morality. Personally I think it’s a harsh starter and requires some kind of emotional and mental strength to finish.

After Ayako,  The Book of Human Insects was published in English. This first came out in Akita Shoten’s Play Comic in 1970. Toshiko Tomura front lined this story where we witness her nefarious schemes to get to the top. Every chapter sets the trap of this beautiful complex heroine who is more of a villain than a hero. That said, she was the star of this manga and her transformations from one success to the next becomes more fascinating with every page. I believe this has become one of my favorite works from Tezuka.

The last is Princess Knight, a title which I have been strongly familiar with because of gender studies in manga. Sapphire was un/fortunately born with the heart of a boy and a girl and her tale revolves around her struggle in keeping up with her two hearts and her fairy-tale land which continues to question her gender. It’s a lovely heartwarming story of embracing one’s challenges and facing the odds. Published in 1954, Princess Knight captured the spirit of the changing Japanese female identity.

A social commentary of the changing times

Post war Japan was a time of countless transitions and transformations. American presence in the country was met with mixed feelings. Women’s “liberties” after the war were raised as well. Times were changing fast in Japan and if these manga were a commentary of the times then it’s easy to say that post war Japan was rather exciting — even if it was, to many, a dark period in Japan.

It’s easy to say that Princess Knight, the first published in Japanese among these three, as a commentary on feminism in Japan. Feminism was honestly a word so abstract to many Japanese but since Tezuka was exposed to Takarazuka culture, this gender-shifting princess was nothing new to him. Takarazuka started as entertainment along Osaka’s “romantic” Hankyuu line. Patterned after revues in Paris, Takarazuka challenged the all-male Kabuki theatre and became the symbol of modern theatre in Japan with an all-female cast that sang western-style songs. The female actresses who played female roles were called musumeyaku while those women who played men’s roles were called otokoyaku. The otokoyaku has always been the subject of many gender studies as they became symbols of feminism in early Meiji Japan. While this was highly debated in the 1920s during the early years of the Revue, towards the end of the war, otokoyaku became widely accepted.

If anything, Takarazuka has allowed Tezuka to flawlessly embrace the duality of gender in a woman and highlight it through Sapphire. Of course, that can still be contested, given that Tezuka highlighted extremities of both sexes: you can’t be a man without a boy’s heart and you can’t be a woman without a girl’s heart. It may appear extreme but the plot seems to have resolved this problem when the boy’s heart was given to Plastic and the women, inspired by Sapphire, started to stand up for themselves. No heart switching was involved when these women used their brooms to whack their husbands but when Sapphire fought Duralmin, it was by her own volition and not because she had a heart of a boy.

A different strength is seen in Toshiko Tomura who, I always felt, was closer to a femme fatale. The 1970s was the start of burgeoning feminist faction where a lot of feminists were calling women to take action and face the challenges of a masculinist world. There are two things that I see with Toshiko Tomura. On the public end, she was like the embodiment of yamato nadeshiko, the perfect Japanese woman who personifies the perfect woman. She appeared like a simple girl who had a lot of talent under her belt. It appeared as though the public adored her with her achievements to the point that her growth as a public figure reminded me of Hibari Misora. Like Misora, her growth as a talented genius was seen by the public that no one can see anything wrong with her. Of course, as we realized later with the number of men that seem to associate with her, she was closer to a Bond Girl, lethal in her own right. I’d like to believe that Toshiko Tomura was Tezuka’s “Bond Girl,” the one who has everything and can never do anything “wrong.” Through Toshiko, I believe I understood the metaphor that behind a perfectly beautiful being is a cruel and secret process that involves carnage and disposal.

Unlike the previous heroines, Ayako is perhaps the saddest of all. In her is a delicate yet ruthless story of the struggles between Japanese traditions and the rising modern consciousness in the nation. Postwar Japan was the perfect setting for her tale because she was witness and victim to the changing attitudes of people at that time. Ayako’s world stopped and started a life on its own in her cellar. While the people outside were concerned over their own politics, Ayako yearned for love and affection. It’s a painful reading of the cruelty of that age and one shouldn’t think Ayako simply as a victim of this story but rather a neutral element, a blank slate that people affected with a brush or a tug. She is a reminder of our interconnectedness and our innocence: how easy it is for us to be corrupted.

A sexual, perhaps gendered, commentary

One would easily think that if Sapphire’s revered for her feminist ideals, one could easily say that Tezuka’s a pro-feminist. In my discussion with fellow manga fans, it seems that Tezuka may be the opposite of that. More visible in his seinen titles, Tezuka toyed with sexuality and gender that it literally exhausted his feminine characters.


These three ladies were not spared of Tezuka’s experiments and personally I feel that Sapphire was lucky to have been written for girls. If I consider the target market that Ayako and the Book of Human Insects had these were post college graduates, mostly boys, who are slowly embracing their adulthood. And I find it perplexing how the world of Ayako and Toshiko Tomura captured sexuality of that period.

I remember talking to one scholar in a conference who said to me that sex and violence to women were perfectly natural for a Japanese at that time. To put the woman on a pedestal was a rare case. If ever, a submissive wife was the epitome of a man’s inner sanctum while in public, having a woman was a mark of his manliness. Ayako and her mother were the family’s perfect secret, the inner sanctum that hid all of men’s desires. They were powerless and in many ways voiceless. This side of feminism goes way back to feudal Japan that the story of Ayako was not much of a shock to many men. Of course, we’ll never really know if men really kept women in basements (although there have been cases in Europe) but the metaphor of Ayako as a kept doll was something men would have understood at that time. She is the epitome of the ultimate sexual woman. She is private, isolated, and highly sexual. She is innocent and at the same time carnal. Of course over Ayako are layers of Japan’s complex modernization and if the boys read past the symbolic sexual overtones, they would know that Ayako’s something to reflect over. Reading Ayako somehow felt like a Ryu Murakami novel. I don’t know if that’s saying anything… but it’s a lovely disconnect and commentary to Postwar Japan.

Of course, as said earlier, there’s a rising feminism in Japan. Sapphire is at the center, the poster girl for this feminism. Authors from the 49ers and even modern shoujo mangaka would always look back at Sapphire with great fondness. She’s become an inspiration to young girls to challenge Japan’s rigid gender roles.

At the other end of the spectrum of feminism is Toshiko Tomura who seems to hold the brand of feminism both perfect and cruel. She epitomizes the false sense of “girl power” where she embodies the hungry masculine sexuality to push her agenda forward. As she eats one man and metamorphose to the next, her feminist empowerment is empty and how, at the end of the day, she still longed for the architect’s love.

What I find particularly curious is that Tezuka always brings things back to the woman’s need to have the love of another man. I would think that this was possibly Tezuka’s own naivete when it comes to having women as heroines but seeing as how these three women and their stories’ need for romance, it seems that Tezuka still didn’t see the world of women independent from men. At various points in the stories, it seems that strength relied on how the men came to support the heroine’s cause. Whether she spun them around in the case of Toshiko Tomura, or they spun her around in the case of Sapphire and Ayako, men will always be there for these ladies because they could not stand on their own. Perhaps Toshiko Tomura’s an exception as she played with both men and women. That doesn’t change the fact that she is still vulnerable as a woman.

Most confused Tezuka

In reading these three works, I find Tezuka as a confusing character when it comes to his understanding of women. On one end, yes, I see that he is pushing forward feminine strength but at the same time I feel that he falls back to his own social and cultural gender trappings.

I honestly can’t blame him for it. I can’t force my gender values on him, more so expect him to embody it. Perhaps, at most, we can see the struggles of feminism permeating in Tezuka’s consciousness through these three women. They all represent different dimensions of femininity and yet not one encompasses what it means to be a woman. Someone did say that we are the most complex creatures. I would have to say that Tezuka was at least brave enough to capture this with his nib.

Note: The Book of Human Insects was a review copy given by Vertical. That said, opinions on the book are not influenced by this gesture nor by the company. 

  1. Swallowing the Earth is currently out of print but will be on the shelves soon. The same goes for Barbara. []
  2. I know that there was the Kodansha bilingual of Princess Knight before but I doubt anybody had easy access to that. []