One of the most exciting pieces of manga news to come out of Comic-Con International was Udon’s announcement that it has licensed Ryoko Ikeda’s classic manga Rose of Versailles.
Set in the court of Marie-Antoinette of France, Rose of Versailles is a period piece that really digs into its period: it has big hair, elaborate costumes, a dashing cross-dressing heroine, and plenty of court intrigue. But it’s not all dances and diamonds—as the story continues, the characters come to see the widespread poverty and terrible conditions that led up to the French Revolution, and get involved in those historic events, including the storming of the Bastille.
The manga started out as a biography of Marie-Antoinette, but the most important character is a fictional one invented by Ikeda: Oscar François de Jarjayes, a woman who takes on a man’s role as leader of the Palace Guard. Oscar was trained in swordsmanship and combat by her father, who always wanted a boy. Her job gives her a perfect vantage point for the goings-on in the royal court, not to mention the opportunity for plenty of swashbuckling and romance.
Rose of Versailles was first published in 1972 in the biweekly girls’ magazine Margaret, and it caused an immediate sensation. Part of its popularity may stem from the fact that Ikeda followed her readers’ wishes: her editor was not keen on the story, so she had to make a good showing in the magazine’s reader surveys. Initially, the story was simply a shoujo-ized version of the life of Marie-Antoinette, drawing heavily on a biography that Ikeda had read in high school. Once Oscar showed up, though, the readers liked her better, and she became the star. This allowed Ikeda to create a more interesting story, bringing in the events going on beyond the palace walls, as Oscar sees the reality of life in pre-Revolutionary France and comes to realize she is supporting a corrupt and greedy regime.
Putting Oscar front-and-center also allowed for more romantic entanglements, as both men and women fell for the dashing Oscar and Oscar wrestled with her attraction to Marie-Antoinette’s lover, the Swedish Count Axel von Ferson, before finding a deeper connection with her childhood friend Andre. Don’t expect a happy ending, though—this is the French Revolution, after all.
The manga started a fad for all things French among Japanese schoolgirls, and there are stories of teachers having to cancel classes because their students were distraught over the death of a beloved character. It was adapted into a television anime that first aired in 1979, and there’s a live-action movie as well. The all-female musical theater troupe Takarazuka Revue’s stage version is one of its most popular productions, and has been repeated multiple times.
Ikeda is one of a group of shoujo manga creators that critics refer to as the Year 24 group, because they were born in or around the year Showa 24 (1949). Members of the group, which also included Moto Hagio (Heart of Thomas) and Keiko Takemiya (To Terra), did not work together as a movement, but all started creating shoujo manga around the same time, transforming the stories and storytelling of a medium that had previously been dominated by men.
Although Udon’s announcement is big news, Rose of Versailles was actually one of the first manga ever translated into English: an English version was published in Japan for language students, and the translator, Frederick Schodt, included a chapter in his 1983 book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. The new edition will mark the first time it has been translated for North American audiences, and will include some later chapters that Ikeda has written since the series formally ended in 1973.
Udon will publish Rose of Versailles in double-sized volumes starting in the second quarter of 2016. Can’t wait? Here are a few manga to check out in the meantime:
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Revolutionary Girl Utena, by Chiho Saito
Utena is a girl with a masculine ambition: she wants to be a prince and protect the innocent. She gets the opportunity at her elite boarding school, where she must rescue a classmate, Anthy, from an abusive relationship through a series of duels. With sword fights, complex personal relationships, and a baroque design that includes lots and lots of roses, this 1990s-era manga is still a compelling story, despite looking a bit dated. The story is complete in five volumes, and there is also an anime.
Heart of Thomas, by Moto Hagio
Hagio serves up plenty of melodrama in this shonen-ai (boys’ love) story set in a boys’ boarding school in Germany. The book begins with a 13-year-old boy, Thomas, committing suicide because of his unrequited love for an older student, Juli. Shortly after, a new student arrives who bears a striking resemblance to Thomas, and the tortured romances begin. Heart of Thomas first ran in 1974-5, just two years after Rose of Versailles, and it had a huge impact on shoujo manga, basically creating the genre of shonen-ai. Also worth checking out: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, a collection of Hagio’s short stories.
Princess Knight, by Osamu Tezuka
If you like to read about ladies who dress like men for knightly escapades, this is the book for you. Written for young readers (and heavily influenced by Disney animation), it’s the story of Sapphire, a princess who must pretend to be a boy so that she can inherit the throne—and keep it out of the hands of the evil duke Duralumin. In this two-volume series she does battle with a number of human and supernatural foes, helped along by Tink, the angel responsible for giving her both a boy’s and a girl’s heart, cursed to wander the earth until he puts things right.
Requiem of the Rose King, by Aya Kanno
This tale of royal intrigue is based on Shakespeare’s Richard III. The story follows the young Richard’s quest to reclaim his father’s throne. Kanno is best known to American readers as the creator of the gender-bender comedy Otomen, but this story shows her darker side, exploring the strong passions underlying the power struggle of the Wars of the Roses. (Check out my interview with Aya Kanno for more on both books.)
The Angel of Elhamburg, by Aki
For more palace life and intrigue, check out this story about the rivalry between a king and his longtime friend, triggered by the birth of the king’s son. It’s beautifully drawn, with the haunting image of an angel watching over the action, and it is complete in one volume.