Achieving Whiteness Through Social Mobility in Gankutsuou

By: ThatNerdyBoliviane December 27, 20175 Comments
A middle aged man and woman in expensive looking formal wear

SPOILERS: Detailed discussion of the entire Gankutsuou series.

There have been many adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  Some have tried to simplify the story to make it easier to fit into a constrained time limit, while others were so faithful to the plot that the spirit is entirely lost. Gankutsuou, by contrast, is arguably the best adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo while also being its own original story.

It’s evident that the creative team behind this series had a lot of love for the source material that they were able to capture the nuances of what made the book a compelling drama to read.  Unlike the previous adaptations of the book, which overwhelmingly cast white actors for all the roles, the anime makes a point of depicting the main characters as people of color, specifically brown characters.

This racial aspect of the main characters is actually a more accurate portrayal of what they look like in the book—Alexandre Dumas goes into detail describing the race, ethnicities, and social status of his main characters. He also goes a step further to complicate this tale of vengeance by depicting the notion that, for these marginalized characters to be able to move up the social ladder, they effectively had to erase any historical ties they had with their respective communities in order to become part of high society.

Am 18th century style painting of a woman in a low-cut dress sitting on a rock, staring out at the sea

During the colonial period, oftentimes the only options for marginalized communities of color to survive oppressive sociopolitical structures was to assimilate into “whiteness” and rise up the social ladder.  Colonization played out differently everywhere, but what came out of it were complex racial categories that enforced policies to exterminate communities of color, whiten their populations, and disenfranchise them of any sociopolitical and economic power.  This was the toxic landscape that both Alexandre Dumas and his father had to live through, and the effects are felt in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Before discussing what made Gankutsuou such a great series and the importance it had in regards to representation, it’s important to mention the huge influence Alexandre Dumas’ father had on him and the themes he explored in his literary work.  Thomas Dumas was born in Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti, as the son of a white French nobleman and an enslaved Black woman named Marie-Cessette Dumas.

After Thomas’s mother and sisters were sold, his father took him back to France so that Thomas could get an education befitting his noble ancestry. For most of his adolescence, he lived a life of luxury.  Thomas grew up during turbulent historical periods: he was born in a country now known as Haiti, where complex racial categories offered a chance of upward mobility, then later tried to find his place in post-revolutionary France, first during the division between the royalists and republicans and later during the rise of Napoleon.

A man with a shaggy haircut in the forefront staring at an ominous tower in the distance

In the midst of all this chaos, Thomas was humiliated by a group of white naval officers and forced to kneel and beg for forgiveness from his assailants.  The experience shook Thomas, and he decided to join the French military under his mother’s maiden name—since the military refused to give him the rank he was entitled to due to his aristocratic background—but was denied because he was a Black mixed-race man. From there, Thomas rapidly rose through the chain of command and went on to have a successful military career.  Sadly, due to his captivity in the Kingdom of Naples and the French government refusing to give his family the pension they deserved, he left his family in extreme poverty when he died.

The injustices that his father suffered deeply affected Alexandre Dumas throughout his childhood, inspiring him to explore themes like racial identity, class, and injustice in his work.  In fact, a lot of the main themes in The Count of Monte Cristo were recycled from his previous work, Georges, about a mixed-race man wanting to avenge his father.

A blue skinned man in a trim black suit. Violet glowing eyes show on his forehead, and he stands in a circle of light

What makes Gankutsuou the best adaptation of Dumas’ novel is that it’s able to capture both the intense feelings of betrayal at the injustices inflicted on Edmond Dantes, as well as how other characters used his misfortune to create a web of lies and deceptions so that they could move up the social hierarchy and maintain their fortunes.  The anime also does an amazing job acknowledging that some of the main characters, like Albert and his family, were in fact ethnically brown Catalans who had their own distinct struggles as people of color during the sociopolitical upheavals in France at the time.

In the novel, Dumas explained in-depth the mysterious origins of the Catalans from Spain and how their small tight-knit communities lived in the margins in the fishing village of Marseilles.  The main difference between the two mediums is that, in the novel, the ethnicities of the characters are described from the very beginning; in the anime, while we clearly see that Albert and his family are darker than the rest of the characters, it’s never outwardly stated.

a woman with long hair seen in profile, semi-silhouetted against the bright light on the sea

In the eyes of high society, his family had achieved “whiteness” through their wealth and military achievements. (Note that “whiteness” was based on racial hierarchies created by the history of scientific racism that determined the dominant class.  In the case of communities of color, it often meant attaining social and political power in order to assimilate into that dominant class and perpetuate the oppression of other racialized communities.) It isn’t until later episodes, when Albert and his friends begin their own investigations, that he slowly begins to learn the truth about his parents’ origins and how they obtained their wealthy status.

Another major change in Gankutsuou is that the series follows the perspective of Albert de Morcerf (a secondary character in the novel) instead of Edmond Dantes, the titular Count. The setting becomes a futurist mid-18th century France, and while the main historical events that influenced the novel—such as the political upheaval that allowed Dantes to be arrested as a suspect Bonapartist—are only vaguely referenced in the show (partly due to the futurist settings), they do have a major impact on the lives of the main characters.  It’s due to those turbulent events that new hierarchical categories were created to fit the times—and the people who benefited the most from the new rising aristocracy were Albert’s family.

A middle aged man and woman in expensive looking formal wear

While in the book Albert still has an important role, as he introduces the Count to all the major players in his plan for vengeance and continues to be enamored with the Count’s persona, his relationship with the Count is ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things.  However, in the anime, Albert is depicted as younger (15 rather than a grown adult) and more naïve. He never questions the status quo of the privileged life his father, General Fernand de Morcerf, provided for him or considers the people who may have suffered to provide it.

As time passes, though, Albert discovers that the world he always believed in was a lie and that every high-ranking person he knew achieved their positions by lying and exploiting other people for their own ends.  In the case of Albert’s father, Fernand, he did everything in his power to erase any ties his family had to Marseilles and created an alternative family history so that his so-called military achievements could be recognized and accepted by France’s aristocratic society.  Fernand was willing to sacrifice everything, even his own history and community, in order to become a respected and influential member of what he deemed a “civilized society.”

A woman with ornately styled hair, pale blue skin and pointed ears, sitting at a harp

In his military career, Fernand always chose the route that would benefit him the most and was never loyal to anything that could potentially harm his chances of social ascendancy.  One of the most awful examples of his determination was his betrayal and murder of Haydée’s father, the Pasha of Janina, whom Fernand then labeled a traitor working against the democratic governments of Earth.

Fernand realized that by “revealing” the Pasha as a traitor he would be lauded as the hero that saved everyone from the threat of the Eastern Empire, and his reputation would be secured.  Not only was he willing to sever his connection to his community in Marseilles, but he was more than ready to betray other racialized people.  To some degree, Albert and his friends knew their respective families were corrupt and selfish people, but they hadn’t realized the full extent of their atrocities until the events of the series.

An older man in general regalia saluting a line of troops

That’s why, when the Count begins his calculated vengeance, he knows the best way to destroy those who wronged him is to ruin the façade they created for themselves as high-class members of society.  In so doing, he reveals the most horrid characteristics of everyone involved. While the main three perpetrators get what they deserve, it’s Fernand’s reaction to everything falling apart that stood out to me in the finale.  In a pathetic and desperate attempt to keep everything he’d worked for, he tries to commit a coup d’etat against Earth’s government and even goes so far as to sacrifice his own soldiers, wife, and son to salvage the façade he’d created for himself.

While Albert can’t accept it, he does try to understand why all these terrible events happened and put an end to the cycle of vengeance that is destroying the Count as well as his targets.  In the end, Albert loses the privileged life he was used to. But in taking his mother’s maiden name and becoming “Albert Herrera,” he indicates that he’s willing to start over and live a more honest and decent life than his father.  Albert may not physically live in Marseilles, but his mother does, which gives him a way to connect with his roots should he ever decide to return.

Cursive script reading Albert Herrera at the bottom of a printed letter

Gankutsuou is a wonderfully told story that has complex characters and compelling drama.  It is equally great that the creative team decided to make the main characters predominately brown people, as anime with non-Japanese people of color in leading roles are few and far between. There are plenty of stories with supporting characters of color, but it doesn’t change the fact that whatever stories are being told, they’re not the main focus in the central narratives.  While Japan’s racial makeup is different than that found in the United States, it doesn’t mean that there’s no racial diversity there, nor does it change the fact that anime overwhelmingly features ethnically Japanese characters and could benefit from more diverse narratives.

Whether we like it or not, the images we receive from media are often our first interactions with other cultures and languages of the world, and that informs our perception and ideas surrounding people we’ve never met.  Many countries with racially diverse populations have adapted The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was Japan’s creative team that clearly did their research on the historical background of both the book and the author in order to amplify the complex sociopolitical and racial nuances that made the book so fascinating to read.

If readers are interested in what kind of discussions people of color, mixed-race people, and Indigenous people are having in regards to race and ethnicity in Japan, check out documentaries like Hafu and Tokyo Ainu.  There are a few really good articles also worth checking out like “Memoirs of Being a Black Sheep in Japan” and “The Untold Story of Japan’s First People.”  It’s clear that these conversations are already happening, and with more marginalized people gaining access to spaces that have historically excluded them, it gives me hope that we’ll see more variety of stories being told not just in anime, but across the board.  

About the Author : ThatNerdyBoliviane

ThatNerdyBoliviane was originally born in New York City and essentially lived there until the age of 17 when they had to move to Toronto for reasons. They are currently struggling to survive in this weird-ass world that does not celebrate awesomeness enough. They self identify as Queer Quechua (Mestize) Bolivian-American and are involved with social justice work of all kinds. Aside from that, they are an avid lover of anime, manga, cartoons, (on rare occasion live-action TV shows if it’s good), and having amazing discussions with other folks about nerdy things. You can visit their blog Home to my Bitter Thoughts or follow them on Twitter @LizzieVisitante.

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