Revolutionary Girls

What is it about the doomed denizens of 18th century Versailles that still captures our imagination? As I write this, the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., is preparing a "barbed and brassy" new play about Marie Antoinette, while this summer saw favorable reviews given to the French film Farewell My Queen. And let's not forget Sophia Coppola's unconventional reworking of the queen's tragic story in Marie Antoinette, in 2006. Memorable though all of these offerings were or will be, I am willing to bet that the most original and very possibly the most entertaining treatment of revolutionary France won't arrive until December October when Viki, the global television site, begins the first North American broadcast of the Japanese anime series Berusaiyu no bara -- or, as it is known in English, The Rose of Versailles.

Based on a blockbuster manga (graphic novel) series that appeared in 1972, the sumptuously animated version of Rose of Versailles was broadcast in Japan in 1980, drawing a huge audience. Both manga and anime remain to this day among the classics of Japanese pop culture. The series spawned musicals, a live-action movie filmed on location in Versailles, and popular translated versions in France and Italy.

The question remains: Why would a series set in 18th century France appeal so widely to Japanese and Western audiences in the 20th century? The answer is actually quite easy: Rose of Versailles is a genuinely revolutionary work, unprecedented in many ways among the manga and anime of that time.

First of all, it really was a work about revolution, the French revolution of 1789 to be exact, and the series ranges from court life at Versailles to the storming of the Bastille. The writer of Rose loved French culture and history and strove to make the series as historically accurate as possible, another innovative element, since most manga at the time were set in fantasy worlds.

Even more unprecedented, however, was the fact that the writer was a woman, Riyoko Ikeda, who was part of a new generation of female manga writers collectively known as the Year 24 group, a group inspired by the radical politics of the late '60s that would go on to revolutionize the male-dominated world of manga. These women created works that emphasized psychological subtlety, adult themes, and emotional interplay, combined with a loose and dreamy visual style, that still dominates girls' manga today.

But the most revolutionary aspect of Rose of Versailles was its introduction of a major cross-dressing character, a young woman called Oscar who, as captain of Marie Antoinette's Royal Guard, befriends and guides the young queen as the world churns around her. Oscar is Riyoko Ikeda's own remarkable invention. An intelligent but headstrong young woman who dresses like a man and is an excellent sword fighter and strategist, Oscar's emotional fine-tuning retains such female-coded traits as empathy and compassion. Her complex personality leads her into conflicting situations, not only in helping Marie Antoinette navigate the dangerous currents of court life, but also later on in the series when she develops sympathy for the downtrodden masses who will eventually destroy the shining realm of Versailles.

The series also contains copious amounts of romance, including an initial intrigue between Oscar and a young noblewoman named Rosalie. Oscar's main attachments, however, are to adult men, and the great love of her life turns out to be a male companion whom she has known from adolescence. Oscar's quasi-masculine interaction and easy camaraderie with this young man became a template for a new kind of romantic relationship between equals, something rarely seen in Japan at that time.

While Marie Antoinette's story remains the framework of the series, Oscar quickly became Rose's most popular protagonist. Her gender bending role not only gave young female readers a new approach to gender and sexuality but also paved the way for the many other gender-ambiguous characters who continue to populate the world of manga and anime. Oscar was not the first cross-dressing character in Japanese culture -- that honor goes to the 12th century romance Ariake no wakare, which not only focuses on a cross-dressing female character but includes same-gender love themes as well. And in the 1950's, the so-called "God of Manga," Osamu Tezuka wrote a fantasy called Ribon no kishi about a character who turned back and forth between male and female.

But Oscar may be the first cross-dressing character in Japanese culture to come across as a real and compelling human being, one who would inspire subsequent popular creations such as the heroines of the Sailor Moon series or the protagonist of Revolutionary Girl Utena. Now American audiences will finally get to know this fascinating character and discover yet another facet of the mysterious appeal of the court of Versailles.

The Rose of Versailles will begin airing exclusively on in December. A preview of the series will be shown at New York Comic Con on Saturday, October 13 followed by Q&A session with Professor Napier.