Saturday, May 6, 2023

Merry Month of Shojo Review #6: JOSEPHINE THE FRENCH ROSE

It's hard to believe that the only Yumiko Igarashi manga available in English is this curious little digital artifact, a shojo manga that feels out of place and time.

JOSEPHINE THE FRENCH ROSE (Bara no Josephine), written by Kaoru Ochiai with art by Yumiko Igarashi.  First published in 2011 and first published in North America in 2015.


Long before she would become Empress of France, Josephine Bonaparte was merely Rose, an innocent young noblewoman growing up in 18th century Martinique.  Her constant companion is the young servant boy Agathon, who admires Rose's gentle heart and generous spirit.  Rose's innocent childhood ends when she and Agathon are spirited away to France so that Rose can marry the neglectful Marquis de Beauharnais.  As the years pass, Agathon fears that his mistress will lose herself to the decadent, deceitful machinations of the nobles around her.


It's weird to learn that this series came out in the 2010s because it looks and reads for all the world like a shojo series from the 1970s.  In particular, it reads a lot like Ochiai is trying to make her own knock-off of The Rose of Versailles.  I could understand this impulse if she had made this manga in the 1970s or 80s, when The Rose of Versailles was still fairly new, but why do such a thing in 2011? And write it like it's still being aimed at 1970s children?

Ochiai treats Rose in much the same way Riyoko Ikeda treated Marie Antoinette: a perfect little doll who is too pure for this sinful world, who is slowly brought down by the machinations of ancient regime France.  It's a take that I wasn't particularly keen on in ROV and it's one I really don't like here because it robs her of any agency or complexity she might have as a character.  Then there's Agathon, whose steadfast nature and loyalty to his mistress makes him an obvious analogue for ROV's Andre.  Alas, he suffers much of the same fate as his mistress, despite his status as a servant making him the one more aware of the deep social inequality of France in this era.  What this series desperately needs is an Oscar, someone who is dynamic and intriguing.  All we have thus far aside from Rose and Agathon are a largely interchangeable array of scheming, lascivious aristos.

They are also determined to gloss over a lot of the less pleasant parts of Rose's history, which is a problem for a girl who grew up on a colonial plantation.  Save for a single incident involving a girl getting punished for some spilled rum, slavery is never mentioned.  Otherwise the reader would have to grapple with the fact that Rose's carefree island childhood is funded by the exploitation of others.  They'd have to explain that Agathon is likely Rose's half-sibling because his mother is based on a real house slave in Josephine's household named Marion (not like you can tell, as she is drawn to be white) that Josephine's father regularly sexually assaulted.  While there is some acknowledgement that the common people are literally starving while the aristocracy distracts itself with frivolities and debauchery, it's always too little and too late.  I'm not asking for this series to turn into a history documentary.  All I want it to do is discover a little bit of complexity, particularly at a point where it's about to enter into some really complex and interesting history.


I guess if you're going to make a Rose of Versailles throwback, hiring Yumiko Igarashi to be your artist is not a bad choice.  After all, she was one of the few shojo mangaka who could have rivaled Riyoko Ikeda for popularity during the 1970s thanks to the runaway success of Candy Candy, among many other works.  That being said,  I'm not familiar enough with her body of work to know if she's purposefully drawing this in an old-fashioned style or if her art style has simply not evolved since the 1970s.  It's not like I hate seeing these big, starry eyes, fancy frilly costumes, and cutesy, almost doll-like character designs, but seeing that style in a 21st century manga is a little uncanny.  It certainly doesn't help the 'dollar store Rose of Versailles' comparisons in the slightest, though.


I must make note of the (uncredited) translation, which I am fully convinced was done entirely in Google Translate.  It's not unreadable, but it's absolutely leaden and is frequently missing both capital letters and punctuation.  It was clearly shat out as cheaply and quickly as possible for the sake of producing content and nothing more.


I hate to rank Josephine the French Rose so poorly, but its very existence is baffling.  It's derivative, outdated, and shallow, a waste of a notable artist's talent that has been rightfully buried on any digital shopfront it's managed to land upon.

This series is published by Creek & River Co. LTD.  This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available.  All 4 have been published digitally and are currently in print.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading a bit of this and not being too fond of it. I stopped reading after Agathon was made to have sex with an older woman when it's made clear he's underage. Uuuugh.