Manga of the Month: The Rose of Versailles

Screen Shot 2021-08-22 at 1.02.25 PMThe Rose of Versailles (ベルサイユのばら)
by Riyoko Ikeda

July 2015 will probably be remembered as the summer when anime and manga dreams came true. Sort of. The month before has been the E3 where the The Last Guardian was saved, Final Fantasy VII got a remake, and Shenmue III was going to get made via a kickstarter. The Anime Expo 2015 did the same thing for the otaku community. While the impossible dream of getting the Legend of the Galactic Heroes anime and novels would normally be enough to make the announcements go into the realm of the fantastic the manga lineup was no slouch. The most surprising news was probably the fact that Udon was going to release the original The Rose of Versailles manga from the 70s.

The Rose of Versailles was always one of those manga that everyone asked for but never really expected. When the Right Stuf licensed the anime the reaction (beyond being slack-jawed) usually was, “It would be nice if we could also get the manga but this is more than good enough.” So when Udon of all people unveiled their little SDCC it made a mad sort sense given the events that had occurred in the last few weeks. I don’t think a year and a half ago most people who have guessed:

A. Anyone would license such an old shojo manga.
B. Anyone could get such a tricky prestigious shojo manga.
C. That it would have ever been from someone like Udon.

That summer of 2015 was interesting as most of the titles I mentioned had some major hiccup that changed the way people saw that string of miracles. The Last Guardian was sort of good but it sort of got overwhelmed by expectations thanks to years of dreams so it mostly exists in this limbo state between a dream come true and an utter disappointment. Shenmue III got really bad reviews but everything I have heard seems to say that it deserved every thumbs down it got. Final Fantasy VII has taken a long time to come out and since it is now being released in parts it has yet to be seen how the final product will be especially since there have been some major changes in the first part. It seemed like everyone of those wishes was made on a monkey’s paw. Not every wish ended in disaster but no one really got exactly what they wanted.

The Rose of Versailles manga seemed to have been a wish made on the same cursed monkey’s paw. As delayed as the Final Fantasy VII remake was at least there was occasional news updates even if they were few and far between. Udon seemed to just license The Rose of Versailles and then completely forget about the series. The was some speculation that Udon had just bit off more than they could chew and the license and they were just waiting for the license to lapse. But then beyond all odd Udon actually released the manga and it was in a super amazing premium format that lived up to most expectations and often exceeded them.  It was a long wait but it was very much worth it.

Marie Antoinette has just been wed to Louis XVI. While she has a certain amount of glamour around her she also has a good deal of enemies in France as well. So she is assigned a bodyguard named Oscar François de Jarjeyes. Oscar turns out to be a most unusual woman. Born a woman but raised like a man by her father she reluctantly becomes the steward for the naive young princess. As the focus of the story shifts towards Oscar she begins to see how the class struggle in France that is poised to lead towards a very bloody revolution.

The Rose of Versailles is one of the foundations of shojo manga and manga as a whole. Every member of CLAMP said that the first manga they ever bought was either Candy Candy or The Rose of Versailles (and then they usually said the second series they bought was the other one.) It is a series that influenced a generation of manga artists and still influences people today. The fact that a series that is 43 years old can still regularly inspire people today should be reason enough to give it a look.

But it is more than just a historical footnote or a homework assignment for manga scholars. It is a tale of romance, adventure, action, romance, politics, and philosophy all in an exciting historical setting. Be it duels, courtly intrigue, deadly conspiracies, or bloody protests there is always something interesting going on in the power keg that in France on the razors edge before revolution. But at the same time it is a detailed character examination of several nobles, soldiers, and peasants whose lives are interlocked.

Oscar can sell the series just on her own. She is an icon for a reason. She is a tremulously courageous woman who fights, plans, and loves on an epic level. Oscar is pretty much a near perfect blueprint of how to write a fanatic female character. But she is not a perfect character filled with nothing but virtues disguised as flaws. She has realistic moments of weakness, arrogance, ignorance, and temptation. In other words a full character.

Plus you can see Duc d’Orléans, one of the most dastardly villains in all of manga. That and his sidekick, Duke Evil Mustache.

In many ways the anime is a slightly tighter version of the manga. The manga really starts as Marie Antoinette ‘s story but when Oscar was so wildly successful they made the bodyguard the central character. If you just watched the anime you would have assumed that Oscar is the main protagonists from the beginning. Apparently Riyoko Ikeda really loved the character of Rosalie Lamorlière and was going to have her be a central character. The readers of the original manga did not share this sentiment and she is mostly shuffled off into a minor role. The anime makes this transition happen a bit more fluidly. These might seem like reasons not to read the manga but I really fascinating to see the story in its raw form.

The Rose of Versailles is a vital classic that is a very important key to understanding manga history as well as just a moving historical epic. Plus if this does well we might be able to get more classic shojo as well. And that would be perfect.

– Alain

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