The fan in me wants to rave and drool. The critic in me will be more modest but still enthusiastic. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo uses the Alexandre Dumas classic as raw material for a story that spans lifetimes and solar systems, and the end result is an explosion of creativity that’s almost intimidating. The story’s been reinvented, not just retold, and everyone—from the writers to the design directors to the voice actors—has brought something new to the material. This show’s a bar-raiser.
What’s best is that as flashy as Gankutsuou looks—and most of the critiques I’ve read of the show so far revolve mostly around its visuals—it’s not just a graphics showcase. I ended up watching the entire series not once but twice, once for the plot and again for the nuances and characterization. It holds up well enough on repeat viewings to convince me it’ll be a perennial, one of those titles that is always in print somewhere. Shows like this are the whole reason I started watching anime in the first place: to see something new.
The main character of Gankutsuou actually isn’t the Count of Monte Cristo himself or, as he was called in a previous lifetime, Edmond Dantès. The real protagonist is the young naïf Albert de Morcerf, a teenaged viscount and the son of a wealthy general—one of the minor characters in the original story. It’s a little like the approach taken by E.L. Doctorow for Billy Bathgate: take a major historical figure (in that case, Roaring Twenties gangster Dutch Schultz) and tell his story through the eyes of an onlooker.
Albert has most everything a man in his position could want. He’s wealthy, a child of privilege and power, with a circle of cosmopolitan friends and a beautiful fiancée, Eugénie Danglars. But he’s also that less tested by life, that much more unaware of just how duplicitous and deceitful people can be. One year he’s enjoying the Mardi Gras celebrations held on the Moon when by accident he runs into the Count—a man who seems to embody the darker side of life he’s known entirely too little about until now. Tall and alien-looking, a figure of perpetual mystery, with unimaginable wealth at his command and a cadre of shady sidekicks to do his bidding … who wouldn’t find someone like that fascinating?
Albert’s friend Franz doesn’t, for one. He’s known Albert since they were too short to see over the tops of tables, and he’s dismayed by his friend’s fascination with this eldritch character. This feeling gets cemented as quickly as the first episode, when the Count invites Albert to play a morbid game of Spare The Condemned Prisoner to teach him a few things about life’s vicissitudes. Albert chooses cards to save one of three men on the gallows, and by chance he ends up saving the one man who deserved most to die. You make your own luck in this life.
But over time Albert’s admiration for the Count only grows—not just after Albert is kidnapped and held for ransom by a gang of thugs and then rescued by the Count, but after meeting with the Count of his own accord and seeing a very different man than the one everyone else sees. To Albert’s eyes, this Count is a lonely creature: surrounded by all these trappings and goodies, but without any real human contact save for his hand-picked circle of cronies. Albert sees in the Count’s history echoes of his own present woe, and empathizes with him all the more after hearing about it. Franz finds all this dismaying, as does Eugénie—although we learn that Albert’s relationship with Eugénie seems more to have been borne out of other peoples’ expectations than anything between them anyway.
What Albert doesn’t know about the Count will hurt him, not just once but again and again. Albert is, in the Count’s eyes, simply an ingredient in a recipe for wreaking revenge on the men who wronged him. One of those men is Albert’s own father; the kidnapping was nothing but a ploy to build bridges to both father and son. And the mother, too—Mercédès, a woman of great beauty and reservoirs of not-so-hidden sadness, all of which is linked to the Count’s past humiliations as well.
The Count does not simply plan to kill the guilty. Death’s too easy for them. His plan is to give them all the tools they need to destroy themselves, let them do it in public, and savor their suffering. Once Albert enters the picture, though, things become that much more complicated: the boy appeals to a part of him that would rather just live well as the best revenge. Soon the Count, too, has to choose: he can seduce this man entirely into this fold, and destroy yet another life in pursuit of his goals; or he can allow the young man’s innocence to corrupt him, in a sense, and find in that a kind of salvation he was never originally looking for. And the more we learn about the Count, the more we see how his revenge is embodied separately from the rest of him. (I’m tap-dancing around these spoilers as hard as I can, honest.)
Because so much of what happens is through Albert’s eyes, and because the show deliberately begins fairly late in the story (if you go by the original novel as a guide for such things), curious things happen. For one, we like the Count—we admire him and empathize with him, even when his plans are thoroughly diabolical from the beginning and grow all the more demented and disturbing as he brings them to their conclusion. We also like Albert, even if we despair of him being naïve and not willing to admit the depths of his ignorance. He’s a pampered (but not spoiled) young man only just now getting his first taste of the depths of duplicity and mendacity possible to people. And sometimes you only have to break a man once, the first time, to make him turn.
The story’s compelling enough on its own, but it’s been paired with equally compelling storytelling—writing and direction—that put everything we see into context, and sometimes sharp relief. I especially liked how the supporting cast members are made into real characters, not just stock inserts, and provide weight and depth whenever they step in. My favorite of the bunch is Peppo, one of the bandit gang who later insinuates herself into Albert’s household as a domestic; she’s one character whose actions and dialogue merit closer attention when (not if) you watch the show a second time. A close second is Haydée, the Count’s Muse and perhaps also one of his moral anchors: he saved her from a fate at least as bad as anything he endured himself, and to see him shirk the possibility of love in favor of revenge is heartbreaking to her.
Knowing the story in advance doesn’t shield you from the emotional impact it carries, since this isn’t a straight retelling of the original in the first place. And even when the truth finally begins to come out, the story doesn’t simply have everything delivered in one tidy speech. It emerges in fits and starts, overlapping flashbacks and fragments, each delivered from the mouths of various characters with their own bit of the truth to offer. This is the best sort of storytelling—the sort where you’re not thinking about how the plot gears are turning, but instead you’re only too happy to get mashed up in them along with the characters themselves. It says something that the most shattering plot twist in the story is not a revelation from the past, but a key decision on the part of a character whose development has been sneaking up on us all along.
The show’s look inspires at least as much ire as it does admiration. It’s a dazzling mix of 2D and 3D graphics, hand-drawn animation and digital textures. The use of texture patterns in particular hearkens back to some of the more experimental low-end animation from the Sixties (something Osamu Tezuka did in a number of his animated shorts). You have to meet the show halfway in that respect, and that might be more work than some people had in mind when they reached for the remote. Me, I’ve seen entirely too many shows that settled for, well, showing so little. Is the style an experiment that should be repeated? Probably not. Was it worth doing this once? Absolutely.
That said, many other great visual touches in the show aren’t merely design choices. One of the flashbacks is depicted not just as a static reply of events, but as a stylized shadow-puppet show akin to the interstitial segments in Utena. Or consider the scene Eugénie and Albert share their first real, honest kiss, and possibly their last one as well; they could have filmed it any number of ways, but look at what they chose to do as a way of avoiding the obvious clichés. Or the moment when Peppo, after finally doing a good deed from the bottom of her heart, takes off her shoes and merrily traipses barefoot down a busy street—free at last.
Most impressive is the conclusion—definitely not taken from the original story—where we’re served up a Götterdammerung-scale climax of destruction and death. But it’s not the end. Following that is the ending we really deserve—a batch of quiet, character-centric conclusions that gives everyone in the story the ending they deserve, too. It’s immensely satisfying, a welcome relief after too many shows that ended with little more than the bad guys getting lined up against the wall and shot.
This isn’t the first time the source material has been adapted as science fiction. Alfred Bester’s golden-age SF novel The Stars My Destination also brought Dumas’s story into the space age. Some have drawn casual connections between Destination and Gankutsuou, but they tell entirely different stories in entirely different fashions. Destination had a number of plot elements specific to the story—e.g., the “jaunte” (human self-teleportation), which has transformed human society albeit not wholly for the better. It’s not fair to call Gankutsuou a clone, when it both hews that much closer to the original story and brings at least as much of its own to the table.
My list of anime masterpieces is kept deliberately short. At least one of the Studio Ghibli productions (Spirited Away gets first round draft choice); Akira; the Ghost in the Shell continuum; Samurai Champloo; Mind Game; Berserk; Moribito. I don’t add to it very often, if only for the sake of not diluting the meaning of the term masterpiece. I don’t mind adding Gankutsuou to that list, because it won’t dilute anything, only enhance it.
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