The Rose of Versailles: The Manga That Changed the World

Sometimes a manga is released that totally changes the world. One that redefines an industry and influences everything else that comes in its wake. And The Rose of Versailles is one such manga, totally changing the landscape of shojo manga and leaving a lasting influence on both the anime and theater industries, all while inspiring countless artists, writers and creators with its story.

Serialized in Margaret magazine between 1972 and 1973, The Rose of Versailles tells the story of two very different women. One is Oscar François de Jarjayes, the daughter of the head of the Palace of Versailles' Royal Guard. Having six daughters and no son, General François Augustin Regnier de Jarjayes decides to raise Oscar as a boy, so she may lead the Royal guard once he steps down. The other protagonist is Marie Antoinette, the young woman who was married to the King of France and became an out-of-her-depth Queen.

The Rose of Versailles

Through these two women, we witness the ups and downs of palace life as Oscar rises through the ranks and the final days of the French aristocracy play out. During this, both women find and lose love and meet various historical figures. All the while, tensions between the upper classes and the working class boil over, and the specter of madame guillotine looms over the horizon.

The Rose of Versailles was written and illustrated by manga legend Riyoko Ikeda. A member of the so-called Year 24 group, Ikeda drew inspiration from her own political beliefs. During her university years, Ikeda had joined the Democratic Youth League of Japan, which was part of the Japanese Communist Party. However, this "New Left" movement started to fade in the early-1970s, and Ikeda decided to write a series inspired by popular uprising and revolution. The French Revolution seemed like the perfect setting for such a story and one that would allow Ikeda to use both original characters and actual historical figures.

At the time of its creation, Ikeda mostly wrote shojo manga. Shojo manga in this period was quite different from what it is today, as it was aimed at very young girls and was usually fluff that avoided any hint of politics or sexuality. However, Ikeda decided to use the medium to tell the complex history of the revolution, casting Marie Antoinette as a traditional shojo heroine blinded by her desire for love.

The Rose of Versailles

At first, Ikeda's publishers were not keen on the series, and the initial chapters focused on Marie received a lukewarm response. However, when Oscar was introduced, the series quickly gained attention, and Oscar soon eclipsed Marie in popularity. In the eyes of many, Oscar became the series' protagonist. In fact, when Oscar's story ended, the manga's readership quickly dried up, and Margaret received hundreds of letters begging Ikeda to bring Oscar back, something she refused to do, which led to the publisher cutting the serialization short.

However, the series made a massive impact, being the first massively successful shojo manga. It totally redefined the genre as something capable of telling deeper, darker and more complex stories. When the first volume of Rose Of Versailles came out in paperback, it sold so well that it convinced manga publishers that releasing collected paperback volumes was a good business model, something that is now common for every major serialized series.

In 1979, TMS Entertainment released an anime adaptation of the series. While this series cut a lot from the story, its art style perfectly captured the ornate Rococo style of the manga. Interestingly, while Marie was present in the anime, Oscar was the main focus of the series, and like the manga before it, it is considered a milestone in anime history. Thankfully, Discotek Media released the series on Blu-ray this year, allowing American audiences to enjoy every beautifully animated moment of this classic tale.

The Rose of Versailles

But that wasn't the end of The Rose Of Versailles, as the franchise would also move onto the stage. In 1974, Shinji Ueda wrote a stage play based on the franchise for the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female musical theater troupe that had formed in 1913. Known for their big musical numbers and beautifully sumptuous staging, Takarazuka's performances of Rose Of Versailles quickly became popular. The show became the troupe's signature performance and one they've gone back to many times in the following years, even getting Ikeda herself to write new content just for them. Now the Revue performs several versions of Rose Of Versailles, each one focused on different parts of the manga, but the shows still sell out quickly and draw in massive crowds whenever they are performed.

The series has had several spin-offs, including The Rose of Versailles: Gaiden in 1984, which told the stories of side characters from the original series. A sequel series called Eikou no Napoleon – Eroica was released in 1986, focusing on the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. In 2005, a 4-panel parody manga, Beru Bara Kids, appeared in newspapers. Finally, in 2013, to mark the 50th anniversary of Margaret magazine, Ikeda returned to its pages to write new content based on the world of Rose Of Versailles, and these new chapters ran until 2018. The Rose Of Versailles also affected the real world. The manga's popularity encouraged Japanese tourists to visit both France and the actual palace of Versailles. This effect was so notable that Ikeda was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 2009, recognizing her service to French history and tourism.

So next time you sit down to enjoy a shojo anime or manga, spare a thought for Riyoko Ikeda and Lady Oscar. As without them, shojo manga would be in a completely different state. Without the influence of The Rose Of Versailles, many popular series would simply never have happened. A testament to the series' brilliance is that it still holds up today, both as an enjoyable written work and as a political statement on the nature of inequality and popular uprisings, a claim that few stories can make.

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