Albert, an aristocrat from Paris, finds himself listless and bored with his pampered life, so he and his best friend Franz set out across the galaxy to the Luna, the surface of the moon for a Mardi Gras-like festival. While there, they meet the enigmatic Count of Monte Cristo, who takes an unusual liking to Albert; the two become fast friends. What Albert doesn’t realize is the Count’s connection to his family, and his real motive: revenge!
Gankutsuou, the latest effort from legendary director of Blue Submarine No. 6 and the Last Renaissance segment from The Animatrix, is without a doubt one of the finest anime series ever made and probably the best thing released this year. As much fun as anime is, there are certain adjectives that you can’t really use when describing most of it; classy, dignified, or elegant. Sure, there are a handful of shows that have these traits: Emma, The Rose of Versailles, to name a few. But, neither of those do what Gankutsuou does, which is successfully marry the long-standing anime tradition of being an over-the-top visual spectacle with the respectability and maturity of something you’d see on PBS. People like to say shows like Naruto are “for adults” because there’s blood and swearing; Gankutsuou is for adults in the same fashion that films like Elizabeth or The Lion in Winter are for adults. It’s a mature story, told in a mature way.
It’s an adaptation – well, okay, a reimagining – of Alexander Dumas’ classic revenge tale, The Count of Monte Cristo. Characterizations, particularly the Albert and the Count (and his bizarre alter-ego, Gankutsuou) are strong but subtle. We learn about these characters through their actions, not through lame expository dialogue, which is very refreshing. Despite its somewhat dry source material, the show moves along at a surprisingly fast clip; we learn pretty quickly what the Count’s true intentions are and the story rapidly becomes pleasantly complicated and yet easy to follow at once. The sheer amount of story in this first volume will have your head spinning… in a good way, of course.
That said, Gankutsuou’s story is unlike most other anime, and many fans will either find themselves overwhelmingly fond of it or totally bored; there aren’t any giant-breasted girls with too little clothing on, no ninjas to speak of (at least, so far), and Albert isn’t on a quest to become the world’s number one cockfighting champion or whatever. This isn’t something from the pages of Shonen Jump. It’s a remarkably sophisticated retelling of a classic novel (a particularly dense one at that), and therefore patience and an appreciation for something a little different is required to truly enjoy the show. That fact doesn’t make the show fundamentally better, per say, than your average action anime, but it sure is a refreshing and welcome change of pace from the Gokus and Luffy D. Monkeys of the world.
It’s impossible to discuss Gankutsuou without making a huge deal out of the visuals, which are breathtaking to behold. Mahiro Maeda, the show’s director, is a fantastic artist and has a remarkable background in fine art, and his penchant for flashy but dignified visuals shines in Gankutsuou more than any of his previous projects. Clothing is rendered as a basic outline of the garment that moves over a static “fabric” background; hair is done in the same fashion, as are many other textures and surfaces in the show. The result will either make you weep tears of joy at how marvelously unique and beautiful it is or it’ll make you sort of nauseous and dizzy and maybe your eyes will hurt a little. I found myself firmly in the former camp; what Maeda has created is an absolute feast for the eyes. Fans of art nouveau pioneers like Gustav Klimt will love what they see here.
There are a few hiccups, however; occasionally the technique used can make the scene appear a little too busy or overwhelmed by color, and sometimes the CG scenes of the cities Albert and his aristocratic chums visit look spare and sometimes nearly unfinished. So much effort clearly went into bringing the characters to life that sometimes their environments are peculiarly empty; this is a rare occasion, though, and the artistry on display is so dazzling that it’s easy to overlook the occasional mistake.
The music suits the show perfectly, for the most part. The opening is a slow piano ballad sung in English that fits the flowing, nostalgic artwork perfectly (despite the fact that the guy hits what sounds like a sour note right at the top of the song). The closing is a faster-paced guitar piece that centers on the action of the show, creating a nice bookend that showcases the two-headed nature of it all. Background music is flavorful and appropriate; keep an eye out for a handful of famous opera pieces you may recognize from other films.
If there’s one thing to complain about in Gankutsuou, it is, sadly, the English dub. No effort was made to give these obviously European characters distinct accents. They all sound like generic white people, especially Albert, who talks way too slow in many of his scenes. His voice actor is also overacting to the point where he manages to remove the quiet curiosity the Japanese voice actor managed to imbue the character with; to be frank, I’m not sure the English dub staff really knew how to properly handle this show. The Japanese version, on the other hand, is a beautiful piece of work. The Count in particular is at once soothing and menacing, and his French is surprisingly well-spoken at the top of each episode. The English version didn’t even bother to record the Count’s French lines in French; they just dubbed ’em in English. Frankly, the dub removes a lot of the magic and majesty this show has to offer. Watch it in Japanese for the real experience.
The DVD itself is a nice package, with a surprising number of extras to satiate the hardcore fans. Storyboards, an insightful interview with Maeda himself, the usual textless openings and endings and some comments from the Japanese voice actors, which are absolutely worth seeing if only to hear the Count’s voice actor do the voice for us. The real treat here is the show itself, of course, but Geneon has gone out of their way to add a little more, which is always appreciated.
Simply put, Gankutsuou is a very special show that will appeal to anyone with a refined palette and an appreciation for art. Buy it, watch it, love it. You’ll find it hard to resist.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A
+ One of the finest anime series ever made, a refreshing change of pace
− Might not appeal to everyone.
Albert and friends continue their excursion through the extraordinary underground of the Count’s Parisian estate, but Maximilian’s growing affection for Valentine and his disdain for the lack of love amongst arranged aristocratic marriages leads to conflict. Meanwhile the Count’s carefully calculated scheming continues as a trip to the opera stirs up all manner of attention, he moves to involve Baron Danglar’s bank in his finances, and he plays up to Heloise, the toxicology-loving wife of Crown Prosecutor Eduoard de Villefort. But his boldest move yet comes at a dinner party at a morose country estate once belonging to Villefort where a little game proves anything but innocent. All the while Albert remains oblivious to the machinations into which he has become an unwitting pawn.
Has revenge in anime ever been so carefully and deliciously constructed, or looked so good doing it?
In the first volume of Gankutsuou, The Count of Monte Cristo laid the foundation for his grand scheme of revenge by befriending Albert de Morcerf, the son of one of the men against whom he has sworn vengeance, and using that connection to help establish himself in Paris. With the second volume we get to see the first pieces of that scheme come into play. One cannot watch these four episodes without getting a sense of an intricate machine gradually cranking its way towards destruction and doom as the Count makes his sly first plays against the hearts and minds of his enemies. In this the writing has done a great job of capturing the spirit and character of the original novel by Alexandre Dumas. Most of the thematic elements, characterizations, and relationships have also been preserved despite the futuristic setting; only one of the named characters here – the transvestite Peppo – was not in the original novel. Even the intimations that the Count might be a vampire were actually in the original novel, too, although they are much more pronounced here. The more you know about the original story, the more the cleverness of this writing effort shines through.
Where this story goes beyond the novel is in its use of Albert, originally only a secondary character, as a framing device. By doing this the viewer’s perspective is limited to only a little more than what Albert himself knows about the causes for the Count’s motivations, which certainly helps maintain the level of suspense for anyone who hasn’t read the novel. (And for those who have, the suspense is in seeing how Gonzo’s going to handle various story threads.) It also allows the writers to condense down but still examine a very complex theme about relative vs. absolute happiness, which can be seen in the way things play out amongst Albert and his friends. Maximilian’s umbrage about the lack of love amongst aristocrats, and the way it makes Albert reexamine his own views and relationships, is a big part of that. The addition of the worldly and streetwise Peppo as the nagging voice in Albert’s ear further allows him to reflect on matters that he otherwise would be too naïve to even consider. The affection the Count is starting to feel towards Albert also allows an outlet for condensing down another prominent theme of the novel: alienation, and the way love can overcome it.
The pacing so far has also been handled exceptionally well. By skipping ahead in the story to where the Count meets Albert, hundreds of pages have been eliminated that can easily be summarized in later flashbacks, hence allowing for a much more streamlined story. Enough meaty content fills up every episode that nothing feels like filler, and dark hints of the greater picture are periodically dropped. What happened in that old mansion that has Villefort so horrified? Why is Haydee so slavishly devoted to the Count that she calls herself his “doll,” and why does she react the way she does to seeing Albert’s father for the first time? These are tantalizing mysteries dropped before the viewer which will doubtless be answered in future episodes. (Or, alternatively, by looking at a Cliff’s Notes version of the original novel.)
Ganuktsuou would be well worth watching based on the story alone, but the eye-popping visuals are the true star here. Gonzo Studios has built a reputation for cutting-edge CG visuals in its relatively short existence, but here they have truly outdone themselves, creating some of the most unique and awe-inspiring visuals ever seen in animation. To watch this series with anything less than one’s complete and undivided attention is to do it an injustice. The complex, immobile textures of hair and clothing (they don’t move as the characters do, like that part of the character is transparent and moving over a background pattern) are a fascinating spectacle in of themselves, but the incredible opulence of the art design and its glorious CG rendering is almost overwhelming in its beauty and detail. Want to see what a genius art director can come up with when practicality and moderation don’t figure into the effort? Watch Gankutsuou. Character designs are bland and flat by comparison except for the occasional disarmingly weird-looking alien, but even the human ones are well-proportioned (including the eyes) and appealing or repulsive, as dictated by the status of the character. Vehicles and carriages have distinctively angular, futuristic looks while still retaining much of the essence of 18th century France.
With all this wonder to look at, it’s surprising that the piece de resistance in this volume is actually quite easy to pick out: it’s the gown worn by Haydee to the opera in episodes 6 and 7. The first look at her in it will make many a viewer’s jaw drop, not because it’s revealing (it isn’t particularly so) but because of an ethereal beauty that only a poet could adequately describe in words and only the finest CG artistry could depict. This is what a true goddess come to Earth would wear to assure mortals of her divine status. That the animation and visual expressiveness of the characters are also quite good are details easily lost amongst the incredible artistry.
The visual splendor also extends to the closer, where dynamic, rapid-fire imagery is paired with the great and very fitting English language rock song “You Won’t See Me Coming” to create one of the best closers ever for series anime. The much calmer and more melancholy opener “We Were Lovers” (another very fitting choice, given that Albert’s mother Mercedes was the fiancée of the man the Count used to be), also sung in English by Jean-Jacques Burnel, is paired with much simpler animation which gives little hint of what’s to come in the episodes. The symphonic musical scoring in between is used sparingly and in an understated manner, more as an enhancement than a feature, but it is very effective in this capacity.
If Gankutsuou has a weakness, it’s in its dubs. The Japanese dub is clearly the better-acted of the two, but beyond the Count it suffers some from casting which sounds too distinctly Japanese for the roles of European aristocrats. Though not glaringly obvious, the effect is akin to hearing American actors voice over the roles of Chinese characters in competent dubs of Hong Kong martial arts movies. Arguments about how listening to the Japanese dub still allows a viewer to hear the series “as it was originally intended” don’t hold water here since this isn’t a Japanese story to begin with. Unfortunately the Bang Zoom! English vocal production, despite respectable casting, is uninspired by comparison. The low point comes in the intros spoken by the Count; why the French used for these in the Japanese dub wasn’t retained is beyond me. The English script follows the subtitles closely in some places (usually where the characters can’t be seen talking) and is much more interpretive in others, but never stray far from the original meaning. Even so, the sub version, despite its flaws, is recommended on this one.
Extras on this volume include company previews, a promotional trailer set to classical music, and a collection of commentaries by several seiyuu which sounds more like promotional blurbs for the Japanese TV broadcasts. Annoyingly, the subtitles for this extra are only on if the viewer has manually turned them on in the Settings menu. The casing includes a reversible cover and an additional art insert.
The second volume of Gankutsuou is as much a marvel as its first volume, excelling in every aspect of production except its voice acting and blowing a viewer away with its visuals. If the series maintains this level of quality throughout its run then it will take a supreme effort by another title to even challenge it as the premiere anime title of 2006 – and yes, I realize I’m saying that only three weeks into the new year. Gankutsuou is just that good.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Awe-inspiring visuals, excellent musical support, great adaptation of the classic original novel.
− Flaws in both dubs.
The Count of Monte Cristo’s grand scheme of revenge on the men who once betrayed Edmond Dantes has started to come to fruition, and Albert and his friends are caught in the middle. The first to fall is Villefort, whose inability to prosecute the Count drives him to a dangerous course of action. Next is General Morcerf, Albert’s father, whose false identity and past betrayals are laid bare by Haidee during his election campaign. While Baron Danglars is being fattened up for a future fall, Marquis Cavalcanti’s designs on his daughter Eugenie force her away from Albert. As everything seems to be collapsing around him, the still-unaware Albert seeks solace in the company of the Count, while Franz investigates deeper into the identity of Gankutsuou. What he discovers about the Man in the Iron Mask and past connections between Villefort, Danglars, and Morcerf disturbs him greatly.
With episodes 13-16 many of the truths underlying the Count’s plans finally become clear, or at least clearer than they were before. The revelations are unlikely to surprise anyone familiar with the source material, as the major plot points are still more or less the same as in Alexandre Dumas’s classic novel, but for newcomers to The Count of Monte Cristo they certainly explain some past events in the series. Haidee finally reveals the reason why she fainted at the sight of General Morcerf at the opera in episode 6 (and gets as much screen time as she did in the prior three volumes combined), for instance, and the past connection between Villefort, Danglars, Morcerf, and Edmond Dantes is further elaborated upon. Hints are thrown out about what, exactly, they did to earn the Count’s wrath, and details are also finally revealed about the true identity and nature of Gankutsuou; this is the place where this story diverges from the original novel. The implied truths there are unsettling but hardly unprecedented in anime storytelling.
In general, though, Gankutsuou is a breed apart from other anime series. It isn’t just the artistry, either; no other anime series which has made it to the States is written like this one. Its delightfully complex mix of mysteries, intrigues, and manipulations is executed with the kind of dramatic flair one might expect more from a Shakespearean play than an anime series, even one aimed at adult audiences. It’s also the kind of writing and characters certain to get a viewer involved. Could one watch this series without sympathizing with Haidee over her background, pitying Eugenie for the way she’s being unfairly trapped as a side effect of the Count’s plans and Cavalcanti’s ambitions, rooting for everything to turn out right for Maximilien and Valentine, or relishing seeing Villefort get what’s coming to him? And then there’s lovable and pure-hearted but painfully naïve Albert, who’s been set up all series for a really nasty fall, the first part of which starts as this volume draws to a close. Is the Count’s desire for revenge strong enough that he’ll carry it through even at the cost of sacrificing this good and innocent young man to it? Can Haidee discourage him from completing his plan after experiencing the ache left behind by the execution of her own revenge? Only time – and the last two volumes – will tell.
Gankutsuou cannot, of course, be talked about without bringing up its unique artistic style, with its patterns in hair and clothing which remain stationary as the character moves and its incredible use of exceptionally-intricate CG renderings in backgrounds. Viewers who have followed the series to this point have probably become accustomed enough to the distinctive visual gimmicks for them to fade into the background, but the artistry will still occasionally “wow” a viewer with its beauty and novelty, such as the dress that Eugenie wears at her piano recital or the ceiling of the Library. The one flaw is that the character designs that seem crude compared to the fine detail of the CG work and other visual effects, but the rest of the visuals are so extraordinary that it’s hard to care. Coupled with great animation, the visuals in this volume continues to show why Gankutsuou is one of the greatest artistic efforts in the history of animation.
Supporting and complementing the great visuals and storytelling is a strong musical score, which occasionally hedges towards melodrama but overall does a superb job. Of particular note on this front are the melodic, simply-animated opener and the rock-themed spectacle that is the wonderful closer. Careful attention should be paid to the lyrics in both, which, it now becomes apparent, were not chosen without specific reason. As the opener and closer frame each episode, so do their lyrics frame the story; the opening lyrics are the prologue, and the closing lyrics are the testament to the Count’s current actions and plans.
A great series deserves great voice acting, and the Japanese cast fully delivers despite some minor issues with pronunciations of French names and words. The English voice actors are well-cast for the roles, and some individual performances are the equal of the originals (Abe Vasser does a fine Villefort and Jennifer Sekiguchi is right on the mark as Haidee), but others fail to fully capture the richness of the originals and the tone of their characters, thus leaving the whole dub one step off the original in quality and effectiveness. This shows most clearly in the introduction of each episode. The English script doesn’t stray enough from the original to be the problem, nor is the English dub bad enough to be a detriment to enjoying the series, but the Japanese dub and subtitles are the better viewing option here.
Extras in this volume include company trailers, a full-length AMV for the closer song “You Won’t See Me Coming,” and a collection of promo spots for episode 14 done by the original seiyuu for some of the key roles.
The time for set-up is over; the end run of the Count’s master plan has begun. Some have already fallen, but how many more will be destroyed, whether intentionally or not, before it’s done? If you’re not watching Gankutsuou then you’re missing out on one of the year’s best series.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Nearly everything except the English dub.
− The English dub is a step off.