Welcome to the sixth and final main article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition)! For anyone who’s just joined us and has no idea what’s happening, this is the follow-up to a series of interview-style articles published in 2014. The idea then was to expose Watson – who at that point was totally new to anime – to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. The main difference this time around is that the shows I’ve been getting Watson to watch were all released before 2000.
Just for fun, we’ve also been doing this in reverse-chronological order. Previously we tackled 1986’s Dragon Ball and for our last show, we’re going back further in time with Rose of Versailles, first released in anime form in 1979. As always, Watson watched everything on his own without looking anything up, and the following questions were given to him afterwards.
Note: Although this is the last specific show to be discussed in this Watson Watches series, there will be one more post next month to wrap things up. We’ll be discussing Watson’s overall experiences with these older shows and how his opinions regarding anime as a whole may have changed as a result, so stay tuned!
Same question to kick off as in our previous few articles: what year do you think Rose of Versailles might have been released and why?
I think we must be back in the 1970s by now, and later in the decade rather than earlier. Since you ask for a specific year, I’m going to guess 1978. I can see the animation gets less polished and more is made of static art, but I wasn’t really paying much attention to TV at the time. At the same time, however, I can also see the basis of cartoons that I watched in the 1980s. That makes me wonder if there might be recurring cycles in stylistic trends, but I really have no idea.
You noted the big sparkly eyes, sharp noses and thicker lines of Sailor Moon in the 90s, and then the more muted colours and curvier figures of Ranma ½ in the 80s. What sorts of things stand out to you about the artwork of Rose of Versailles in comparison?
OH MY GOD THE SPARKLES!!! Everything glitters. Every. Damn. Thing. Especially people’s eyes, and you see that a lot because the eyes are so huge. If the eyes are the windows of the soul then these souls must need an awful lot of light (and be extremely sparkly, which raises psychological questions I am not equipped to handle). I would shudder to see the skull of one of these characters, it must be at least 30% eye sockets and would resemble nothing so much as one of those big-eyed aliens. But that’s nightmare fuel, so let’s move on.
The character designs and details are quite simple. Probably simpler than Dragon Ball, now that I think about it. But perhaps as compensation for that, the backdrops are often quite impressive. They look like nothing so much as paintings, which I suppose makes sense given the period. If you think of them as representing reality rather than being a vision of it then it could even be quite an interesting stylistic choice today. I’m reminded of the water effects in Free! for some reason.
There’s also an amusing tendency for huge quantities of melodrama whenever something “dramatic” occurs (scare quotes intentional). I’m not even talking about the laughter here: the colour palette often shifts drastically, the backdrop will often become something cosmic or otherwise weird, and if you’re lucky you might see a montage as well. This is one of the reasons I was sure we were back in the 70s, and although I know it had a different impact back then it makes it almost impossible for me to take these moments seriously. I always started giggling, which rather ruined the effect.
You’re something of a history buff, and among other things Rose of Versailles is a political and historical drama – one whose well-researched setting led some teachers in Japan to actually use it in the classroom. What do you think about that?
Obviously I’m in favour of anime creators getting their damn facts straight. Characters and story are always the most important things to me so I wouldn’t choose historical realism over them, but at the same time details can make a big difference. Showing how some details are consistent and coherent can imply the same is true for others, which helps suspend disbelief.
In this particular case I think there’s good reason to use Rose of Versailles in the classroom. There is a theory that Versailles – the concept, not the palace – was actually quite purposefully designed by Louis XIV. The French nobility in the 1600s had a good deal of money and power, and although nobles have a bit of a reputation as nitwits you don’t manage to hold onto all that money and power without having a few clues and a degree of aggression as well. The prospect of nobles competing with each other – and perhaps the king – was a genuine concern for France.
Versailles gave them an arena in which their competitive energies could be expended relatively harmlessly. It was very expensive to keep up with the changing fashions at court, and an enormous amount of plotting and scheming went on in order to keep up status as well. It kept the nobles close at hand and more or less fully occupied. Yes, some of the political infighting was vicious; and the expenditures required drained the coffers of the nobles (who in turn took everything they could from the peasants on their estates). But France itself was not threatened by this.
From what I’ve seen, Rose of Versailles does a fairly decent job of showing the preoccupation with status and posturing that went on amongst the nobility. The shifting nature of alliances and factions and the ways they conducted their intrigues are brought out fairly early on, and this is a facet which is not easy to illustrate to students. An anime showing the experiences of someone trying to navigate this environment without succumbing to it could be a very good way to bring the point home. So I’m quite supportive of teachers who include the show in their teaching materials.
In the original manga, Marie Antoinette was conceived as the main character despite the editors being opposed to the idea of a biography of her. Oscar, at first a supporting character, eclipsed Marie Antoinette in popularity and became the main heroine thanks to the feedback of the readers. Purely in terms of your own enjoyment of the anime, do you think this was a good move?
Yes, I do. The thing with a princess – or a queen – is that she is quite restricted in her actions. A lot of attention is paid to her, and she is required to act in certain ways. Struggling to avoid that can make for fairly compelling stories itself, as I saw in the episodes I watched, but it nonetheless restricts what a storyteller can do with that character. This is even more true for characters where there is a strong historical record, and as I said earlier: queens get a lot of attention. So purely from the point of view of being able to tell engaging stories I think changing the focus away from Marie Antoinette was a good move.
I think it works well at a more personal level too. It is difficult for most of us to empathise with a bratty princess who is sent to a foreign country to get married – or it’s difficult for me, anyway. But it is possible to empathise with someone who is struggling to navigate a complex network of family and official obligations, relationships with a variety of people, and workplace politics. In some ways Oscar is a more relatable character, and I think that helped me to enjoy it. Perhaps the same is true for others as well.
And there’s another issue at work as well: the tantalizing prospect of forbidden love. The anime community seems to be flat-out fascinated by issues regarding gender identity and same-sex relationships. Almost half the shows I’ve watched for this series and the preceding one include them, so it’s obviously a big attraction. Frankly I’m amazed the show wasn’t about these right from the word go. For an audience with these tastes, why would you not put front and center a character who personifies them? If they happen to be historically accurate then so much the better, but clearly the lack of a suitable historical figure wasn’t going to stand in anyone’s way. It might have been possible to “interpret” an existing person differently, but that would have annoyed me so I’m rather glad they didn’t follow that route.
All in all, I think changing the focus was a good move.
Do you have a favourite and least favourite character?
I didn’t really develop a lot of feeling for any of them, but the king – Louis XV – seemed like a strong character. Too often royal characters in these sorts of shows are relegated to one-dimensional caricatures, only acting or indeed being present as the plot demands. Although we didn’t see much of him, Louis XV seems to have avoided that in Rose of Versailles. He did not simply bow to the whims of other characters, and had a degree of agency which I suppose shouldn’t come as a surprise from a man whose father famously said “L’état, c’est moi.”
Also close to the top is Oscar’s father, General de Jarjayes. I have no idea what he was like as a person and we didn’t see a lot of his character in the show: I just like him because of his willingness to bitchslap Oscar whenever he thinks she needs it. That sort of directness is refreshing sometimes.
I think my favourite character however was the crown prince, who would later be Louis XVI. He seemed likable and had some endearing character quirks, which I was amused to discover were actually based on reality (a locksmith prince? You can’t make this stuff up!). He is also a tragic character – for all his qualities, he is destined to die before reaching his thirty-fifth birthday. He died not because of anything he did or failed to do – truthfully, by the time he took the throne it was probably too late to prevent power drifting away from the monarchy. And this in turn prevented him from controlling the nobles, who through their actions precipitated the French Revolution. His main legacy is in foreign policy: supporting a nation you might have heard of, at the cost of the French economy. It’s hard for me not to be sympathetic towards the poor guy.
Down at the bottom, there is stiff competition for least favourite. The Duke d’Orléans is one twirled moustache away from embodying the idea of being stupidly evil for the mere sake of it. Would it really have killed the creators to make him a more sympathetic character? Even Madame du Barry is doing things that make sense in context for the character, but the Duke just seems to be being pointlessly evil. He’s not even very good at it either; if you go around knifing your henchmen when they bring you bad news you pretty soon run out of henchmen willing to bring you any sort of news. I suppose my main issues with this guy was his incompetence at the role he was being presented in.
Oddly enough, I didn’t have much patience with Oscar herself either. I know she’s an author-inserted fantasy character, and so therefore she has to be omni-competent at whatever the plot desires, as well as universally admired and respected by all who know her. Even the Designated Figure of Evilness is bound by the iron laws of anime to admire and respect her, and deep down wish that he/she was even a tenth as pretty, sweet-smelling, or whatever quality is being emphasized today. So it goes. But it does get a bit tiring having her be so consistently without weakness, which now that I think about it might be why I like her father so much. At least he gets to deliver a well-deserved slap every so often.
And for that reason the Duke gets the dubious honour of being my least favourite character. Oscar is balanced a bit by her father and other characters but the Duke is just annoying and incompetent. This might be a case of art imitating life, but I still don’t have any time for him.
While the manga and anime were hugely popular in Japan, the latter was only licensed and released for English-speaking audiences (subtitled-only) in 2013, and the former is only just being given an official English release this year. Other than Rose of Versailles’ age, why do you think there’s such a disparity between audiences?
Over the years I have developed a feeling for how anime creators view their audiences. Put simply, they seem to divide the world into two classes: Japanese viewers, and people who can go and fuck themselves. I have not seen any attempt to cater to foreign markets in the actual creation of shows, and when it happens in distribution it seems to only occur as a grudging afterthought.
To be quite honest, this does not entirely surprise me: Japan is a very insular nation in some ways. I lost count of the number of times people were amazed to learn that other countries had four seasons too, and there’s a general tendency to assume all foreigners are somehow psychically linked and therefore can speak to each other and know each other. I’m not really surprised that Japanese media is created to cater to Japanese ideas and preferences.
So my first guess is that it simply didn’t occur to anyone that foreigners might be a market for this, and even when it did no particular urgency was attached to the process of releasing it to those markets. There are 120 million people in Japan, which is quite enough to sustain an industry even as all-encompassing as the anime business. Why should they bother releasing a show that is nearly forty years old for foreign audiences they don’t care about?
You’ve now watched the first five episodes of Rose of Versailles. Given the time, will you be watching more?
It’s possible. I live a fast-paced life with no room for complications, and between my journeys to exotic destinations I do need something to take my mind off other concerns. Ancien Régime France is a suitable diversion, and the fact that it emphasizes the political and social aspects is an appealing novelty. But I’m not sure I could watch it without thinking of what was going to happen in 1789, which would take a lot of the enjoyment out of the show.
Question of the post: Got any comments or questions of your own? Sound off in the comments! As always, Watson himself will be replying to anything aimed specifically at him.