AND NOW, REALLY GOOD EXPOSITION.
Episode Specifics: Some months after that fateful trip to Luna, we return to Albert as he spends the day with his friends and fiancée, ruminating over their place as young adults in the city and the world at large. But this, too, is the day on which the Count said he would be arriving in Paris, and his presence immediately creates a stir amongst the savvier members of Albert’s group. Unwilling to hear a bad word about his new acquaintance, Albert invites the Count for dinner, and a meeting with his parents.
When you actually go to write it out, very little happens in this episode. In fact, there is exactly one major occurrence: the arrival of the Count. Otherwise, this is almost entirely exposition and mood setting as the show lays out the first tier of its considerable cast. The art department never wastes a chance to show off its grand designs for the space element of the series, and those alien, technological vistas and ruined cityscapes are far better suited by the CG elements than the eventual mechs. Oh my yes, there will be mechs. But seriously, it is amazing that there’s basically a five minute stretch of “isn’t it impressive how the families assembled here basically make up the entirety of the city’s power structure,” and it doesn’t feel one ounce forced.
In other news, I continue to be rather pleasantly surprised by how the show’s depiction of Peppo tries not to be gross. While there’s definitely an undercurrent of “ha ha, trans person” that I’m certain more than a few audience members read in, the text of the scene speaks as much to in-universe concerns as anything. When Peppo talks about “keeping each other’s secrets” she could quite easily mean her connections to the bandits far more than anything to do with her gender presentation. And while he’s embarrassed at being made a fool of (and still easily flustered at being flirted with), Albert makes no comment on Peppo’s wardrobe. Hell, he doesn’t even misgender her. Good job, 2004 anime.
And no one will convince me that Eugenie’s car isn’t a deliberate homage to Adolescence of Utena.
Character Spotlight: This is an episode of broad strokes, an appetizer plate that will give us much to discuss in future but presently doesn’t leave a lot of room to dig in without stepping on future plot-toes. Instead, we’ll take a look at the general group dynamic, which is stunningly different from the original text despite how little was changed in the way of concrete details. The short version is that there are a lot fewer people there , and it’s not a dark and stormy afternight when the Count arrives. The long version is that in the novel, everyone is also a terrible person. Just so we can really be sure that we’re okay with the revenge being brought down on their heads. Wait, I can sum this up in another quote.
“Take no notice, Morcerf,” Debray said offhandedly. “Get married. You’ll be marrying the label on a moneybag, won’t you?
“Lucien, by gad, I do believe you’re right,” Albert replied absentmindedly.
So there’s that. Franz is also not present, though it is pretty amusing how often in his short appearance (during the Carnivale scene and his hazy meeting with the Count on Monte Cristo) how just about everybody and their dog takes the time to comment on how very sensible and levelheaded and also no-nonsense he is. Small wonder that his role was expanded to be the one voice of semi-reason among the aristocracy.
Once again, we have an effort made to show that these are basically good human beings; or, more accurately, that Albert, Franz, and Eugenie are distinct from the culture surrounding them. Each is somehow at odds with their upbringing: Eugenie longs for escape (which is at least one thing consistent with her book characterization), Franz is responsible but sickened by power plays, and Albert is a romantic who believes in uniting people outside of societally mandated distinctions. The picnic scene, too, is a concerted effort to make these very rich, privileged kids look simple and carefree in a way that absolutely screams “you are going to feel bad once the really bad shit starts coming down.” It’s quite impressive how often it’s done, and on a relatively subtle level of change.
Courtly Intrigue Update: Welcome to Paris! Everything is terrible and nobody says what they mean. Except Beauchamp, but nobody likes him. Or trusts him, anyway. Then you have Lucien Debray, who’s worked his way up suspiciously quickly through the political system and is real, real cozy with the Danglers family (and Eugenie Danglers is the one begrudgingly engaged to Albert). And Maximillian Morrel, who’s hanging out with the aristocrats because he saved dopey car fiend Renaud during some vague space war (we’ll talk about the amputated historical contexts a bit later on). And Morrel, of course, is a family very dear to the Count’s heart…not that any of these kids know that.
Don’t worry. It’s a lot to take in all at once, but it’ll start to make sense fast.
Adaptation Corner: I had intended to seek out the first filmed adaptation for y’all, the 1922 silent film known as Monte Cristo; unfortunately, it seems the thing cannot be acquired for love or money. Or rather, while it was supposedly released on DVD the only available copies are very pricey Region 2 eBay numbers, and no streaming services offer the film nor any websites of trustworthy repute (even YouTube, that bastion of not being too bothered about pre-Code film, only has a single clip). So instead, let me transcribe for you some choice bits of the Introduction to Penguin’s release of the novel, which has some fascinating information about just why this story is so widespread.
“Dumas himself must bear some of the responsibility [for Monte Cristo being dismissed as children’s/pop literature]. During his most productive decade, from 1841 to 1850, he wrote forty one novels, twenty three plays, seven historical works and half a dozen travel books…’Alexander Dumas and Co., novel factory’ was the contemptuous title given to one critical pamphlet, published at the same time as this novel, in 1845…More-over it was known that Dumas wrote for money, at so much a line, and that he used at least one collaborator [as opposed to the more “artistic” or “pure” efforts of other authors of the time].
…What I would like to suggest is that Dumas’ novel stands at a crucial point in the development of modern popular fiction [including as a precursor to Poe’s detective stories], drawing into the genre elements from Romantic literature, popular theatre, history and actuality, and wrapping them up in a narrative carefully enough constructed and dramatic enough to hold the attention of a growing reading public with a great appetite for fiction.”
So while it’s become something of a musty standby of the traditional literature that initially rejected him as not artistically pure enough, Dumas was more or less 19th Century France’s Stephen King – ridiculously productive, with monstrous tomes in all sorts of genres (and with varying degrees of success; a little bit shocking and occasionally thoughtful, but more than anything with an eye for a hook that can catch a great number of people who need something to read at the airport. Of course, there was also the fact that he was Moorish, thus being one of the most influential writers of the Western canon who is also a person of color (which is so rarely discussed that I, a fucking English major, had no idea until well after my degree was in hand), but that is a meaty subject for another episode.
Themes: Vampires and paintings. And picnics, but mostly vampires and paintings. The recurrent speculation on whether this mysterious upstart Count is actually a mythical bloodsucker comes from Dumas, though it’s interesting to see how even the most basic context has changed over the centuries; Monte Cristo started its serialization in 1844, almost thirty years before Carmilla and more than fifty before Dracula, which were two of the most influential early portrayals of the vampire as an erotic figure. So when Dumas used the term, it’s often in tandem with descriptions of Edmond as pale or waxy, like he’s a dead man who lives only for revenge.
That element is still there in Gankutsuou – the Count’s icy corpse hand is in both, for instance – but it’s decidedly influenced by the post Stoker (and by 2004, post-Rice) image of the vampire as a dangerous but also alluring individual (I feel like I just talked about this…) – this idea of the Count as a man who is intelligent, handsome, charming, and simultaneously ruinous in a way his enthralled victims don’t notice, is quite apropos for the modern archetype. And so we have the long, luxurious hair, the rather sensuous features and, of course, those fangs. The built-in means of establishing the Count as an Other was simply too good an opportunity to pass up, so it’s no wonder the design team pounced on it.
But beneath that, it’s no coincidence that the comparisons surface right as we’re being introduced to the players of Parisian society. Social vampires, y’see, both in terms of how they’re using one another to rise through the ranks (particularly Beauchamp reporting on scandals and Lucien’s whoooooole deal) and the episode’s brief discussion of how the aristocracy is literally walled off from the city of Paris at large – which is a pretty good general sci-fi conceptualizing of the novel’s very then-timely takes on France’s struggle with Bonaparte vs the monarchy, a concept which we will undoubtedly be visiting again.
Then there are the paintings, another image from the novel that’s spun into a full motif. Mercedes’ painting recalls not just her past but a frozen, idealized image of it – who she might have been if she’d married Edmond, as well as the home she left behind (which her husband would much rather forget); it matches the photograph the Count carries among his personal effects, with both of them yearning for their lost past together. But of course, in Mercedes’ case this particularly means that the Count has a static image of her as he thinks she should be, and not who she’s had to become since she was left behind. These images of beautiful stasis and false memory are all over the place throughout the series, right down to the shattering of one of those beautiful images that begins the chaotic ending theme.