Watson Watches: Gankutsuou

Way back in 2014, a friend and I collaborated on a series of articles we called Watson Watches, in which I forced enticed Watson to examine a bunch of new-to-him anime shows. Using a basic question/answer format, the general idea was to gain a fresh, non-otaku perspective on some conversely very otaku-friendly titles such as Azumanga Daioh, Kuroshitsuji, and Kill la Kill. While wading through some old files the other day for a long-overdue PC clean-up, I came across one such article that, for whatever reason, never quite made it onto the blog, and Watson was kind enough to allow me to belatedly post it rather than have it remain in a folder titled only: ‘Unpublished’. This is that piece.

Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first six episodes of Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo.

You probably noticed the rather distinctive artwork right off the bat – a mixture of CGI backgrounds and multiple photoshop textures. Did you like the unique style, or was it merely harsh on the eyes?

I had a very hard time with the artwork in Gankutsuou. I wanted to like it, I really did: it was original, and bright, and vibrant, and distinctive; it should have been one of the best things about the show. And yet, at the same time, it still looked like someone gave the entire visual effects budget to an overexcited graphical design student to masturbate with.

You might have gathered that I wasn’t a huge fan of the art style in general. I found it to be cluttered and excessively ‘busy’ most of the time. Don’t get me started on the scenes that were allegedly under the Count’s Parisian mansion, either; the pretense of aiding the suspension of disbelief was well and truly jettisoned by that point. But my ire is particularly reserved for the clothing worn by everyone. There were a few places it made sense: I thought it was very fitting for the carnival atmosphere on Luna, and it seemed quite appropriate for the soldier Maximilien. But the rest it annoyed the hell out of me, and this is strange because it was actually a very clever idea that plainly had a good deal of effort put into it. I think that its very ubiquity is what turned me against it. If it had been used sparingly, as a form of sartorial emphasis for a person or situation, I think I would have been praising it to the skies.

Instead, it’s symptomatic of what bothered me about the artwork as a whole. It felt like letting a boisterous puppy into your house. It’s enthusiastic and inquisitive, it wants to play and have fun with whatever and whomever is around, it certainly doesn’t mean any harm, and you might find it rather endearing in a way. But you know that in the end there’ll be pee on the floor.

Also unusually, both the opening and closing theme songs are in English (performed by Jean-Jacques Burnel, best known as the bass guitarist for British rock band The Stranglers). Several background music pieces were also performed by Burnel. Did the music of Gankutsuou particularly stand out to you, and if so, was it in a good or a bad way?

I thought the opening music was very good. Far better, in fact, than the theme songs of most anime I’ve watched to date. It struck just the right tone of pathos and gave an air of wistful regret that I wish the rest of the show had been able to live up to (although it’s probably just as well it didn’t, I would have been sobbing the whole way through).

The closing music, however, was less good. It was more or less what I would expect from an anime theme song; a competently executed but uninspired rock track that is in the end entirely forgettable. And it’s embarrassing to admit that the background music stayed in the, well, background. I honestly can’t call it to mind – which I suppose is kind of a good thing, because at least it didn’t jar me out of what I was watching.

You expressed some surprise when I first gave you the name of the series. How do you feel about anime that are based on non-Japanese stories or literary classics?

My first thought was that it was just asking for trouble. Literary classics often don’t translate well across cultural boundaries, as anyone who has tried to read ‘Master Darling’ (aka Botchan) can attest. Nor is the track record for turning one form of media into another littered with success stories, the rate of which seems to drop the further one gets from the source material.

More specifically, I’ve noticed a tendency among anime fans to think that anime is somehow a unique form of storytelling, and that foreign attempts to replicate it are inevitably doomed to failure simply because they are not Japanese. Presumably therefore the converse is true as well, and anime will struggle with foreign stories because they are not susceptible to its unique merits.

I think it’s also fair to say that literary classics reflect the culture that produced them. It’s impossible to imagine Roadside Picnic having come out of anywhere except Russia, for example, and that any attempt to adapt it by foreigners would inevitably lead to the modification of those elements that make it so unique. So as a general rule I would raise a sceptical eyebrow at any anime that claimed to be based on something like that.

But.

If, despite all that, you’re determined to take a literary classic and turn it into anime, then Gankutsuou is worth looking at for the things it gets right.

First off, the source material is a good choice. Alexandre Dumas wrote stories that use their setting to provide details that add to plausibility, but are not tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t be transplanted successfully. The characters are complex enough to be plausible as individuals and yet it’s possible to clearly identify what they stand for.

Secondly, and related to the first point, Gankutsuou tried to make changes to the setting when it stopped being helpful. I’ll be returning to this topic below, but in the meantime, let me say that I think staying too faithful to the original 19th-century setting would have been a mistake.

While Gankutsuou is set in the future (the year 5053, to be exact), it incorporates a lot of details based on its original setting of 19th-century France. Do you think these two very different worlds were mixed together well?

I think that right from the start we need to be clear about why the setting is created as it is. For the story to work while still bearing some resemblance to the original, it has to include some of the important societal conditions from 19th-century France. At the same time, however, that world is long gone. How are those conditions to be brought back to life in a way the audience will accept?

The answer is simple: don’t bring them back to life, bring them forward to life. The setting in this show is not actually the year 5053. It is instead a mysterious realm where anything is possible, and the creators need justify their choices with nothing more than “3000 years from now, who can say what things will be like?” Saying that it is the future is, in this context, just another way of saying that magic rules the world and we should expect it to be full of fantastic people and events.

And this is not, in itself, a bad idea. Dumas’ works existed in a sort of half-way world between reality and fantasy even when they were written, and that border has grown more porous over the last 200 years as it becomes less familiar to modern audiences. You might as well shrug your shoulders and embrace the aspects of unreality that you can take advantage of.

But, like any other magic-dependent setting, it relies on the audience implicitly agreeing not to question the assumptions of the background. And this starts to fall apart when you explicitly bring in historical factors that have no reason to exist in this new world you’ve created. As you can probably tell, I think that’s an area that caused problems for Gankutsuou.

Some of the facts of 19th-century life just don’t work very well in the magical fantasy-land that the creators tried to use for the story. They encourage the audience to look critically at the society being portrayed in an effort to understand how these things can come about, and that was where the show started to suffer setting-related structural failure. To their credit, I think the creators of the anime recognised this and tried to avert it. Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to do so in a fashion that was consistent with the setting they had created, and I think the tension between the two “worlds” they were trying to reconcile ultimately proved too much for them. I think they would have been better served by jettisoning even more of the 19th-century trappings and embracing the fantasy elements more fully. Of course, this leaves open the question of how faithful an adaptation it would have been, but I think the essential story could have survived this.

As you know from having read The Count of Monte Cristo yourself, Gankutsuou sets Albert up as the main character instead of the Count, while Franz, a minor character in the novel, also gets a lead role in the anime. According to the creators, one of the reasons for this was in order to focus more on the actual consequences of revenge, rather than on the satisfaction of it. What did you think of these changes, and do you think the creators succeeded in their intention?

Having not yet finished watching the anime, I don’t feel like I’m in a good position to comment on their success. I’m open-minded on their intentions; on the one hand, changing the focus of a work is the sort of thing that strikes at the heart of its meaning, but on the other, it could present a fresh and valuable perspective on what the story is actually saying. So it could go either way, and I’d want to see more before I decided on whether it was a good or a bad idea.

Who did you personally find yourself rooting for – the naïve but well-intentioned Albert and his upper-class world, or the suave but clearly manipulative Count out for revenge?

Is there an option for “none of the above”? To be honest, I found most of the characters unlikeable. There were only two that I could actually consider myself to be rooting for.

Maximilien Morrel, the soldier, is one of the most genuine characters in the entire show and I hope that he’ll come out of things more or less unscathed. He may not be one of the nobles that holds all the political and economic power in this milieu, but if more of them had his strength, courage, and honesty then the whole situation probably wouldn’t have arisen.

The second character I felt sympathy for was Eugénie. Despite how she acts towards Albert, I get the feeling that she’s actually quite sensitive and caring. Unlike Maximilien, she seems to be more aware of the way in which society is structured, and resents it not only on her own behalf but also the teeming millions who bear it on their backs. Her cynicism ill-becomes her; I think she’d be much happier if she could somehow get out from under the weight of expectations that are laid upon her. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Albert is the right person to help with this.

There are also several relationship changes from the book to the anime – perhaps most obviously, Albert’s (possibly platonic, possibly not) infatuation with the Count, and Franz’s and Eugenie’s love for Albert. How do you feel about this?

I haven’t really seen much evidence of the second example so far, so I’ll just talk about the first one. Basically, I’m sceptical but I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Changing relationships like that is one of the common ways of adding drama! and tension! to what might otherwise be a fairly unexceptional rendition of the original, and it’s also one of the things that anime fans have a (deserved?) reputation for. A cynical person, which the Lord knows I am not, might suspect that the changes were made with these factors in mind. I, however, am choosing to believe that the real reason was to enhance the impact of the show’s focus on the consequences of revenge, rather than its satisfaction. Perhaps someone who’s watched it all can tell me more.

The series was judged by several critics and industry insiders to be the best anime of its year. Do you think Gankutsuou is deserving of such high praise?

Obviously without knowing what the competition was like, I can’t really say, but I’m inclined towards generosity in this case. When assessing a show, I’m usually down in the core, working the character and storyline gnomes to death, and from that perspective, everything seems pretty solid. The writing is probably better than average for the anime I’ve watched, and the music is a cut above the norm as well. But any discussion of its merits will have to include the visuals, and that’s a bit of a problem. Some visual aspects are susceptible to objective considerations – are they fluid and crisp, and all the other technical artistic elements which go into that? But assuming that the visuals are technically well-executed – and I have no reason to think they’re not – it’s still an essentially subjective judgement as to whether they’re appropriate, and I suspect this will be the make-or-break point for a lot of viewers.

My opinion is on record right at the start (interesting concept, but ultimately unsuccessful). However, I would like to see the creators rewarded for having taken a risk, even if it was one that didn’t pan out in the end. And Gankutsuou genuinely seems to have some things in its favour. So if there wasn’t anything obviously better in the running, then yes, I might just award it the top spot.

You’ve now watched six episodes of Gankutsuou. Will you be watching the rest?

I can’t see it happening. The visuals really bother me, and the focus characters are unappealing enough that I don’t want to spend any more time with them than I have to. I do think the show has some merits, but it’s not really my cup of tea – I admire the show, but I don’t actually like it very much.

Note: While Watson and I have no intention of restarting the Watson Watches article series (which we actually ran twice, the second time around in 2016 to look at more retro anime titles from the late 90s backwards), here are the links to each of those pieces for anyone who may wish to take a trip down memory lane, in order of blog publishing date.

Series 1:
Azumanga Daioh
Kuroshitsuji
AnoHana
Free!
Death Note
Kill la Kill

Series 2:
Cowboy Bebop
Evangelion
Sailor Moon
Ranma ½
Dragon Ball
Rose of Versailles

3 thoughts

  1. Our first podcast episode was comparing Gankutsuou with the novel! I think I stuck a Battle of Algiers joke somewhere in that podcast. (Warning: the sound quality is terrible, I should just transcribe the whole thing for everyone’s sake).

    https://podcastleinthesky.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/inagural-episode-gankutsuou-and-the-count-of-monte-cristo/

    I don’t remember at all why we picked it. I will say that the novel had more scenes revolving around men blowing their brains out than I expected. Also, it was kind of rambling and any adaptation would by necessity need to pare it down. Oh yeah, I kind of enjoyed that the anime’s episode recaps were in heavily-accented French.

    But overall the show’s aesthetic didn’t really click with me either.

    Like

    1. Thanks for the link! I remember reading the novel myself a loooong time ago, but at this point I remember very little of it – I should probably go back for a re-read sometime.

      Personally, I did quite enjoy the anime’s general aesthetic, but admittedly it did take me a couple of episodes to get used to it. My eyes seemed to adapt pretty quickly, so once I was in, I was all in, but I certainly don’t blame anyone for it just not being their thing.

      Liked by 1 person

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