A post not about the Tales of games? Novel, I know. Until I get up some momentum on this blog I’m just going to keep writing posts about whatever
takes my fancy inspires me at the time, so here’s a post about an old anime nobody cares about.
So I started watching Revolutionary Girl Utena recently, and heard that it was heavily inspired by The Rose of Versailles, a rather old, gender-bending shoujo series set largely during the French Revolution. I’m only five episodes into Utena but I’m already enjoying it immensely; however, for slightly complicated, but boring, reasons, I can’t keep watching it right now, hence I picked up Rose of Versailles.
To cut to the chase, basically, I liked the first episode, but mostly because of the potential it shows rather than what the episode alone offered me. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was quite problematic. The basic setup is that General Jarjayes, despaired at birthing no sons, raises his youngest daughter, who he names Oscar, as a man, to one day take on his military responsibility. It’s a pretty interesting premise, and there’s a lot of potential here for real social commentary on gender roles, but you’re gonna wanna handle this one very carefully, to not come across as push-button or offensive.
First, the good. I really quite like Oscar. She’s strong, determined, and not a doormat to her Father’s manipulation of her career path. She’s not just a man in a woman’s body either, she comes across as distinctly female while expressing a lot of traits more commonly associated with men in that section of history. Fantastic, I’m enjoying this already, but then we get this:
So despite showing no worry about it up till now (eagerly avoiding balls and dresses to sword-fight and the like), Oscar, when offered the position of commander of the royal guard, refuses the position and goes through all this inner turmoil about her gender, before finally accepting at the end of the episode. Now I’m working on a fairly limited understanding of feminism here, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s done. I prefer Utena’s approach here, that is to say, draw as little attention to the protagonist’s gender as possible. Why? Because when was the last time you saw a show with a male lead where his gender was portrayed as a defining aspect of his character, especially as a point of conflict? Did Ellen Ripley worry about gender roles as she fought like crazy to survive? Exactly, if you draw attention to it, you cheapen the whole issue (as well as it being pretty patronising). This only gets sillier when the issue is later resolved by Oscar getting into an emotional (and literal) fist fight with her servant and childhood friend Andre (first image of the post).
When I looked up the wikipedia page the description of the first episode mentioned that all this conflict about taking the military position or not never actually happened in the manga. I checked this out online, and sure enough, Oscar just took the damn position eagerly without all the unnecessary melodrama. There was also a lot more setting the scene and discussing the history in the manga, which certainly appealed to me. Now you know how it is, cows moo, sheep baah, and manga fans yell “the original is better”, and I’m usually the first to be sceptical, but from how ham-fisted the first episode was compared to the first chapter of the manga, I think it would be a valid point to make here. Unfortunately, the manga seems to have neither an official nor unofficial translation that makes it all the way through to the end, so I’ll stick with the anime for now, and maybe I’ll get a French copy of the manga sometime and use it as an excuse to brush up on my old high school French lessons.
There were a few other things that irked me, ranging from pretty petit to slightly more serious. The animation shows its age, as does the soundtrack, and I have a bit of trouble with that, I won’t lie, particularly when sword-fights are a fairly high order of the day. I’m also worried about the setting. Japan hasn’t got a particularly good record of doing the research on the cultures they set their stories in, and I’m finding all the French people speaking Japanese jarring enough, but then there’s this:
Oh wow, I didn’t realise cherry blossoms were so prevalent in 18th century France. To be honest, this sort of thing really kicks my immersion pretty hard. It’s a brave setting, but it has to be damn well executed not to become a liability. I’ve read that the manga handles the setting excellently, and that gives me some hope, but seeing as the anime seems to be approaching the story in a pretty different way so far, I’m a little worried.
I don’t want to give off the impression that it’s all bad. Heck, I enjoyed the first episode for the most part, and I’m pretty intrigued to see where it’s going to go. I’m pretty sure it’s gonna get a lot better, and I’m pretty psyched for when the show reaches the actual French revolution itself. It’s a wonderfully interesting period of history to be exploring, and the protagonist makes for a pretty interesting lens to view it all, even if it does feel a little weird to be exploring it through Japanese fiction.