In an astonishingly original interpretation – an inspirational mix of baroque style and science fiction sensibilities – Gankutsuou is a series painted in light, literally. It’s visuals are breathtaking, a wild riot of colour and pattern, a moving Gustav Klimt painting where a glowing palette of elaborate textures have been mapped over what would have normally been flat panels of cell shaded colour, from the sides of buildings to characters’ hair. Verbal descriptions can in no way communicate the lush visual effect produced, nor how well it works. It’s so original, so remarkable in its execution, that this alone would have meant Studio Gonzo had not only outdone themselves, but everyone else as well. Obviously spectacular wasn’t good enough for them, though; because the characters’ opulent style was conceived by a top couture designer – Anna Sui; because the musical score was arranged by Koji Kasamatsu (Boogiepop Phantom, Kino’s Journey, Serial Experiments Lain) and the script was written by Natsuko Takahashi (Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist); and because, above and beyond the surface appeal of all these elements, the story was conceived from one of the most dramatic and lasting novels in literary history.
Gankutsuou means Ruler of the Cave, and in this instance the Japanese translation for the title of Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written in 1844, is chillingly apt. The Count in this adaptation of the story is a ruler of cold, dark places indeed, not all of them figurative. Dumas’ original character is of course named as such for the fictional identity he adopts after making his escape fourteen years after being unfairly jailed in the infamous Château d’If, an old island fort turned prison off the coast of Marseilles in Southern France. A relatively good man, innocent, naïve, stripped of everything he ever possessed, Edmond Dantès turns to vengeance in order to seek justice. Part of the lasting genius of the original story was that it highlighted how, though he was free, he was in fact not. Dantès carried the darkness with him.
Gankutstuo chooses to take this quite literally, but the Count is not the main focus of the tale. Instead, in a reflection of what Dantès once was – sweet, innocent, the world at his feet with no evil anywhere in it and undeserving of a cruel and impersonal fate – we meet the young Vicomte Albert de Morcerf. Albert is wealthy, priviledged and at leisure, and on a pleasure trip to the carnivale on Luna, he meets someone fascinating, someone dashing, someone charming and entirely irresistible, someone who saves him. He invites his newfound friend to his home in Marseilles, and unknowingly invites the Devil in. In a painful twist of irony, Albert’s trust and innocence makes possible the destruction of everything upon which his perfect world is built.
And yet innocence and trust has its own power, and the series becomes a knife edge of tension over the struggle, not for Albert’s world – for surely that idyllic state would have given way to the realities of adulthood eventually (the edges fraying in the friendships of his childhood already) – but for the Count’s humanity, quite literally his heart. The further the Count’s vengeance is pursued, the more the betrayals visited on him that he returns, the colder his heart becomes and the further into darkness he falls. And the more Albert wishes to save him.
It is a truly captivating balance, and a fine tragedy flawlessly told. The Count reveals his true nature both carefully and carelessly; his revenge is brutal and calculated, but his unconscious longing to be saved from his own choices carelessly draws Albert past his ability to control. And in the traditions of the best tragic stories, Albert is blind to all warnings, even from his closest friends. As his world starts to fall apart as a result of the Count’s machinations, and as he continues to refuse to see anything but good in the man who would destroy him, however indirectly, there is room for either complete ruin or salvation, for them both. Their fates are irrevocably connected; there is nothing that can be done in life that does not, in some fashion, impact another. Whether one makes choices that are constructive or destructive is the difference perhaps between true good and irredeemable evil.
With such fine literary source material, a modernised script, a visionary approach to the look and feel, perfectly plotted drama which becomes increasingly gripping, and with characters who have real depth and dimension, the whole thing just makes the word gorgeous seem inadequate. Gankutsuou is not anime, it is art; a shining achievement of creativity across ages and media that will take your breath away and leave you dazed and desperately happy you have eyes with which to see, and a heart with which to feel.