My Review of Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo

Madames and Monsieurs, good evening. Tonight, we unfold the tale of Albert de Morcerf, a young parisian aristocrat who has yet to come of age, although he has more woe and devastation hiding beyond that threshold than perhaps any of his contemporaries. He does not yet know of the lies his life was built upon, nor has he any comprehension of what the human soul is capable of. As of the beginning of our tale, he has only one issue on his mind; What haunts his dreams is the announcement of an arranged marriage to an estranged childhood friend, young Eugenie Danglars. Desperate to experience his youth while it is still his, he travels to Luna, an extravagant land of partying and debauchery, and just as he’s about to lay in an alley with a woman who’d caught his eye from the float of a parade, he finds himself at the end of her gun… Both of them.

He’s taken captive by street bandits, and it’s by his good fortune that earlier that very night, he’d made a lifelong friend in a mysterious, lavish older man known only as The Count of Monte Cristo… A man who had earlier placed a game of life or death in Albert’s hands now shows up in the nick of time to save his young friend from that very same game. Albert shows his eternal gratitude by inviting the Count to Paris, to meet his friends and experience high class Parisian society. All is not how it seems, however, as The Count’s arrival marks more than just his temporary residency. All at once, families begin to fall apart, secrets begin to find their way into the light, and sins long since buried and forgotten come back to threaten those who’d once disposed of them. Who is this strange man, with blue skin and an aura of powerful magic? What is his true reason for traveling to Paris? To what end will he stoop to claim satisfaction for a life he was never able to live? And how far will he go before the living embodiment of vengeance is sated?

The first thing you may notice about Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is it’s immediately striking visual style, one that I can almost guarantee you’ve never seen before or since. Well, that is, you’ve never seen it to this large of a scale. This series uses an art style called Unmoving Plaid, a style that’s been used many times in American animation to simplify the animation of characters wearing complex patterns on their clothing. To conjure up an accurate visual image, imagine you’re wearing a green shirt in front of a green screen, and the computer replaces the green with Wall-paper. It’s a classic sort of style, and one you wouldn’t expect any animated fiction to get any extended use out of… Which is why it comes as a surprise to many first time watchers when they see the elaborate patterns dancing across the clothing and hair of the characters in this anime.

This choice of art style will prove divisive, and it is a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s used to beautiful effect, even if the necessity of it can sometimes be argued. I would disagree with this argument, of course, because it ultimately serves as the frosting on Gankutsuou’s visual cake. See, this version of The Count of Monte Cristo takes place in a futuristic Sci Fi setting, I’ll say more on that later, and the blend of classic European and space age architecture would look bland if everything looked like your average anime. No, to get the full visual effect, Gonzo employs a lot of very expensive, very smoothly integrated CG backgrounds that are at once both heavily detailed and, on ample occasions, sparkly as all hell. The use of color, particularly in the vast shots of space as well as in a few other surreal settings, is extremely elaborate, and in my opinion, it’s the wall-papery art style that ties it all together. I’ve heard that it’s a curse for viewers with epilepsy, and while I can’t imagine it doing as much harm as a certain notorious Pokemon episode, I can easily see some of you suffering headaches from it.

Of course, we are talking about a Studio Gonzo production, and alas, 2004 was not a good year for them. This was the year they tried to integrate traditional animation with CG in a lot of their shows, and they had some notable failures. 3D water textures in Gantz left the human characters looking like hot garbage, and over eight minutes of Samurai Seven had to be sacrificed to appease the budget, leading to an ugly, ugly, ugly extended sequence where there were no key frames and nothing was on-model. I’d be lying if I said that the more traditional aspects of Gankutsuou didn’t often employ the same style, but it’s used sparingly, and there are only a few times you’ll notice it, perhaps most obviously in a shot where Albert’s friend Franz is sitting up after waking from a night of drunken sleep. The 2D animation isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it’s well directed enough to compensate for it’s worst moments, and the artwork provides ample distraction whenever it needs to. It’s a mild flaw that doesn’t stop the series from upholding it’s acclaim as a visual wonder of the anime medium.

All of the effort and extravagance that went into the artwork and animation also bleeds into the music, which has to be one of the biggest, most elaborate anime soundtracks I’ve ever heard. It informs the story in ways that are both beautiful and purposeful, with every single note proving to be just as important as the words and actions of the characters on screen. The music can stand on it’s own, which is good, because I can’t describe how perfectly utilized it is without gushing about it, so instead, let’s talk about something whose meaning is a little less obvious; The opening and closing themes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a set of closing and opening themes that have encapsulated the yin and yang aspects of show’s main character before.

The opening theme is, to keep with our theme, not like very many that you’ve seen or heard before. Whereas most openings will try to draw you into their story with colorful images, the faces of all the principal characters, a catchy pop tune and a huge focus on visual direction, Gankutsuou takes a different approach, using a crude style of what looks like oil paintings animated on a drab, shadowy background. The English language song, We Were Lovers by Jean-Jacques Burnel, is a simple piano tune that serves two purposes… It not only tells a vague sort of synopsis of the count’s backstory, particularly with regard to his feelings for his lost love, but it also serves as a metaphor for the smooth, friendly exterior that he uses to gain the affections of everyone he meets.

The closing, You Won’t See Me Coming, is also sung in English, and by the same person as the opening. Posing as the yang to the opening’s yin, and it explodes in your face at the cliff-hanger end of every single episode, featuring screen shots and visuals taken directly from the show and then filtered and distorted until it looks as though some demonic entity has been watching the proceedings from afar. It’s sung from the Count’s perspective, but in terms of tone, it feels far more like the theme song to the mysterious being Gankutsuou, although you won’t know to make this distinction in your head until several spoiler-things have happened later in the story. Up until then, there’s no shame whatsoever in being satisfied with the idea that these evil thoughts, these malevolent lyrics, are what’s truly going through The count’s head as he gently smiles at his worst enemies.

The English dub is hit or miss, as it’s perfectly fine in it’s own right, but it still falters a bit in comparison to the excellent Japanese track. The one area where they needed to knock it out of the park is with The Count himself, a sort of overlord character who manipulates people and pulls their strings not only from the shadows, but right in their faces, while they mold like putty in his hands. This kind of character would need to be played by someone with a deep, throaty sort of voice, which can simultaneously be diabolical and soothing, but can also turn the evil maniac in himself up to 11 and let loose with a deliciously triumphant villainous laugh when things are going his way.

In Japan, the answer they found was with Jouji “George” Nakata, otherwise known as Japanese Alucard, and the second I say that, you’re going to guess that the dub cast Crispin Freeman. Now, I’m not going to say that Crispin couldn’t have pulled off this role… He would have slaughtered it, quite frankly… But Geneon actually found someone better in the somewhat less well-known Jamieson Price, and I’ve been a fan of his ever since I heard him in this. Price IS the Count, to the extent that I can’t read the novel without hearing his voice in my head. This phenomenon doesn’t happen with Albert, however, as Johnny Yong Bosch’s performance isn’t quite as magical as that of his Excellency. Albert de Morcerf is a character that could easily be played by someone with a generic voice, and Johnny Yong Bosch… does that. His ability to act does manage to infuse the character with pride and youthful enthusiasm, and I’m not sure how the part could have been played better, but it doesn’t leave much of a mark.

Michelle Ruff does a much better job with Eugenie, whose role has been radically altered from the book. She plays the part as though she’s been frustrated by her station in life for so long that she has difficulty believing in any reprieve, even when they’re right in front of her. She becomes more warm and supportive whenever it’s called for, and carries herself with sincerity through even the most bleak and terrible events. Tony Oliver is excellent as the idealistic Maximillian Morrel, whose role in the story has actually been downgraded, but thankfully not at the cost of his character. On the flipside, Albert’s best friend Franz D’Epinay, has had his role greatly expanded, elevating him from a person who was away for a majority of the events in the book to someone who is not only there for the majority of the story, but actually takes an active role in it. He’s an extremely important character now, which is why it’s so disappointing that they cast Ezra Weisz, the monotonous robot of an actor whom I already tore into in my review of Vampire Knight. Stilted and devoid of personality, he was possibly the worst possible choice for the role.

The rest of the cast do their jobs adequately, pronouncing french words more or less correctly while for some reason not using french accents… Come on, you know they could have done it… But there are two standouts that I have to call attention to. The first one you may have completely glanced over, because this series came out at a time where she was still using her favorite old alias, Jennifer Sekiguchi. Stephanie Sheh plays The Count’s… I don’t know what her title is. Servant? Escort? Pet? Whatever, she plays the character as soft voiced and wistful, like her common typecasting with some angst injected into it, but when her moment in the script comes, she rises to the occasion with a righteous fury that will leave you with chills. The other is Carrie Savage playing a transgendered maid at the Morcerf house, whose dialogue is full of double-entendres and duplicitous comments, as though she’s teasing both Albert and the viewer about where her intentions truly lie. The sub is quite a bit better, but you can watch pretty much either one depending on your preferences.

So, I mentioned earlier in the review that this story takes place in a futuristic setting. Some of you may have read that, and gotten a little anxious while involuntarily recalling the Disney Film Treasure Planet, as those properties, like Gankutsuou, take insane amounts of liberties with classic, established literary masterpieces. I honestly believe that it works in all the ways that those other two adaptations didn’t, but in order to explain why, I’m going to have to explain why this space traveling, alien accommodating world isn’t as futuristic as it sounds. Yes, there’s technology in this show that our society has yet to reach… Voice controlled holograms, robotic horses, interstellar politics… And yet, the principal characters all live in what appears to be 19th century France, from the clothing to the architecture. To make things more confusing, the automobiles that are present throughout the story seem to have been crafted way after the turn of that century.

Even with the year in universe being in the 5000s, I still think it would be more appropriate to call it an Anachronistic setting than a Futuristic setting. While Treasure Planet could also be considered anachronistic, it’s still deeply rooted in the trends and demographics of the time it was released, therefore dating it. Hell, look at all the sky-high skateboarding! Gankutsuou doesn’t pander to the audience in this way, or really in any way, as it’s stark avoidance of anime tropes will prove, and as a result, it’s anachronistic nature gives it an advantage that countless other anime and movies have struggled for… Timelessness. A sense of familiarity in an alien setting. A story that will never feel lame or dated, regardless of how long after it’s release you’ve decided to watch it. And this is a feature that’s unique to the anime, as the original novel contains many elements that will prove problematic to today’s readers. For example, The Count has a mute black slave who’s pleased as punch to be working for him. The anime reduced his role, changed him into an alien, and made another more important member of his posse black instead. The novel contains an outspoken man-hating feminist who’s also secretly a lesbian… A troublingly misogynistic character in today’s world, but she’s completely rewritten in the anime. Part of a good adaptation is to fix these kinds of problems.

A far less fortunate part of adaptation is that you have to cut a 1078 page novel down to a more serviceable length. You could of course go the easy route and adapt the abridged novel, you know, if you want your adaptation to suck, but the truth is that adapting a classic novel to a new medium is a minefield of a task. The Jim Caviezal movie was okay in it’s own right, but it changed so many things… About half of which made any earthly sense, I mean come on, Albert being the Count’s biological son? That it really doesn’t FEEL like The Count of Monte Cristo. Well, Gankutsuou had an answer to that, and it turns out it was pretty radical. They skipped the first half of the book, and made Albert the main character, starting out the tale with his and Franz meeting The Count on Luna..

Before you cry foul on this, I’m going to be perfectly blunt; I’ve always thought the weakest element of the original novel was The Count himself. He starts off as this perfect goody two shoes who has everything going his way, until he gets betrayed because his friends are assholes who want what he has. He’s kind of like Johnny from The Room, but instead of killing himself, he escapes and becomes the fantasy of any bullied kid who ever thought “Wow, wouldn’t it be awesome if I went to the reunion as a billionaire celebrity with a smoking hot trophy wife, and then all those jerks lives just start going to shit around me out of jealousy!” And the reason I make THAT comparison is because, like the reunion fantasy, The Count’s ascension in the novel is a tough pill to swallow. He basically becomes a Mary-Sue through luck and getting rewarded for being awesome, and to make matters worse, there’s no mystery about him. We’re in on the plan from the start, yet the novel still goes to the trouble of reading like his identity is one big secret.

Aside from the Abbe Faria material, I’ve honestly found the first half of the book to be kind of boring, and I never truly feel engaged until The Count meets Albert and his plan starts to go into motion. I’m obviously not some literary expert who has any real credentials to criticize the works that have shaped fiction, but I can’t help feeling like Albert is a better focal point for this story than The Count is. By telling the story from his point of view, there’s more of a solid mystery behind The Count, his actions, and the unsettling behavior of the adult characters whose crimes are completely unknown to the viewer. Not only that, but Albert starts off the story believing hard in what he asserts to be the positive aspects of the nobility that he was born into… He believes the lies his parents told him, and through him, we’re not sure until late in the game whether or not The Count is justified in digging up everyone’s dirty laundry to destroy their lives and families, which helps for the altered story to retain the moral ambiguity of the novel.

I’m not going to pretend Albert isn’t annoying sometimes… He’s naive, and he makes a lot of stupid decisions, but these are the flaws that make him relatable, and they’re addressed in the story. I also won’t pretend that the story as you may remember it isn’t turned directly upside down to accommodate him as the star. His complicated relationship with Eugenie is given far more focus, and two characters from the novel have their roles expanded to aid in his development… The first is Franz, who advises him, may or may not actually be in love with him(it’s implied), and explores The Count’s past to counteract Albert’s blind loyalty to the titular character. The second is Peppo, who’s only mentioned in passing in the novel, but helps to put doubt into Albert’s mind about his parents’ romance in the anime. Of course, it helps that they both exist to give him people to talk to other than himself. His other friends from the novel are present, from Lucien Debray to Valentine De Villefort, and while they’ve all taken smaller roles than originally intended, they still get their chances to shine, and their effects on the story have been largely retained. The Count himself feels far more omnipotent and vampiric, and swapping out Abbe Faria for an actual supernatural entity does a world of difference in explaining how he came to power. There are a few changes that don’t really feel necessary… Two characters who were supposed to have died to make The Count question his motives go insane instead, for example… But for the most part, every change that was made is an important cog in an all new machine that tells the story differently, while still remaining faithful to the themes and tone of the book.

Of course this series isn’t perfect… No anime is, really. There are a few minor flaws, and one of the most famous ones is in the second to last episode, where The Count’s plan finally hits it’s climax in ways that are kind of dumb, and rely on clichés to an uncharacteristic degree. It’s not a bad ending, but the series clearly deserved better. The other, and this is more MY nitpick, is that the villains of the story feel a bit more one dimensional than they did in the novel. Don’t get me wrong, they were bad people, but there was more to their personalities than just their major flaws. Even before they get systematically broken down to their lowest levels, they still feel a tad unrealistic. Also, and this is something that was pointed out to me by an online friend, this society full of futuristic society doesn’t include any cell phones. This doesn’t actually bother me, though… It doesn’t make much logical sense, but their presence would kind of break the story. I mean, Frodo COULD have flown to Mordor on an eagle, but would you enjoy that story? I wouldn’t.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo was originally available from Geneon Entertainment, which means it went out of print for a while before Funimation rescued and rereleased it as a SAVE edition DVD set. Sadly, at the time of this writing, the series is in the process of going out of print, so I’d highly recommend you buy a copy for yourself before the price starts to skyrocket. The original novel by Alexandre Dumas is available from most reputable booksellers, but make sure you don’t buy an abridged version by mistake. There have been thirteen movies and six TV adaptations throughout the years, as well as a couple of musicals, but I’ve yet to experience any of it either than the anime and the American movie, and the 1934 film that I actually really enjoyed. A three volume manga is also available stateside from Del Rey.

Gankutsuou isn’t just a worthy adaptation of the original novel… I feel as though it actually improved upon it in a lot of ways. The revenge plot is exciting, with The Count toying with his enemies as though he were the world’s most confident chess player, but with a stronger focus on the rest of the cast, you also get a much clearer message about how the sins of the past can return to haunt you long after they’ve been forgotten. The relationship between Albert, Eugenie and Franz is rewritten to run parallel in a lot of ways to the early friendship of Edmund, Fernand and Mercedes, offering a tragic reminder of what The Count could have had, sitting right there in front of his face the entire series. The story is executed in such a way that every single episode has you yearning to uncover more information and experience the next big reveal, and in general, it just works so much more of a fulfilling level that I can easily forgive the few nitpicks I may have had. I Give Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo a 10/10.

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3 comments
  1. Not my favourite take on the Monte Cristo tale, but decent. Started strong, but it lost me by the time it reached the end. Perhaps I can blame those dizzying clothes designs 🙂

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