Anime reviews generally feature the latest and greatest from Japan, but occasionally, we get a blast from the past. Nozomi Entertainment’s release of Rose of Versailles definitely falls into that category with a shojo title that was considered “classic” back when I was growing up.
Back Cover Blurb
General Jarjayes – so desperate for a son to preserve the family name and noble standing – names his newborn daughter “Oscar” and chooses to raise her as a boy. Fourteen years later, Oscar is a masterful duelist, marksman, and the newly appointed Commander of the French Royal Guards. Her first task: to protect Marie Antoinette, who is engaged to the French prince and future king, Louis-Auguste.
But even though the planned marriage should provide both countries with some much needed peace and prosperity, the French court is a dangerous place – and Marie’s youthful naivete makes her an easy target for those who wish to see the monarchy overthrown. Oscar soon finds herself both defending Marie’s reputation from those that seek to discredit her and protecting her life from those that wish to kill her.
General Jarjayes is a nobleman desperate for a son to carry on the family name. When his wife bears him yet another daughter, he takes matters into his own hands. Naming the newborn “Oscar,” he declares the girl his heir and raises him as a boy.
Thus begins Rose of Versailles, a shojo historical made in the late 1970s. The back cover touts the anime as “THE gold standard of ‘shojo’ anime which all anime fans must see.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to put it in the everyone-must-see-category, it certainly is a classic that forged the way for many gender bending shojo titles to follow.
Classic, of course, means that the animation is pre-digital. Thus, there are a lot of zoom in/zoom out/panning of stills, and special effects are primitive by current standards. Character designs also reflect the 1970s with waves of fluffy hair, prominent noses, long skinny legs, and super sparkly eyes with crazy long lashes. Despite the dated artwork, Rose of Versailles is a Louis XVI historical, so the story can be enjoyed as much today as it was thirty years ago.
Oscar is very much a fictional character, but many in the cast are based on actual people, most notably Marie Antoinette. Oscar and the Austrian Princess are the same age, and Oscar is appointed Commander of the Royal Guards at the same time Antoinette arrives in France to marry the Dauphin. Oscar immediately becomes Dauphine Antoinette’s favorite, and the anime follows the parallel journeys of the two women in the years before the Revolution.
In addition to providing a glimpse into and commentary on the French Court, Oscar also serves as a stark contrast to Antoinette. Both women are physically attractive, but while Antoinette is frivolous, weak, lazy, and irresponsible, Oscar is strong, courageous, and dutiful. Oscar is also fiercely loyal, and because she pledges loyalty to Antoinette, the anime does its best to make the Dauphine a sympathetic character. Unfortunately, Antoinette has history against her, and when Oscar remarks how Antoinette is “too true to her emotions” like it’s a good thing, she sounds like she’s making excuses for the airhead royal.
The anime takes an interesting perspective on this period by focusing on women and their point of view. The first five episodes covers Antoinette’s introduction to the French court and her rivalry with Louis XV’s mistress, DuBarry. Their power struggle, however, rather comes off as an amped up high school popularity contest. As Antoinette strives to establish herself as Versailles’ top female, Oscar alternates between dazzling the men and women of the French court and foiling underhanded schemes against the Dauphin and Dauphine.
The tale of Marie Antoinette wouldn’t be complete without representation from the common folk so in Episodes 6 through 10 the focus turns to the impoverished sisters Rosalie and Jeanne. The girls are opposites; Rosalie has an angelic disposition, and Jeanne is like the devil himself. Through circumstances as contrived and ironic as a Victor Hugo novel, both manage to escape Paris’ slums for the upper echelons of French society.
In Episode 11, Louis XVI ascends to the throne, and with it comes the beginnings of tension between Antoinette and Oscar. A trip to the countryside opens Oscar’s eyes to the wretched circumstances of the peasantry and their dismal opinion of the queen. Meanwhile, Antoinette falls under the sway of the conniving Madam Polignac, who fuels the queen’s reckless spending habits.
The final episodes in the collection focus on Antoinette’s obsession with the Swedish Count Fensen, with whom Oscar has also fallen in love. But while Oscar stoically keeps her feelings to herself, the slave-to-her-passions queen launches into an adulterous affair with the handsome Swede. This puts Oscar in the unenviable position of suffering unrequited love while having to shield the queen’s forbidden romance from gossip mongers.
For this anime, entertainment definitely trumps historical accuracy. As such, it takes liberties with details, but at the very least, viewers will come away familiar with the names of historical figures. Characters tend to have a very one-sided quality though. Villains, like Jeanne, DuBarry, and Duke Orleans, are steeped in evil while the good guys, like Rosalie and Oscar, are absolutely pure and noble. Marie Antoinette is in an odd category: goodhearted but too stupid to see she’s destroying her people. Probably the most well-rounded character is Andre, Oscar’s sidekick, who is neither noble nor beggar and provides much of the series’ comic relief.
Despite Rose’s flat characters and simplistic storylines (it’s amazing how easily the bad guys get away with literal murder), the glories of the French Court, Antoinette’s public and private life, and Oscar’s increasing dismay at the decline of France are still captivating. It’s a train wreck destined to end with Antoinette at the guillotine, but Oscar’s path remains uncertain. Whether the honorable soldier continues to stay loyally beside her queen or sides with the suffering people of France should make for compelling drama indeed.
If you’re looking for a classic style anime featuring an androgynous lead, Rose of Versailles, is the way to go. Oscar is a woman who can more than hold her own as a French officer yet so stunning men and women alike fall in love with her. Improbable as this combination is, it makes for an interesting and entertaining perspective on Versailles in the days of King Louis XV and King Louis XVI.
Japanese mono, English subtitles, clean opening and closing animation, and promos for other Right Stuf! anime.
First published at The Fandom Post.