The Rose of Versailles (which is known as Berusaiyu no Bara in Japan) is a 1970s shojo anime series based on the manga series by Riyoko Ikeda. The series is work of historical fiction, and is set in France in the time that leads up to the French Revolution.
The anime had remained unlicensed in North America for 33 years, until Nozomi Entertainment acquired the rights for The Rose of Versailles in 2012. The company released the series in two 20 episode DVD box sets in 2013.
The protagonist of The Rose of Versailles is Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, the youngest of General Jarjayes’ six daughters. When Oscar was born, her father decided to raise her like a man; Oscar was taught fencing, horsemanship, and medieval combat. While she was growing up, Oscar would practice her skills with Andre Grandier, her best friend who is also one of her family’s stablehands. Andre has feelings for Oscar, but he doesn’t admit to her due in large part to their class differences.
The series is set 20 years prior to the French Revolution. Oscar is 14 years old and becomes the commander of the Royal Guard; it’s her mission to escort and protect Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royal family. Oscar and Marie begin a friendship, but there are several incidents in the series that test their friendship.
The first half of The Rose of Versailles focuses on establishing Marie Antoinette as a character, and it also works at establishing the attitudes and motivations of the nobility. The audience is also given glimpses into the lives of the people who live in the slums of Paris as they’re being taxed to the point of not being able to feed their families while the monarchy is spending exorbitant amounts of money for luxuries.
The second half of the series begins with the Diamond Necklace Affair, and it goes through the convening of the Estates-General, the “Tennis Court Oath,” and the storming of the Bastille. After the storming of the Bastille, the rest of the story is told through a conversation between three characters that takes place five years after that event.
Intertwined with the historical fiction is Oscar’s story, as she goes through her time serving with the Royal Guards, questioning the politics of what’s going on, questioning who she is as a person, and her resolution to both issues that she’s questioning.
Overall, I have to say that I enjoy the second half of the series more than I did the first half. Yes, I understand that Marie Antoinette and the nobility need to be established in order to understand what happens later in the story, but the early episodes can be a bit boring and a little on the “fluffy” side. Probably the worst section in the first half is the “power struggle” between Marie Antoinette and Madame du Barry. This is important because it did really happen, but it felt like the anime portrayed their power struggle in a rather “over the top” manner.
There’s a lot more action, story, and plot that takes place in the second half of the series. As I watched the nobles’ reactions to the Estates-General, I couldn’t help but find myself thinking that in some ways, there are parallels with the politics of today in the United States with what was happening in this section of the story. That thought actually frightens me to some extent.
As a piece of historical fiction, The Rose of Versailles is rather decent. However, the story does take some artistic license by slightly changing some of the elements of the actual events that took place. The Diamond Necklace Affair would probably be the biggest example; in fact, in the second DVD box set for The Rose of Versailles, Nozomi included a writeup in the book that came with the set about the differences between the real Diamond Necklace Affair and what was portrayed in the anime.
Another big difference is the fact that Saint-Just and Robespierre know each other earlier in the anime than they did in the real events. In the anime, they’re shown as knowing and being affiliated with each other before the convening of the Estates-General; however, according to what research I’ve done, the two didn’t know each other until after the Estates-General was convened. I’m sure there’s other examples as well.
When it comes to Oscar, a character who was created specifically for this series, she’s actually quite a fascinating character. Over the course of the series, she goes through so many changes. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes her just as she’s finally finding her happiness and has come to realize the answers to the questions she had been wondering about her world and herself.
When it comes to the animation, the early episodes seem to focus more on “sparkles” and other tropes from shojo manga. However, around episode 19, you see the use of the tropes diminish drastically. It turns out the series director changed at that point; once Osamu Dezaki took over the role of director, he seemed to focus more on realism and detail than on trying to simply make the series “look pretty.” Considering how the story progresses in the second half, I think having Dezaki take over in the director’s chair made a lot of sense.
After watching The Rose of Versailles, I thought that while it wasn’t a great series, that it was a decent series. Even after saying that, I believe that the series needs to be seen by anime fans who are interested in older anime series and the history of anime as an art form, due to its status as a “landmark series.” I also think that anime viewers who enjoy historical fiction might also find some enjoyment in The Rose of Versailles.
Thank you, Nozomi Entertainment, for being able to acquire the rights for this series and finally giving it a release in North America. Even though I wasn’t blown away by this series, I’m still glad that I had the opportunity to finally see it and can now understand the references to this show that I’ve seen and heard over the years.