published in Empire No.63, Sydney
A rich visual tapestry bordering on ocular delirium, Gankutsuou marks a growing trend in anime whereby the visuals are so highly abstracted that the story's settings and events almost cave in on themselves. Some might find this excessive and indulgent, but it's part of the Japanese aesthetic to overload such decorative patterning - think kimonos, scroll hangings and festive banners.
Hiding amidst this forest of visual delights is a mystery-cloaked saga that follows the strange attraction between innocent Albert and the impossibly attractive Count. With a cascading series of melodramatic twists and emotional cliff-hangers, the story luridly captures the decadent feel of Audrey Beardsley paintings and late Gothic literature.
Yet it all remains distinctly Japanese. The swirling backgrounds and intensely patterned fabric of those traversing the Count's parties and celebrations create a sensory overload - not to mention an entirely original approach to digital animation. This is super-flat graphic style set to optimum effect. Combined with a delicate Euro-toned score and a moving theme ballad by Jean Jacques Burnel of Stranglers' fame, Gankutsuou is a soft-Goth transformation of The Count of Monte Cristo into a futuristic meta-world of dark wonder imaginable only in Japan.
The count is a truly captivating figure. Wracked by inner demons and inhabiting a luridly retro mansion of a million hidden surprises, his name is revealed to mean 'King of the Dark Caves'. That he truly is. His bond with the pampered, sheltered yet resolutely upright Albert is foreboding - yet of magnetic strength to both. No mere father-son tale - more a mix of gay-intoned Satan/disciple bind - the first 5 volumes of Gankutsuou prove a hypnotic audiovisual trip well worth the dizzying ride. The looming finale can only maximize all that has occurred.
Directed and scripted by Maihiro Maeda with animation by one of the hottest studios around - Gonzo Studio - Gankutsuou reinvents Gothic while creating a completely unworldly pantomime of the darkest dimension.
published in Empire No.68, Sydney
If you've read the original Dumas novel The Count of Monte Cristo, you'll still be thrown for many a spin with Gankutsuou's futuristic anime reworking of the romantic classic. All the names are retained, as are the key moments and movements of the story, yet Gankutsuou is sheathed in a wholly alien fabric.
Apart from being set in a futuristic domain where Paris remains Paris but Mars has been colonised with an equally decadent realm, the metropolis of Luna, the visual veneer of Gankutsuou is the prime means by which it marks its difference to the original novel. Indeed, the archetypal 'look' of anime is mostly absent. In place, a unique hybrid meld of CGI motion, digitally scanned textures and fabrics, plus anime's recognisable supine figures and gorgeous faces. Deliberately clashing still aesthetics with gestural movement, the style fuses Edo-era Japanese prints and similar decadent prints from France and England of the same epoch. More than another twist on 'retro-futro' design in which anime already excels, Gankutsuou drafts a complex trans-cultural backdrop for its rich drama.
Reverberating within the giddy ocular sensations of Gankutsuou's imagery is the core dramatic tension between the darkly wizened Count and the pale young Albert who becomes infatuated with the Count. Gankutsuou tightens the knotted psychological bond between the two, as the Count engineers the most elaborate strategy for revenge, while Albert is pummelled by a series of emotional shocks and realizations across the series' 26 episodes. Numerous sensationalist characters float between the Count and Albert's fateful encounters, resulting in a densely braided melodrama highlighting love, jealousy, desire and death. The amazing strength of Gankutsuou is how it manages to stretch its tragic sensationalism tautly across so many episodes. The last 6 episodes in particular are likely to leave you breathless if you've enjoyed the ride up to that point.