Set in the latter half of the 1700’s, Rose of Versailles revolves around the character of Oscar Francois de Jarjayes who is assigned as guard to the newly arriving Marie Antoinette whose marriage is supposed to bring peace between France and Austria and provide for the continuing lineage of the Bourbon lineage on the French throne though the annals of history have shown that the families power over the throne was not to last out her husband’s reign. While the story of Mari Antoinette may be at least of passing acquaintance with most people (or at least the quote about cake that is attributed to her though there is little proof she actually said it), the story of the turbulent fall in popularity of a royal couple that were initially warmly received by their subject is told throughout the years with Oscar often serving as a voice of reason and conscious to try to get the queen to realize the impact her actions have on the populace but her advice often falls upon ears that aren’t unconcerned exactly, more that the queen just doesn’t comprehend the entirety of events and so the story unfurls toward the inevitable ending that history has recorded.
Using the setting of the French aristocracy just before the French Revolution turns out to be one filled with a bounty in characters to use and plots to exploit that would make the most melodramatic soap opera blush as the figures continually clash in secret schemes and power struggles with multiple issues involving unfaithful spouses and the lovers they have on the side, children who have hidden parentage just to have the most incredible twists happen while often focusing around the queen and presenting challenges that Oscar will have to help clean up. Of course Oscar has a wealth of issues of her own to be explored as she is a young woman who was raised as a man by a father desperate for a male heir and she now stands precariously at a turning point of history with her loyalties to her love of country, love of the woman who is her queen and friend as well as pain at seeing the suffering populace weighing down on her small yet strong shoulders.
The idea of placing a fictional character into a position to be near the center of events turns out to be an absolute stroke of genius as it allows the writer to use her as needed to bridge the gaps between rich and poor in a way that an actual historical person may not have been able to accomplish while trying to keep a character as close to a historical fiction as can be, though likely some fair liberties are taken with some of the ones who are present and based off of real people as well. Oscar turns out to be a perfect character in a number of ways as her unique perspective on life that comes from her upbringing. For starters her being raised as a man by her father gives her character a bit of an androgynous flavor that seems to allow her to take a bit of a neutral position when it comes to various gender stereotypes and it allows her what seems to be a rather unbiased viewpoint as she watches some of the interactions that go on between the sexes, particularly between Antoinette and a young man she comes to favor which plays into Oscar’s role as an almost Cassandra like figure who sees disaster coming and tries to warn the queen away from it but who almost always is left saddened when her notice is left unheeded. Her somewhat dichotomic nature also allows for plenty of issues to revolve around her as well as she is quite a beautiful woman and her looks are such that she attracts attention from both men and woman with at times some of the interest being obvious while at others there is some ambiguity as to the exact nature of the feelings that may be exchanged between different parties allowing for the viewer to ask their own questions at times as to just what some of these situations may be suggesting in terms of relationship pairings, opening up a door on the question of sexuality and love that many shoujo series have built upon since.
While much of the setup here is appealing, there are places where things feel a bit out of place and just over dramatized almost to the point of parody at times, chiefly when it comes to many of the antagonists who appear and attempt to gain some measure of power one way or the other as many of them lack only the subtlety of twisting a handlebar mustache to complete the single dimensional villain role that they have been assigned. While this construction works well from the melodrama aspect at times it can become somewhat tiring and make it difficult to really get into the series for a substantial number of episodes at a time as the sometimes overdramatic events and schemes can be so thick it creates a need to take a break to process it or just before being able to take in more of it. On top of that the episodes can have rather large gaps of time between them which, when combined with dealing with the current scheme, can leave precious little time for deep character building and thus grand gestures and emotions appear far more often than subtle ones to stand in for character development and it can create a presentation that is often bold but which suffers from a lack of being able to use variances in tone and ideas to truly bring out the full measure of power available in the material which can also make getting into the flow of the series more difficult as it makes establishing a connection a bit harder when years can pass between some episodes.
Still for a series that is over 30 years old it is easy to see just how it has gained its reputation as many of the ideas here have been used (and often refined) in the following decades as the power of the ideas is on full (if slightly cheesy at times) display which shows off just what emotions can be mined with tales of backstabbing and power hungry pursuits. There is also a bit of an intriguing point on how Antoinette is pictured as for the most part history (or he popular version of it) tends to look upon her badly while this series neither tries to make her a tragic heroine nor villain but more woman who was well meaning but seriously over her head which juxtaposes well with her loyal subject Oscar who may in some ways match her queen as her attempts to balance the different facets of herself in her personal life aren’t always supremely successful as she has few problems seeing how events and feelings are building for those around her but seems to have a large blind spot when it comes to herself as she has an easier time thinking of her country and its needs first. While the series may have some pieces that make it a bit harder for all modern fans to get into, Rose of Versailles is a stunning masterpiece that uses a very powerful backdrop to tell a story that is both at times personal and which has sweeping consequences for an entire nation in a compelling way that may make viewers wonder why it is their history books couldn’t bring such a remarkable era to life in such a mesmerizing way. When combined with an amazing (though not quite perfect) re mastering of the materials and a bit above average encode as well as a beautiful packaging, the series release is an amazing value for the money and is overall it is one that deserves consideration to be on almost any anime fans shelf and those who love some historical fiction would be well advised to give it a look even if anime isn’t typically their cup of tea.