And with an incredibly sharp high note preserved for all eternity, we’re off!
Episode Specifics: Lifelong friends Albert de Morcef and Franz D’Epinay have landed on Luna just in time to celebrate the end of the raucous festival of Carnival. While at the opera, Albert finds himself entranced by a chance sighting of the mysterious Count of Monte Cristo and, as if by fate, happens to find the Count’s watch. Attempting to return it, Albert crosses paths with the mysterious man on the opera house’s windswept roof. The next night, Albert and Franz receive an invitation to have dinner with the Count – who proves, despite Franz’ suspicions as to his origins, to be quite charming.
Things take a turn for the sinister when he invites the young men to a viewing of a public execution, and goads Albert into playing a game of fate with the lives of the condemned. Shaken and angry with himself for taking part in such a thing, Albert storms off into the city alone and takes up with a friendly young woman…and winds up kidnapped.
I’d be hard pressed to name a show with a better pilot episode than this one. The number of tonal notes it hits, seamlessly, in the course of 22 minutes is nothing less than stunning. Like Franz, we have more than enough reason to suspect the Count from the word go…and yet he is charming. He is alluring. We want to know more. It’s downright perfect manipulation of audience expectation, showing us when the characters are wrong while also putting us in the same emotional position.
By the way, did you know that blue roses tend to symbolize unrequited or impossible love? The miraculous, supernatural blue doesn’t occur in nature, hence the connection. It’s no coincidence, I think, that the Count threw blue roses as a means of catching Albert’s attention. Blue also features prominently as the Count talks about his lost love, his figure crowded into the corner of the frame while an enormous painting (nothing less than a preserved memory) of lovers fills the screen – and in the center, a blue butterfly: a symbol of death and rebirth, once more in that miraculous blue.
But the undeniable centerpiece of the episode is the execution scene, which might be one of the most masterful bits of throat-tightening tension in anime: the Count’s skill at layering on multiple levels of pressure (appealing to Albert’s childish desire to “do good” as well as the more abstractly hilarious “ah man I thought you were cool”), the ticking clock of impending death suddenly made into a personal responsibility, and over that the almost Wagnerian soundtrack bearing down on all of us. It’s almost unbearable, and the sour, lingering aftermath as the Count forces Albert to watch the remaining executions is worse. It’s as beautifully crafted as it is horrifying.
One last image before we move on: Albert and Peppo’s meeting by the river is warm and lovely, almost expressionistic with its boldly lined, indistinct pairs of lovers and the warmth seeping from every corner of the frame, as if we have been gifted a single source of salvation. The whole ending carries that feel, from their meeting to the Count’s shadowed figure on the balcony while beautiful, violent explosions surround him and leave him untouched.
Character Spotlight: Albert is frequently dumb as a post. Let’s get that out of the way straight off. I also have an enormous soft spot for him as a protagonist, in no small part because I was precisely his age (15 going on 16) the very first time I saw the series. And for me, personally, I found his sheltered in-love-with-love gullibility to be hugely relatable: more specifically, chasing after something that seems to embody adulthood without the emotional understanding of what being an adult means.
There’s one thing to fix in your head about Albert’s character from the word go: he wants, more than anything, to be the hero of a storybook. He wants to find “the thing he’s been missing,” to be passionately in love in the way he’s no doubt read about. And he’s come to Luna, the place where he’s been told one can “fulfill all [their] desires.” Is it any wonder, then, that he’s so completely dazzled by what the Count is offering?
The climb up the opera house stairs is one of my favorite scenes in the series, partly because of what a gorgeous visual metaphor it makes and how much it tells us about Albert long before the dinner scene. He runs after what he thinks might have been the Count, and finds the watch – he doesn’t know what he’s chasing, not really, but he’s found the smallest hint and filled in the rest of the gaps on his own. And he’s prepared to go through huge efforts to chase after this thing he cannot touch, climbing what seems like miles of stairs, until at last he reaches the literal light at the end of the tunnel. Albert hesitates, not knowing what he’ll find, but he pushes through the threshold to the unknown, sure that because it is bright it will be better (and the ornate surrealistic element to the setting makes it feel even more like a storybook). Low and behold, on the other side, there is his romantic, fated meeting.
Albert wants this to work. He wants the ending he’s envisioned in his head (but hasn’t conceived past “romantic and adventurous,” which the Count is offering in equally vague terms), and that’s what causes him to push Franz (who truly loves him) aside, and to agree to do things he finds morally repugnant. If it’s offered in the light of “adulthood,” he’ll go for it just to escape the vague sort of ennui he’s trapped in. And it’s mostly the people around him who are going to suffer for it.
Courtly Intrigue Update: You know, it only occurred to me on this watch that all of those cards probably had the same initials on them? The Count doesn’t show them before laying them down, and he needs Peppino to carry out the next part of his plan. And, of course, the appearance of Peppo in the very first scene implies that things were in motion from the very second Albert entered the city.
Adaptation Corner: Here’s an interesting fact for you, dear readers. If you’re wondering where on earth the title of the series came from, when the transliteration of the novel’s title is “Monte Cristo-Haku.” The novel was originally translated into Japanese as “Shigai Shiden Gankutsuou-ou” (“a historical story from outside history, the King of the Cave”) by Shuroku Kuroiwa at the very beginning of the 20th century. Kuroiwa then ran the novel in serialized format from 1901-1902 in his newspaper Yorozu Choho, which he had founded roughly a decade before (and which became one of Japan’s largest newspapers). It was hugely popular under that name, so even though later translations of the novel use the more literal title, adaptations tend to use the more well-known translation. While I haven’t been able to find any real explanation for the original usage, I would guess the “cave” is meant to be a more general reference to the island of Monte Cristo (since that’s where the Count amassed his fortune, I suppose it would make him a “King”) – perhaps Kuroiwa thought it would appeal more to the readers, a la the later Westernization moves pulled by 4Kids?
Themes: Since this is an episode of meetings, it seems only right to introduce you to the prestige backing this project up. GONZO isn’t really on the radar anymore as a major studio, due largely to the studio’s serious financial problems in the late 2000s. By the time the 08-09 financial statements were released it was revealed that the studio was seriously in debt (est. 30 million USD) and they were delisted from Tokyo’s Stock Exchange and eventually merged with a larger company. While they do still produce a show about once a year, they’re basically a nonentity. The Konami of anime, maybe. But back in the early 2000s, they had quite the reputation for visual bombast, CGI, and mechs: Speed Grapher, Full Metal Panic!, Samurai 7, Afro Samurai, and Welcome to the NHK were all part of the GONZO lineup. Now their wheelhouse is a bit more….well, Strike Witches. You either die a hero and all that.
More important than the studio is the frankly incredible figure who served as series director. Mahiro Maeda has only one series director credit prior to Gankutsuou (the cult classic Blue Submarine No. 6), but that listing belies what an absolute titan of the anime industry he is. Besides going on to found GONZO itself, Maeda contributed designs to Evangelion’s Angels, helped design the mecha of Escaflowne, worked as an animator on several of Studio Ghibli’s early films, contributed key animation to Kill Bill Vol. 1, directed a short in The Animatrix, and more recently co-directed Evangelion 3.0 and served as character designer for the visually stunning Mad Max Fury Road. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to call Gankutsuou Maeda’s magnum opus, bursting as it is with still-stunning aesthetic and loaded with all the elements that the director clearly held dear to his heart (I’m not sure you needed to sneak a mecha battle in there, sir, but bless you for trying). The clear amount of passion he poured into the work shines through loud and clear, and there really aren’t enough slow claps in my repertoire to adequately cover it.