The Count of Monte Cristo, arguably Alexander Dumas’ best novel, is a big, sprawling beast, stuffed to the gills with characters, subplots, secret identities, suicides, and dramatic confrontations; small wonder that GONZO felt it would provide a solid foundation for a twenty-four episode anime. The series debuted to critical acclaim in 2004, thanks largely to its arresting visuals (designer Anna Sui had a hand in creating the characters’ elaborate costumes) and its dramatic soundtrack, which employed key musical themes from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (the gold standard for operatic madness scenes) and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony (a piece of program music inspired by Byron’s poem of the same name).
The three-volume manga offers a darker, more focused presentation of the anime’s main plot while taking greater liberties with the source material. Like the anime, the manga follows the basic contours of Dumas’ novel: Edmond Dantes, an honest, hardworking sailor, is falsely imprisoned for treason, serving nearly fourteen years at the remote Chateau d’If before escaping and reinventing himself as the Count of Monte Cristo, a dashing aristocrat who uses his social standing, good looks, and vast fortune to exact revenge on the three friends who betrayed him. Though Dumas tells the story in a chronological fashion, Mahiro Maeda begins Gankutsuou at the novel’s midpoint, relating the circumstances of Dantes’ trial and punishment in several extensive flashbacks. Maeda adds a few ruffles and flourishes of his own, moving the action to the year 5053, transforming the Count into a space vampire — hard time will do that to a man, I’m told — and adding a faintly homoerotic element to the relationship between the Count and Albert de Morcerf, the son of Edmond’s former fiancee Mercedes.
As anime-to-manga adaptations go, Gankutsuou is better than average. Maeda wins points for employing a visual style that evokes the look of the anime without slavishly copying it, and for wisely limiting the scope of the story to the Count’s take-down of Gerard de Villefort, the ambitious prosecutor responsible for framing him. Volume one follows the anime closely, depicting the first meeting between the Count and Albert, and documenting how the Count insinuates himself into Parisian society. From there, however, the manga follows a somewhat different track, revealing both the full extent of Villefort’s duplicity and the true nature of Gankutsuou, the demon who possessed Edmon Dantes’ body while he was still imprisoned at the Chateau d’If (here played by a remote, unmanned space station).
The flashbacks to Dantes’ imprisonment are rendered in sensual, swirling lines suggestive of a Van Gogh painting; many panels verge on the abstract, taking the story out of the realm of the literal into a feverish dream world that effectively dramatizes Dantes’ emotional anguish without resorting to cliche imagery. Though these scenes are an inspired addition to the story (nothing like them appears in the anime), the manga’s big denouement is not. Maeda greatly simplifies the Count’s elaborate revenge on Villefort, trimming several key players from the drama and contriving a ludicrous love scene between Villefort’s second wife and his daughter Valentine that has as much to do with real Sapphic desire as a Budweiser commercial starring blond twins. It’s a shame that Maeda diverged so greatly from the original, as the Count’s revenge on Villefort is one of the novel’s most gripping subplots, filled with double-crosses, estrangements, murders (by poison, no less), and a secret love child who plays an instrumental role in destroying the trust between Villefort and Danglars, another key player in the original conspiracy against Dantes.
Folks who haven’t seen the anime or read The Count of Monte Cristo are probably the best audience for this series, as they won’t be encumbered with expectations about how events should unfold. Anyone with a strong investment in the anime or the novel, however, is likely to find this chamber piece an unsatisfying effort to represent the full complexity and drama of Dumas’ seminal work.