It's a heavyweight piece of work from Studio Gonzo with genre-redefining visuals. It's a SF adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo, often called the finest novel of Alexandre Dumas (pere), to which it's impressively faithful in many details while letting rip in lots of new directions. Its 51st century setting is brilliant, reinventing the original and making it fresh again while recreating the mannered society of 19th century Paris on which the story depends. It wouldn't be the same in a contemporary setting. You'd have to make changes... often little ones, admittedly, but by going into the future Gankutsuou avoids all such problems. Its world is an intoxicating blend of wild imagination and historical authenticity, coming together in one of the richest and most convincing SF futures I've seen in a while.
Similarly by basing itself on an acknowledged classic, it ensures that it has plenty of drama. The Count of Monte Cristo is essentially a revenge story, concerned with themes of justice, vengeance, mercy and forgiveness. The original is a sprawling epic set covering the years 1814-38 which took two years to write, was completed in 1844 and was subsequently released in eighteen parts. If only Dickens had written that way, maybe he'd have been better at plotting. Gankutsuou's 24 episodes have room to include subplots and characters which don't often appear in adaptations, though that's not to say that they don't make plenty of changes too.
This should have been perfect for me. However I got bored after six episodes and gave up. To sample what I was missing I jumped ahead and watched parts 16, 23 and 24, then gave away the discs to a friend. I'd received the discs in the first place from another friend, which should have been a warning. Oddly those later episodes looked recommendable, albeit with caveats. However nothing I saw led me to believe that I'd ever rewatch this show, or even go back to catch up on the episodes I'd skipped.
The show's problems are twofold. Firstly, it's too slow. 24 episodes is a long time! Admittedly many anime shows don't advance their plots at all for months on end, killing time with filler episodes and monsters of the week, but that's different. Those aren't single stories, but effectively anthologies. Gankutsuou is unquestionably one complete epic, but unfortunately because of that tended to crawl along like an octogenarian cripple with two broken legs. There's some cool action on the moon, but after that in Paris it's all people in drawing rooms disappearing up their own arses. I liked what I saw when I jumped ahead to episode sixteen, but scarily it didn't feel as if I'd missed anything. There had obviously been some plot developments while I was gone, but nothing I couldn't have guessed in advance. Had this been episode seven, I'd have kept watching. Unfortunately it wasn't and I didn't.
My other problem was that I disliked the characters. I didn't care about Paris and its vapid pondlife, with their servants and their fashionable infidelities. Maybe I was meant to dislike the morally deficient older generation, but I actually preferred them to their spineless offspring. The lead character, Albert de Morcerf, has the brains of a peeled grape. He's too obviously a dupe. I lost all sympathy for him in episode five when he jumped headfirst into a stupid duel that should have got him killed. Unfortunately he survived. Similarly I nearly managed to care for Eugenie in episode six, but she threw it all away by refusing to improve her situation after whinging about how much she hated it and how unfortunate she was. They're as bad as the bloody Russians. "Moan moan moan, what is the meaning of life?" Here's a hint: get one.
Hardly anyone is even nice. They're rich parasites. The moral tone seemed cruel and cynical, without any kind of uplifting message or theme that I could see beyond "shit happens and sometimes you'll get shafted by someone who's an even bigger bastard than you are". With hindsight this was important set-up for the story's later stages in which sinners get their just deserts and Albert grows from a child into a man, but unfortunately by then I'd jumped ship.
I've heard it suggested that Gankutsuou's Count might have drawn for inspiration on Space Pirate Captain Harlock, although in fairness the original 1978 Harlock TV series has echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Unfortunately for me this wasn't an unmixed blessing. I never really cared about Harlock as a person either. Interestingly however this show also echoes the Harlock-Daiba relationship by making Albert de Morcerf the lead character and the Count more of an unknowable force of nature. In fairness I liked Albert better than Daiba, although I've had dental surgery that I liked better than Daiba.
I also thought I spotted homosexual subtext, which on the moon was so blatant as to be practically text. This extended the Harlock parallels, not to mention adding another slant to the Count-Albert relationship.
The conclusion in particular is barely recognisable from the original. That's not a crime in itself, except that Dumas's Count saw himself as the wrath of God while Gankutsuou's has effectively sold his soul to the Devil. He can't turn back. Personally I think this undermines the message of the novel, which isn't about vengeance so much as its blind destructiveness. Dumas's Count goes through a fuller emotional journey, eventually taking actions that are denied his anime counterpart. Admittedly Gonzo concentrated more on the supporting characters, but even so it seems bizarre to do a 24-episode adaptation of a classic novel in which you omit the culmination of its themes.
It would be criminal not to mention the art. It's conventionally drawn, but coloured by someone with access to Photoshop and way too much time on their hands. There's not even any attempt at naturalism. When the characters move, the patterns on their clothes don't. It's astonishing. It's like the visual equivalent of the "eyeball kicks" SF genre and their impenetrably dense prose packed with detail about the future. It's like nothing I could have even imagined, demonstrating yet again animation's ability to push the boundaries like no other medium. I was just thankful that people's faces tended not to get the Photoshop treatment. We begin with a carnival for maximum bleeding-eye impact and from there it never lets up.
This could be taken literally given the SF setting (clever clothes, perhaps?), but underneath the dazzling colours lie strong and simple visual designs. This aristocratic world is so rooted in the 19th century that it's almost a reenactment, with guillotines, swordfights and opera glasses. It's also very French, as with the French-language narration at the start of each episode. All that adds flavour.
Finally there's the CGI, which surpasses even the rest of this eclectic visual mix. It's beautiful. Words can hardly describe some of these creations, which make the Star Wars prequels look like crayon scribblings. I gawped in wonder at vehicles, spaceships and on one memorable occasion a dress at the opera, which was nothing I could have previously imagined as clothing. Occasionally the CGI jarred, e.g. the cars in part three, but I could live with that. This show is almost worth buying just for its visuals. It'll make you speculate that sense-of-wonder SF is being discovered for the first time in the CGI age, just as fantasy seems to have abandoned wonder to become grittier and realistic.
I did like those later episodes. Episode 16 looked great, with enough twists, revelations and drama for a finale. Admittedly the characters were still the same bunch of losers, but by that point they were in such dire straits that they were being forced into some painful decisions. I gained respect for them. Episode 23 had stuff that I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest probably wasn't in the novel, like giant robot battles and lava-ridden apocalypses reminiscent of Hellsing. Studio Gonzo's shows are infamous for losing the plot towards the end, though, so this looked a little better than usual for them. I noticed human drama amid the noise and fury. I even enjoyed episode 24, a "five years later" epilogue that tied up loose ends and gave the story something akin to a happy ending. The dead were remembered and the living were allowed to move on. It had heart. Given that a huge part of my problem with the show had been an inability to care about the characters, I was impressed with the emotion that was evident in this final episode.
Gankutsuou leaves me in the odd position of almost recommending something I have no desire to watch. I presume I missed lots of good stuff, but it's hardly one of those shows where you'll be lost if you miss even one episode. In fact it's the opposite. After the action moves to Paris, I'd recommend watching only one episode in every three until the show gets exciting again. Even that might feel too slow, but the challenge of trying to work out what you've missed may help to compensate. This would also give the show unusual rewatch value, by repeating the experiment with a different episode selection.
If you're forewarned and have more patience than me, you might love this show. You'll have to get over its problems, though. Another one is the opening theme music, which is... er, well, I like the closing theme.