A lot of recommendations of Gankutsuou play up, and at the same time try to excuse, its oddities; it is a strange-looking adaptation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo that starts partway in and focuses on a side-character and is in the future, as if these are things that need excusing or offering as some kind of caveat. There is a preoccupation on the fact it is a slightly non-standard adaptation of a classic novel which I think does the series as a disservice, because whether or not one cares particularly for Dumas Gankutsuou is a very solid piece of television. And, indeed, once one gets past the aesthetics, it is not a particularly non-standard adaptation at all and one that abridges ably to tell a focused, thrilling story.
The key players are there, and it is the order of their introduction that so capably disarms the viewer. The protagonist, portrayed in this adaptation in the proper vein of its space opera aesthetic as a young, slightly naïve space noble, is now Albert. He is the focus character, and the story is seemingly about his own self-discovery in love, philosophy and morals. Despite the science-fiction aesthetic, there are the social cues and challenges of the novel’s period setting and so historical social themes remain in evidence; Morrel’s criticism of the nobility as a commoner elevated to play with the rich and yet, in his failed courtship of Valentine, never able to be part of them is played out without any real change in tone or content. While the aesthetics are futuristic, the concerns and society are very much of the novel’s setting.
Historical or classical futurism in this vein is a core aesthetic in space opera, across anime and other media. Dune’s noble houses and religious prophecy-cults focused on lineage feel very feudal. Legend of the Galactic Heroes plainly puts a Germanic empire as one faction complete with pseudo-Norse religion and baroque architecture, and then runs even further by presenting its worst aspects as aesthetically redolent of ancient Roman excess. And retro-futurism of other kinds exists in series like Yamato (where the Gamilas have Greco-Roman aesthetics in their starships and are ruled by a capricious, cruel and perversely honourable emperor who takes in slave species and elevates them to citizenship). Take the past far enough into the future and you can have all the trappings of period drama plus science-fiction technology. It is past the point of being a jarring modernisation (as, say, performances of Shakespeare that transpose the plays unedited into modern dress and aesthetics do) because grander themes – of humanity’s movement (be it progression or regression) towards the past come into play.
If the future is drawn from the past, then those specific aesthetic choices become important. In Galactic Heroes the Empire – aesthetically redolent of European history – is set against a clean, modern, and utterly corrupt democracy. It is but one half of the picture. The past (which works, to an extent, and offers opportunities for the right man to fix it, to an extent) versus the present (which does not work, and is so rotten that good men suffer by it, but must nevertheless be fought for on a matter of principle). In Yamato the all-encompassing alien empire that, Rome-like, subsumes other nations and empires into it on the condition they admit the superiority of the motherland, is the enemy; Earth, modernised and good, has come under the thumb of what its people have done in the past before. So there is precedent for space opera using historical aesthetics and attitudes for a point. And thus when Gankutsuou transposes a novel which itself does not present humanity too well into the future, it is building on the expectations of classical futurism in the chosen genre. Space opera has already got the heritage of borrowing historical imperial themes for aesthetic callbacks, and assembled an array of heightened, melodramatic tropes, and thus is a natural fit for adaptations of dramatic adventure novels.
But the futurism is only one aspect of the series; one which serves as a good selling-point, because it allows for the radical visual experimentation on display and which is a thematic fit for the themes of the novel being adapted. Indeed, the fact that it is not simply a stolid historical-futurism of fancy gold-trimmed uniforms and Germanic or French aesthetics, but instead combines together an anachronistic melee of aesthetics from Montgolfier balloons to Art Deco cars to Versailles-esque palaces filled with sliding doors and touchscreens to giant robots and dazzling, unreal psychedelia is that slight tipping point that really made me love it. Ultimately Dumas’ story is one of madness, and revenge, and blinding hatred. Gankutsuou presents it in nauseating, disorienting technicolour that feels, as cliché as it might be, uncanny and dreamlike.
Without that aesthetic, though, and without the Dumas connection, what remains? Something very good in its own right. The story has a strong precedent but as I mentioned above there is a key, disarming change. Shift the focus of the novel to Albert and it becomes a gothic story of a young engaged couple whose chance encounter with a strange, reclusive nobleman destroys three families. The Count goes from a thrilling adventure hero who dramatically escapes prison to avenge himself on those who set him up to a frighteningly knowledgeable and sinuous figure who plays high society for fools and whose true depths of cleverness Albert remains blind to for too long. In the space-opera scene of things, Albert is the very model of an anime hero; young, madly in love, reckless and inexperienced. Indeed, he could be seen as depicted here in a gothic novel viewpoint as similar, perhaps, to Valancourt from The Mysteries of Udolpho in his helping Morrel’s suit with Valentine, or his passionate devotion to Eugenie even after her father and his try to separate them.
And, in a reversal of the Gothic, it is the young, honourable man who is played by the secretive, manipulative man. In Udolpho, Montoni exerts his terror over Cheron and Emily, because a vital part of the Gothic is how the predatory man is able to confine, control and seek to own women and remove their independence. Here, Albert is consistently led along by the Count who ends up – one could very well say – confining, controlling and seeking to own him. The Count drives him to explore passions that suit the Count’s interests, influences his relationships and builds up a strange almost ownership via his miraculous “rescue” of Albert from bandits on the moon. The expectations of honour and friendship between men – and the expectations of social progression through association with the rich and powerful – are as inescapable a web here as Montoni’s own obsessions. The difference, of course, in this inverted-Gothic, is that Albert enters the web freely and is trapped in his sticking close to the Count.
While you can certainly draw comparisons with the Gothic here it is crucially important to remember the key difference, which is that – by the depiction in Gankutsuou anyway – Albert enters the whole sorry affair in the pursuit of a companion and socialisation, rather than the pressures and expectations of society and family. Of course, this only itself happens – as one knows if one knows Dumas – because the Count manipulates it all in his pursuit of revenge against Albert’s family. Some key themes are changed here, obviously. Without the explicit introduction of the Count and the explanation of his reason for revenge, his arrival in the story and gradual descent into manipulation feels much more like a tragedy for Albert rather than Albert being a tool in a grand master plan. And that is why I would say Gankutsuou stands out whether or not one cares for Dumas, because it turns the revenge-narrative, and the Gothic novel, on their heads in having the focal character be simultaneously the good-hearted saviour of damsels from overbearing families and also the manipulated, entrapped victim of a master manipulator.