By Riyoko Ikeda. Released in Japan as “Versailles no Bara” by Shueisha, serialized in the magazine Margaret. Released in North America by Udon Entertainment. Translated by Mari Morimoto.
At last, one of the most iconic manga ever has reached the shores of North America. It’s been a long wait since the license was first announced, and I’m sure there are some asking whether it was worth it. I am here to tell you that yes, it was. The volume of Rose of Versailles I am holding in my hands (both hands, it’s quite heavy) is gorgeous, a hardcover with high-quality paper, the first of five omnibus volumes (the “Complete Edition” from Japan). The art is breathtaking – I normally read manga fairly quickly, but it took me days to get through this book, as I kept stopping every panel to look at some fresh new detail. The characters are all compelling and drive the story well, although I admit that I like some of them more than others. The dialogue is also fantastic and will make you go back and reread when you aren’t going back to reread because of the art. It’s just… really amazing, folks.
The story frames itself as being about three people born the same year: Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish prince; Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, a noblewoman raised as a man; and Marie Antoinette Josephe Jeanne de Lorraine D’Autriche, better known as just Marie Antoinette, future Queen of France. The first half of the volume is very much about Marie Antoinette in its entirety; Oscar is there, but as a mere supporting player, popping up to snark at the other nobles and then getting back to her job with the Royal Guards. We see Marie as a well-meaning but naive and gullible teenager, thrust into the spotlight far too soon, and later in the book this gets even worse when Louis XV dies and she becomes Queen. Oscar is there at timees to try to guide her towards being more mature, but is not very successful at it, mostly as there are any number of hangers-on who are trying to manipulate a lonely and innocent Queen. And then there’s Fersen, who arrives at court and falls deeply in love with Marie Antoinette.
This is soap opera, of course, but of the best kind – if you’re going to go big and overdramatic, the court of Louis XV and XVI is the place to do it. Marie Antoinette is both sympathetic and frustrating, and you can see how difficult it can be to do the right thing when you have so many people who are standing besides you “giving helpful advice”. There’s also a subplot involving a pair of poor sisters, Jeanne and Rosalie; one manipulates men to move up into nobility, the other ends up attached to Oscar after her mother is killed by a mysterious noblewoman. I was, I admit, less enamored of these two; Rosalie, in particular, can grate. And then there’s the art. Rose of Versailles is most familiar for its iconic shoujo poses, and those do look beautiful and dramatic, but there’s also lots of silliness as well, and much of the humor in the volume comes from over the top comedy reactions to everyone’s antics. (Oscar, in particular, gets some magnificent funny faces.)
I hope I don’t need to tell everyone that this is worth reading immediately. If you were beginning to despair worrying it would never come out, fear not; it’s here, and it’s magnificent. Immerse yourself in it.