THE ROSE OF VERSAILLES: PART ONE – DVD review

After a handful of daughters, General Jarjayes is in a panic. He has no son, and he desperately needs one to carry on the military tradition in his family. When his wife births yet another daughter, he snaps, grabs the infant girl, faces the stormy skies above, and proclaims the child to be his son. He names her Oscar, and vows to raise her as a boy.

Thus begins one of the most famous anime and manga series of the 1970’s, “Rose of Versailles,” a grand melodrama that takes place in the turbulent years surrounding the French Revolution.

From that stormy night, we flash forward 14 years, and Oscar is now a wild child, skilled at all the things young boys of the age do — horseback riding astride, fencing, and fighting. She is bold, brash, and stubborn. And just like a rebellious son, Oscar chafes at her father’s domineering ways. When the General commands Oscar join the military and take a post guarding the future Queen, Marie Antoinette, Oscar declines, disdaining the idea of joining the military and being forced to babysit some stupid girl. Together with her best friend and servant, Andre, Oscar would rather spend her days living freely.

However, even stubborn sons sometimes bend to the will of their parents, and soon Oscar (followed by the ever-loyal Andre) is on guard duty, entering a world of spoiled excess and intrigues both political and romantic. She faces all sorts of challenges ranging from threats to the young Queen’s life, to helping her maneuver through a web of social dangers amidst the sharp tongues and plotting ways of the Royal Court. Not only does Oscar have to use her great athletic skill with the sword to protect Marie-Antoinette, she has to be aware of all the political drama surrounding her charge and help guide the flighty young girl through complicated situations. Oscar, as a female raised as a male, has an unusual perspective on all of the action. She can witness and sympathize with the machinations of the court women, yet she can also hold herself apart from them and take part in the power struggles of the men. She lives in two worlds. Oscar changes a lot though the course of this set of episodes, beginning as a stubborn, headstrong young girl full of pride, to a more mature strategist.

The Royal Court is a tricky place. There are enemies, both foreign and domestic, who cause trouble for Oscar, and Marie Antoinette is not an easy charge. Versailles seems glittering and perfect, but turmoil is lurking just around the corner and Oscar soon discovers that her country is not as prosperous as she’d thought. The common people are poor and struggling, and the Queen’s lavish lifestyle is not helping things. As unrest spreads across the land, Oscar, Andre, and Marie Antoinette are forced to make tough decisions about life, love, and politics that could have drastic consequences.

Can one young girl survive the turmoil of the royal courts in a time leading up to a revolution? Will Oscar be able to balance her identity as a guard, with the reality that she is a woman, and has longings that may not match her tough exterior? Pride, Honor, Duty, Loyalty, Love. All of these are things Oscar must juggle in her new life at the Palace.

This set contains the first 20 episodes of the 40-episode TV series spread across 4 discs. The series is one long continuous story, with each episode leading directly to the next, with every few episodes acting as smaller story arcs. There are episodes full of dashing action and adventure, and other episodes that focus more on complicated relationships and secret plotting. The number of characters introduced can be a bit confusing, but the format of smaller story arcs helps things stay on track. I am amused at how this series blends historical events with fantastical plot twists. The idea that during this era a girl could be raised as a boy and everyone would be fine with it is fantastic. Also, that this girl would also be allowed a military position of such importance – especially at such a young age – is great. It is a romantic, exotic fantasy setting that young girls can dream about.

I can barely contain how happy I am to see “Rose of Versailles” receive an English subtitled release in the US. As a huge fan of classic anime and manga it can be frustrating when so many companies focus on releasing all the latest shows. Not that I don’t enjoy modern anime – I do – but there is such a huge back catalog of titles out there that may never get a release here because it is deemed “too old.” Here we have something that is over 30 years old with the bonus of being aimed at girls and women. It’s a classic and influential in the shoujo (girls) story genre. Amazing!

“Rose of Versailles” was a pioneer of the visual and storytelling style of girls comics and anime of the 70’s and early 80’s: the large galaxy eyes full of stars and framed by thick eyelashes, the flowing blond hair, the sharply defined noses and lips, the exotic Western settings, the strong female protagonists, the melodramatic plots accentuated by exaggerated visual cues, and the complicated relationships that often require a narrator to explain. There is a certain “over-the-top” quality to “Rose of Versailles” that just adds to the entertainment value. People don’t just react to things, they React With A Dramatic Background and Intense Background Music. Every mood or plot twist is played up for as much drama as possible. This art and storytelling style was a staple of the 1970’s shoujo comic scene, and for years to come, other works would display traces of this influence. From the Western settings in “Candy Candy,” “Lady Georgie,” “Alpen Rose,” “Lady Lady,” and “Ashita no Nadja” to the fierce female “Prince” of  “Revolutionary Girl Utena,” the impact of “Rose of Versailles” continues to be felt.

I greatly enjoyed this set and look forward to the second half of the series.

Video:
“Rose of Versailles” is presented in its original TV broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1. On my screen this appears as a square picture with large black bars on each side. The video looks reasonably clean, but there will always be a considerable amount of dust and blemishes on a series this old. Keep in mind this is animated simply and with traditional methods, so there is no way it could look as shiny, colorful and slick as modern anime. The colors are all a bit unsaturated, the lines are not always as black as they should be (many outlines appear brown), and the picture is sometimes shaky and slightly faded. Yet there are some lovely colors present, especially the reds and purples of the opening sequence. Considering the age of the material, Nozomi has done a wonderful job with the release. I think that outside of a full blu ray remaster, this is about as nice as this series can look on DVD.

Audio:
There is only one audio track on this set, a unremarkable mono Japanese language track and English subtitles. It’s clean enough, but nothing fantastic. Again, considering the age of the series, this is not surprising and  did not prevent me from enjoying the series.

Extras:
The only extra included in this set is a clean version of the opening and ending sequences. The opening is especially beautiful. With its deep red imagery of Oscar and the thorns.

–Miscellaneous–
The packaging for this set is excellent, consisting of a very sturdy outer box and 4 slim single-disc keep cases that slide into it for a snug fit. The box and each keep case is decorated with gorgeous color illustrations of the main cast by series character designer Michi Himeno.

Film Value:
The fact that this DVD set even exists is amazing to me. Here we have a series that is historically important in the world of Japanese animation, represents so many key visual and storytelling styles that influenced countless anime and manga productions for years to come. I’m thankful that Nozomi takes the time to select series like this and to put together a lovely release.

Reply