Whether you’ve read the manga or only watched the animated film, you’ve certainly seen a sphinx in the Unico franchise. With a lion’s body and a humanlike head, most people are familiar with the sphinx around the world. For this post, we’re taking a closer look at the mythical creature that pops up in the Unico series.
Sphinx and Piro From the Manga
The first appearance of the Sphinx was in Issue 25 of Lyrica Magazine on November 1978. The 8th chapter titled The Tale of the Fangs of Athens (アゼンスの牙の物語) featured Unico wandering the desert and coming upon the Sphinx. Based loosely on the Greek mythology version of the Sphinx (Sophocles play Oedipus Rex), the creature before Unico has a lion’s body with the head and breasts of a human woman. Before Unico can pass, he must solve a riddle. In Unico’s frightened and weakened state, he faints. The Sphinx uses the opportunity to take Unico to her home to feed her son.
This is where we meet Piro, the sphinx child with a green mane, beige body, and beautiful eyes. Piro has no intention of eating Unico and complains to his mother he’d rather have spaghetti. The Sphinx tells him to not be picky with food and leaves to resume her role in the desert. After she is gone, Piro instead orders Unico to dance for him. When Unico collapses from hunger, Piro feeds the weak unicorn and lets him escape.
While lost in the desert again, Unico comes upon the Sphinx once more. Unfortunately, the Sphinx is fatally injured by Oedipus and lies on the ground. She begs Unico to tell her son what has happened and to grow up strong. Unico returns to Piro and tells him the sad news. Piro wants to give up, but Unico is there to push him forward.
Tezuka’s Feline Characters Enjoy Pink Lady
It’s interesting to note that Piro is oddly knowledgeable about modern day food and entertainment. While it appears the comic takes place in Ancient Greece, Piro continually references modern day people and things. Pink Lady, a popular pop duo during the late 70s and early 80s, is mentioned several times in the chapter. This is not the first time in the Unico series, though. Chao in The Cat on a Broomstick chapter also mentions the idols and song lyrics when talking to Unico. While this is a writing technique to connect the author or characters with readers, Tezuka might have been a fan himself or knew they were popular with older children. We see another example of Pink Lady being mentioned in the 1979 Tiger Book story Two Shoguns (二人のショーグン), where Shogun’s cat is ironically named Pink Lady.
Marusu in Unico in the Island of Magic
When Cherry and Unico travel to the desert in search of the Sphinx to learn how to stop Kukurukku, they collapse from exhaustion. Marusu, a sphinx that looks a lot like Piro from the manga, curiously rushes out to them. When Cherry and Unico awaken, they’re in the sphinx child’s home. They tell Marusu they are looking for the Sphinx, but Marusu tells them she’s not there. Since the young sphinx doesn’t know the answers Cherry and Unico seek, they mention the Rocking Horse at the end of the earth. Marusu then joins the two on their journey to defeat the evil magician.
While Marusu and Piro share a similar appearance, their personalities are quite different. Piro was afraid, lacking the confidence to become a stronger sphinx. He endures bullying and being tricked by the fairies multiple times. Marusu doesn’t go through any hardships and seems quite confident; joining Cherry and Unico without a problem. Tezuka originally wrote the synopsis for the film (originally called Unico and the Kingdom of the Sun [ユニコと太陽の王国]) with Marusu having a larger part, but it was edited and changed to what it is today.
Interestingly, while they refer to Piro as male in the manga, Marusu’s gender is left ambiguous for reasons unexplained. Japanese texts only use Marusu’s name or call them sphinx child, so it’s unknown unless any information surfaces.
Sphinx From Saving our Fragile Earth
When Tsubasa and Unico stop in a desolate area with the sun beating down on them, Sphinx’s voice startles the two. She rises from the sand and tells them they must answer a riddle in order for her to grant them a wish. Unable to answer the riddle, Tsubasa and Unico try to escape, but she stops them. After Sphinx reacts to the tree boy, Tsubasa, and makes a comment, he becomes upset and unknowingly answers the riddle correctly.
The two ask Sphinx to return the world back to where humans can live on Earth again. In order to do this, Sphinx tells them they would have to change history. She helps the two by having a Time Fairy appear to send them all back in time. While helping the others, Sphinx turns to stone and cannot escape. She is lost in time, but appears to be reborn as a human with a baby by the end of the special.
Sphinx plays a guardian role in this short, feeling similar to the Egyptian version of the sphinxes who protected certain areas, temples, tombs, and more. While the theme of Unico in the Island of Magic was transformation, there are several elements of rebirth in this short.
In The Tale of the Fangs of Athens chapter, Titania wants Piro to be her pet. When Piro agrees, the fairies dress him up to look more adorable. One fairy mentions Piro’s outfit reminds them of a Takarazuka actor. But what is Takarazuka, though?
As a young boy, Osamu Tezuka lived in Takarazuka where the all-female theatrical troupe, Takarazuka Revue, originated. The actresses performed plays featuring Western-styled costumes, stories, and fairy tales. Tezuka’s mother was friends with many of the actresses as they were neighbors, and would take him to see their performances. The highly decorated clothing Piro wears in the manga looks similar to costumes the theater troupe wear.
Unico is not the only series created by Tezuka that features influences from the theater troupe. Another example of Takarazuka in Tezuka’s works is Princess Knight (リボンの騎士), which featured cross-gender elements. The main character, Sapphire, is a young woman born with both male and female hearts, but is raised as a boy because the kingdom needs a male heir.
Our Thoughts on Tezuka’s Sphinxes
While the sphinxes don’t receive as much attention as Unico and other characters; they certainly were special to Tezuka — especially Piro and Marusu. When we read the manga, we can’t help but wonder if Piro was another aspect of Tezuka, connecting with the reader while illustrating how the young sphinx also goes through hard times and learns lessons in the end.
Piro and Marusu are great mascot characters in the franchise, and boys and girls love them. We hope to one day see more of them!
– Pink Lady (duo) – Wikipedia
– 二人のショーグン｜マンガ｜手塚治虫 TEZUKA OSAMU OFFICIAL
– The Takarazuka Revue and the Depiction of Gender Stereotypes since 1914 – Digital Humanities and Japanese History (japanese-history.org)
– Princess Knight｜MANGA｜TEZUKA OSAMU OFFICIAL
– ［4524］ ユニコと太陽の王国 シノプシス テスト稿［制作素材］ (mandarake.co.jp)