I finally finished watching Rose of Versailles this morning, a 40 episode anime series that premièred in 1979. Following the exploits of Oscar, a fictional French noblewoman who dresses like a man to lead Marie Antoinette's Royal Guard, the source manga by Riyoko Ikeda was a popular work and remains profoundly influential. I gather the manga goes in a completely different direction than the anime series and I suspect it's a superior work. I loved the first half of the series, which was directed by Tadao Nagahama, but the second half, directed by Osamu Dezaki after Nagahama's death, seems like it was made by someone completely uninterested in the series' original concept. A story focused on women in the French court is kind of abruptly shoved aside for a story about men loving and putting up with women during the French Revolution. It's particularly disappointing because so many of the looming dramatic conflicts built up in the first half are completely ignored in favour of bland cliché.
No longer satisfied with her insulated position as the head of the Royal Guard, Oscar (Reiko Tajima) requests a transfer to command a small rural unit of the regular military. We meet Alain (Keaton Yamada), the roguish leader of the rough unit whose tragic story eventually earns Oscar's sympathy. And Oscar's childhood friend, Andre (Taro Shigaki), also enlists in the unit. Andre gets an eye shot out, which is helpful for those of us trying to tell Andre apart from Alain or from Bernard (Akio Nojima) or Fersen (Nachi Nozawa), other competitors for Oscar's and/or Marie Antoinette's heart.
People who don't watch anime often complain all the characters look alike. Here it's a fair cop. I'd swear this is a clone army.
The first half of the series featured stories where Oscar rescued Marie Antoinette, foiled dastardly plots, or got involved with complicated court drama involving Madame du Barry or the poor orphan woman, Rosalie (Rihoko Yoshida).
Rosalie, who'd served as a dramatic link between the world of the court and the common people suffering during the lean times preceding the Revolution, becomes essentially a face in the crowd as Bernard takes over that role in the second half of the series.
All along through the first half, I wondered how the show was going to address the complicated issues surrounding the Revolution since Marie Antoinette was placed at the centre of the drama. How was this character we're designed to love going to fit in in this world of people holding her lifestyle responsible for widespread poverty and hunger? The show simply removes her from centre stage while Oscar is shuffled into a position as a rebel leader. There's one scene where Oscar asks Marie Antoinette not to dissolve a meeting of democratically elected representatives but otherwise the show is devoid of any moments where Oscar is forced to confront a former ally, finding themselves now at opposite sides of an ideological gulf. Instead, there's some pretty thin drama about Andre and Oscar admitting their love for each other and a really embarrassing scene where Oscar commands her troops to join the rebels because she thinks it's what Andre would want her to do. A shot of him nodding smugly behind her confirms this for her teary eyes looking to him for guidance.
I might not have expected a story about a woman actually making decisions and strategies from a 70s anime except the first half of the series gave me exactly that. It really feels like two different series and the first half really feels frustratingly unfinished.
Twitter Sonnet #1255
The etchings rose upon the covered stair.
A ring of watching shades devour tongues.
A giant tusk was hid behind a flare.
A million years collect and weight the lungs.
The verdant brains were placed in plastic bowls.
On station walls the pictures paint the day.
A team of snails observe through tiny holes.
A fleet of squid approached the secret bay.
A team of moths rebuilt an ancient coat.
A winding chain composed a ticking hitch.
A hundred sheets collect within the boat.
Below the crew began at last to stitch.
A boulevard of broken stones is sharp.
The fleet of foot are sure to play a harp.