Review of Rose of Versailles (1979)

Moving picture, 17 hours

A nobleman in 18th-century France, whose only child is a daughter, names her Oscar and raises her as a boy. Her sex is not a secret, but at a tender age she is welcomed to lead the regiment of soldiers protecting the royal family, especially the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette who practically grows up with Oscar. Marie becomes the queen of France, a lovely woman with no understanding of the world. It dawns on Oscar, who is a little more connected to the common citizenry, that the luxuries of the court at Versailles are costing the nation a great deal. Oscar departs from her original duties, forsaking the doomed glamour and romantic anguish of Versailles to be in the streets of Paris when the revolution of 1789 begins.

A costume melodrama of a type that is deeply significant in the development of manga and Japanese animation. Tezuka Osamu was familiar with a musical theater-troupe tradition called Takarazuka, wherein women play all the roles and form the majority of the audience. This was also true of Kabuki theatre before it became all male.

Inspired by the gender bending of Takarazuka, Tezuka wrote Princess Knight (1954), about a female prince. It was a hit and became the starting point of shōjo manga (girls’ comics), a tradition that has since grown to dominate Japanese comics in place of the less characterful shōnen (boys’) tradition. Rose of Versailles, based on a 1972 comic by Ikeda Riyoko, has been enormously successful as a Takarazuka production with many variations.

The plot is similar to The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905), with a dashing feminine hero who is, in this case, a woman. The politics are less regressive. The animated version is fortunately not musical, but it is too long, wasting many of its 40 episodes depicting dull forms of courtly intrigue. This mistake is exacerbated by the crappily expressionistic directorial style of Nagahama Tadao, who was supplanted by the more subtle Dezaki Osamu after 18 episodes. The most interesting aspect of the series is the progress toward revolution as seen from both sides. The main emphasis of the narrative is less interesting, although one of its chief romantic agents is the most prominent Swede in anime: Hans Axel von Fersen. Unlike many of the French and Austrians, he’s not blond.

References here: Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (1989), Marie Antoinette (2006).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction series