Although she was born in 1947, Riyoko Ikeda is included in the Year 24 group along with Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, whom we will discuss later. Best known as a manga artist, Ikeda also worked as a scenarist; in 2001, she enrolled in and later graduated from music school, where she studied opera.
Ikeda’s works include Berusaiyu no Bara (The Rose of Versailles, or BeruBara), Oniisama e (To My Elder Brother), and Orufeusu no Mado (The Window of Orpheus). Many of her manga are historical fiction that examine topics in gender and sexuality; some feature queer or gender- nonconforming characters. While she does focus somewhat on coming-of-age romances, which are topics typically featured in shojo manga, Ikeda wrote about adult relationships, particularly in The Rose of Versailles, as well as gender identity, political upheaval, and class issues.
The Rose of Versailles is arguably one of the most famous and most influential manga ever.
Originally conceived as a historical manga about the life of Marie Antoinette with some original characters, the fans went unexpectedly wild for one particular original character, Oscar François de Jarjayes, the fictional sixth daughter of a real historical figure, François Augustin Regnier de Jarjayes. In the opening chapter of the manga, the general, who wants a son to carry on his title and inherit his estate, pulls the swiftest double speech act in history–his child cries loudly, is handed to him and declared to be a girl by the midwife, and he responds, much to her nanny’s protest, “no, this is my son, Oscar.” Oscar may be one of the only characters to have ever been assigned both female and male at birth, or, to put it more aptly, assigned different gender roles based on the physical appearance of external genitalia and based on a social role to be filled simultaneously.
Oscar is raised “as a boy” and she (and I’ll be using she/her pronouns because that’s what Oscar and Ikeda use) identifies as a masculine-of-center woman. As a young adult, she becomes Marie Antoinette’s bodyguard and has thrilling adventures with her best friend and servant Andre Grandier in the years leading up to the French Revolution.
The Rose of Versailles is particularly interesting because the manga launched its own subgenre of shojo manga and anime, in a large part through the character of Oscar. There are shojo manga that celebrate romance, especially teen romance, but the influence of The Rose of Versailles, which we’ll address in more detail later, centers around Oscar’s character, and, more specifically, her role as a masculine-of-center character at the height of second-wave feminism and women’s lib.
The Rose of Versailles is, in essence, a story about a gender-nonconforming woman at a time when the social order of Europe was rapidly changing. Oscar, though, by virtue of her social station, ends up working in a field where there are literally no other women who do what she does. Although characters who don’t know her often assume she’s a man, her identity as a masculine-of-center woman is not a secret and she is generally accepted as she is without question by her friends and colleagues. She is respected and admired for her strong sense of social justice, and she has the friendship of many and the romantic attention of people of a variety of genders. She’s blunt, dashing, handsome, courageous, capable, and kind. She has a strong sense of compassionate morality and a refreshing perspicacity about gender and politics. These qualities have made Oscar as popular a character with the readers as she is with the other characters in the manga.
It’s refreshing to see someone as self-assured as Oscar question her gender and her role in society–an important reminder that your gender is more complex and personal than what your doctor or parent/s picked for you when you were born. Oscar may be the most influential character, but the analysis of gender and sexuality wouldn’t be possible without the supporting cast–Rosalie, who is a bisexual femme who learns to stick up for herself; Andre, who has to reject toxic masculinity in order to receive love; Alain, who also struggles with toxic masculinity and misogyny, both as a perpetrator and a victim; and Marie Antoinette, who longs for self-determination.
Ikeda’s allowing Oscar to be her gender-nonconforming self and to be the hero changed the world of shojo manga, but we want to emphasize that Oscar is not the hero because she performs masculinities. Femininities are also valued; egalitarian relationships are held up as the ideal. Because of the historical setting and the relative age of the manga, it’s easy to see the world of pre-revolutionary France–or even the 1970s–as a long-gone oppressive past. However, the manga’s themes of self determination, gender non-conformity, fighting against an oppressive legal and social system, ending toxic masculinities, and, most importantly, making the world more equitable, are are all still critical fourth-wave feminist issues.
While the art style, with bursting flowers, big eyes, fabulous hair and clothing, and dramatic court intrigue certainly influenced other works that we’ll discuss later, the most enduring element of The Rose of Versailles is Oscar herself, who has influenced quite a range of characters and works over the course of 40 years. But before we get to her influence in the second section on The Rose of Versailles, which will cover the anime, Takarazuka musical, and more, let’s move on to another Year 24 artist, Moto Hagio.
Coming soon: Part 4: Moto Hagio