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"Le Chevalier D'Eon Livre 1": One for All

Tales of feudal Japanese political intrigue and rampant limb severing have long been popular in anime. Director Kazuhiro Furuhashi’s Rurouni Kenshin is probably the most notable example, and last year Furuhashi returned to historical swordplay, albeit in a distinctly French form, in the spectacular Le Chevalier D’Eon.

By Friday, Durand’s three-duel commute had really got the best of him.

This cinematic tour de force is the gold standard for action anime releases in 2007. Part Three Musketeers, part Da Vinci Code, and part Harry Potter, Chevalier‘s lavish tale of historical suspense has just about everything anyone could ask for: engaging characters, thrilling action, tantalizing mysteries, supernatural powers, and positively dazzling art design and animation from Production I.G.

It’s grounded in a fascinating historical foundation in the turbulent waning years of the French monarchy. From the costumes to the architecture to the social hierarchy, the period of Louis XV’s reign is recreated with meticulous attention to detail. Many of the characters are accurate representations of real historical figures, lending considerable dramatic weight to the proceedings.

Even if you’re not as big a history buff as I am, you’re sure to be drawn in by the numerous layers of intrigue and mysterious occult practices. It will be several episodes before you figure out whom certain characters are, let alone what their abilities are or where their true loyalties lay. In this far from black and white world even the most despicable murderer may prove to have noble intentions. Biblical scholars may be mortified to see psalms used for sorcery, but this wildcard makes the proceedings all the more unpredictable.

Our hero, the young D’Eon de Beaumont, is prompted to become a knight by the mysterious death of his older sister Lia, a member of the royal court who turns up one day floating in a coffin on the Seine River. Much to D’Eon’s dismay, she is denied a proper burial, for her body has been curiously filled with mercury. His fiancée Anna, a servant of the royal family, entreats him to stay close by taking a quiet post at the palace in Versailles, but D’Eon heads for Paris to uncover the truth about his sister.

The house was a steal, but he dreaded repainting the ceilings.

D’Eon’s investigation soon earns him menacing enemies in the form of the conniving Duc D’Orleans and his associates, including the powerful alchemist Comte de Saint-Germain and the vicious assassin Caron. The mystery of the mercury is horrifyingly revealed when D’Eon learns up close and personal that it is an element in a spell that turns humans into fearsome zombie-like killers known as gargoyles.

D’Eon also discovers that in times of intense peril he is possessed by Lia’s spirit and used as her vessel of bloody vengeance. United, they form an almost unstoppable warrior able to handily parry not only sword attacks but magical ones as well. But the virtuous D’Eon, himself a fighter of only modest ability, is reluctant to let these murderous impulses takes control.

Fortunately, he is aided in his quest by the Queen’s youthful servant Robin and two master swordsmen, his old teacher Teillagory and Lia’s friend Durand. Calling themselves the Four Musketeers, they are commissioned by Louis as agents of Le Secret du Roi, his secret police force, to root out enemies of the state. As their investigation progresses, however, it becomes less clear who truly has France’s best interests at heart.

Never tell her she fights like a girl.

D’Eon shows great concern for his friends, but is strangely frigid toward the loving Anna. Further placing his masculinity in question is his general ineptitude with a sword, which puts him in the emasculating position of being rescued by his indomitable sister on several occasions. One can’t help but admire his unwavering conviction to do what is right, however.

The charming Four Musketeers recall the Star Wars leads, with D’Eon and Robin standing in for older and younger versions of Luke Skywalker, respectively. Durand, fond of the ladies and teasing Robin about his youth, fills the roguish Han Solo role. This leaves Teillagory in Obi-wan Kenobi’s role of wise mentor, albeit one who shares Durand’s interest in wine and women.

Yet to be fleshed out is the aloof Queen’s companion Belle, the skeleton of a young girl that she keeps in her room for conversation. No wonder Louis preferred his mistresses’ company.

Hunchback of Notre Dame deleted scene 7: The ex-girlfriends.

There are a couple of unusual features to the series. Characters frequently discuss their relationship with the Almighty, pray to Him, quote from the Bible, and find clues in it. Chevalier‘s Christian angle is not overbearing, though, and it does provide important motivation for characters like D’Eon, who believes he can set Lia’s soul free from earthly torment by solving her murder. D’Eon’s intense patriotism is another departure from the norms of anime, where loyalty to friends and family tends to supersede that to any real world state. I wonder if this is an expression of the apparent resurgence of Japanese patriotism in the last few years, but transplanted to another setting to avoid possible war guilt.

The visuals are excellent. The backgrounds and costumes are breathtakingly lush and detailed, and character movement perfectly smooth and natural. The elegant and dynamic shot composition gives the show a very cinematic feel, as during a spirited clash between Durand and Teillagory when the camera cuts back and forth between the whizzing blades and rhythmic footwork. Fast, thrilling, and impressively realistic, Chevalier’s fantastically choreographed duels are a match for the best of Jack Sparrow’s grandstanding. It would be easy to forget one’s watching a cartoon if not for the trademark anime fountains of blood spewing left and right. There are a few CG elements that don’t come off quite as lifelike, but they blend in well enough.

The English dub is one of the better ones I’ve heard, equaling the Japanese actors for most roles. As with some other adaptations though, the English D’Eon and Robin sound considerably older and more masculine than they appear.

CoverI would be remiss not to mention Chevalier’s opulent, gold-trimmed packaging, which seems almost too regal to share a shelf with my commoner DVDs. Inside it gets even better, with an elegant booklet containing an invaluable cast tree, character sketches, a helpful glossary, an interesting interview with chief writer Yasuyuki Muto (Afro Samurai) about his careful selection of dialogue, a new serial script by Muto, and detailed storyboard analysis of two scenes by Furuhashi.

The Historical Notes furnish fascinating text details about the characters’ historical background, and impress upon the viewer just how thorough the staff’s research was. It turns out the real D’Eon was rumored to carry out assignments disguised as the female Lia, and eventually claimed to be a woman.

There’s also a couple of Japanese trailers and two typically uninteresting episode commentaries, the first focusing on the dub cast and the second on redundant historical observations. Translator Amy Forsyth’s discussion of the challenges of adapting Japanese Biblical passages is illuminating, though.

Le Chevalier D’Eon is a must-have, and that goes double for anyone with even a passing interest in French history. Fans of Trinity Blood, Rurouni Kenshin, or Fullmetal Alchemist are sure to embrace it. I dare any viewer to try to resist the urge to draw a blade and shout “En garde!” after watching it. Yes, the stitches are healing nicely, thank you.

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