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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: The Rose of Versailles

by Jason Thompson,

I didn't mean to be a collector, really. In 2000, not long after moving to San Francisco, I lived in a barren, white-walled room with one futon and one bookshelf. The only manga I had was a couple dozen Kazuo Umezu books, some untranslated Video Girl Ai and some left-to-right Maison Ikkoku. I borrowed manga a lot, such as a grocery bag containing all of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure Parts 1-3 from Toshi Yoshida, but I didn't buy that many. I didn't like the idea of owning lots of books; I wanted to be able to drop things and travel the world at any moment, with just enough possessions to carry on my back. 

Today, in 2010, my shelves spill over with manga, and when I look down in the basement I see a seething tide of manga boxes reaching almost to waist level—the sort of sight that might be the last thing seen by some victim in a slasher movie about inbred manga-reading cannibals. ("Oh, I'll split off from the rest of the group and go check out the mysterious manga café in the woods. Hmm, there's no one behind the counter. Hey, where's this half-open door lead to...?") I'm not the only person like this (I mean the manga, not the cannibalism), judging from the photos I've received on suvudu.com, where I'm running a contest ("365 DAYS of Manga") where I give away manga and, in return, people send me photos of themselves posing in front of their manga collections. What happened? How did I get so much manga? For one thing, the 2002-2003 manga boom happened, and tons of new manga was released in English. For another thing, back in 2000, I worked at VIZ where I could read manga at work.Yeah, I had it easy. When I left VIZ, and couldn't keep my manga behind my desk, the size of my collection boomed. The musty smell of paper, the feel of the pages…but no, my fetish was never for books and paper; I was decorating my nest with manga like a bird seeking a mate. My fetish is for the experience, the art, the stories themselves…all part of my quest for ultimate knowledge of the manga and comics medium, my quest to read every manga on Earth.

But do I like every manga on Earth? No. A lot of it sucks. Manga is a medium, not a genre. To say "I like manga" is as meaningful, and meaningless, as saying "I like movies." To say "I like American comics" is a much narrower and safer statement, since 90% of American comics (at least the mainstream ones with the floppy covers) are superhero or crime stories or, failing that, some kind of adventure story about some badass in a science fiction/fantasy/horror setting. On the other hand, the term "manga" encompasses stories of vastly different genres: yaoi porn and shonen action, shojo romances and seinen stories about salarymen and sommeliers. A fan of Joss Whedon's comics might or might not like an Alan Moore comic, but how many manga fans read Tetsuya Kariya, Hirohiko Araki and Rie Takada? Manga is much more broken into subcategories, into different audiences and genres. Still, if you define manga as originating from Japan, and sharing certain styles and cultural references, perhaps saying "I like manga" is no broader than saying "I like Japanese films." But then what about artists like Svetlana Chmakova and Felipe Smith, who can direct Japanese films—I mean, draw manga—at the level of the best Japanese mangaka? My personal answer is, it depends on how much room I have in my basement.

For bookstores, the answer is, how much space do they have on their shelves, and that space is limited. The English-language manga market has declined since 2007—perhaps just a sign of the economy, or perhaps validating famous translator Toren Smith's doomsday prediction, in The Comics Journal a few years ago, that the manga market would get too bloated with junk and then crash. As a manga fan, it's sad to see the number of manga titles released per year go down. But the good news is, the decline in mainstream manga means manga can again belong to the maniacs. Economic recession hasn't stopped Top Shelf, Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly from releasing some of the greatest underground art-manga ever. Dark Horse is rereleasing the work of CLAMP. Vertical is becoming a neo-Dark Horse with releases of science fiction manga and Felipe Smith's Peepo Choo. VIZ is still willing to take a risk on something as strange as the cooking manga Oishinbo. It's a leaner market, but title for title, there's more good manga being published now than there was during the boom of a few years ago.

Like a bancho in a 1970s manga, I'd like to stuff all my manga in a duffelbag and roam the world, sitting on grassy riverbanks watching the sunset, searching for the greatest manga in the world. But if you prefer, you can come away from the light, into the basement, where ancient manga and out-of-print oddities lie waiting. There are good manga in all genres: seinen and shojo, shonen and yaoi. These are books that, out of all the manga I've read, stand out in their weirdness and awesomeness. They are the reasons I like manga. Check them out.

Episode I: The Rose of Versailles

One of the greatest books on manga is Frederik Schodt's classic Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. Schodt lived in Japan in what may have been the Golden Age of manga, when a gaijin who liked manga could walk right up and make friends with Osamu Tezuka, and Manga! Manga! captures the excitement of that time. As a bonus to English-speaking readers who had never read manga before (which, in 1983, was most of them), Schodt included short samples of several manga in the back. One of these was Riyoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles.

The Rose of Versailles is one of those classic manga that has been translated into almost every language except English. Originally printed in 1972-1973, with the TV anime adaptation following in 1979, it hit it big before the American market was ready to accept comics or animation from Japan. It was one of the biggest hits of the '70s Shōjo Manga boom, helping to establish girls' comics as a serious force, both commercial and artistic. While Versailles warped and entertain the rest of the world—France, Germany, Italy, Latin America, Iraq—with its gender-blending historical romance, Americans' idea of a "Japanese comic" was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Americans had even less idea of what a Shōjo Manga was, but the closest thing in English was probably Jem. It was a dark time.

The Rose of Versailles is a historical romance, set in the baroque DAYS of 18th century France. Francois de Jarjayes, the commander of the Royal Guards, has six daughters and no son, so he raises his youngest daughter as a man to be his successor. The girl, dubbed Oscar, grows up as a swordswoman with long blonde hair and aquiline features; she's so handsome, all the ladies in court giggle and swoon to see her pass. Like a true knight, Oscar is dedicated to protecting the new queen of France, Marie Antoinette. As Marie and Oscar grow from teenagers to adults, the story follows their friendship and their struggles with corrupt nobles, court intrigue, steamy affairs and rival swordsmen.

But sadly, Marie Antoinette and her husband the king don't grow up to be the kindest or wisest rulers, and soon the French Revolution is on its way. Oscar can see that the kingdom is falling apart and the poor are suffering, but her sense of justice and compassion clash with her loyalty to Marie Antoinette. It's the tragedy of the samurai who must be faithful to an unworthy master. Adding to Oscar's inner turmoil is her relationship with Andre, her manservant, the one man to whom she is close. Oscar is effectively male in every aspect of her life (she even looks increasingly masculine as the manga goes on), but Andre has feelings for her, despite his low social class and her ambiguous gender. Other figures swim in and out of the narrative, most of them scheming something. The handsome Count Axel von Fersen seduces his way across the court. Oscar is as noble as she can be in such trying times. Marie Antoinette starts out spoiled and naive but sincere, but her personality becomes increasingly warped by her decadent surroundings.

Over nine volumes (the 10th volume is a fairy tale-like side story), the manga builds to a climax on the eve of the Revolution, blending real history and the drama of fictional lives. The Rose of Versailles is really as much Marie Antoinette's story as Oscar's; the plot was obviously conceived as a historical story first (like Ikeda's later manga Eikou no Napoleon, "The Glory of Napoleon") and Oscar came later. But Oscar's invention was the stroke of genius. The series is simply called "Lady Oscar" in most countries outside Japan. With her androgynous appearance and (to Japanese readers) exotic European name, Oscar is one of the archetypes of manga (and one of the most popular recurring characters in Japan's crossdressing Takarazuka Theater Troupe), a woman who plays the role of a man, sometimes struggling with the burden, but mostly surpassing men at their own game. She follows in the footsteps of Osamu Tezuka's crossdressing Princess Knight, but Ikeda's creation is elegant and tragic where Tezuka's is childlike and cute. Marie Antoinette's presence serves as a counterpoint to Oscar's, the femme queen to Oscar's butch knight. (The Rose of Versailles is also an obvious influence on countless yuri manga, such as Hayate X Blade and countless other stories of beautiful, athletic maybe-lesbians.) Oscar is a fascinating character, but unlike many other manga about fascinating characters (say, Lone Wolf and Cub), the historical timeline keeps the story ticking along, never spinning its wheels in side stories and pointless filler. (One thing I've noticed about much 1970s manga is how well it works together as a single long novel-like story, without the stilted chapter breaks found in most manga which ran in magazines—were the stories heavily altered for the graphic novel reprint, or were they just that much better-written back then?) 

With its huge starry eyes and pretty costumes, Versailles' art is fairly typical for '70s shojo, but still delightful. The use of screentone is minimal; the pink roses and lush greens on the cover are enough for me to mentally color the whole book. As the series goes on, its art changes as well, paralleling the increasing seriousness of the story, as well as shojo trends of the time. In early volumes, faces are cute, and funny moments are drawn with cartoony distortion. In later volumes, there are no more funny moments, and everyone is thin and aethereal-looking, androgynous and gaunt with fingers like sticks of ivory. The change also reflects the aging of the characters. Personally, I prefer the cartoony style of the early volumes, but I recognize that the change serves the story.

In short, Versailles is a classic manga that ought to be released in English. Unfortunately, rumor has it that Ikeda (who retired as a mangaka relatively young and never made another hit as big as The Rose of Versailles), is asking for more money than any American manga publisher can afford. There isn't even a complete scanlation of the series, since scanlators would apparently rather translate the next Arina Tanemura manga. Like many classic manga, Versailles' other problem is its length; although English indie comics publishers have done a good job publishing one-shots by Tezuka and Tatsumi, a 10-volume, 1800-page story is more than most publishers can commit to. It's a shame, since many of the best manga are also the longest…great when your series is a hit and YOU need to keep cranking it out, not so great when you've got to release the whole thing at once into an uncertain market. 

Only two translated volumes of The Rose of Versailles exist. These partially bilingual books were published by Sanyusha in 1981 as an aide for Japanese readers to learn English. In an interview with PULP magazine, Schodt dropped the even more tantalizing crumb of info that he had translated the entire manga into English in 1979 for reference material for the producers of the international live-action bomb Lady Oscar, but he gave the only copy to the producers and it was never heard from again. As for my own copy, I gave it to my then-future fiancee, after we bonded over our shared love for anime about crossdressing swordswomen. Maybe there's something to that "decorating the nest" theory of manga after all. And when we're married, I get my manga back.

Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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