There are a number of angles you could use to approach Gankutsuou. You could talk about the studio, Gonzo, although that conversation would end roughly where it begins – Gonzo have barely created a handful of noteworthy shows over their career, and Gankutsuou’s director isn’t particularly tied to that studio. You could talk about that director, Mahiro Maeda, whose career has spanned early Studio Ghibli, a variety of guest positions on shows as varied as Giant Robo and Kill la Kill, and who has seemingly joined many frustratingly talented creators at that great Studio Khara in the sky.
Or you could talk about the fact that Gankutsuou actually has source material.
The more I get invested in and knowledgeable about anime, the more that particular disconnect becomes frustrating to me. Anime is an industry replete with talented, deeply motivated directors and animators… and most of the time, all they get to apply that talent to is low-tier adolescent fantasies. With shows frequently conceived as promotional materials for questionable sources, great directors can often just do their best to salvage a bad situation (like with last season’s Grimgar and ERASED, both of which warped their source material into something stronger than it had any right to be). You could blame this on a lack of possible source material, but manga is actually a very rich medium – unfortunately, many great manga don’t actually get adapted into anime. The markets just don’t work out that way, and often the more grounded, sharply written manga just jump straight to live-action film (see: Solanin).
In contrast, Gankutsuou is based on The Count of Monte Cristo, a classic caper of some considerable merit. And Gankutsuou doesn’t seem at all intimidated by its own source material; in fact, the adaptation is an extremely creative reinterpretation, recasting the French period piece as a scifi drama, and even shifting the viewpoint character from the narratively larger-than-life Count himself to the young, insecure Albert. This first episode confidently strides through the first meetings between Albert and the Count, as Albert begins to be drawn into a world of murder and revenge he is clearly ill-equipped to handle.
The story certainly opens with plenty of hooks. We’re introduced to Albert and his closest friend Franz near the end of Carnival, a lengthy celebration on what we assume to be the moon. The pair attend an opera recital, further complicating the story’s anachronistic flair, and there Albert comes across a pocket watch belonging to the mysterious Count. The three meet for dinner and then an execution, and as the sinners wail for forgiveness or absolution, the Count proposes a game. In his hand he has one official pardon – on the table he sets three cards. Whichever card Albert lifts, the name written there shall be absolved of his guilt. And so Albert picks a card, condemning himself as he sets a man free.
There’s already plenty to unpack within these short minutes. Even if we didn’t know this was a story about justice, forgiveness, and revenge, that climactic execution puts all those themes in full view. The revelry of Carnival is quickly contrasted against a beggar in the streets, and that contrast only becomes more pronounced when the festivities and the execution merge into a single event. While two of the condemned men plea for freedom, the one who committed the most heinous crime goads the crowd, laughing at his sins, through his pride condemning those who see entertainment in his fall. In the end, he is the one saved by Albert, while the penitent men face the guillotine.
But even the layered and driving storytelling is not Gankutsuou’s most distinctive feature. That would have to be its visual design – a design almost unique within anime, where key characters are dressed not in realistic outfits, but in complex but physically flat textures. It’s almost as if each character’s outfit is a distinctive wallpaper, making for a visually arresting experience even before you get to the show’s cavernous, often 3D backgrounds and strong directorial hand.
The textured designs inherently set Gankutsuou apart among anime, but simply “being unique” doesn’t necessarily imply a successful artistic choice. The actual effect of this particular choice must be engaged with as well, and in this case, the style perfectly matches the intent of the production. The textured outfits give Gankutsuou a heightened, play-like atmosphere, a mood fitting for an oversized classical tragedy. The Count’s appearance is given much greater impact through the intersection of his outfit, his arresting hair, and the excellent use of shadow offsetting his colorful robes. The contrast between the key characters’ designs and the background characters’ traditional colors increases the sense of a theatrical tragedy, where the show’s characters are actors unable to escape their assigned roles. And by the time we reach the execution, it’s clear that these designs mirror the story even in its base themes; Gankutsuou’s outfits are beautiful but fake, as garishly artificial as the justice ruling this world.
Gankutsuou’s first episode is a masterful piece, limited only by its visibly jerky animation. In terms of underlying design, the show is a wonder, and the narrative already seems like a strong and independently creative take on a classic story. Gankutsuou offers a compelling world and a gripping story within it, elevated through a visual personality all of its own.
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