Ambition. An earnest desire for achievement or distinction and the willingness to strive for such an attainment is often fundamental in success. It produces action, bringing forth moods of passion, emotion and a yearning love for the endeavour. This is especially so with art, where the skill and craftmanship of creators are beared on display, readily available for consumers to take in and experience for themselves. However, in recent times one could argue that overall such craftmanship seems to have dwindled overtime, instead reverting to complacency in one’s ability to prosper. No longer when writing a story is a high level of skill required when accompanied with breath-taking visuals, nor is impressive production necessary for adapting acclaimed literature. Today, ambition appears no longer appreciated as it once was, and honestly, this does seem rational: why take a chance on something new and bold when settling on success still grants enough in return? It is this mindset that I sincerely believe breeds mediocrity whilst leaving those who dare try otherwise in the dust, but I would hope for the opposite; where originality is valued amongst the familiar crowd and if successful, could very well turn out a classic which stands the test of time.
With that said… Madames and Monsieurs, good evening.
‘High above in the opera box a figure entered. Removing his top hat revealed streaming ripples of hair, his skin ghostly blue. The singer steps forward, hands outstretched as she came closer, her voice lifting higher and higher. He grasped a bouquet of flowers and once reached her climax threw it to her, leaving her audience in wonder; perplexed as well as in awe. He bowed among the applaud of many but to one soul in particular. Of this moment he knew tonight marked a new dawn – this shall be the prelude to vengeance.’
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is one such work of art that seems driven on ambition, exuding a distinct, lavish style unparalleled for its time and ever since has never been replicated to the same magnitude. There always lies a certain level of tension whenever adapting a classic adored by many, yet here lies not only a competent retelling of arguably the greatest lovers revenge piece ever put to paper, but a fantastic re-imagining able to stand on its own merit as a masterclass of storytelling. Rather than simply applying a shiny new aesthetic coat to fit a tried-and-true formula, Gankutsuou takes strides in significant changes to allow core facets from the original narrative to align seamlessly in this new world. The setting: Paris, Rome and other major cities used in the original are replaced by entire planets and sectors of the galaxy, each with their own set customs both suiting the sci-fi setting whilst matching mannerisms flaunted from characters near identic to the source material. Through this, the majority of characters are quintessentially the same for both versions, with their French names, relationship dynamics and mentalities crossing over smoothly. In short, it effectively manages to transfer the culture of 19th century Europe into one’s depiction of the 6th millennium without feeling out of place. The result is a rich world where spaceships, aliens and robotic horses are considered the norm, alongside fashion, architecture and entertainment more befitting of the Renaissance period than anything in the distant future. It’s a change of scenery more appropriate to call anachronistic than futuristic, projecting a sense of familiarity amidst the otherwise alien world that separates Gankutsuou from every other iteration of Dumas’ opus. But there still lies more prominent changes with respect to the novel.
The most obvious point of divergence between the original and this adaptation lies in their point of perspective; the former being an enduring melodrama of a man wrongfully convicted who enacts revenge on those who ruined his previous life. Whereas here the retribution played out is portrayed as a tragedy, fixated with the corrosive effect vengeance may have when framed through the lives of what could be considered as “collateral damage”. The most effective way Gankutsuou achieves this is by beginning halfway into the overarching plot, trimming huge swaths of unnecessary content while focusing primarily on the victims within this tangled web of one man’s vengeance. Most notably is Albert de Morcef, a young partisan who unbeknownst holds a greater grief and anguish than his contemporaries know. Displeased with the confines of his own life and desperate to seek out pleasure while he still can, almost as if by chance he meets and is immediately captivated by a mysterious stranger known only as “The Count of Monte Cristo”. He invites Albert to dine with him and partake in a game of fate, gambling lives under the illusion of choice. An enthralling experience, one the naïve hedonist yearns for more of, offers to be the man’s guide for reintegrating into aristocracy, entirely unsuspecting of the danger he has welcomed into his household.
“There is no such thing as coincidence. Everything happens out of necessity.”
Albert acts as the catalyst that puts the Count’s plan into action. Concomitantly strung within a tangled web of deception, greeting the spider readily descending on its prey. Of course, this web only appears as mere strands barely connecting to one another at first, allowing for the story to unravel in thrilling suspense and ambience. As the narrative continues along its own thread, the supposed “first half” of the story is subtly revealed moments at a time, unveiling the true motives behind the Count’s revenge in parallel to his plan enacted out in real time. The pacing of such is truly sublime: key information slowly leaked across the series’ runtime, letting the viewer tie the knots themselves, coupled with asphyxiating cliff-hangers that do enough to maintain excitement and continually upholds a sense of curiosity for what is to come. It delivers on an engrossing tale specifically to those unfamiliar with the source material, however it still remains immensely enjoyable for those experienced with the classic version also. Despite creating a mystery from the most well-known part, the writing here is astute; clever enough to realise this fact and takes careful steps that eventually peel away from the canon in order to move in its own direction, adding extra layers of mystery and surprises to fit with the original whilst feeling fresh at the same time.
Although this tale is told from Albert’s point of view, the Count himself is without question the star of the show. A master manipulator, using his limitless amount of wealth, charm and guile to play everyone around him like pieces on a chessboard. His ability to shrewdly influence others from even the simplest of conversations is surely admirable to witness, but like a true mastermind he plays on the weaknesses of his adversaries. He creates the circumstances required where they cannot resist exposing their true nature: lust, greed, any immoral act they hold dear are brought to light, and he takes delight in such. An enigma, constantly shrouded in an aura of mystique both frightening and fascinating, his very presence begs one wanting to know more, and sometimes learning more only brings forth more questioning. Just who is the Count of Monte Cristo? Vampiric in appearance and devilish by nature, suave as well as sinister. Controlled chaos… yet also capricious. He embodies that of a man hollowed out by revenge, but at times still appears to have a heart. It’s near impossible to determine all his actions as either manipulations or stemming from true emotion, and this intricacy further makes the man such a beloved character in my eyes, more akin to a compelling anti-hero than the dastardly villain the story portrays him out to be. Regardless of how one views the Count in that regard, he holds an unmistakable charisma setting him apart from every other character. Whenever the Count is present on screen, he demands the full attention of every viewer, all heeding on every word he speaks. His words, often providing the best insight into the creation and complexity that is the Count of Monte Cristo:
“In the darkness, I awaited the dawn. And once dawn came, I cursed my flesh until night fell once more. I even prayed that I would lose my sanity. But those prayers went unheeded. I even strove for death, but the Devil’s cold, pitiless hand held me back.”
The Count and Albert are who ultimately carry this tale; the Count being cause for the mystery and overarching main plotline, with Albert contributing his point of view alongside the struggles attached with being at the centre of it all. Through Albert’s eyes a spotlight is cast upon numerous characters, each with believable characterization and strong chemistry that lends well to the dramatic story playing out. From his arranged fiancé Eugenie who constantly desires for independence, to his best friend Franz, a fellow partisan constantly involved in Albert’s affairs, frequently lending himself as a voice of reason whilst concurrently also directly affected at a similar degree as Albert courtesy of the Count – all are welcome expansions to their development compared to the source material where they barely held any relevance. Even characters who have their roles downgraded in this version are not relegated at the cost of their charm and never feel out of place. Everyone involved in Gankutsuou is complicated, entwined in a complex network of connections with each other and while some eventually fall by the wayside, a great number of them remain integral to the ongoing story.
Albert in many ways represents what the Count is not. Aside from being a very anime typical kind-hearted protagonist too credulous for his own good, from the beginning of the anime he expresses aspirations of breaking free from the confinements of his dull life that soon follows with him demonstrating clear naivete and general fragility. Albert is immature, often showcasing foolishness stemming from his young age and privileged aristocratic lifestyle. All and more play into why he is so easily enamoured by the Count’s mysticism. Albert is the most central character in the show, with his innocent disposition and despair suffered serving as the metric for drama to spring from. He is probably the most criticized part of the series, but as a sheltered 15-year old boy most of his actions can be considered as expected and these faults are what arguably make him oddly relatable. Alongside his friends, they all signify a “changing of the guard” of sorts, with their parents – all important and respected noblemen – representing established customs and traditions of their society, held atop an old, corrupt and overall defective order that forces others to accept it as they hold the power. But this new generation strive for a better tomorrow; one based of personal freedom, love and hope. Simultaneously involved is the Count, bringing about revolution, justice and a destruction for the establishment that wronged him, but also one of sorrow and chaos birthed from retribution. Interestingly enough, the Count does further allow for Albert and others to achieve their ideals, but there eventually lies a crossroad between both parties. This consequent clash also impacting the Count’s own inner conflict, with Albert reminding him of his past trusting nature, yet still driven by a need for revenge. At its climax, viewers bear witness to how far the Count would go through with his vengeance, and how far Albert would reach out to him.
“Everyone has a sword within their hearts; the purer the heart, the sharper the sword.”
The aesthetic choices made for Gankutsuou are what instantly set the series apart from practically every other anime currently in existence and is likely to be what makes or breaks the series for viewers. Personally, I found the artistic direction near impeccable, crafting the best visual definition possible for the term psychedelic. Director Mahiro Maeda had a clear vision for this anime, using Western impressionism and Ukiyo-e as inspiration for an art-style that beautifully blends the designs of classic European and space age to form this spectacular kaleidoscope of textures, with elaborate sets such as the Count’s household appearing more like a dream arthouse than anything remotely realistic. Almost every scene at the beginning of Gankutsuou utilizes various bright textures that immediately grab one’s attention, before slowly reverting to a neutered-down colour palette more welcoming to the eyes. These textures also provide an almost indirect means of characterization with the clothing worn and gorgeous imagery saturated across the series. Its distinct animation uses computer graphics to overlay bright colours and multiple background layers that blends the various animation styles used into scenes rather well. The result was something both complex and minimalistic that adds more value to character gestures and expressions. The staff wanted to create a show that “talked” to viewers, something that from my perspective was a success. The production is not perfect though, as CG still manages to come off jarring in the most climactic scenes. Studio Gonzo was behind the production for this anime, around a time where integrating traditional animation with CG was more often than not the norm for them, repeatedly receiving criticism for many lacklustre attempts. But with an anime so immaculate and extravagant in its design and surreal art-style, it barely amounts to a hindrance that is easily outweighed by the show’s visual strengths.
Much like the artistic endeavours that went into the visual side of Gankutsuou, the music accompanied is also masterful in its own right. The series features a strong soundtrack comprised of various classical tracks that flawlessly set the tone and ambience for each and every scene, lifting the dramatic moments to even greater heights. Ranging from serene and charming melodies to the more haunting and thrilling themes that aid immensely in the narrative conclusion of each episode, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats waiting eagerly for more. Jean-Jacques Burnel both composed and performed the opening and ending themes that were each a delight. The opening “We Were Lovers” involves a simple piano piece, bringing a softer nostalgic sound that draws viewers in, with lyrics vaguely describing lost love that speaks true of the Count’s background. The ending sequence “You Won’t See Me Coming” is a stark contrast to the former, bursting after every cliff-hanger with an energetic number along with distorted visuals that match the series far more as a thrilling drama. The voice acting is incredible across the board for both the dubbed and subbed version, with Jamieson Price and Jouji Nakata both being splendid standouts as the voices behind the Count. Overall it comes down to preference. I was more in favour of the English dub, but you cannot go wrong either way for this series.
Gankutsuou might be one of the closest examples of anime genuinely being considered a work of art. A beautiful series, artistically daring and meticulously plotted, each of its individual facets come together as an overlooked gem that when given the proper attention, shines ever so brightly. Transposing a time-treasured tale from one medium to another will always detract some for fear of ruining the beloved original story. But classics are eternal, and through reimagining old works in a new light they are enriched, able to awaken the love and respect of many generations that follow, staying in our hearts forever.
“All human wisdom is contained in these two words - Wait and Hope.”