Hibana is maybe knocking it out of the park? I mean, we all mourn the early demise of IKKI, a great magazine with a great editor that featured some pretty amazing talent, like Taiyo Matsumoto, Yumiko Shirai, and est em. But the magazine that rose up in IKKI’s ashes has already made an impressive footprint of its own in the manga scene, despite being relatively new to that scene. This is the magazine that gave us this brain’s beloved Ikazuchi Tooku by Ayako Noda aka Niboshiko Arai, and Akiko Higashimura’s latest, Yukiba no Toru. So seeing Hibana on the spine of a tankobon is enough to make me raise my eyebrows and pick the book up at the very least. Because you never know what surprises this magazine is going to serve up next.
And apparently, the latest surprise is revisiting the story of Marie Antoinette with zombies. The Pride and Prejudice and Zombies strain of fiction has arrived at last in Japan! Normally, I would roll my eyes at the mash-up, being not much of a fiction mash-up person, but the Hibana name along with the utterly ridiculous Versailles of the Dead title had me sighing with resignation. I’ll just read the first volume, I told myself. Just to see what it is. But what it is is surprisingly entertaining?
Given that I’m translating Rose of Versailles right now, it is also surprisingly relevant to my work interests. After immersing myself in the world of Rose these last few months, I couldn’t help but be curious about another interpretation of the world of Marie Antoinette. Unlike Rose, which gives us a peek into Marie’s childhood, this Versailles starts when Marie is travelling to France from Austria to marry the Dauphin. Except this time, she has a twin brother, who does not speak and also acts as her body double from time to time. (No spoilers here, this is all in the first few pages.) Once they cross the border, they are attacked by monsters, and that looks like the end of the story. Except, of course, it is only the beginning. Marie’s twin brother, Albert, miraculously survives the attack, when everyone else is killed, and flees to Versailles in his sister’s gown. The assembled welcome party takes him for Marie, and it is only later, in a private audience, that they learn that Albert is not Marie and that Marie is dead. But shit is real in France these days; undead monsters are springing up from all sides, and the people need hope in the form of a new queen. So the French court asks Albert to step up and continue masquerading as Marie.
But some on that court have real concerns about Albert and why he managed to survive when everyone else in the party was killed. One of those concerned parties is Bastien, who is basically Oscar, but an actual dude and not a lady raised as a dude. And this is where the parallels with Rose of Versailles kept derailing me and changing how I read this story. Just as Oscar guards Marie Antoinette at the masquerade ball where she meets Fersen in Rose, Bastien accompanies Marie to a masquerade where she also meets this universe’s Fersen. But their meeting is interrupted by zombie monster nobles. And so many of the moments in this book are echoes or callbacks to moments in Rose. Like Marie’s handling of Madame du Barry. Except this Madame du Barry is somehow a monster boss. It’s like Versailles of the Dead is intent on providing an alternate back story to the original Rose of Versailles. It’s deeply weird and yet super engaging. I want to see how this alternate Versailles plays out. I’m sure it’s largely because both Suekane and Ikeda both referenced the same materials on Marie Antoinette, but I’m just as sure that Suekane is having some fun reconstructing and reinterpreting Ikeda’s Rose with zombies and the supernatural.
Suekane’s style is also surprisingly engaging for me. It’s like a cross between Naoki Urasawa and Akiko Higashimura. All of Urasawa’s diversity in noses (seriously, that guy must spend a lot of time looking at noses to get such subtle differences in that particular organ across on the pages) combined with Higashimura’s fashion and ladies getting worked up over things. Plus zombies and French politics and monster hunters. So basically I have no idea where this story is going.
But after reading the first volume, I’m sure of one thing at least: I want to know where this story is going. Maybe it’ll turn to garbage or become a series of tedious, repetitive events in the next volume, but this first book is fun and engaging and silly and kind of scary. And it’s been a while since I encountered a book that made me feel all of those things.