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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
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