Thursday, March 08, 2007

REVIEW: "Gankutsuou" Honors Dumas Masterpiece

[Article for Toon Zone News: 06.01.06]

Animation and literary classics are not regular bedfellows. Occasionally they’ve slipped between the sheets, so to speak: many cartoons are taken from classic literature. But there are few of which you can honestly say that they’ve reinvented a classic.

Most successful animated versions of classic novels have—in this man’s humble opinion—added something unique to the original formula. Animation itself is an ethereal medium, and it’s a special ingredient that should be exploited to its utmost. Straight animated renditions of Shakespeare plays or the Gospel stories miss the realism that a live dramatization can bring, and they rather lack the special sparkle that animation can bestow.

Animators have previously been inspired by the works of Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers got an unusual treatment in the Spanish Dogtanian and the Three Muskerhounds, for instance. It wasn’t quite high brow entertainment, but it was certainly enjoyable, and a later spin-off series covered some more of Dumas’ Musketeer novels.

But no animated work has ever been quite so epic as Gankutsuou: The Count Of Monte Cristo. Gonzo’s adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo adopts a more mature perspective than did the anthropomorphic pooches, but like Dogtanian it also introduces certain differences.

First, it’s set in the 51st century, not the 19th. But those who might be put off by such a shift should be reassured that the details—both narrative and visual—stay within the 19th century French pastures of the original novel.

More important, this version changes the central character, Edmond Dantès, from protagonist to enigmatic antagonist by moving the audience’s perspective—and sympathies—to a different point of view. It’s a bold move, and one that gives Gankutsuou its own special place in the vast library of Cristo cinematic adaptations.

The story—both the original and this adaptation—is a rich and complex one, and it’s a tale wrapped in mystery and intrigue, so I'll keep explanations to a minimum. Suffice it to say that our hero, Albert, is a young lad who meets the enigmatic Count of Monte Cristo and, spellbound, follows the Count along a path that leads to murder, betrayal and revenge.

The present DVD is the sixth volume in Gonzo’s version of the saga, so don’t be offended if I suggest that you’d be no more than a first class chump to jump into this anime series here. Try starting at the beginning, because volume 6 reveals and resolves the Count’s mysteries.

I can only make one slight criticism of the adaptation, and that’s the unsympathetic portrayal that the title character receives, which weakens the tale somewhat. Contemporary society frowns on revenge. There is no honor to be found in it, according to our social myths; it is an overwhelming evil that will finally eat into its host and destroy him. Rarely are we are allowed to cheer for a vengeful character as we do in Dumas’ original. In this animated adaptation, revenge is a driving blood lust fueled by something beyond our comprehension, and this removes the motives, courage and sympathy for Dantès and his plight. It paints him unsympathetically (how he does cackle!) and adds a supernatural element. The twist in Gankutsuou: Count of Monte Cristo is a positive device for retelling of the story, but it does somewhat weaken Dantès as a character.

I should also add that the characters are also a bit weakened in the English dub: I found much of the dialog flat and not reflective of the drama. I recommend the subtitled version instead.

The story is the real reason to get this series, but Gonzo has done a stunning job on the visuals. Their skills are on fine exhibit here, with fixed texture patterns coloring the foreground and characters. At first this can be confusing and may take some getting used to. This trademark effect is accompanied by some wonderful soft finishes to the background and set up shots. On top of this, the animation is dynamic and first class, particularly when it comes to depicting the epic action of the finale. An introductory sequence is beautiful rendered as well.

It’s also given a beautiful score, especially in the episode "Counterattack." I’m not a fan of the show's rather gushy intro theme, but the outro has a wonderfully catchy melody that is also used for the DVD's interactive menu's soundtrack.

Don’t expect much excitement from the release itself. It’s a functional volume with a small number of special features. There is a rather impressive double art presentation of mechanical and fashion designs, but beyond that the features are fairly thin. There are two rather novel "comment" features from the artists involved in the production, but neither really give you any inside information. The director, for instance, mentions that there were things he regretted doing, but he never specifies them. There are some trailers for other Geneon DVDs, but I don't really count such as "special features". You of course, may feel differently, and if so, it's my duty to inform you of them. Knock yourself out.

If you are a Dumas fan, then this is a must-get, a mature and respectful rendition of the original. If you've never read Dumas or seen any of the many film versions of The Count of Monte Cristo, and especially if you love beautifully crafted animation with an intelligent classical edge, then start saving your pennies and look to invest in this series.

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