Reviewby Theron Martin,
Le Chevalier D'Eon
In mid-18th century France, D'Eon de Beaumont earns his family's noble title, and a position in the court at Versailles, when his elder sister Lia's body turns up in a coffin floating down the river Seine. Despite the presence of his lovely fiancée Anna, a servant to Queen Marie, D'Eon eschews the court in favor of joining the secret police, so that he may investigate the bizarre circumstances surrounding the death of his sister, who was also a secret agent and accomplished swordswoman. What he discovers is a dark and treacherous underworld of secret organizations and occult activities which are indirectly traceable back to the Duke of Orleans, suggesting that the use of magic and quicksilver to turn people into “gargoyles” is part of some grand plot against the king. Though framed for murder, D'Eon discovers that he secretly has the support of both the King and Queen, who arrange allies in the form of the boy Robin, the roguish Durand, and the graying legendary fencer Teillagory. His strongest and most unpredictable ally, though, proves to be the wandering spirit of Lia, who has found a suitable vessel in D'Eon's own body. When the circumstances are right, blood scrolls down his sword, unleashing her and her vengeance.
In the world of anime Le Chevalier D'Eon is an extreme rarity: a work of historical fiction set outside of Japan. That the creators would choose 18th century France for such a project is no surprise, as the opulent decadence and spirit of adventure of that age have been frequent subjects of Hollywood movies over the years. What makes this project special is the clever way that Production I.G. has taken stories and rumors about real-life people from that era and molded an involving supernatural action-drama around them.
Fully appreciating the intricacies and politics of the story being spun, as well as how clever it is, requires a good amount of knowledge about 18th century France, extensive use of Google, or a full review of the historical background provided in the Extras. D'Eon de Beaumont, for instance, is an actual historical figure who really was a spy for Louis XV, really did join a secret organization called Le Secret du Roi, and spent a good chunk of his life pretending to be a woman named Lia de Beaumont. (He was, in fact, so famous for his transgender behavior that people used to bet on his real gender and a transgender-related psychological condition was once named after him.) It's not recorded that he ever actually had a sister named Lia, but having Lia's spirit inhabit his body, and occasionally surface, is a brilliant interpretation.
Amongst other characters, Queen Marie was known to be devoutly religious and delved into religion deeper than ever after as the King's mistresses (including the real-life Madame de Pompadour) gained prominence at Versailles, so it isn't a stretch to imagine her getting involved in the quasi-cultish stuff depicted in the series, and Broglie really was one of Louis XV's right-hand men. The Count Saint-Germaine, a supposed alchemist often associated with the occult who gained favor with Madame de Pompadour, claimed to be hundreds of years old, and was later associated both with the occult and vampirism, so the manipulations attributed to him here are hardly out of line. And the boy Auguste is apparently supposed to be the young Louis-Auguste, aka the future Louis XVI. The timing of events doesn't jive here, as D'Eon joined Le Secret du Roi in 1756, Count Saint-Germain didn't surface at Versailles until 1758, and Louis-Auguste was in Queen Marie's care from early 1767 to mid-1768 (a time when both Saint-Germaine and D'Eon were known to be elsewhere), so Production I.G. is stretching things to fit them all in the story at the same time.
Such considerations will only matter to those who delve deeply into the historical aspects of the show, however, for on its own the series is quite an intriguing and involving view. It wastes little time with its set-up, instead depending on context and visuals to supply the necessary setting details. That allows the first episode to jump straight into the heart of the intrigue, danger, and supernatural elements pervading the story, closing out with the compelling first appearance of the Lia-possessed D'Eon. The dramatics of the action, dialogue, and closing scenes are so beautifully paced and constructed that if this first episode does not hook you then the series probably never will.
And that's one of the true keys to the quality of this series: its pacing. It strikes exactly the right balance of action, drama, and intrigue as it pushes events along, yet it never seems to be hurrying itself. Each episode is packed with plot development interspersed amongst dynamic fight scenes, making each episode a viewing experience unto itself. The dramatic poetry of the Biblical Psalms scattered throughout the episodes mixes beautifully with the musical score to create soaring scenes of dramatic impact, while Lia's transformation into a spirit of vengeance, and D'Eon's fear over it, are just as compelling. Always lingering in the background, though, are the social ills of the era which eventually led to the French Revolution. For all its scheming and swordfighting, hard truths lie just beneath the surface.
Though it falls a little shy of being in the company of the best of the best, Le Chevalier nonetheless holds as strong a visual appeal as does its storytelling. Character designer Tomomi Ozaki, whose only prior design work was on Kurau: Phantom Memory, based the designs for historical figures as much as possible on existing portraits of those individuals, while crafting other characters in the same style. These are not your typical anime designs, with eyes being kept more proportionate (only Robin's eyes are even slightly larger than normal), no hint of caricature, and costuming well in line with the styles of the era. Perhaps most notably, not everyone is either clearly pretty or overwhelmingly ugly; physical beauty runs the gamut one would expect in any cross-section of population at those ages and social statuses. The subtle shifts in D'Eon's appearance between his normal and Lia-possessed forms are an especially nice touch. Background art varies a little more, from slightly rough to stunningly gorgeous, with some CG-crafted shots of Versailles rivaling even the exquisite detail of Gonzo's best work. Though the series does use some still scenes, neither they nor any other short cuts can be found in the well-choreographed sword fights, where the attention to detail (especially in rare anime shots of critical footwork) and shifting perspectives more than makes up for slight failings elsewhere. These are some of the best sword-fighting scenes you'll see in any anime series.
As good as its other elements are, the musical score is the glue which holds it all together. You won't find a much finer example of a soundtrack which heightens and enhances all the events playing out on the screen without being obtrusive. Because of it, dramatic crescendos in action and storytelling achieve serious impact and more placid scenes retain the feel of the era. The opening theme “Born,” which first appears on episode 2, plays second fiddle to some of the best visuals likely to be seen in any opener this year, while the English language closer “Over Night” by Aya sets a moody, melancholy tone which accompanies an extended preview of episode 2 on episode one (because the first episode was originally aired several weeks in advance of the series as a promotional tool) and images of historical and non-historical characters for other episodes.
The Japanese dub does a generally acceptable job that will doubtless satisfy purists, but Japanese voices, inflections, and accents just do not sound right backing a cast of characters populated entirely by Europeans and featuring dialogue heavily rooted in Western religious texts. How off it sounds can be heard most clearly in places where characters are quoting Psalms. Whatever else you might think of the English dub, it offers a better lyrical flow in such scenes and synchs better with the supporting music in those scenes. In general, English roles were cast more to fit the characters than the original performances, which sometimes results in characters sounding substantially different between the two languages, but in some cases (especially Louis XV, who sounds much too deep and heavy in Japanese), it's distinctly for the better. The quality of the performances varies quite a bit, from Taylor Hannah as Lia at the high end to Hilary Haag as Belle at the low end, but most performances are at least moderately well-done and the overall effect should satisfy anyone who normally at least tolerates dubs. Not brilliant work, but good enough. The English script stays enough on target that it shouldn't generate complaints.
ADV is promoting Le Chevalier as its hallmark release for 2007, and that commitment shows in the production of its first volume. A beautifully elegant slipcover sets the stage for a wealth of Extras, including a 20-page booklet which includes cast and staff breakdowns, character profiles, a look at D'Eon's sword, key terms, an interview with the chief writer, a “Script Serialization,” and a storyboard analysis. Invaluable is the Character Relationship Chart, which includes some characters which do not yet appear in the first four episodes. The most valuable on-disk Extra is the collection of historical context notes (some of which look suspiciously similar to matching Wikipedia entries), but also present on the disk are clean opener and closer, a Japanese trailer and promo video, and two commentary tracks. The one for the first episode, which features the English ADR director and D'Eon's English VA, focuses on production issues, while the one for episode 2, which features the project translator and media coordinator, is supposed to focus on historical context but takes a while getting around to it. English language tracks are offered in both 2.0 and 5.1, while the Japanese track is only present in 5.1.
The first volume of Le Chevalier D'Eon gets off to a strong start and never loses steam. Well-animated, well-scored, good-looking and heartily-told, it is a triumph for Production I.G. which sets a high standard for other series this year to meet. Whether you're into serious action, serious drama, or period pieces, this is one not to be missed.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Well-paced storytelling, great sword fights, musical score, and extras.
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