Reviewby Theron Martin, Jan 18th 2006
Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo
DVD 2: The Count of Monte Cristo
Albert and friends continue their excursion through the extraordinary underground of the Count's Parisian estate, but Maximilian's growing affection for Valentine and his disdain for the lack of love amongst arranged aristocratic marriages leads to conflict. Meanwhile the Count's carefully calculated scheming continues as a trip to the opera stirs up all manner of attention, he moves to involve Baron Danglar's bank in his finances, and he plays up to Heloise, the toxicology-loving wife of Crown Prosecutor Eduoard de Villefort. But his boldest move yet comes at a dinner party at a morose country estate once belonging to Villefort where a little game proves anything but innocent. All the while Albert remains oblivious to the machinations into which he has become an unwitting pawn.
Has revenge in anime ever been so carefully and deliciously constructed, or looked so good doing it?
In the first volume of Gankutsuou, the Count of Monte Cristo laid the foundation for his grand scheme of revenge by befriending Albert de Morcerf, the son of one of the men against whom he has sworn vengeance, and using that connection to help establish himself in Paris. With the second volume we get to see the first pieces of that scheme come into play. One cannot watch these four episodes without getting a sense of an intricate machine gradually cranking its way towards destruction and doom as the Count makes his sly first plays against the hearts and minds of his enemies. In this the writing has done a great job of capturing the spirit and character of the original novel by Alexandre Dumas. Most of the thematic elements, characterizations, and relationships have also been preserved despite the futuristic setting; only one of the named characters here – the transvestite Peppo – was not in the original novel. Even the intimations that the Count might be a vampire were actually in the original novel, too, although they are much more pronounced here. The more you know about the original story, the more the cleverness of this writing effort shines through.
Where this story goes beyond the novel is in its use of Albert, originally only a secondary character, as a framing device. By doing this the viewer's perspective is limited to only a little more than what Albert himself knows about the causes for the Count's motivations, which certainly helps maintain the level of suspense for anyone who hasn't read the novel. (And for those who have, the suspense is in seeing how Gonzo's going to handle various story threads.) It also allows the writers to condense down but still examine a very complex theme about relative vs. absolute happiness, which can be seen in the way things play out amongst Albert and his friends. Maximilian's umbrage about the lack of love amongst aristocrats, and the way it makes Albert reexamine his own views and relationships, is a big part of that. The addition of the worldly and streetwise Peppo as the nagging voice in Albert's ear further allows him to reflect on matters that he otherwise would be too naïve to even consider. The affection the Count is starting to feel towards Albert also allows an outlet for condensing down another prominent theme of the novel: alienation, and the way love can overcome it.
The pacing so far has also been handled exceptionally well. By skipping ahead in the story to where the Count meets Albert, hundreds of pages have been eliminated that can easily be summarized in later flashbacks, hence allowing for a much more streamlined story. Enough meaty content fills up every episode that nothing feels like filler, and dark hints of the greater picture are periodically dropped. What happened in that old mansion that has Villefort so horrified? Why is Haydee so slavishly devoted to the Count that she calls herself his “doll,” and why does she react the way she does to seeing Albert's father for the first time? These are tantalizing mysteries dropped before the viewer which will doubtless be answered in future episodes. (Or, alternatively, by looking at a Cliff's Notes version of the original novel.)
Ganuktsuou would be well worth watching based on the story alone, but the eye-popping visuals are the true star here. Gonzo Studios has built a reputation for cutting-edge CG visuals in its relatively short existence, but here they have truly outdone themselves, creating some of the most unique and awe-inspiring visuals ever seen in animation. To watch this series with anything less than one's complete and undivided attention is to do it an injustice. The complex, immobile textures of hair and clothing (they don't move as the characters do, like that part of the character is transparent and moving over a background pattern) are a fascinating spectacle in of themselves, but the incredible opulence of the art design and its glorious CG rendering is almost overwhelming in its beauty and detail. Want to see what a genius art director can come up with when practicality and moderation don't figure into the effort? Watch Gankutsuou. Character designs are bland and flat by comparison except for the occasional disarmingly weird-looking alien, but even the human ones are well-proportioned (including the eyes) and appealing or repulsive, as dictated by the status of the character. Vehicles and carriages have distinctively angular, futuristic looks while still retaining much of the essence of 18th century France.
With all this wonder to look at, it's surprising that the piece de resistance in this volume is actually quite easy to pick out: it's the gown worn by Haydee to the opera in episodes 6 and 7. The first look at her in it will make many a viewer's jaw drop, not because it's revealing (it isn't particularly so) but because of an ethereal beauty that only a poet could adequately describe in words and only the finest CG artistry could depict. This is what a true goddess come to Earth would wear to assure mortals of her divine status. That the animation and visual expressiveness of the characters are also quite good are details easily lost amongst the incredible artistry.
The visual splendor also extends to the closer, where dynamic, rapid-fire imagery is paired with the great and very fitting English language rock song “You Won't See Me Coming” to create one of the best closers ever for series anime. The much calmer and more melancholy opener “We Were Lovers” (another very fitting choice, given that Albert's mother Mercedes was the fiancée of the man the Count used to be), also sung in English by Jean-Jacques Burnel, is paired with much simpler animation which gives little hint of what's to come in the episodes. The symphonic musical scoring in between is used sparingly and in an understated manner, more as an enhancement than a feature, but it is very effective in this capacity.
If Gankutsuou has a weakness, it's in its dubs. The Japanese dub is clearly the better-acted of the two, but beyond the Count it suffers some from casting which sounds too distinctly Japanese for the roles of European aristocrats. Though not glaringly obvious, the effect is akin to hearing American actors voice over the roles of Chinese characters in competent dubs of Hong Kong martial arts movies. Arguments about how listening to the Japanese dub still allows a viewer to hear the series “as it was originally intended” don't hold water here since this isn't a Japanese story to begin with. Unfortunately the Bang Zoom! English vocal production, despite respectable casting, is uninspired by comparison. The low point comes in the intros spoken by the Count; why the French used for these in the Japanese dub wasn't retained is beyond me. The English script follows the subtitles closely in some places (usually where the characters can't be seen talking) and is much more interpretive in others, but never stray far from the original meaning. Even so, the sub version, despite its flaws, is recommended on this one.
Extras on this volume include company previews, a promotional trailer set to classical music, and a collection of commentaries by several seiyuu which sounds more like promotional blurbs for the Japanese TV broadcasts. Annoyingly, the subtitles for this extra are only on if the viewer has manually turned them on in the Settings menu. The casing includes a reversible cover and an additional art insert.
The second volume of Gankutsuou is as much a marvel as its first volume, excelling in every aspect of production except its voice acting and blowing a viewer away with its visuals. If the series maintains this level of quality throughout its run then it will take a supreme effort by another title to even challenge it as the premiere anime title of 2006 – and yes, I realize I'm saying that only three weeks into the new year. Gankutsuou is just that good.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : A
+ Awe-inspiring visuals, excellent musical support, great adaptation of the classic original novel.
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