Le Chevalier D'Eon Vol. 1

When you don't absolutely love the next great thing in anime, sometimes it can be disappointing...even when the show is pretty good. That's the case for me and Le Chevalier D'Eon, the latest offering from ADV Films. High levels of anticipation have surrounded the show, in no small part due to the involvement of Production I.G. being behind the animation. Shown in Japan in 2006, it's made a quick release in the U.S. and has received special treatment, including a collector's booklet and extensive on-disc liner notes. Anime on DVD and Anime News Network are raving about it, and I was really looking forward to it. What I found was solid in many respects, but there's a big whiff of absurdity in this historical blend of drama, horror, and action.

The setting is France, in the mid-1700s well before the Revolution. D'Eon is in a state of mourning. His sister Lia's body has been found floating in the Seine river in a casket with the word "Psalms" signed on top in blood. Filled with mercury, the church won't let her body be properly buried because it supposedly won't decompose and return to dust as is proper for a human being. Then where is her soul? D'Eon doesn't know. He does know, however, that he must find out who is responsible for her death. But where to start with so many questions? As a nobleman, he has connections, but who knows what the mysterious sign found on Lia's head means? Is there a secret society that has links to a Parisian serial killer? Even with the help of a mysterious knight, an old mentor, and a young page, D'Eon may find death before he finds answers. All of it comes to a head when in battle D'Eon finds himself overtaken by his sister's soul, who chants a psalm to possess him and avenge herself.

Production I.G. has a spotty track record when it comes to using computer animation; at times they appear on the cutting edge, and other times their work is almost laughable. Le Chevalier D'Eon starts off looking like it's going to be on the bad end -- the first episode has several points where the CG is awful. Galloping through a fence with no real sense of motion, only a CG slide...a guy opens a door and moves along with it in the next few frames...characters look like Colorforms on the backgrounds...you know the drill. They tried to do too much and it looks bad. However, it tones down thereafter, and at times it's downright easy on the eyes in the following three episodes. No one is going to mistake it for the next revolution in CGI animation, but it does get better. There's certainly a visual flair, and when the swordfights start, they are pretty amazing. Other elements of the production are far better. The music is quite nice, and both the opening and closing themes are well worth a second listen. The visual designs are muted, reminding me of the work found in Witch Hunter Robin, and they are very appropriate for the historical setting.

What works for Le Chevalier D'Eon is its historical setting. Although there are occasional shows that deal with historical periods in Europe, such as The Rose of Versailles, it's nice to get an anime that's not either in Japan or outer space. (I like my sci-fi, but still...) The fact that Chevalier uses real historical characters makes it all the more fascinating, since there are plenty of comparisons to make. I should also note that Chevalier is easy to watch. The pacing is excellent, and just when you expect you've got something figured out, a new puzzler is introduced. Getting through these four episodes in one evening was a cruise. It may not have a blazing battle every minute, but it held my interest. What's more, the mysteries here are so engaging that you'll be eager for the next disc.

Chevalier didn't win me over, however, and for reasons both universal and personal. First, while Chevalier positions itself as a historical Gothic thriller the likes of which you've never seen before, the horrific supernatural elements put it way over-the-top. It's one thing for cultic secret societies to be behind murders and revolutions. It's another thing entirely for those societies to be creating zombies that come back from the dead. Now this isn't to say this is entirely unseen; you can find historical supernatural thrillers in From Hell, Brotherhood of the Wolf, and even Interview With The Vampire. But somehow it didn't work for me, and I like zombie films! I enjoy George Romero and his ilk, but the supernatural bent here felt off-kilter. Maybe it was just totally outside my realm of expectations. Or maybe it's that it made it feel like too many other shows I've watched. The anime realm is filled with plenty of undead occultish types, and moving them to France doesn't make them any more original.

Then again, perhaps it's because I found the whole "Christian magic" angle of the program particularly ridiculous. Unlike Japanese cultural religions that incorporate magical legends into their lore, Christianity and Judaism's roots show a profound disdain for magical arts. Just look at Acts 8:9-24 for a story about Simon, often referred to as Simon Magus, who was strongly chastised when he asked to buy the ability to use the God-given powers the disciples were displaying. As such, to see the "Poets" going around doing magic with "Psalms" is patently absurd. So is the whole premise of Lia possessing D'Eon by quoting "the Psalm of Vengeance" or even the notion that Lia's soul would wind up walking the earth without her body's burial. (Admittedly, at times in church history there have been some wild notions about the soul/body dichotomy, but this is the first I've heard of this one.) The "Psalm" quoted throughout the program is really an incantation, just like any other we see in a magical girl show during a transformation sequence. It makes the pseudo-Christian symbolism of Neon Genesis Evangelion look perfectly reasonable by comparison. Now this does not mean that there weren't religious cults in 1700s France; I have no doubt that the occult was practiced. But to equate Christianity with the practices of witchcraft? It goes to show how little the show's creators understand Christianity on the whole. I couldn't write a program that would do justice to Shinto, and I wish that those who don't understand Christianity would just leave it well enough alone. Things like the whole crossdressing/transgender issues between D'Eon and Lia didn't bother me half as much as this. One other thing...the characters have to explain simple biblical allusions to each other (at one point, D'Eon explains to someone that "Psalms" is a book in the Bible). In 1700s France? Not likely. They're doing it for us, the assumedly biblically illiterate audience, but their method is painful for those who know the effect of Christianity on Europe.

If what I've said above sounds goofy to you, then you'll probably like Le Chevalier D'Eon. Other than the animation problems in the first episode, there's much on the surface to appreciate. I can't say I liked the occult aspects or the bizarro view of Christianity the show presents, but I thought the presentation was good and the entertainment value high. I give it a cautious recommendation, realizing that many people out there already love it. I can't wholeheartedly throw my support behind it with its problems, but I certainly might give it another try.

Le Chevalier D'Eon Vol. 1 -- violence, occultism -- B