The Count of Monte Cristo was 8,532. How does Appellate Judge James A. Stewart figure these things out?
"To me, our own lives are merely pieces, manipulated as part of someone else's game."—The Count of Monte Cristo
"With you, we were D'Artagnan, Monte Cristo or Balsamo, riding along the roads of France, touring battlefields, visiting palaces and castles—with you, we dream," French President Jacques Chirac said in a ceremony honoring author Alexandre Dumas, père, whose enduring works make him France's most widely-read author. Dumas's stories have seen print in nearly a hundred languages, including Japanese, where The Count of Monte Cristo appeared as Gankutsuou, which translates to "Ruler of the Cave."
The anime TV series Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo reworks the classic Dumas story into a retro-futuristic drama. Gankutsuou is neither the first TV adaptation of the classic Dumas novel, nor even the first science-fiction retelling; Wikipedia points to a 1950s British ITV adventure series and an Alfred Bester novel (which IMDb cites as an uncredited source here). However, it weaves the familiar elements of anime, science fiction, and classic literature into something new and beautiful to behold.
We see the Count of Monte Cristo through the eyes of the other characters, mainly Albert, a young French nobleman. The story opens on Luna, where Albert and Franz are attending Carnival in a city that at first might pass for ancient or modern Rome (where Dumas's carnival scene was set), but soon reveals its futuristic side. Albert wants to meet the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo, and is happy to find out that the Count wants to meet him and Franz as well, inviting the pair to dinner. They discover that the storied Count (some even say he's a vampire) is a lonely man who barely touches his food. "Just as journeys traveled alone are dull, daily meals eaten alone have no flavor. For me, speaking with guests as I am now is the greatest feast I could wish for," the Count tells his guests.
The Count invites them to watch an execution, in which Albert plays an unpleasant role. The date with the guillotine is a well-attended festival, with crowds cheering and booing the condemned. It's also a game, since the Count has one letter that can spare a single prisoner; the choice will be made by drawing a card. The Count asks Albert to make that choice. At first he refuses, but as the guillotine is about to claim her first victim, he relents.
After further adventures on Luna, the setting switches to the walled Paris of tomorrow, where the army experiments with muscle enhancement and Space Forces makes its headquarters. The Count arrives soon after Albert's return, with Albert's friends and family wondering if he's man or monster. Albert's mother recognizes the man, but she's not telling what she knows.
As you might have noticed, Gankutsuou cuts straight to the chase, skipping quite a few establishing chapters of the original Dumas novel. Director Mahiro Maeda (Macross, The Animatrix: The Second Renaissance Part 1) says in an interview that he found the 24-part series way too short with all the story he had to pack in.
Now we get to the part that really captured my interest. The look of Gankutsuou is like a collage come to life, thanks to Photoshop techniques teamed with digital animation—and you won't miss a fascinating detail with this excellent transfer. Some backgrounds are exquisitely drawn, while others are purposely abstract for symbolic purposes. This blend is shown off for effect in the execution scene in Act 1, as the guillotine on Luna shines blood red against a starry sky, even in daylight, and later in that episode as Carnival revelers slowly disappear, pieces taken off the background board, to mark the end of festivities. The characters' movements are simple, as you'll note in an early scene at the ball when only the principal characters are moving at all. Faces appear as if made up of cutout shapes, and the patterns on characters' clothes move. The look of the show is effective, because it bolsters the characterization of the Count of Monte Cristo, making his gray visage compelling and vampire-like at the same time. The scenery has the looks of Rome and France in the 1800s, with sci-fi visions heavy on retro art deco thrown into the mix. The romantic underpinnings of the story are captured by the fragile, gently moving line drawings in the title sequence. Both the English and the Japanese soundtracks are clear as a bell, capturing the music and sound effects that help shape the drama's mood.
I noticed that the dialogue is at times condensed in subtitles, so you might prefer the dubbed English track to hear it all. Albert's naive, youthful voice and the deep, mysterious voice of the Count are standouts on the English-language voice track.
The comments from those involved with the show were all in Japanese with English subtitles. While most of the interview session with a Japanese preview audience was polite chatter, director Maeda did have a few good comments about translating a well-known book to anime. The comments from the voice actors appeared to be part of episode previews for Japanese TV, tied to each episode, but I liked one quote from actress Mai Nakahara, as she noted that the number of characters introduced in Act 3 makes it a little bit confusing: "By all means, please keep a checklist at home." None of the people who adapted the work one more time into English chip in on this volume.
The first four episodes of this 24-part series (to be released in six "chapters" on DVD) are merely prelude for an elaborate story, but the rich visuals were a treat for the eyes and the story intrigued me enough that I'm looking forward to seeing the next batch of episodes in January. The soap opera isn't kids' stuff, so keep it away from the little ones (although the 16-and-up designation seems slightly excessive, judging by the first chapters). Gankutsuou is spared from the guillotine; not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Act 1 Storyboard by Director Mahiro Maeda
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