I always find it fascinating when a piece of art endures longer than its author intended. Conan Doyle never considered his Sherlock Holmes stories masterpieces. It was work for a periodical that took on a life of its own, so much so that when he tried to kill the detective off he was forced to bring him back.
Alexandre Dumas’ epic The Count of Monte Cristo is very much one of these tales, something written for a periodical that I doubt anyone would have been expected to respawn in a whole variety of media. But like the best pieces of literature, what endures is what remains socially pertinent: tales of the human condition that are flexible enough to be embraced by each generation.
Gonzo’s Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, a futurist anime re-working of Dumas’ tale, does very much that. It rewrites the original in places—it is set in the far future, where humans are spread out across space in an imperial empire—and shuffled about in others, but it carries all those social and human issues that Dumas’ original story did so well. It carries the honor of the original book, shifting its dramatic perspective but remaining transfixed on the Cristo literary legacy of love, betrayal and revenge—perhaps the quintessential elements of all powerful dramas.
Gankutsuou has had its boxset release, and off the bat I’ll say this is one boxset worth owning, be you a fan of Dumas or simply a viewer looking for a bloody good yarn. Buyers are treated to twenty-four episodes spread over a beautifully packaged set of four disks. The visuals are simply stunning: a tapestry of colours, animation and graphical components that make this such a visual feast, though they may take a little getting used to. As lavish as the graphics, animation and direction are, they can be overpowering on occasions. But it just takes a little time to become accustomed to this artistic approach. Audio as well can’t be faulted, and the English dub is exceptional. You’d easily forget it wasn’t made for an Anglo tongue.
But the visual and audio successes are mere trinkets compared to Gankutsuou’s real victory. What makes Gankutsuou so special is far more intricate and faithful to its heritage. The story is just so well constructed. In some respects, it better than the original, for it has to be said while I adore the original book, it does lack a firm sense of direction. (This is perhaps a consequence of being written in serial, episodic format.) Gankutsuou doesn’t suffer from such an issue and feels solid and well thought throughout. It even improves on a few characters—in particular the drippy romance between Valentine and Maximilien—as well as the bond between Albert and his good friend Franz.
But is it better than the original book? Well, I would rate it higher than the recent Guy Pearce Hollywood version, or even the French Gérard Depardieu retelling, both of which take quite gigantic liberties with the original, though that’s not to say neither have their own charm. I would say there are flaws in this adaptation, both in the story and the visuals. Occasionally the CG plays too heavily into the art, and I don’t like the rather old-hat need to give Cristo a long-lost friendship with his enemy, Fernand Mondego. (The recent Hollywood version felt compelled to do the same). I think the inclusion of the mystical being Gankutsuou adds an internal struggle to Dantès that is neither required or in anyway original, but overall, this is a sumptuous, intelligent piece of anime that is as inspired visually as it is in its narrative.
This is just a barebones release, so there are no extras. But really, that shouldn’t stop you reaching into your wallet and laying out the francs for this boxset.
Gankutsuou is a fantastic adventure with the bare minimum of faults. I’ve never seen a perfect version of the tale—and that includes the original—but this is as near as you’re probably going to find. Intelligent that manages to find a near-impossible balance between reworking the classic into something new while never forgetting what made it such a compelling tale in the first place. In the original book, Monte Cristo was an island with great treasure. Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo would play a similar role on your shelf.