Having first seen this series as a child of nine or ten in Germany, it was an enormous pleasure to revisit Rose of Versailles with an adult mindset. I remember it being one of my favourite childhood anime but was surprised to find that it exceeded even my adult expectations; it isn't for children at all! Told from the perspective of gender-switched Lady Oscar Jarjeyes of the elite Royal Guard, who is subsequently caught between duty and justice, we don't get a simple ‘rich baddies against poor goodies' kind of tale, but an epic and complex weaving of backgrounds and personalities.
Anyone with even a marginal understanding of history will understand that there's a rather important revolution coming at the end, so that in itself cannot be the hook. Instead, what drives the plot are the frenzied actions of the cast as they try to make the best of a stark situation. While the poor live in fear of starvation, the rich live in fear of becoming like the poor and, despite their superficial differences, each group is portrayed as drowning persons flailing against the inevitable. That's not to say everybody is flat and self-explanatory - far from it, the entire cast is a colourful pic'n'mix of personalities, with both good and bad intentions which do not necessarily lead to their predicted consequences. Let's take the aristocracy's treatment of the poor as an example. Just like the ordinary human, the rich aren't one-dimensionally selfish, but rather they make bad decisions or simply suffer from misfortune, or they realise the true nature of the situation too late to rule effectively, or all of the above. The plot is thus far from predictable, twisting and spiralling (mostly downwards) as the relationships and antagonisms develop.
Plenty of subplots are on offer too, from Marie Antoinette's stumble towards ultimate doom to the ambitious Jeanne's cut-throat grab for power; and if that's not good enough, there's always Oscar and her best friend Andre's heart-wrenching romance.
Although dated, Rose is still very watchable. The pretty character designs and bright hues, reminiscent of series like Escaflowne and spoofed in productions like Ouran, make me suspect that Rose is the anime that set the bar for my tastes later in life. Hair is golden, eyes are like lakes, tears sparkle, men are beautiful, and grass has never been greener. On the downside (for those who care about such things) there is much reliance on still shots and repeat frames but, to be fair, the sketch-like still frames are the gaming equivalent of cut scenes - they add more drama to the events and act as visual treats. Furthermore, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative competence of the combat sequences, which were detailed in movement and flowed nicely.
The sound quality leaves something to be desired; it occasionally has that shrillness which accompanies old videotape footage. However, when it comes to other things like voice-acting and soundtrack, Rose of Versailles doesn't disappoint. Although the entire cast performed well, Oscar has by far my favourite voice because she achieves a difficult balance between the feminine and masculine, meaning whether in a dress or in a soldier's uniform she is believable as the same person. The soundtrack has plenty to offer for all the different moods and settings, with my favourite being the slow harpsichord version of the opening theme used during touching or harrowing scenes. The OP is suitable, although even now I prefer the German version (hoorah for youtube!) because the Japanese vocals just seem too high and soft to set the tone for the episodes.
Oscar, the centrepiece of it all, who like the opening image in the credits suggests, is a lone rose blossoming in a rather thorny place. Her main driving motivation seems to be protecting the honour of the state of France and the people she loves no matter whom the opponent. My biggest fear with characters like hers is that creators too often fail to deliver on their promise of someone just, heroic, and kick-arse whilst being simultaneously female. Fortunately, Oscar is not one of those cases, managing to match every guy sword for sword and pride for pride.
Also, rather than ignore or destroy Oscar's femininity, the series grapples with it through her inner turmoil. She's not a transvestite or someone who particularly wishes to be sexually a male; her adopted masculinity was initially for convenience. However, later in life, it becomes apparent that she doesn't quite know what to do with the part of her that traditionally should be in a dress. Men still fall in love with her but then so do the women, who see in her the dashing hero so different from the conniving gentlemen of the Court. Watching her frustration through the relationships she develops, for instance with Andre, is a fascinating experience indeed.
Then there is the infamous Marie Antoinette, portrayed here as someone so innocently hedonistic, gullible, and incompetent, that within minutes she pissed me off something rotten; there wasn't one episode that went by with her in it that didn't make me want to pull out my hair in frustration, shouting ‘Baka!' Surprisingly, she is also one of the more complex and well-characterised personalities. In fact it's difficult to judge most of the characters one way or the other because they prove subtle in unexpected ways. I'd argue the legacy of this kind of characterisation exists in series like Nana, where behaviour is painful to watch but which, in the end, is actually a reflection of the nature of life.
Rose of Versailles, where love is tragic, greed is rife, and loyalty is absolute - it's great fun to watch but I certainly wouldn't want to live there. If you're looking for an anime where nobody gets a break and the personal and the political become intertwined in a downward-spiralling path of destruction, then this is it. It really delves into what it means to struggle and fall, providing a twisty plot with great cliff-hangers and superb characterisation.
Since General de Jarjayes of France’s Royal Guard always wanted a son, he brings up his only daughter Oscar to dress, fight, and behave like a man. When Oscar’s excellent swordsmanship wins her the honored position as bodyguard to Louis XVI’s new bride, Marie Antoinette, the Jarjayes household believes it can finally be proud. However, what nobody realizes is the pit of thorns the royal court in Versailles has become – with all its excessive opulence, it attracts not just those with status and wealth, but also those with ruthless ambition. To confound matters, Marie Antoinette turns out to be an airhead whose selfish actions are turning the starving population against her. Amidst the sordid schemes and terrible tragedies, and with the tide of history sweeping against the nobles, can Oscar protect her new King and Queen whilst upholding justice for the oppressed peasants of France?
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