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  • Revolutionary Romance:The Rose of Versailles and the Transformation of Shojo Manga
  • Deborah Shamoon (bio)

The Rose of Versailles (Berusaiyu no bara, or Beru-bara), the "shining masterpiece of shojo manga," was an instant hit among teenage girls in Japan from the moment it first appeared in the manga magazine Margaret in 1972. At a time when shojo manga was just beginning to shift its demographic from elementary school students to high school students, The Rose of Versailles was part of a larger trend toward longer and more complex storytelling in comics for girls.1 Fan response to The Rose of Versailles was immediate and unprecedented, sparking a "Beru-boom," a craze among teenage girls in the early 1970s for anything related to the manga, or for anything French. When the main character, Oscar, died well before the end of the series, teachers reportedly were forced to suspend classes because all the girl students were in tears, and one distraught fan mailed a letter containing a razor to author-artist Ikeda Riyoko.2 How did this narrative-heavy account of the events leading to the French Revolution evoke such an impassioned response among Japanese girls? While the lush, rococo setting and sweeping epic scale certainly appealed to girls' sensibilities, I argue that what distinguishes The Rose of Versailles from other shojo manga of the time is the depiction of adult heterosexual romance between equals. The continued popularity of The Rose of [End Page 3] Versailles suggests that girls long for romance stories featuring a powerful female character, but the narrative compromises that Ikeda used to depict that romance suggest the extent to which equality in heterosexual romance remains a fantasy in shojo manga.

Although The Rose of Versailles depicts heterosexual romance, the narrative still operates within the genre of shojo manga, which tends to favor homosocial and homosexual relationships. This generic feature predates shojo manga of the 1970s and appears as far back as the 1920s in girls' literary magazines. Before doing a close reading of The Rose of Versailles, I first analyze the generic conventions that Ikeda drew on, both from prewar girls' magazines and from postwar girls' comics. Specifically, I discuss the difficulties the genre has in portraying heterosexual romance, relying instead on same-gender pairings. Contemporary shojo manga would not have existed without prewar girls' magazines, which developed a narrative and aesthetic idiom for the private discourse on girlhood. But with this legacy, shojo manga also inherited certain generic limitations from girls' magazines, in particular a reliance on sameness in romantic couples and difficulties in portraying realistic heterosexual romance narratives without sacrificing the social and sexual agency of the female character.

Same-Sex Romance in Girls' Magazines

Girls' literary magazines in the 1920s and 1930s, the shōjo shōsetsu (girls' novels) and accompanying illustrations serialized in them, developed a recognizable aesthetic and literary style. These magazines came be associated with the "authentic" representation of shōjo bunka (girls' culture), a discrete discourse premised on a private, closed world of girls that not only embraced close female friendships but avoided heterosexual romance. These relationships between girls were described in the language of romance and were sometimes sexual. It should not be inferred, however, that the girls were lesbians in the twenty-first-century sense of the term. Same-sex love in this context was neither an expression of a repressed inner self nor a subversion of a patriarchal system; rather, it was a socially acceptable means of delaying heterosexual courtship until girls had finished school and were available for marriage. To avoid confusion, I refer to these relationships by the term used to describe them in the 1920s, dōseiai (same-sex love). [End Page 4]

Japanese prewar society condoned same-sex relationships between girls, but only within the context of a larger homosocial group, usually an all-girls' school, and only as long as both girls maintained a feminine appearance. Gregory Pflugfelder, Sabine Frühstück, and Jennifer Robertson, among others, all emphasize that in the 1920s and 1930s, sexologists and educators usually considered close relationships between girls to be normal.3Dōseiai relationships were premised on sameness (). It was a coupling not merely...