While some popular manga are fads, others can stay with you for a lifetime.
I’ve been a manga reader for more years than I care to count, and among the numerous comics that I’ve read during that time, there are a select few that have left a strong impression on me and that I seem to keep coming back to, even decades after having first read them. The power to captivate a reader over such a long period of time is, I believe, the true mark of a masterpiece, and in this two-part series, I’d like to share with you some shoujo manga (girls’ comics) that have withstood the test of time and what makes them great.
1. The Rose of Versailles (Berusaiyu no Bara)
Serialized by Riyoko Ikeda from 1972 to 73 in Margaret magazine (yes, more than 40 years ago!), this work can be called one of the first giants of the shoujo manga genre. The story focuses on the life of French aristocrat Oscar François de Jarjayes, a girl raised as a boy to become an officer in the Palace Guards, and the French queen Marie Antoinette as well as the people surrounding her around the time of the French Revolution.
The series became a huge hit when the manga came out and was also well-received as a TV anime production, which later aired from 1979 to 80, so much so that women above a certain age will find it difficult mentioning the protagonist Oscar’s name without the Japanese honorific “sama”!
▼ The beautiful and brave Oscar-sama has continued to captivate girls’ hearts across Japan for decades.
So, what makes this series so special that it’s still well-loved and widely recognized by the Japanese public more than four decades since it was first published? Well, the character of Oscar herself is probably the single biggest reason for the manga’s success. Simply put, Ikeda created an extremely attractive protagonist, both in looks and personality, whom the readers could sympathize with and care about. Of course, since manga is a visual medium, it helps that Oscar is beautiful to look at, even dressed in a man’s uniform, but it’s the courage and integrity she shows during the events leading up to the French Revolution that make her one of the most unforgettable heroines in all of manga history.
The historical backdrop of the manga, set in arguably one of the most tumultuous periods in Western history, also adds significantly to the excitement and sense of drama of the series. In fact, you could say that this manga is single-handedly responsible for an entire generation (or two) of Japanese women being unusually knowledgeable about Versailles and French history around the time of the French revolution. It turns out there’s actually quite a lot you can learn from manga!
And the historical drama inevitably means that you get to see plenty of amazing, gorgeous period costumes, which alone is worth a look. A good portion of the story features the glittering court at Versailles before the Revolution, so you can imagine the stunning dresses and dashing officers’ uniforms portrayed in the manga!
▼ Yes, the costumes are simply a delight to behold.
Another element that makes The Rose of Versailles a timeless classic is the intense relationship between Oscar and her long-time companion and servant, André Grandier. Humorous, tender and heart-breaking at times, their relationship is the stuff of girls’ dreams. I mean, what girl wouldn’t want someone as kind, devoted and trustworthy as André to be always by her side? By the way, fans will be happy to know that Oscar and André did finally get their own wedding story in a collaboration with a magazine just two years ago, although it took 40 years to happen.
▼ Oscar and André, one of the most memorable couples in girls’ manga:
The Rose of Versailles franchise has also been adapted into several Takarazuka Revue musicals over the years, and to this day, Oscar continues to be such an instantly recognizable character that she graced the cover of fashion magazine SPUR in August of 2014, around the same time a new volume of the series was published for the first time in 40 years!
▼ The cover of SPUR magazine showing Oscar in a fur hood by Dolce & Gabanna:
So, The Rose of Versailles is obviously a story that has been cherished through the ages, but all things considered, I guess that’s not too surprising. A beautiful female protagonist in an elegant officer’s uniform combined with the drama of the French Revolution — what’s not to love, right?
2. Tokyo Babylon
The second girl’s manga we’re looking at is considerably more recent than The Rose of Versailles but was still created over 20 years ago. In stark contrast to Ikeda’s classic girls’ comic style, Tokyo Babylon, which was serialized in the magazines South and Monthly Wings from 1990 to 1993, is a manga that magnificently showcases the unique, somewhat unconventional art and story-telling style of successful creative manga team CLAMP. It may not be one of the most well-known shoujo manga around, but Tokyo Babylon is a work that left a particularly strong impression on me and one that I keep wanting to re-read to this day.
As the name suggests, the story takes place in Tokyo in 1991, just before the end of Japan’s bubble economy, when obscene amounts of money seemed to be flowing everywhere. But the tales recounted in the series highlight not the glittering glamour of Tokyo at the time, but rather the darkness that lurks beneath it, with a supernatural and occult twist.
▼ I remember being captivated by the vivid color and distinct design of the manga’s cover when I saw it for the first time.
And why has this manga fascinated me over the years? For one thing, the main characters are exceedingly colorful, both visually and in personality, and certainly are not what you would consider conventional shoujo manga material. Teenagers Subaru and Hokuto, who are fraternal brother-and-sister twins (but happen to look very much alike), come from a family with a long history of practicing onmyōdō, a form of Japanese occultism and divination with its roots in the Chinese principles of the five elements and yin and yang.
The manga begins as a series of omnibus stories of the twin’s exploits as onmyōji, which is what practitioners of onmyōdō are called, battling strange and supernatural occurrences caused by sometimes sinister and sometimes unfortunate spirits, with the help of their kind veterinarian friend Seishiro. The premise of the story alone makes for interesting reading, and the series masterfully depicts the ugly and desperate side of humanity, which can hide itself all too easily in a huge city like Tokyo.
▼ The manga was originally published in seven volumes in a slightly larger size than the standard Japanese comic.
▼ It was also later published in other editions with different cover artwork.
▼ The outrageous and unique fashion worn by Subaru and Hokuto definitely adds to the charm of the manga.
▼ There’s also an entire illustration book based on the series, which should be a visual feast.
In the latter part of the series, Tokyo Babylon‘s story takes on a darker, continuous plot leading up to the climax. The contrast between the sinister nature of the story and the deceptively stylish artwork probably helps to make the manga even more fascinating as you read, which is one of the reasons I personally find myself attracted to it after all these years.
It definitely is a dark story, but if you like fashion and the occult — a combination that indicates how unique this manga is — then Tokyo Babylon should absolutely draw you in. Even if all of that isn’t usually your style, I think it will still make for an entertaining read, unless you have an extremely low tolerance for horror.
So, these are two of my favorite old-time girls’ comics. I hope you’ll come back for part 2, in which I’ll be introducing two more shoujo manga that have maintained their popularity through the decades!