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Revolutionary manga ‘The Rose of Versailles’ turns 50

Japanese manga “The Rose of Versailles” features elaborate outfits, palace intrigues and passionate romances set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, but it also has its own revolutionary credentials.

The series, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with events including an exhibition currently on in Tokyo, was a huge commercial success in the “shojo” genre — comic books aimed at girls and teens.

It tells the epic tale of two main heroines, Queen Marie Antoinette and the fictional character Oscar Francois de Jarjayes, a young girl raised as a boy who becomes head of the queen’s guard.

The series has had a massive cultural impact, prompting Japanese fans to flock to Versailles, and has been praised for its rare feminist portrayals of strong women characters in manga.

At the Tokyo exhibition, 22-year-old Manami Suzuki said she had grown up with the series because her mother was a fan.

“Thanks to her I’ve been reading it since I was little,” she told AFP.

“When I first saw Oscar, I was fascinated by how cool, beautiful, strong, and wonderful she was,” she said.

The series began in a manga magazine in 1972 and has since been adapted into several musicals in Japan and an animated television series called “Lady Oscar” that was also a hit abroad, especially in France.

The manga has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide, and in a sign of its ongoing appeal, an English translation debuted last year.

“It’s hard to overestimate how important and influential it’s been in the shojo manga genre, and in Japanese pop culture in general,” said Deborah Shamoon, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Japanese Studies.

“Oscar is an amazing, ideal hero for girls,” she told AFP, noting that the series also depicts the love story between Oscar and her childhood friend Andre in a way rarely seen in manga.

“He admires all her qualities and doesn’t try to change her or make her more stereotypically feminine,” Shamoon said.

“This kind of equality in heterosexual romance in shojo manga is still rare.”

Author of “The Rose of Versailles” Riyoko Ikeda was involved in left-wing politics and has said she deliberately set out to shake up traditional tropes in manga.

“At the time there was a gap between men and women, and there were people who said ‘women and children won’t understand history’,” Ikeda said in a statement released alongside the exhibit, which features dozens of original drawings from the series.

“I was young, and I replied ‘I’m going to make sure this is a hit’.”

At the exhibit, dozens of visitors took photos with life-sized cardboard versions of the series’ characters, surrounded by realistic Versailles-style archways.

Rieko Takahama, 58, said the series made her long to visit the famed French site, a dream she fulfilled a decade ago.

“I’d wanted to go there since I was a child, and I thought, I couldn’t die without visiting.”