Reviewby Rebecca Silverman, May 27th 2013
The Rose of Versailles
Sub.DVD - Part 1 [Limited Edition]
General de Jarjayes has long hoped for a male heir, but when fate sees fit to deny him one with the birth of his last child, he determines to name the girl Oscar and raise her as a boy. Fourteen years later in 1769, Lady Oscar is renowned for her beauty and prowess with a sword, both of which help her to land a position guarding the Dauphin's new bride, Austrian princess Marie-Antoinette. As the years pass, both Oscar and Marie-Antoinette struggle to maintain their roles, but the young queen's naiveté inadvertently causes numerous small hurts to the monarchy which quickly begin to bring the country closer and closer to the fateful events of 1789, no matter what Oscar does.
If nothing else, you probably know the name of this story. Based on Riyoko Ikeda's 1972 manga of the same title, The Rose of Versailles aired on Japanese television in 1979 and has been called one the most influential shoujo titles out there. For many years it has been unavailable legally to English-speaking viewers, but at long last Nozomi Entertainment has rectified the situation. This first box set contains the first twenty (of forty-one) episodes of the saga of the last twenty years of the French monarchy, and even if you know your history and where this all is headed, it still makes for a compelling watch.
The titular Rose is most likely Marie-Antoinette, but she shares the limelight with Lady Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, a fictional female soldier who serves as the queen's favorite and protector. The story begins in 1769 with the birth of Lady Oscar – her father, General de Jarjayes, was hoping for an heir at last but was presented with another girl baby. In a fit of desperation, the general names the girl Oscar and declares that she shall be raised as a boy. It is interesting to note that this decision does not make Oscar hide her true gender once she hits maturity; rather her being female is an open secret, widely known by all at court but ignored because of her military prowess. When Oscar is fourteen, she is made an officer in the royal guard with the express purpose of guarding the new Dauphine (female heir to the throne), an Austrian princess named Marie-Antoinette. A bond develops between the two girls, who are about the same age, and thus Lady Oscar and the future queen's lives become irrevocably linked.
Despite the insertion of a fictional character as one of the heroines, The Rose of Versailles sticks very close to the historical record, with narration each episode reminding us of when and where we are in history, what will become of this or that person, and that tragedy looms on the horizon. (Episode 20 leaves us in 1775.) Most of the other characters are real historic figures, right down to Rosalie la Moliere (the last servant of the queen) and Jeanne de la Motte, whose role has only superficially been changed. This relative fidelity to history helps to imbue the show with a sense of doom and makes us worry for the characters even as we know what their fate is – it is hard not to feel badly for the young queen as she allows herself to be taken in by schemers and her own emotions, making her a far cry from the woman who supposedly told the peasants to eat cake.
To contemporary viewers, there are likely to be some elements that will take getting used to. Shoujo in the 1970s was much more sparkly than it is today, and not only does everyone have luxuriously lashed dewy eyes, we are also given visual cues as to when something is supposed to be attractive or emotionally important by additional twinkling stars. Dramatic still shots are used heavily, and more slender-fingered hands are held to mouths open in horror than can be easily counted. Background music is very much of the seventies, with a couple of songs sure to bring a grimace to the faces of viewers who haven't been exposed to much anime (or other media) of the period. Despite its age, however, the picture looks clear and bright, and if animation is reused at times or backgrounds are replaced with speed lines, it is easy to forgive once the story pulls you in.
And pull you in it does. Not only is Lady Oscar herself, wonderfully voiced by Reiko Tajima, a compelling, fascinating character, but her relationships with best friend Andre, the queen she respects, and the young woman she takes in are all also differently and interestingly developed, making each unique and showing different aspects of her personality. Andre holds our attention by carefully concealing his deeper feelings for Oscar behind a mask of joviality (for the most part), and in Marie-Antoinette we see an immature, innocent girl in way over her head; not the deliberate destroyer of late eighteenth century France's economy, but a silly child who sees ruling as a kind of game. The villains of the piece are also in a position to draw viewers in, from Madame du Barry, the previous king's mistress who doesn't fancy losing her power to Comtesse de Polignac (in real life a duchess), who will do anything to raise her family's status.
As these episodes go on, we are able to see the slow decline of the state of France. From children happily singing to the tune of the song “Sur le pont d'Avignon” we go to a raid on a bakery to a family unable to feed themselves or seek medical care. We see idealistic young Robbespierre change his tune and Lady Oscar start to open her eyes to the world beyond the palace. This, we know, cannot end well for many of the main characters, but it is difficult to look away nonetheless.
It is easy to see why The Rose of Versailles is held in such high esteem. Emotional, historical, and beautiful to watch, the show brings the last years of the French monarchy to life in the best anime style. It has a few anachronisms, such as using a few inappropriate words and a too early use of the waltz position in dance, but overall it maintains the flavor of the period and brings us its opulence. It has been a long wait for anglophones to get this title, but the payoff is sweet. Give it a try and see just what it is that people have been talking about for over thirty years. This title is well known for a reason.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : C+
+ Compelling use of history to tell an engrossing story. Picture looks clear, clean, and bright, Lady Oscar really is a fascinating character. Keeps up a good pace.
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