Samurai meet Versailles?
I just wrapped up watching Le Chevalier D’Eon, and in viewing the final four episodes I’ve come to realize why it and Rose of Versailles are so incredibly different despite their similar settings, and in a way that goes beyond the fact that one is a high water mark for shoujo whereas the other takes more pains to depict gore and the supernatural. Essentially, Le Chevalier D’Eon, for all of its European trappings, is an intensely Japanese effort. Rose of Versailles, while setting the standard for many later shoujo works, does not hew nearly as closely to Japanese traditions and norms as does Le Chev. But I’m not terribly interested in dissecting RoV on this point – what is of note here is Le Chev.
I would say that, at its core, Le Chev is a samurai anime in French clothing. This is something which actually should be pretty obvious early on, since the title is ‘Le Chevalier D’Eon’ – not just ‘D’Eon de Beaumont’, but ‘Le Chevalier D’Eon’. The difference is fairly important, as the title de-emphasizes D’Eon himself in a way by leaving out his surname, something which would’ve been extremely important for the bloodline-conscious Versailles-era France. The stress here is on the fact that he was a chevalier, the French equivalent of a knight. What do we associate knights with? Feudal Europe. What do we associate samurai with? Feudal Japan. So the parallel is right there in front of us, even if we are too hung up on the setting itself to notice it (and that would be me).
Throughout the proceedings, characters continuously talk about honor and duty, specifically within the paradigm of knighthood. People do such and such because it is their duty as a knight, and as a direct relation, it is their duty to France and the royal family. There is the conflation of France with the royal family at this point, along with a constant reminder that the king is seen as having been selected for the position by God, something not entirely unfamiliar to the Japanese, who only began to not see the emperor as of heavenly descent in the 1950’s and 60’s (the emperor may’ve declared he was not divine at the close of World War II, but that isn’t the kind of change which occurs overnight, after all). Yes, the shogun was in charge during the feudal years, but the emperor did exist in the background and did retain the relation of divinity in the eyes of the people (for a comparison, consider the role of the British royal family in modern British society, sans the religious portion).
To return to the knight/samurai issue, I reiterate the importance of loyalty to the characters, a loyalty which is invested to the king, not necessarily to one’s everyday comrades. Characters are miserable by their pledged devotion as it forces them into bringing harm to those whom they care for, yet they persist in their role, stating that it is their duty to France. Those who do attempt to defy it only do so through ensuring their own ends, as that in and of itself prevents them from actively crossing their king and country.
In the end, those that win out are the same people who fly in the face of the knight ideal: a pair who have, throughout the show, spurned the notion of loyalty to anyone, and a young man who finds himself disgusted by both the actions of the king and his aides, and the intractable loyalty displayed by chevaliers even in the face of the rot at the soul of the monarchy. Yet even given that end, there is a melancholy feel to the proceedings, a sort of doomed romanticism for the knights themselves. It’s very reminiscent of the way samurai tend to be portrayed in anime depicting the dying days of feudal Japan, the sense that, yes, they’re protecting a Japan that is inevitably going to go by the wayside despite the fact that is clearly coming to an end, but that there’s something beautifully noble in their willingness to sacrifice themselves for what they believe in. Le Chev has much more in common in this manner with all those Shinsengumi shows than it does with Le Miserables: Shoujo Cossette or Rose of Versailles.
Now, one could point out that there did exist a devotion to France and king on the part of chevaliers, which would seem to invalidate the idea that Le Chev is a very Japanese show. However, even granting this (which is actually a bit of a stretch since the role of the chevalier wasn’t nearly as important by the reign of Louis XV as it is made out to be in Le Chev), it remains that one would simply not have gotten a show like this out of Europe, something which has everything to do with the manner in which the French view their past versus the Japanese on the count of knights and samurai.
Feudalism passed out of existence in Japan a scant one hundred and fifty years ago (give or take). Feudalism, and the heyday of knights, left Europe, for the most part, about six to seven hundred years ago. The knight does not capture the popular imagination in the West as do samurai in Japan because of this large gap we have between us and our feudal past. Think of it – when was the last time a movie about knights came out? I can’t even remember, and I’m sure that the last one concerned King Arthur and Avalon; as such, its existence has much more to do with the persistence of people’s romantic notions about Arthurian legend than is does about knights themselves (there is also the fact that anything to do with King Arthur is very much bound up in Christianity – “Hic iacet Arturus…”). So, yes, while Le Chev is informed by French history, it is still an extremely Japanese work.