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Making History: The Rose of Versailles

by Danica Davidson,

The Rose of Versailles has the classic elements of shojo manga we know so well: a strong-willed gender-bending lead; beautiful art with a historical, romanticized setting; high drama in the style of a bildungsroman. These are the staples of many of our modern-day shojo titles, and Riyoko Ikeda's revolutionary 1970s manga really helped lay the groundwork for all this. And, for the first time, North American audiences are going to be able to watch the anime.

This has been a long time in the making. The manga debuted in 1972 and soon became a hot seller, with the 40-episode anime coming out seven years later. Taking place in the 1700s, the story follows Oscar François de Jarjayes, a woman who's been raised as a man so she can follow her father's footsteps and become head of the Palace Guards. Real characters like Marie Antoinette interweave with Ikeda's own creations, making a complex, passionate and artistically lush story. While relatively minor titles might more or less easily make their way overseas, it's been astounding to North American fans that such an influential title has remained off-limits to them. American anime fans see the influences of The Rose of Versailles constantly, though many don't know the details of The Rose of Versailles itself because the manga and the anime have been unavailable in English. But that doesn't mean that Rose has made a big splash only in Japan — in fact, the title has been licensed and done quite well in Europe.

So it was big news in the anime world when Right Stuf licensed the series from TMS, Rose’s animation studio. Right Stuf's Nozomi Entertainment division is dealing on all of the translation, subtitling and production work, and they sublicensed the streaming rights to Viki. Viki will begin streaming the episodes for American and Canadian viewers this December, and then Right Stuf will begin releasing the anime next year.

Viki, a global TV site that is debuting a premiumYouTube Anime channel with Osamu Tezuka titles, made the announcement on September 12. “This is the first time Ikeda has allowed the series to be released outside of Japan and Europe and made available for English-speaking audiences in the U.S. and Canada,” it said in an official press release. Shortly after Viki's announcement, Right Stuf released its official press release on the matter, saying, “Also known as Berusaiyu no Bara and Lady Oscar, The Rose of Versailles will be released via Right Stuf's Nozomi Entertainment as two limited-edition DVD box sets in 2013.” Questions abound as to how and why all this worked out now when people have been clamoring for The Rose of Versailles for years. However, Right Stuf said that its policy was to not discuss specifics on their licensing arrangements and negotiations. Right Stuf's President and CEO Shawne Kleckner did confirm that he's been working on this for a long time: “The fans have been asking for this series for as long as I can remember, and I've personally worked on laying the groundwork for this over the better part of ten years, so it's exciting to see the plans come together.”

Katsuki Masai, the Deputy Manager of TMS Entertainment USA, Inc, spoke a little about why this is happening now and why TMS Entertainment agreed to work with Right Stuf. “I always thought Right Stuf was a fascinating company as they publish both the latest anime and anime classics dating back to the 1960s,” he said. “Concerning The Rose of Versailles, I learned that Shawne Kleckner had been trying to license it for years, and now it has become a reality. I believe the deciding factor was Shawne's unyielding passion and dedication to bring this title to the North American fans. I view Shawne as an anime treasure hunter, so I hope he continues to find more buried treasures and introduce them to the North American fans.” A dub would definitely make it more accessible to more viewers, though Kleckner said a dub was not in the works. “While we want to make The Rose of Versailles accessible to as many fans as possible, we've determined that the most effective way to do so is by making its releases affordable,” he said. “Producing an English dub would double or triple the series' final price for fans.”

Exact dates for the release of The Rose of Versailles have not been announced yet. Kleckner said that first Right Stuf is concerned with translating and subtitling the show for Viki to stream it. “From there, we'll start assembling the rest of the materials for the two limited-edition DVD box sets we have planned for Spring 2013,” he said. “No firm release dates to share at this time, but when we do, we'll announce them via press release, Facebook, Twitter, and of course, the Right Stuf and Nozomi Entertainment news pages.”

Viki CEO Razmig Hovaghimian noted the fact that while many anime companies have tried to license The Rose of Versailles over the years, they have been unable to get the highly-desired title. “Many companies have tried unsuccessfully for years to bring The Rose of Versailles to North America,” Hovaghimian said. “We're honored Ms. Ikeda has entrusted Viki to bring a true Japanese treasure to our North American fans.”

“When Viki launched its anime vertical in March, one of the most popular titles out of the gate was Dear Brother, sometimes known as Oniisama E..., and also based on a manga by Ikeda,” said Michelle Laird, director of communications at Viki. “The title generated so much interest that we immediately started looking into the possibility of getting The Rose of Versailles -- a national treasure in Japan.”

It's easy to toss out lines about how influential The Rose of Versailles is, but it's another matter to really sit down and grasp how much Ikeda helped change the manga scene with her work. Dr. Susan Napier, Professor of the Japanese Program at Tufts University and author of Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle, was Viki's host, along with Christopher Macdonald, publisher of Anime News Network, at the North American premiere of Rose at New York Comic Con on October 13. Speaking about the title in an interview with ANN, she said that The Rose of Versailles is one of the most important manga series ever made. “It was one of the first major manga written by a woman,” she said. “Up till that point most manga had been written by men, but in the early 70's a group of women writers known as the group of 24 appeared, and Versailles's creator Riyoko Ikeda was one of them. All of them would go on to have a major impact on the shojo manga industry, helping to make shojo manga a serious and significant genre that was not only about romance but dealt with social issues as well.

“Ikeda's Rose of Versailles was particularly influential, for its fascinating and involving story and its exciting setting —the French Revolution, depicted with great historical accuracy,” she said.

Napier pointed to the main character Oscar as being a major asset to the series, saying, “The cross-dressing young woman would become the series' most important protagonist, eclipsing even Marie Antoinette. Although there had been cross dressing manga protagonists previously, (the most famous being the heroine of Tezuka Osamu's Princess Knight series), Oscar was a truly complex and three-dimensional figure who offered young Japanese women a different kind of role model from the traditional demure and subdued idea of Japanese womanhood. Oscar went on to spawn a long line of feisty cross dressing heroines, the most famous of whom is probably Utena of the popular Revolutionary Girl Utena series.”

Napier went on to explain in more detail the specifics of what The Rose of Versailles brought to shojo, including a change in art style. “Visually, Rose was one of the pioneers in developing the open frame, visually detailed style that became the hallmark of shojo manga in the 1970's,” she said. “Although Ikeda was not alone in doing this, (Hagio Moto, another member of the group of 24, was probably the first in doing this in Tomo no Shinzo), the lush and gorgeous setting of pre-Revolutionary France depicted in Versailles appealed enormously to readers and helped solidify the trend toward visual lavishness in subsequent shojo manga aesthetics.”

But it wasn't just art that was altered. It also gave rise to strong storylines, and, very importantly for female readers, to strong female leads. While it's easy to point to the gender-bending lead Sapphire of Princess Knight as predating Oscar in the female-disguised-as-male scenario, it's still worth noting that Sapphire typically shows strength in male form, and weakness in female form. This is not an empowering message to female readers. While The Rose of Versailles played around with gender-bending scenarios, it also gave more strength and equality to women.

“Deborah Shamoon in her excellent book Passionate Friendship: The Aesthetics of Girls' Culture in Japan believes that the romance between Oscar and the love of her life, Andre, served as a paradigm for a relationship between equals where the woman does not have to lose her identity,” said Napier. “In general, the uncompromising, somewhat tomboyish female lead character became a popular heroine in later manga and anime.”

As if this weren't already influential enough, Napier had more important details to discuss. “Another significant aspect of shojo manga culture that Rose helped to pioneer was the importance of fan/reader interaction with the manga's creator. Ikeda actually changed the plot to emphasize Oscar more vividly because of strong reader response to the character. The interaction between fans and creators, with fan reaction affecting the development of a series, remains an important element in shojo manga culture to this day.”

After the screening was over at NYCC, Napier stressed these different elements again while being interviewed by Macdonald and taking audience questions. Viki's Laird, who was also there, responded to an audience question about whether Rose might make it possible to bring other older anime titles overseas. “What we are actually trying to accomplish at Viki is to bring back classic anime . . . a lot of these amazing titles that have been just locked up for years,” she said.

There's still the issue of bringing the manga out in English, but this might be the first step. In order to drum up more excitement from fans, Right Stuf is also collecting questions for Ikeda to answer. Fans are encouraged to submit their questions on Right Stuf's The Rose of Versailles site from now until November 1.

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