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Making History: The Rose of Versailles

Originally written for AnimeNewsNetwork.com by Danica Davidson, Oct 30th 2012.
Edited for press by Kris Gero.

The Rose of Versailles has the classic elements of shoujo 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 shoujo titles, and Riyoko Ikeda's revolutionary 1970s manga really helped lay the groundwork for all this.

Riyoko Ikeda's The Rose of Versailles manga debuted in Japan in 1972 and soon became a hot seller, with the 40-episode anime released 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. Now, for the first time, North American audiences are going to be able to watch the anime.

Impact on Anime and Manga

It's easy to toss out lines about how influential The Rose of Versailles is, but it's another matter to really understand how much Ikeda helped change the manga scene with her work. Dr. Susan Napier, author of Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle, spoke about the title in an interview with Anime News Network at series' North American premiere at New York Comic Con 2012. 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 ‘70s a group of women writers known as the group of 24 appeared, and Versailles' creator Riyoko Ikeda was one of them. All of them would go on to have a major impact on the shoujo manga industry, helping to make shoujo 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 shoujo, 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 shoujo manga in the 1970s," 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 Rose appealed enormously to readers and helped solidify the trend toward visual lavishness in subsequent shoujo 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 shoujo 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 shoujo manga culture to this day."

Coming to America

The release of The Rose of Versailles anime in North America has been a long time in the making. 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 Entertainment, the animation studio behind the series. Right Stuf's Nozomi Entertainment division is handling all of the translation, subtitling and production work, and they have sublicensed the streaming rights to Viki.com.

Viki CEO Razmig Hovaghimian noted that, "many companies have tried unsuccessfully for years to bring The Rose of Versailles to North America." Right Stuf's President and CEO Shawne Kleckner said that he's been working on this deal 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."

Spanning 40 episodes, The Rose of Versailles began streaming on Viki.com for American and Canadian viewers in December 2012 and Nozomi Entertainment is set to release the series in two limited-edition box sets this year.