I’ll always think of the 00s in Japanimation as “The Age of GONZO.” For those of us who started seriously seeking out these crazy cartoons in the freshly burgeoning world of Internet piracy at the turn of the century, the prolific GONZO and their gleeful embrace of new, fully-digital production and nearly videogame-level 3D computer graphics dominated our view of “new Japanese cartoons.” I still have fond memories of Vandread, the first series I followed weekly on digital fansubs, and the tragedy porn of My Girlfriend, The Ultimate Weapon has been great preparation for rolling my eyes at many an apocalyptic heartstring-yanker. It might seem cruel to dwell on the studio’s many missteps and glances at greatness, such as Last Exile, an excellent and imaginative show which was completely destroyed by the final awful handful of episodes, or letting Chiaki J. Konaka write an adaptation of Hellsing, or attempting to remake Dirty Pair with a serious(ly stupid) overarching plot in Kiddy Grade, but suffering is a crucial part of The Japanimation Fan Experience, one GONZO was pleased to provide regularly.
There are any number of shows I could pick from GONZO’s catalog to represent their legacy of crude CG robots and tremendous breasts, but I’m trying to be positive here. We’re mourning the dead, not mocking them more than absolutely necessary. Gankutsuou, or The Count of Monte Cristo in Space, GONZO’s 2005 adaptation of Dumas’ blockbuster revenge tale, is probably the closest thing the studio has managed to a Great Show. While hardly free of the studio’s worst traits, Gankutsuou makes a noble and generally successful effort to turn them around into positives, creating a gaudy patchwork of a show which holds itself together from start to finish. Mostly.
In the grand tradition of basically every single adaptation of the book ever, Gankutsuou takes quite a number of liberties with the original story, starting with shifting the setting from mid-19th century Paris to Distant Future Sci-Fi Paris. This is purely an excuse for the show’s distinct art style (more on that in a bit); despite the omnipresence of sophisticated computers, spacecraft and automobiles, and some renaming of locations — who wants to go to Carnival in Rome when you can go to Carnival on the moon? — none of this really has much of an effect on the plot or character behavior. Nobody in High Society would dare to use a telephone when they could come calling in person, after all.
Much more significant is the restructuring of the story from its original focal character, the titular Count of Monte Cristo, a vengeful master of disguise and deception on a righteous quest for justice, to centering around the impressionable Albert de Morcerf, a privileged and good-natured (but dimwitted) young man, his friends, and his relationship with the Count. Jumping in roughly halfway through the original novel, Gankutsuou holds off on explaining almost all of the Count’s backstory until the end of the series, which changes the tone quite a bit into a sort of mystery tale: who is the Count, what’s the motivation for his conspiratorial actions, what secrets are Albert’s parents, friends, and relations hiding from him?
At least, that’s how the show is supposed to play out. Odds are, if you’re familiar with The Count of Monte Cristo at all, you already know the outline of the plot, and either way, unless you’re reading this via Google Translate, you’ll be able to understand the lyrics of the English-language opening and closing theme songs. Written and performed by some dude who played bass and sang in a British punk band that was popular in the 70s and 80s, the songs are actually about the plot of the show (a rare trend in Japanese animation these days) and pretty much spell out what’s going on. Oops!
The change in focus also naturally results in a lot of subplots being heavily re-written or removed entirely. The fallout of the Count’s plans for the Villefort family, which along with his devotion to the Morrel family became the cause and means of the Count’s eventual redemption at the end of the novel, plays out entirely differently here, ultimately leading to an entirely different ending. Many of these changes seem like intentionally sly jabs at the original material, almost like the writers are declaring “Oh, you think that’s how it goes? Well, how about this?” (Franz d’Épinay receiving a case-making tip from old man Noirtier, anyone?) While most of the adjustments work well for the direction Maeda and crew are taking the series, there are moments where you get the sense that they overreached a bit.
Gankutsuou’s true flash of brilliance is apparent at first blush: the art direction is lovely. What better way to escape the problems of clashing styles of hand-drawn digital animation and sophisticated (and much cheaper) 3D computer animation than to make that contrast the very focus? Rather than burying it, the show revels in the artificial, with attractively-designed characters clad in outfits of swimming patterns, hair positively twinkling in the light as they walk through some of the most endearingly awkward 3D-rendered sets since the Playstation’s Resident Evil, or that one screensaver that came with Windows 95. Every crude surface is textured with the same sorts of bizarre, sometimes eye-searing patterns as the characters’ wardrobe (banker Danglars’ mansion is wallpapered entirely with Benjamins), pioneering an innovative technique to avoid paying any background painters when you’ve already got CG guys later adopted by Ristorante Paradiso.
To GONZO’s credit, all this actually works most of the time. I’m a big fan of the character designs by director Mahiro Maeda, who’s devised large cast of characters who actually look distinctive and memorable. The flat-to-nonexistent shading on skin tones (another popular TV animation cost-cutter), combined with the strange patterns on clothing and hair and basically everything else give the impression of a moving collage, or perhaps a comic book gone mad. There are enough interesting touches in the design of the future-archaic architecture and mechanical designs to distract your thoughts from the corners the animators are cutting elsewhere. Though, in true GONZO fashion, there are episodes with limited, off-model animation directly followed by extremely fluid and attractive episodes (episodes 5 and 6 particularly stand out).
Now, this is a GONZO show, and as you’ve probably noticed, even when I’m trying to go out of my way to praise it, there are a lot of things I feel the need to slag. And in true GONZO fashion, that includes the ending of the series. Unlike most of the studio’s efforts — and hell, Japanimated TV series in general — the ending isn’t a complete killer, but it is where a lot of the problems with the show come together. Having already diligently avoided the novel’s original denouement, and desperately wanting an opportunity to force some 3DCG mecha fights into the show, they lead the plot in a particularly explosive direction, full of laser beams and gunshots and violent, insane characters who can’t seem to figure out where they stand anymore. Luckily, the power of love is here to bring things to a close (which is not entirely divorced from the book’s resolution, really), and there’s one of those goofy sequences where the building starts falling apart as soon as all the drama’s done, and everything’s pretty much wrapped up, including a shot probably added late in production when the writers remembered that they hadn’t done anything with these minor characters who should be present — but wait! There’s another episode!
I’m really not a big fan of epilogue endings like these unless they tell us something interesting that we couldn’t directly infer from what’s already transpired in the show. Five years pass between the climax of Gankutsuou and the final episode, and yet nobody seems to have done anything significant or unexpected at all, except for the one guy who grew a beard. After making it through perhaps the most eventful summer the city of Future-Paris has ever seen, and certainly the most significant in their lives, none of the major characters seem to have changed their relationships or experienced any personal growth beyond promotions at work over the course of five years. Hell, the main couple apparently haven’t even seen each other since their tearful parting before the explosions! The whole thing feels tacked on and stupid — what’s the point of a time jump if nothing changes? — and it’s no wonder that I keep forgetting the episode even exists.
Anyway. Gankutsuou may not be one of the all-time Great Shows, like Evangelion or the Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy, and certainly not Revolutionary Girl Utena, but it is solidly entertaining from start to finish, all grumbling aside. It’s eye-catching, it’s well-paced, and it doesn’t rely on desperate attempts to get super-nerds to shell out hundreds of dollars for hugpillows or skanky PVC figurines of the main characters, like GONZO’s last major original series and true legacy, Strike Witches. And hey, it’s even a pretty good example of a tolerable version of all the bullshit I associate with GONZO. Perhaps the definitive work from the ‘00s most iconic studio. I wish their many splintered shards luck on their future pursuits, particularly that animation work on the final episodes of Hellsing Ultimate (2010 is 2000), just as long as I don’t have to watch any of them.