I really enjoy stories that feature crossdressing women who fight with swords and don’t have a care in the world about what other characters think about them. I think this interest stems from my love of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will, which I read—and watched the Shakespeare: The Animated Tales stop motion version—in third grade. It’s my favorite Shakespearean play, and Viola’s story, of how she disguises herself as a man named Cesario and ends up mistaken many times as her twin brother Sebastian, fascinates me.
Although I remember being interested in princesses when I was a kid, I was also interested in swashbuckling stories, like The Princess Bride and The Three Musketeers. I remember coming up with different fantastical stories and pretending to fight my way out of trouble with a sword. And I think I would’ve rather have been a prince than a princess, a lot like the main character in Revolutionary Girl Utena.
There are plenty of anime that feature this kind of crossdressing, swashbuckling story in one form or another. The following three are especially my favorites—Princess Knight, The Rose of Versailles, and Revolutionary Girl Utena—and could be considered “Golden Age” anime.
Princess Knight (リボンの騎士) is often cited as the first-ever magical girl manga/anime. The 52-episode anime, released between 1967 and 1968, is based on the manga series written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka and released by Kodansha in the 1950s and 1960s.
Princess Knight takes place in a fantasy Medieval setting and tells the story of Princess Sapphire who is a girl declared to be a boy by her father at birth and is raised as a boy. In this particular kingdom, only a man can inherit the throne, so the kingdom doesn’t know that Princess Sapphire is actually a girl. Sapphire’s father does this also to keep the throne out of the clutches of the evil Duke Duralumin, who tries many times to find a way to reveal that Sapphire is actually a girl and oust her from the royal line.
Due to its age, Princess Knight is a little difficult to get your hands on; however, the English dub of the anime was remastered and released on DVD in two parts by Nozomi Entertainment in 2013 and is available on Amazon or eBay.
The Rose of Versailles (ベルサイユのばら) is a very popular shoujo manga written and illustrated by Riyoko Ikeda and published by Shueisha in the 1970s. It was adapted into a 40-episode anime in 1979 and 1980.
The Rose of Versailles is set in France around the time of the French Revolution. It tells the tale of Oscar, a woman raised as a man because her father desperately wanted a son but ended up with a daughter instead. Everyone knows that Oscar is a woman, even though she dresses like a man and can fence better than most, defeating a man named Gerodere in the first episode and gaining the role of Commander of the Royal Guard to the relief of her father.
As Commander of the Royal Guard, one of Oscar’s main tasks is to protect Marie Antoinette who arrives from Austria to marry Louis XVI in episode two. Oscar is part of the noble class, but as the series progresses, she begins to sympathize with the plight of the commoners and poor classes.
The story centers around Utena Tenjou, who was saved by a prince when she was a child and given a rose signet ring in remembrance of the prince who promised to return to her someday. The encounter inspires Utena to be honorable and become a prince herself. And the ring somehow leads Utena to Ohtori Academy in which she enrolls as a student.
Utena just wants to live her life and be herself, and she wears the boys’ student uniform instead of the girls’ even though it gets the negative attention of the school’s teachers. She does not escape drama for very long, however, and by the end of episode one, Utena becomes ensnared in the so-called Rose Bride duels in order to save Anthy, the alleged Rose Bride, from an abusive relationship with the Vice President of the Student Council, Kyouichi Saionji.
The show is much more complex and surreal than The Rose of Versailles, with many underlying or implied meanings in the visuals. Utena was also adapted into a feature film in 1999 called Adolescence of Utena, which follows the events of the original anime, although it is more ambiguous and is considered a retelling of the original story.
Revolutionary Girl Utena is available to watch on Hulu.
Of these three anime, Princess Knight is the most different and perhaps least accessible. The show’s target audience is children, and the animation style is typical of ‘60s anime with very round character designs, like in shows like Astro Boy (鉄腕アトム) and Speed Racer (マッハGoGoGo). The backgrounds—with blue castles and green forests—remind me of Disney films, like Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). There are lots of cute little animals, like in Snow White (1937), and funny scenes, like in Mickey Mouse cartoons or Looney Tunes.
The overall story, however, is very similar to The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena. For example, when we are introduced to Princess Sapphire in the first episode, it is clear that like Oscar and even more so like Utena, Sapphire does not like to dress like a girl.
Even though Utena was released almost 20 years after The Rose of Versailles, the similarities between these two anime are uncanny. The way the main characters are drawn, for instance, makes it seem like they could easily be in the same universe. I can almost imagine Oscar and Utena crossing paths, and I think that neither character would be unfazed.
Although Oscar has bright blonde hair and Utena has beautiful pink hair, the style of their hair—with its sort of ‘80s or ‘90s bigness—is very similar. Their clothing, in particular, is almost the same; both characters wear men’s clothing, with Oscar in a military uniform and Utena in a military-inspired student uniform; both have a high-collar, ornamental epaulette shoulders, and aiguillette cords. And actually, Princess Sapphire in Princess Knight also dresses a lot like Oscar and Utena, albeit in a more childlike way, in a blue uniform with white tights, a red cape, and white puffed sleeves.
There are also a lot of roses in The Rose of Versailles and Revolutionary Girl Utena, although I think that the roses are more prominent and significant in Utena. Each of the characters who participate in the Rose Bride duels has a rose that represents themselves. In the duels, the rose is placed in their breast pocket and whoever can knock the rose out of their opponent’s pocket first wins. Utena’s rose is pink, Saionji’s is green, and the President of the Student Council Touga Kiryuu’s is red, to name only a few. Anthy, the Rose Bride, doesn’t have a rose, although she does tend to the roses used in the duel.
Of course, all three anime feature sword-fighting main characters, which I think is one of my favorite aspects of the shows, and all three anime involve very independent female leads. I think that The Rose of Versailles is my favorite. Oscar is spirited and passionate, yet also honorable and confident.
Although I really enjoyed Revolutionary Girl Utena, I had some difficulties understanding its complex imagery, and I did not always understand the motivations of its characters, including the lead Utena. There were times in which I just wanted to shake Utena and Anthy, tell them to run away from Ohtori Academy, and leave their problems behind.
And of course, Princess Knight is a cute children’s anime, but if you wish to watch something a little more mature, it may not be the best choice.
Overall, however, if you are looking for a solid Golden Age anime to watch that features some amazing female characters, any of these would be excellent choices.
Rine Karr is an Anime Writer at Girls in Capes. She’s a writer and aspiring novelist by moonlight and a copyeditor by daylight. Rine loves good food, travel, and lots of fiction, especially novels, anime, manga, video games, and films. She’s also the Chief Copyeditor and an occasional contributor at Women Write About Comics.
Looking for more magical girls? Find our list of magical girl anime you can stream ASAP and bask in the sakura-petal glory.