#481: The Rose of Versailles

An anime that walked so that Revolutionary Girl Utena could run

The French Revolution might be the most consequential moment in Western history, with its radical ideas that made even the ideals of the American Revolution look like milquetoast incrementalism. So it should be obvious that the French Revolution would be looked upon by other revolutionary movements, if not as a model then perhaps as a source of inspiration (if not a cautionary tale.) Riyoko Ikeda grew up in the 1960s in a Japan that was coming out of its post-war fugue and beginning to take its place in the world again amidst the rise of the New Left, who saw the conservative Japanese Diet as too friendly with an imperialist America, and Stalinism as incompatible with communist ideals. Influenced heavily by the French Revolution, the Japanese New Left quickly made a name for itself with its reputation for direct action and disruptive protests (culminating in the student riots of 1968–69) before devolving into a scattered collection of small groups engaging in infighting (sometimes lethal) and the occasional act of terror. It was in this environment that Ikeda, who started writing and publishing manga while a philosophy student, formed the ideas that would eventually become The Rose of Versailles.

Inspired by the rise and fall of the Japanese New Left, and the intellectually unchallenging nature of the majority of shōjo manga (girl’s manga,) which was marketed towards elementary-school girls, Ikeda initially envisioned Rose as a straight biography of Marie Antoinette, the misunderstood last queen of France. Her publishers were less than thrilled with the idea and though she successfully published the first chapter in May of 1972, she was basically left to her own devices, forcing her to rely on fan response to best gauge the direction the manga went. When she made the fateful decision to write a minor character as female because she didn’t have confidence in her ability to convincingly write a male military officer, the character turned out to be so popular that Ikeda wound up refocusing the story around her.

Enter Oscar François de Jarjayes. Born the sixth daughter of the noble Jarjayes family, her father (a real, if minor, historical figure) is distraught at the lack of a male heir to his position as commander of the Royal Guards, and so names her Oscar and raises her as a man regardless. Over the course of the manga, the story focuses more and more on Oscar, touching on themes of gender performance, sexuality, and how the social rules that governed French society as a whole weren’t that different from the social rules that govern gender. Oscar was a breakout hit — to the point that when she and her primary love interest die, readership dropped like a stone!

So it’s probably not a surprise, then, that the anime adaptation would focus on Oscar from the outset, beginning with her birth. The early episodes focus on her struggling with her gender — she was raised as a man, but has expectations of womanhood placed on her. In the end it is her best friend, André, a family servant and grandson of Oscar’s nanny, who encourages her to make her own decisions rather than go with what other people want, and she joins the Royal Guard. While she is perfectly open about being female, she dresses as a man and is treated as a man, leading to much swooning from both genders — including, to some extent, Marie Antoinette, the very young queen-to-be just shipped over from Austria to cement diplomatic relations with France’s one-time enemy. Marie Antoinette is young, naive, selfish, lonely, and easily manipulated, frequently being preyed on by the more unscrupulous and power-hungry among the nobility, leaving Oscar to serve as a guardian of sorts. As the show goes along, it pretty quickly coalesces into a surprisingly historically-accurate period drama that places Oscar, Forrest Gump-like, into the zeitgeist of pre-revolutionary France. From royal court drama to the even higher stakes of revolutionary fervor, Oscar is in the middle of it all, slowly becoming disillusioned with the selfishness of the nobility and appalled at the abject poverty of the populace, all the while trying to manage her own feelings towards André and Marie Antoinette.

It’s hard to overstate how important Rose is in the shōjo canon. Oscar’s character is key to the story’s lasting charm — come for the historical drama, stay for the gender fuckery and incredible protagonist. The serious storyline, with its violent — and permanent — deaths, helped revolutionize girl’s manga, and the anime in particular is one of the most beautifully-realized anime of the late 1970s, with some of the biggest names in the business having worked on it. While it shows its age in some spots — particularly the use of looping backgrounds and sometimes simplistic depictions of quick motion — it demonstrates a masterful understanding of lighting and cinematography, as well as a surprisingly ornate art style that embodies the best of late 70s character design in anime. Clever use of repeated motifs help reinforce the overall symbolism of the show, with roses and doves in particular prominence.

The lasting influence of The Rose of Versailles can be seen across the spectrum of anime; from Oscar and André’s relationship helping inform the growing shōnen-ai (boy’s love, in other words gay romance) genre to Oscar becoming an archetype for gorgeously masculine women protagonists (chief among them the titular protagonist of Revolutionary Girl Utena — though Utena showrunner Kunihiko Ikuhar has denied any influence.)

I think for me what stood out most for me, watching all 40 episodes of the show, was that it never got boring. Even when the show transitioned away from the high drama of the royal court as an increasingly disillusioned Oscar left the prestigious Royal Guard to serve in the more ordinary French Guard (driven both by a need to prove herself as a man as well as a desire for a more interesting post) it seamlessly moves into greater focus on the swirling rage of the first few months of the Revolution, and the historical figures in that sphere of history have their own roles to play in the story. Ultimately, though, it is André — faithful, loyal André, who has never let his lowborn status get in the way of his undying, quiet love for Oscar — who Oscar follows into the Revolution. Forced to make a choice between her loyalty and duty to the Queen — whose relationship with Oscar sometimes skirts the very edge of explicitly queer, its only barrier the sociopolitics of 18th century France — and her principles and powerful sense of right and wrong, she chooses the latter. Her final scene together with Marie Antoinette feels like watching a romantic breakup.

There’s a lot to love about The Rose of Versailles; it might not be as flashy as modern anime, but it’s still a masterpiece of its time with one of the most charismatic protagonists — and two of the most tragic romances — in anime.

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/they]