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 officer.
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 servant."
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 drawings.
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.