Gankutsuou The Count of Monte Cristo

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

With current global events, escapism has become more important than ever. Instead of scrolling through Twitter or watching the news all day long, why not immerse yourself in some thrilling, compelling, nail-biting anime? Originally, I planned to cover a tamer, funnier, more comforting show for this week’s anime column. Instead, I found myself completely obsessed with a story I have seen told countless other times across different media, the tale of The Count of Monte Cristo. 

Retitled as Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo, this 2004 anime version of Alexandre Dumas’ classic tale of revenge moves the plot from 19th century France to the year 5053. The story follows the titular Count, who infiltrates the Parisian high-class in order to exact revenge on those involved with a betrayal from 25 years prior. There’s a large ensemble of characters who get impacted by the revenge plot. People live, people die, and nothing will ever be the same for those involved. 

If you have never heard of the original story, the anime is a fantastic introduction to one of the most famous stories ever told, and if you’re super familiar with the original or with the countless adaptations that came before this anime, Gankutsuou offers enough differences and artistic choices to make for a fresh take on the original. This is one of the most stylish shows of the past two decades, with a large ensemble of well-written characters, and a story that’s begging to be binge-watched. You may know The Count of Monte Cristo, but you don’t know Gankutsuou.

What Makes It Great

The first thing you will notice about Gankutsuou is its visual style. Though the early ‘00s CGI looks like a bad PS2 cutscene most of the time (for some reason, they use CG mechas as suits of armor for duels), the visual style of the show is a marvel to look at. Creator Mahiro Maeda (Blue Submarine No. 6, concept art for Mad Max: Fury Road) gives the show a style heavily influenced by the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Maeda collaborated with fashion designer Anna Sui on designing the large variety of costumes used in the show, which are constantly changing to reflect the characters’ emotional journey. Parts of ordinary objects, characters’ hair, and of course their many, many outfits, are filled with CG patterns that look digitally layered, moving autonomously whenever characters move. It’s the closest a digital anime gets to Yellow Submarine

Likewise, the design of the characters differs from the traditional. The show is designed by Hidenori Matsubara, who had previously worked on Sakura Wars (and also served as animation director for the Rebuild of Evangelion movies). He foregoes the traditional character design of other anime of the time to focus on communicating personality through movement instead of lighting and shadows. Indeed, at times it seems like the anime was made with live-action actors in mind, with a bigger focus on small gestures than traditional animated series. 

Even if you don’t instantly fall in love with the show’s opening song, the rest of Gankutsuou’s score is an engrossing mix of rock and classic baroque music. For you British rock fans out there, the opening and several pieces of the music were composed by The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel.

Of course, a revenge story with an intricate plot needs a tight script, and Gankutsuou’s script is airtight. Despite the large number of characters, it doesn’t feel like they’re underdeveloped. Each character has their own motivation and needs, and even if they’re not likable, they will definitely spark a reaction in the audience. As for the revenge plan itself, the show makes the fascinating change of not beginning with the origins of the plan. Instead, they are told in flashback throughout the show, which serves to make the audience learn with the characters instead of having them wait for everyone to catch up. There are several setups in the first few episodes that you see unravel before your eyes, and it is fascinating to see the Count puppeteering every single character. By the time you get the payoffs, they don’t feel like they came out of nowhere because you saw all the setups, making the resolution all the more satisfying.

What It Brings to the Conversation

There are two major changes that Gankutsuou makes to the original story. One is the change in framing, telling the story from the perspective of Viscount Albert de Morcerf, who becomes friends with the titular Count and introduces him to the Parisian aristocracy. The other is that the Count’s obsession with revenge becomes literal in the anime, as we see the semi-demonic figure known as Gankutsuou take over the body of Edmond Dantes, making him immortal and giving him blue-ish skin that makes him look like a 19th-century vampire living in space. 

The anime de-Christianises the original story, taking out the elements of divine retribution and forgiveness, using Gankutsuou to explore the idea of a person being literally possessed by their thirst for revenge, overtaking every other aspect of their old self. This allows the show to go to darker places than other adaptations, and taken on its own terms it’s a fascinating exploration of how grief or anger can destroy one’s soul to the point where they lose everything that made them who they were before. The result is something more akin Jekyll and Hyde, a person split in two due to their anger, that struggles with putting together the two halves. Though the last couple of episodes may disappoint some fans of the book, the anime’s ideas of forgiveness and love are well worth exploring. 

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Animation isn’t a medium where you usually make note of set of costume designs, but Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo very quickly lets you know that it isn’t a traditional anime. From beautiful visuals, to a complex and large-scale plot full of political betrayals, and a retrofuturistic sci-fi setting, this is an anime that can easily take your mind off the horrors of the world, with the deliciously evil and macabre revenge plot of another. 

Watch This If You Like: V for Vendetta, Kill Bill, Oldboy

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Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo is now streaming on Funimation’s Youtube Channel. 

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