The Rose of Versailles is an old school anime. It aired from 1979-1980 and was based off of a manga from the early 70s. It was brought to us by TMS, the same studio behind the mediocre Magic Knight Rayearth, the excellent Glass no Kamen & the decent enough Kousetsu Hyaku Monogatari. Is this one a classic worth revisiting? Let’s find out.
In the years leading up to the French revolution, a young woman works as the Captain of the Royal guards, as she was raised like a boy. This is our heroine, Oscar François de Jarjeyes. Can she navigate through the turbulent times?
Okay, I’m going to ignore that this series has about as much relation to actual history as the Abrams films have to do with Star Trek. It’s historical fiction, we can forgive it for only vaguely resembling the reality and even then you have to squint a lot and use magnifying lenses to find the similarities. The issue is with the kinds of liberties it takes. Speaking in the very broadest of strokes, there are two basic types of alterations. The first are changes made to simplify things. This series doesn’t seem to be cognisant of grey morality. Instead, it boils things down to the “right” and the “wrong.” The nobles, save a select few, are portrayed as outright evil people who shoot children and run people over without caring in the slightest.
The second types of changes are those designed to make things painfully melodramatic. This series loves to take relatively minor things, like Marie Antoinette snubbing Madame Du Barry, and act like they’re massive events that could totally lead to the end of everything that is. Because Ikeda Riyoko doesn’t quite understand how treaties actually work and thinks they can fall apart like wet tissue paper when an important person from one nation doesn’t get on with a kind of important person from another.
Speaking of an unfettered love of melodramatic nonsense, this series loves to take little twists and turns that don’t make a lot of sense but they’re “dramatic.” A big example is that there is a character who suffers an injury and loses the use of one of their eyes. We then discover that they’re losing the use of their other one because “it’s a strain to just have one functional eye.” Which basically translates to “anatomy, how does it work?” Here’s a hint, not like that. There’s a bit with a terminal illness, but it’s pretty pointless since the character in question is barely affected by it before they die from something unrelated. It’s good that they wasted our time with that sub-plot that goes nowhere. There’s also the attempted sexual assault scene which leads to an apology and is never mentioned again. Speaking of romance bits, there’s a part where Oscar’s father tries to marry her off and there’s an attempt to have drama with it for a very short period before it’s over. Because that’s how to have effective romantic drama. The romance in this is just rubbish in general. On the plus side, the slow, tedious execution of the “big, dramatic” scenes does lead to some unintentionally funny bits.
The pacing in this is pretty bad too. There are long, tedious segments where nothing of value is accomplished and when it finally gets to the revolution, which should be the interesting bit, we get a very small bit about the start and then it skips right to the end. Because why would you want real drama when you can have melodrama?
Earlier, I mentioned that the morality in this is very one-dimensional. And the characterisation is where that creates the biggest problem. Those historical figures who are selected as antagonists are so unambiguously “evil for the evils” that if this weren’t historical-based they’d have snake pun names and be taking orders from a bloke with a metal mask and raspy voice.
With the royal couple, the effort put into trying to make them sympathetic just gets absurd. Everything they do has to be justified, including engaging in the upper class twit past time known as fox hunting. Because foxes are vicious and will lunge for your throat. They certainly don’t hide in burrows. And Marie Antoinette’s mild pettiness is presented as demonstrative of strength of character. The sad part is that it’s not hard to portray them sympathetically. He spent his entire reign trying to make things better for the common folk but he ruled at a time when the king couldn’t make unilateral decisions and he didn’t have the political savvy to get the nobles on board. While she didn’t have any real power because the woman in power at the French Court at that time was the king’s mistress, which Louis XVI didn’t have. And then they were both executed, as were their children. They may not have been saints, but they did nothing worth killing them.
Our protagonist is a very one-note “noble” protagonist. She always does the right thing and stays on the right side of history. It gets to the point where she comes across as an incompetent moron because there are scenes where her work requires her to deal with someone causing trouble but she’ll let them go because “well, they’re doing good” or she’ll try to talk them down without anyone to watch her back and she’ll get taken by surprise. It really comes across as Ikeda being afraid to have her do anything that someone might find objectionable. After all, if she went in and used her authority as the captain to do her job, she might seem like a bit of an authoritarian.
The ultimate consequence is that the characters come across more like they belong in a simple work for children than in a drama we’re supposed to be taking seriously. Which gets even worse when you consider that a lot of these characters are based off of real people. Not one of Hasbro’s toy lines.
I don’t want to be too harsh on the animation for this, since it was made a very long time ago. I won’t say it looks bad. It really doesn’t. I will, however, say that it’s very lazy. All the standard cost cutting measures are used. Minimal movement with some motion blur to try and craft the illusion that more’s happening on screen than actually is, recycled frames, very slow and awkward action sequences, tedious bits with a lot of sparkle vision to try and spice them up.
The performances in this are decent enough. They aren’t good performances but they’re a bit above average. The biggest thing holding them back is just that the characters are very bland and don’t demand much range. The music is passable.
There are quite a few female characters who express interest in Oscar, thinking that she’s so cool and it’s a pity she’s not a man. They also include some of the spurious rumours about Marie Antoinette sleeping with everyone, including women.
Overall, the big problem with this series is that it wants to be a serious drama but it doesn’t want to include any real complexity. So, we get very stock characters who could be at home in a work for small children and we get a total lack of nuance or subtlety, which would also be suitable for a work made for small children. But we also get very poor attempts at tackling more serious subjects. Which makes it decidedly not for small children. And, ultimately, there are a lot of better portrayals of the French Revolution in media. Like a Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Reign of Terror Serial from Doctor Who, The Glass Blowers and quite a few more. Rose of Versailles simply doesn’t use its subject matter in a compelling way. Unless you really like boring melodrama. For myself, I have to give it a 3/10. Next week I’ll look at Youjo Senki.