Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo – Series Review

Gankutsuou 01 [560524BF].mkv_snapshot_00.18_[2011.12.14_19.43.55] Gankutsuou 06 [4FB8ABED].mkv_snapshot_04.19_[2011.12.14_19.45.38] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_17.13_[2011.12.14_19.49.36]

When you factor in sheer originality, writing, visual artistry and flat-out cool, Gankutsuou surely has to rank as one of the better series of the 2000’s.  It’s a strong reminder (and we could all use one about now) of just what a fascinating and productive studio Gonzo could be in their heyday.

One of the concessions I’ve made in order to blog full-time is that I don’t get to watch as many older series as I’d like.  The number of series I’ve discovered this way is too numerous to count – Hikaru no Go, Dennou Coil, Capeta and my all-time favorite Seirei no Moribito are only a few of the shows I was only able to watch years after their airing in Japan.  And Gankutsuou may be the last one I’m able to fit into the schedule for a while, which makes me rather sad because it serves as a reminder of just how much classic anime I’ll be missing out on.  It’s almost enough to make me hope Winter is a weak season that only gives me six or seven shows worth following, so I can dig into the bucket list and cross off a few more items.

At 24 episodes, this is a series that would prove well worth your time.  When it was an industry powerhouse Gonzo was a studio that had some hallmarks apart from botched endings – one of them being an interest in re-making classic material in a futuristic, sci-fi setting.  This involved turning “The Seven Samurai” into a mecha series of sorts, updating “Romeo & Juliet” with epic fantasy elements, and this series – a very loose adaptation of Dumas’ legendary novel.  All of those series are noteworthy in their own way, but I would judge this one to be the best of the bunch.  It works both as a science-fiction story and as an elemental tale of revenge, and provides some of the most eye-catching animation of any TV anime.

For the series, director Maeda Mahiro offers a wildly colorful mix of techniques and styles.  Both 2D and 3D CGI are used extensively, Photoshop textures are used to stunning effect and the hand-drawn cel animation is superb.  The result is a surrealistic look that demands your attention and never surrenders it.  I’m especially entranced by the animated clothing the characters wear and the exquisitely detailed backgrounds – tapestries, frescoes and  pillars.  Paris in the year 5053 is rendered as a mix of futuristic, almost steampunk technology mixed in the gray pallor of a very old city that’s seen better days.  The music is striking as well, with the episodes filled with classical piano, orchestral and opera pieces and the OP and ED provided by Franco-British composer/performer Jean-Jacques Burnel.  Singing mostly in English, Brunel’s pieces suit the material perfectly, especially his haunting OP “We Were Lovers”, used brilliantly by Maeda-sensei to offer a benediction of sorts in the final episode – an episode that, unusually for Gonzo, gets the ending just right.

Fundamentally, this is a story of revenge, and it’s the thirst for revenge which drives the narrative.  But in the execution it’s nothing quite so simple as that, and it’s clear from the beginning that nothing is ever as it appears with the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo (Jouji Nakata, in one of the most phenomenal seiyuu performances of all-time).  The Count’s foil in this tale is a 15 year-old Parisian aristocrat named Albert de Moncrief (Fukuyama Jun).  Pampered and naïve, Albert is a kind but rash boy, easily swayed by the charms of the urbane and obscenely wealthy Count.  Their first encounter comes during a trip to the Venice-like colony of Luna Albert takes with his best friend Franz d’Epinay (Hirakawa Daisuke).  Franz is the same age as Albert but seems much older, and it’s obvious from the moment we meet the boys that Franz takes on the protector role with the feckless Albert.  When that trusting quality gets Albert on the wrong side of a local gangster, it’s The Count who generously comes to his rescue.  Of course the entire encounter has been engineered, and it sets off a chain of events that test the boundaries of fate and faith – and love.

The story is a Byzantine one, taking many twists and turns along its route, one much better seen than described.  Suffice to say it touches on many themes – corruption, loyalty, the hypocrisy of the upper classes, and the divide between generations to name but a few.  There’s always something interesting going on, and the implications and interactions are always subtle – the story is constructed well enough that it’s easy to follow, but keeps surrendering more fascinating depths as you consider it more deeply.  What seems obvious in terms of good and evil reveals itself to be much more murky than you might imagine, as the secrets of the past are brought into the light one by one and lives are changed forever.  The cast includes the arranged fiancées of Albert and Franz, their parents, a Parisian muckraker and an alien Princess, among others, and like in a giant jigsaw puzzle each piece fits perfectly in a way that’s only apparent when you’ve reached the very end. 

I don’t think there’s any question this is the sort of anime that isn’t being attempted much anymore, and the Gonzo that created it really no longer exists.  Having barely survived a harrowing financial odyssey, it’s easy to see the creative concessions they made in Last Exile: Ginyoku no Fam.  Like the original “Last Exile” Gankutsuou is a series that demands close attention and rewards patience, and one that seems aimed at the general populace much more than at traditional viewers of anime.  It’s an open question as to whether or not such a show could be successful now – would enough anime fans support it, and is the problem simply that studios aren’t giving them enough credit?  Judging by “Fam” it’s clear that Gonzo doesn’t think so, and based on the poor financial results of other mature and subtle anime it’s hard to argue the point.  Yet, Last Exile was undoubtedly a success eight years ago and Gankutsuou a modest success a year later.  Perhaps the problem is that the economy leaves studios unwilling to take chances (just look at the devolution of the NoitaminA block) or perhaps it’s a larger issue, that the viewer base for anime has changed in such a way that series like this are no longer viable.  In any case, if it’s no more than a relic of another time, Gankutsuou is a damn good one – and a series that any serious anime fan should certainly get to know.

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Gankutsuou 21 [CE224E1A].mkv_snapshot_03.09_[2011.12.14_19.47.26] Gankutsuou 21 [CE224E1A].mkv_snapshot_17.40_[2011.12.14_19.48.24] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_04.33_[2011.12.14_19.56.32]
Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_09.36_[2011.12.14_19.49.13] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_14.15_[2011.12.14_19.51.12] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_17.38_[2011.12.14_19.50.00]
Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_17.44_[2011.12.14_19.50.06] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_18.45_[2011.12.14_19.55.16] Gankutsuou 24 [25CB3BFB].mkv_snapshot_21.18_[2011.12.14_19.54.24]
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20 comments

  1. R

    Yeah it's quite unfortunate that the Gonzo of old isn't around anymore to bring us such complex and interesting tales like these.

    I think the market of anime today really has moved too much into appealing to fanbases with the shallowest of elements. Put a moe girl on the cover and you're sure to elicit more interest. That sort of attitude is making sure that other types of anime aren't being made (Not that I take issue with moe necessarily, just that it is being abused).

  2. T

    I saw the first four or five episodes of this a while back, fell madly in love, and then cruelly decided to not bother watching it until I get around to reading the book. Or at least trying to. But it's one of the main reasons I have a hard time taking Gonzo hate seriously.

  3. Interesting. I think the book is sufficiently different from the anime that one could easily watch the one and not spoil the other.

  4. A

    OK, I'm sold. Sometimes I think I've strip-mined anime history of everything of interest, but I've never seen this one.
    Or that old Pynchon anime, what was it called? Right. I never did the Kenosha Kid

  5. B

    Ahhh yes I remember watching this on a weekly basis oh so long ago, one of the few Gonzo's series I've really liked.
    It also made me read the book (which is significantly different)

  6. L

    Its an awesome series and enzo were all still waiting for the first bake neko story of ayakashi japanse classice horror story and mononoke ^_^ The first is only three episodes and mononoke is only 11 episodes its s sin you havent watched it yet lol.
    Gankutsuo is an excellent series and is the most faithful yet unfaithful adaptation I have ever seen. I know the story but havent read the book yet After I saw gankutsuo through one sitting I immediately went out and bought the book. I love how well paced the show is and everything was planned out from the beginning to end. The director had alot of love for the book and this series clearly shows it. The only issue I have is with episode 23 (the resolution could have been so much better). Overall definitely on my top 10 favorite list ^_^

  7. s

    Oh, wow. You also watched and liked this one? I also saw that you like Hikaru no Go. We seems to have the same tastes in anime 🙂

    What are the new ones you can recommend me? I stop watching anime around 2006 (only read manga)… and the anime I'm only watching today is Hunter x Hunter. Please no long running shounen series as I prefered to read them.

  8. Goodness, that's a tall order. You can check out the "anime recommendations" tab for a few options. Off the top of my head, for some classics since 2006:

    Seirei no Moribito
    Dennou Coil
    Ghost Hound
    House of Five Leaves
    Hourou Musuko
    AnoHana
    Ikoku Meiro no Croisee
    Oh! Edo Rocket

    And many more, I'd need time to really mull that over.

    Lizzie – they're on the list!

  9. Z

    I think a lot of Gonzo's original works are really good, but they have made a mess of several manga adaptations which is what I think have earned them the large amount of fan hatred. When Gonzo got into financial troubles way back so was I happy myself as they wouldn't mess up any more manga adaptations. But that was because I too mostly remembered them for their screw ups and hadn't noticed the good original work they had done. I mostly watched animes based on mangas back then as well.

    Anyway, to add another Gonzo classic to the list:
    Solty Ray

  10. A

    The art style started to annoy me after a while. I had to stop watching.

  11. N

    I loved the book, so I'm defenitely going to look into this.

  12. A

    It's one of my favourite anime and possibly the only Gonzo title that struck me beyond 'like' into the realm of 'zomg I love this' XD. The only details that I felt were a bit wtf concerned a certain duel (its presentation and graphics mainly. It threw me out of the mood and story I had been happily immersed in and enjoying 'till instants before) and the Count 'thing' in episode 23 (the original twist on the book one I mean 😉 ) .
    But after that dip I liked episode 24 and overall indeed it was a great, compelling, aesthetically fulfilling show.
    Brownie points for being able to stand on its own compared to the book source too… it took liberties (ouside of the obvious with the futuristic settings and such) but I enjoyed this spin much more than other adaptations. And generally I'm pretty merciless with adaptations, be them in anime or other media ( don't get me started on Austen books vs movies exploiting her name :p ).

    Now… I must second (third?) the others commentign and suggesting you to watch Mononoke and the last three episode of NoitaminA's Ayakashi, as soon as your blogging schedule allows it.
    And – can't avoid recommending this yet again, sorry XD – Rose of Versailles. After Mawaru – in terms of Ikuhara's sources of inspiration – it won't break your brain, it might break your heart though. But it does it oh-so beautifully (aah, Osamu Dezaki and its direction tricks and visual flair… ).

  13. A

    P.S.: I' eli XD, again the LJ login handle is acting up.

  14. Stop suggesting old titles!!! I just don't have any friggin' time… But I'll try.

    I think the secret to this adaptation working is that it doesn't attempt to be a faithful one. In addition to the obvious sci-fi elements, it totally shifts the POV of the story from The Count to Albert, which is obviously a huge change.

  15. T

    The thing is that from what little I've seen of it and from what I know of the novel, Gankutsuou seems to be pretty unfaithful to the literal goings-on of the novel, but despite (or perhaps even because of) this it seems pretty damn faithful to the spirit of the book, which is where a lot of adaptations fail.

  16. s

    Thanks for the recs, Enzo~
    I'll definitely checking these titles out. 🙂

    ps. House of Five Leaves was so cute. Ahh… I like all the characters and the art! Saw that anime just weeks before I got to discover your blog 😉

    Also, Capeta FTW! It's disappointing when the rest of the story didn't get animated and I've been waiting years for any scanlation team to finish the manga 🙁 *sigh*

  17. s

    @The Kenosha Kid

    You hit the nail on the head. I agree on what you said.

  18. B

    I too recommend Mononoke but really Enzo still has to watch Twelve Kingdoms and Legend of Galactic Heroes, which should been given a higher priority. 😉

  19. ELX, here's your comment, minus a spoiler I think folks shouldn't see:

    I was craving something new (but old), and I decided to give Gankutsuo a try. I actually blazed through the series in the span of a week, thanks to some awesome time off. It was riveting, the drama was played out just right, it was dark and thought provoking, the voice casting was impeccable and the show brought me to tears like you wouldn't believe from just about episode 18 to the finale.

    The only detraction I can name is that I was REALLY put off to the very end by those heinous gaudy patterns floating all over people's clothing and accessories, among other things … it seemed like an absolutely inane and pointless waste of money. Not to mention it was extremely distracting. That eyesore is probably the only thing that prevents me from wanting to buy the hard copy and add it to my collection. But that being said, I would still definitely recommend watching it to others!

  20. @ELX

    Heh, I liked the animated designs on the clothing – I thought it was a clever way to show how 52nd-Century rich elites continue to waste money on silly affectations, and I thought it looked rather cool. But I can see lots of folks didn't care for it.

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