Shojo manga has, historically, been underserved by American manga publishers – and when we have gotten shojo series, they have tended to be more conventional romance series – and not necessarily works in other genres (whether fantasy, science fiction, or historical fiction). However, some of the more influential works of the genre have fallen overlapped with other genres, and probably few more influential and more high profile than Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles. It’s also a manga that until fairly recently, hasn’t been available (legally) in its entirety in English.
The manga follows two main characters – first is the historical figure of Marie Antionette, who eventually becomes the last Queen of France. The other is the original character of Lady Oscar François de Jarjayes – a young woman who is raised as a boy by her father, and who becomes the captain of the Royal Guard. The paths of the two come together as Antionette goes from being the princess to inheriting the throne and becoming queen, before eventually diverging as the French Revolution approaches.
As far as discussing the manga goes – this is definitely a work where I think shifting my perspective in terms of how I write about things critically to a more personal perspective to a more personally removed perspective helps – not because the work is bad (quite the opposite – this is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of sequential art of all time) but because anything I was to say now lives in the shadow of a mountain of works of serious criticism by writers far better read than I, and with a greater grounding in terms of Japanese political history and with an understanding of Japanese to give them access to primary sources in Japan that I otherwise wouldn’t have access to.
To be frank, Rose of Versailles has from what I can tell, achieved a level of recognition in France and Japan that works like Watchmen, Maus, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has achieved. The reason why it hasn’t in the English-speaking world has strictly been related to the work not being translated – for reasons that are ultimately primarily known to those who have attempted to pursue the license for the work in the past, and to Ikeda herself.
As far as how I felt about the work – in a way the comparison I would make is to reading Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell (as opposed to any of the adaptations of the work to the screen). Ikeda and Shirow both have put a tremendous amount of detail and work into crafting the realities of their worlds, to make something that draws the reader in and makes the worlds feel lived in. Both authors also use annotations to expand on their stories – Ikeda based on historical facts, Shirow for expanding on scientific, technological, and philosophical concepts. Also, both are capable of switching from more dramatic storytelling to slapstick comedy – complete with a dramatic art shift – on a dime, without harming the flow of the story.
If there was a thing that didn’t quite work for me – it’s I think the choice to remove Oscar from the story at the storming of the Bastille hurts the pace. It means that we get no emotional closure between her and Antoinette before the end of the manga. Additionally, going in, because Antoinette’s fate is a fixed point – it means everything after Oscar leaves the story becomes a foregone conclusion, and ultimately something of a drag. We know where they’re going, and we know how they’re going to get there.
In spite of some of the issues with the pacing of the manga’s conclusion, I still loved Rose of Versailles a lot, and I’m very glad there’s finally a legal way to read this story in English.
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