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ANIME REVIEW: “The Rose of Versailles”

ANIME REVIEW: "The Rose of Versailles"

The Rose of Versailles
(Berusaiyu no Bara) is both a
hilariously overwrought romance and an intriguing example of cross-cultural
cross-pollination. Set in 18th century France, the story centers on Oscar
Francois de Jarjayes. Her noble father wants a son so desperately, he gives his
daughter a man’s name and raises her as a boy. An ace swordswoman, an excellent
rider and a crack shot, Oscar becomes an officer in the royal guards just in
time to accompany Marie Antoinette, who’s arriving from Austria to marry the
heir to the throne.

In a Western romance-adventure, Oscar would struggle to keep
her true identity hidden, as Mulan does. But in Japan, she’s part of continuing
line of line of crossdressing anime heroines that includes Princess Knight and Revolutionary
Girl Utena
. The high society of Versailles swoons over the dashing female

Oscar quickly becomes of the confidante of Antoinette,
observing and helping her as she steers her way through court intrigues, love
affairs, scandals and political crises. The story spans the 20 years from
Antoinette’s arrival in 1769 to the outbreak of French Revolution in 1789. 

The Rose of Versailles
is an odd mixture of fact and fantasy. Purely invented characters (beginning
with Oscar) mingle with historic ones: Antoinette, Axel Von Fersen, Madame du
Barry, Louis XV and XVI. Imaginary incidents play against the scandal of the
Queen’s Necklace and the storming of the Bastille.

At first, Oscar is utterly devoted to the woman she calls
“Lady Antoinette,” admiring her noble heart and delicate feelings. (The Queen is
portrayed as kinder, smarter and less frivolous than the historic figure.) But
as she becomes aware of the suffering of the common people, Oscar develops a greater
affection for France than the Royal family, who are failing in their duty to
embody and nurture the country, and joins the nascent Revolution.

The Rose of Versailles
began in 1972 as a shojo (girl’s)
manga by Riyoko Ikeda. Typically, unrequited love, unswerving devotion and
fashion are the central themes of the story, enacted against a sort of Classics
Comics version of French history. The characters reflect on the depths of their
passion while parading around in elaborate, if not particularly accurate, rococo
gowns and uniforms.

Although at one point she becomes infatuated with Marie
Antoinette’s rumored lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen, Oscar eventually
discovers her real passion is for Andre, her childhood companion and a loyal retainer
of the Jarjayes family. Andre fences and rides with Oscar, speaks with her
informally and accompanies her everywhere—an improbable degree of familiarity
in 18th century France for someone who’s referred to as “the son of a

When Andre is shot in the struggles leading up to the Revolution,
Oscar announces she wants to marry him. He replies that’s always been his plan
and shuts his eyes for the last time. In next episode, Oscar is shot leading
her regiment against the garrison defending the Bastille. She expires heroically
to the sound of cannons, with sparkling visions of Andre floating before her. 

The Versailles of the story is no more French than the Town
of Titipu in Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado is Japanese.” But it’s unusual – and
instructive – to see an occidental setting treated as an exotic backdrop for a
Japanese romantic fantasy, paralleling the way Western works of fiction have
treated Japan. Anachronisms abound, from the bottled beer Oscar and Andre drink
in a grungy Parisian bar to the grand piano Oscar plays exquisitely. And
there’s something wonderfully incongruous about characters proclaiming, “France banzai!” instead of “Vivez la France!”

The animation is very limited. Oscar, Andre and Fersen strut
about on impossibly skinny legs, like uniformed flamingoes. Directors Osamu
Dezaki and Tadao Nagahama repeatedly cut to shots of the women’s oversized
eyes—which represent their sensitivity, not a desire to look
Western—overflowing with tears. (Enough tears flow in this series to fill the
Great Salt Lake.) And in dramatic moments, the characters freeze in manga-style

The Rose of Versailles
makes American daytime soap operas feel restrained,  but it scored an enormous hit in Japan. More
than 15 million books of the manga have been sold world-wide. In addition to the
animated version (1979) and a compilation feature assembled from it, the story
was adapted to the stage by the all-female theater troupe Takarazuka, and made
into a live action film. Right Stuff has just released the complete series on two-four
disc sets, in Japanese with English subtitles.


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