Thursday, June 19, 2014


Let's bring the subject matter back to something closer to the present, and something unique even for this month.  What we have here is an adaptation of an adapation of a literary classic:

GANKUTSUOU (The King of the Cavern): THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, adapted from the series by Studio GONZO, written and drawn by Mahiro Maeda.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.

Albert, the scion of a noble family, has come with his best friend Franz to celebrate Carnival on the lunar city Luna.  It is there that Albert meets the mysterious and compelling Count of Monte Cristo, who saves the young man in turn.  Months later, Albert learns that the Count is coming to meet his family and their circle of peers in Paris, but none of them are aware of the Count's true purpose for coming.  The Count's past is tied to a man named Edmond Dantes and the three men who betrayed him: a powerful judge, a wealthy baron, and the influential general who married Edmond's fiancée.  Albert wants friendship with the Count, but the Count is only after one thing: revenge.

Gankutsuou is a rare sort of adaptation.  It's very ostensibly removed from the Alexandre Dumas novel that inspired it, what with all the spaceships and lunar colonies and whatnot.  At the same time, it retained the complexities of the novel, and many have declared the series a better adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo than most television and film adaptation could ever be.

Admittedly, the combination of sci-fi and Ye Olde France isn't an entirely smooth one.  People may party on Luna instead of Paris or ride in spaceships instead of carriages, but somehow the systems of power and class remain the same as they were in the past.  Still, the setting isn't what draws the reader to the story.  No, it's the characters that do that, and the Count in particular.  In an interesting twist, the story is not told through the Count, but through naïve, gullible Albert.  You almost can't help but feel a little sorry for him, because it's quite apparent from early on that Albert is the sort who is easily led by the stronger personalities of his friends, family, and the Count.  At the same time, you want to smack him for being so dumb at times, and when he starts fighting with Franz or his tomboyish fiancée Eugenie you wish the story would go back to the Count.

Nonetheless, it's a clever move to switch the protagonist from the Count to Albert, because it allows the Count to retain his mystery and allure.  The reader is left in much the same place as Albert, fascinated by the glimpses and tidbits we can gleam about the Count.  Of course, the reader has an advantage that Albert and the others do not.  The last third of the volume is an extended flashback to the Count's days as Edmond Dantes.  We see the plot against him, we see his downfall, and we witness his descent into madness and despair.  With that knowledge before us, all of the Count's interactions before and afterwards becomes something darker and more twisted.  We get to see the Count as a sort of game master, and behold his manipulations of others.  Poor Albert may not have a chance against such a force of personality, but that doesn't mean that it isn't thrilling to watch.

This all sounds grand, but the biggest problem is that Maeda can't really take credit for most of it.  Since so much has been preserved from the book, much of the credit in turn goes to Dumas.  Maeda and company might have changed the setting and the focus, but what they've done is little more than placing a beautiful gem in a new setting.  Sure, the new setting may highlight different qualities and reflect light in different ways, but they weren't the ones who cut and faceted the gem in the first place.  At the very least, these changes don't do anything to diminish the beauty and perfection of the original.  Instead, they highlight its own natural charms and complexities.

It's hard enough to avoid turning any review of a show-turned-manga into 'well, the show did this, but the manga does that!'  It's harder still to do so when talking about the art, and hardest of all when the show is as visually distinct as Gankutsuou.   It's often held up as one of the best shows ever produced by Studio GONZO, a lush combination of traditional and 3D animation, one where the characters seemingly drift through seas of color and patterns.  Such visual lushness is a challenge to transcribe from the screen to the panel, and on all fronts Maeda fails.

To be honest, it looks unfinished.  While the character designs from the show are retained, they are drawn in rough, sketchy lines.  Facial features disappear and reappear on a whim, and the only shading comes from rough hatching.  Everything just looks so flat and drab.  The only point where any sort of visual imagination is when Edmond starts going mad, and the world around him melts and swirls about him.  It starts with mere visions of his nightmares, but by the end it devolves into abstract expressions of his very emotions, flickering in and out of the oppressive darkness.  It's an incredibly powerful and evocative set of images, and the contrast is all the more stark when it's compared to all the other tall, plain panels full of talking heads.

As I first read this, I felt like I was reading more of a storyboard than a manga.  It was only after I finished and started doing some research that this feeling was explained.  Maeda isn't a mangaka by trade, but instead an animator.   He started out with Studio Gainax in the days of Royal Space Force and Gunbuster.  He's worked on OVAs of all sorts, ranging from Giant Robo to Gunsmith Cats to Doomed Megalopolis.  Most recently, he directed Evangelion 3.33.  It's a safe bet to call him a good animator.  The problem is that being a good animator isn't the same as being a good comic artist.  An animation storyboard isn't necessarily meant to be smoothly read.  It's meant to just be a visual outline of a scene, one that the rest of the animation staff will fill out as needed.  A manga creator may be doing the same thing with a page - tell a story through a series of images - but they don't have the luxury of 24 frames per second to fill out all those images.  They only have so many pages to get their point across, so every panel needs to be both visually appealing and easy to follow to achieve that.  Sadly, for all the skills that Maeda has, he can't quite translate them to comic form.

The story remains brilliant, but the poor art drags it down mightily.  Stick with the show if you want to enjoy this particular version as it was meant to be consumed.

This series was published by Del-Ray.  All 3 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

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