Review: Rose of Versailles

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I’ve been writing anime reviews once every few weeks since I first started Otaku Lounge just over a year ago – usually I just go ahead and choose a title that I happened to have watched fairly recently and feel like discussing. As a result though, my reviews so far have been based solely on relatively new shows (i.e. from the past decade), and so this time, I thought it’d be nice to mix it up a bit with something a little more retro.

Note: not that I’ve ever done differently, but I think it bears repeating especially for this review that I’ll be keeping things exclusively anime-focused. For the purposes of this article, I’m writing as though the manga (and films, and musicals) don’t exist.

So. Rose of Versailles. A 40-episode series that aired from 1979 to 1980, and was directed first by Nagahama Tadao and then, following his death in early 1980, by the now better-known Dezaki Osamu. Still a much-celebrated title today, Rose of Versailles revolves primarily around the character of Oscar, a girl raised as a man by her father in order to become his successor and lead the palace guards. Her servant and best friend Andre, as well as Marie Antoinette, also play large roles in a story that spans just over two decades.

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For an anime with so many time-skips, one of the factors that greatly impresses me about Rose of Versailles is how smooth it generally feels. Oscar is fourteen years old when the anime begins, and in her late thirties by its conclusion, but the events of the story have a kind of organic flow to them which make the audience implicitly aware that time is passing, and yet also doesn’t draw too much attention to the fact. No doubt this is thanks in large part to the historical nature of the series – and happily a very accurately portrayed one at that – but I feel it still takes a lot of skill to keep major events unfolding at a reasonably brisk pace while preventing both the plot and the character development from coming across as abrupt or unnatural.

And what fabulous characters there are to work with! Despite dressing and acting as though she is a man, Oscar’s gender is no secret; everyone with even a little familiarity with her or her family is well aware that she’s a woman, and Oscar herself is very open about this fact. However, as she was raised from birth as a man, playing the part of one isn’t just an act for Oscar but rather comes as naturally as breathing. Her relationship with Andre, who is secretly in love with Oscar, only expands into a central plot point near the end of the series – a breath of fresh air after all the prolonged angsting and overt drama of plenty of newer romance titles I could name. Which certainly isn’t to say that Rose of Versailles isn’t dramatic – it’s an ultra-sparkly shoujo piece, so of course it is – but all of the main characters are fully-fledged and engaging enough that they are never defined solely through their relationships with other people. They exist as themselves rather than via their love interests, and I cannot emphasise enough how much this pleases me.

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The minor characters a little more hit and miss, however. The antagonists in particular – the Duke of Orléans, Madame du Barry, the Duchess of Polignac, Saint-Just – are about as cartoonishly villainous as they come, complete with maniacal laughter and dimly lit monologues. Other side-characters are given screen time only to serve as thinly veiled plot devices, such as Louis Joseph (Marie Antoinette’s second child) who appears in a grand total of one episode, and Oscar’s father, who I assume lives in the same house as Oscar but only ever seems to appear on camera whenever it’s time to get into an argument about Oscar’s future slap his daughter down the stairs. Rosalie, who is introduced relatively early on and is set up to play a major role in the series, gets hastily shuffled off just after the halfway point and becomes little more than a glorified extra for all the character development she receives thereafter.

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Another issue I have with some of the characters lies in the voice acting. The problem with time-skips is that characters have to sound immediately recognisable but ideally still have enough room for their actors to depict a number of different ages with some degree of realism; a difficult job when you have the same voice actors for people who are fourteen years old in one episode and twenty-something in the next. Unfortunately, the voice actors for all the main female characters in Rose of Versailles sound distinctly like middle-aged women rather than young adults, so Oscar and Marie Antoinette frequently come across as far older than they actually are. I don’t mean to imply that I don’t think the voice acting is good – on the contrary, it really grew on me, and Tajima Reiko especially does a fabulous job as Oscar – but perhaps in part because the actors are attempting to portray extremely refined French aristocrats, the vocal range required to sound authentic just isn’t there.

Other than this, I have surprisingly few complaints about the technical aspects of the series. While I don’t particularly like either the OP or ED theme, Rose of Versailles has a lovely soundtrack, with some beautiful piano pieces going on in the background. The visuals, meanwhile, are… well, they’re very 70s shoujo, which means long-lashed eyes and dewy eyes, extremely slender bodies, and more sparkles than you could possibly wish for. (Seriously, everything sparkles, from tears and sweat to hair and clothes.) Still, the artwork is far from ugly, and neither is the animation anything to sniff at. Yes, the show makes heavy use of still frames and speed lines in place of any actual movement, but for all that, Rose of Versailles isn’t a bad-looking show – indeed, given its date and length, I think it actually looks quite good.

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It’s absolutely no surprise to me that Rose of Versailles was quickly adapted for the stage – the anime is about as melodramatic and theatrical as they come, from the cheesy sound effects to the at times laughably exaggerated poses. Nonetheless, the series also manages to be charming, engaging, and yes, even touching, from start to finish. There lies a perhaps surprisingly sophisticated and obviously lovingly crafted story beneath all that glitter. I only wish there were more anime like it.

Question of the post: Have you seen Rose of Versailles, and if so, when did you first watch it? If you haven’t yet seen it, do you think you will, or does its age put you off?

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5 thoughts on “Review: Rose of Versailles

  1. I have not seen Rose of Versailles (yet), but I have been in the middle of another 1970’s Osamu Dezaki work via his Aim for the Ace! series.

    Something that interests me there and seems to also very much be the case as you describe in Rose of Versailles is that of the art, direction, and general visual appearance of the work still looking quite solid. Dezaki’s prowess and invitations aside (and given, that is a very significant series of things to put aside), it is the sort of thing that makes me wonder if such older shōjo series have any kind of advantage over their other television peers from the same era when trying to get folks into them today? Or even more years from now down the road? Any posing, theatricality, ornate static images, or what have you, seem to hold up quite robustly and/or do not seem all that removed from what many of the anime successors to Versailles or Ace still engage in today.

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    • Hmm… I think I’m inclined to agree with you, but I also don’t think I’ve seen enough anime prior to the 90s to really make a bold statement either way. (Rose of Versailles is probably the oldest anime that I’ve watched every episode of, although over the last year or so, I’ve been making a bit more of an effort to watch some older work along with new season material.) But yeah, I can definitely see how this could potentially be the case.

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  2. A smile was destined to shoot across my face when I saw this post. Easily for me part of the rare combination of one of my favorite and one of the best (in terms of both storytelling and entertainment) shows I’ve ever watched. I don’t remember exactly when I watched Rose of Versailles, it was probably over 6 or 7 years ago. And I did so as a kind of journey. Sometimes I like to watch shows inspired or heavily influence by other shows. It makes for an interesting “field trip” through the world of anime.

    I guess my road map for this show was Revolutionary Girl Utena. If you watch PenguinDrum then you have to watch that show. And if you watch Utena, you have to watch Sailor Moon and Rose of Versailles to really understand Utena at its deepest. Similarly, Rose of Versailles and Aim for the Top! got me to watch the Aim for the Ace! movie. And soon I’ll hopefully get to watch the Aim for the Ace! TV series. This kind of habit of mine has gotten me to try many anime I wouldn’t normally have tried. And Rose of Versailles is possibly the best thing I’ve watched because of it. Yeah, I’m a pretty big fan, and I may have shed a tear or two while watching this.

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    • I can definitely see the correlations between the likes of Rose of Versailles, Sailor Moon, Utena, and Penguindrum – the kind of visuals and storytelling that they often have in common speak for themselves, and in a very distinctive way.

      This was actually my very first viewing of Rose of Versailles from beginning to end, and I’m so glad that I made the time for it. While I can’t say I shed any tears over it (which is pretty rare for me), I did find myself becoming emotionally invested quite quickly, and I was sorry when I eventually ran out of episodes.

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  3. Pingback: 5 Anime I’d Love to See Remade | OTAKU LOUNGE

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