Gankutsuou – Episode 1

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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7 thoughts on “Gankutsuou – Episode 1

  1. Man, I miss Gonzo. They used to be a fascinating studio. A lot of their shows didn’t success finacially or critically, but they always tried new ideas and style. Hell, even their ealier pandering anime like Kiddy Grade are incredibly ambitious. And like Manglobe, that lead them to their bankruptcy.

    Anime industry doesn’t have many original and ambitious show because those did not sell well(see also: Shin sekai yori). I feel bad for all the poor creators.

    • I also kind of miss Gonzo, even though I pretty much hated all of their shows except for Gankutsuou (which is one of the best anime ever, as far as I’m concerned) and Yukikaze. Gonzo had a sort of attitude that you don’t really see anymore, in their best moments they were really ambitious and had the kind of creativity that nobody risks anymore.

      Well, it didn’t really work out for Gonzo either, although I think the main problem was that despite all that energy and visual creativity, most of their shows were just plain bad/bland/aggressively mediocre. (I mean, look at Samurai 7. An anime adaptation of The Seven Samurai! They could’ve done great things with that, and yet the actual show ended up being so incredibly bland and disappointing.)

  2. The unsourced but plausible-seeming rumor I’ve heard is that the original inspiration for Gankutsuou was Alfred Bester’s novel, The Stars My Destination, but that for whatever reason the show creators decided to skip the middleman and come up with their own psychedelic sci-fi reinterpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo.

    • The inspiration was in fact both the Dumas novel and the Bester adaptation – the Count’s face markings (and the ‘Gankutsuou’ in general) for example are an homage to Bester. But most things come either straight from the novel, or the creative staff’s mind.

      Going on a tangent, the mastermind behind Gankutsuou is Maeda Mahiro. I think the show is something of a singular, unexpectedly miraculous alignment of creator and studio – it’s only Maeda who could come up with something like this, and only early ’00s Gonzo could make it come true (or would be interested in it at all, to begin with). Back then Gonzo was trying to find a way to Western markets, they had a string of adaptations of properties/themes that they expected to be popular with Western audiences (Romeo x Juliet, Samurai 7, Glass Fleet, Gankutsuou), and they were all trying very very hard to be all sorts of unique and visually eye-catching. With the exception of Gankutsuou they were all crap (IMO), but with that show Maeda’s stylistic choices (he was originally envisioning a kind of “punk opera” – hence the involvement of the guy from Stranglers -, although that aspect had been toned down to a more traditional dramatic/theatrical approach in the final product) and Gonzo’s own penchant for over the top CGI chaos somehow ended up aligning perfectly. It probably didn’t hurt that Maeda seems to have had a genuine and infectious passion for the project. He even drew a manga retelling of the story, so rare that the creator himself does this instead of getting some random mangaka to do it. (And it looks fascinating, almost like manga-meets-Franco-Belgian comics at points.)

  3. The big thing that hurts the show for me is the poorly-rendered CGI that Gonzo just loved to use. Some other issues with the show,but otherwise it is fantastic! Looking forward to more of your thoughts on it.

    • Yea, it’s hard to believe that there are crappy CGI mechas in Gankutsuou. I think I had blocked that bit from my memory before I began my recent rewatch.

      The CGI backgrounds and cityscapes though are so completely bizarre that they come off more as unsettling/creepy (rather than laughable) today. At least to me anyway.

      • I think unsettling/creepy is what they were going for, though? I mean sure, the CGI mechas were meant to look great (and they looked decent by 2004 standards, fwiw I really loved their design), but I think the bizarre world design with its chaotic patterns/textures/varying depth/2D vs 3D/etc. was very much intentional.

        Personally I think the reached its nadir with the Count’s lair. That’s just so completely out of this world (and so creepy and weird with all that shiny CGI gold), I usually tell people that if they survive THAT they’ll be OK with the visuals for the rest of the show.

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