When is an anime, not an anime?
Yes, okay, The Last Airbender is technically a correct answer to that completely rhetorical question. I’m aware of that. Smartass.
In this instance, however, I’m talking about, as the title may have tipped you off to, Le Chevalier D’Eon, the 2006, 24 episode series from Production I.G that all but abandoned everything that makes an anime, an anime. It was so different, in fact, that it ended being meet largely with bewilderment, and mixed reviews from both the critical and commercial sections.
None of which was entirely fair, in my opinion, but I’m a fan of Alexander Dumas, so you’ll have to forgive me having a biased view here. In the event you have never seen Le Chevalier D’Eon, and have no idea what Dumas has to do with a Japanese anime series, join me for a little trip into not just a well crafted anime, but the genuinely interesting life of a real historical figure.
Yes, Le Chevalier D’Eon was a real person, and his life was almost as interesting as this anime series, just with fewer zombies.
Ah, now I have your attention, don’t I? Zombies. It’s always zombies.
Set in 1742 France, the story follows D’Eon de Beaumont, a knight in the service to King Louis XV, who joins the secret police after his sister’s body is found floating down the Seine, already in a casket, with the word Psalms written across the lid. Lia de Beaumont, as it turns out, was also a member of the secret police, frequently carrying out missions of incredible danger for the good of France.
Driven to uncover the secret behind her death, as well as why her body does not decay, D’Eon finds himself pulled into a mysterious world of necromancy, alchemy, and political intrigue, made even more complicated by the fact his sister’s vengeful spirit has possessed him in order to hunt down those responsible for his death.
Soon, D’Eon finds himself drafted into an even more secretive order, answering directly to King Louis XV, as he sets off in search of the source of the mysterious Psalms, an unearthly magic wielded by casters called Poets, capable of controlling even the dead. Joined by a squire named Robin, a spy named Durand, and D’Eon’s own fencing tutor, Telligory, these Four Musketeers, as they call themselves, search for answers.
From France, and the court of King Louis XV, to Russia and the palace of Empress Elizaveta, London and the rule of King George III, and finally, back to France, where the city of Versailles holds not only the truth, but a devastating betrayal. D’Eon and Lia are tested at every turn, not only by the loss of allies, but by their own strange bond, and the ultimate secret which cost Lia her life.
One of the very first things that sets Le Chevalier apart from contemporary anime is that nobody in it is Japanese, the story never even mentions Japan, and it largely spends its time glorifying France. This is something of a departure from the average anime in some pretty significant ways. Even shows like Black Butler and Full Metal Alchemist tend to have Asian characters in significant roles, after all.
Which is to be expected, before anyone says anything. Anime is a largely a Japanese product, so having Asian characters is completely normal. Let’s not start a debate about racial things here, okay? I wanted to point it out, because it actually is pretty different, and that’s all.
Historical anime is not a new or different genre, either, but one that revolves entirely around French characters, kinda is out of the ordinary, as well. The point being, of course, this show is not at all normal in regards to anime.
Another thing that is really different is that it almost doesn’t even look like an anime, in some regards. The character designs were based heavily on portraits of the real people who appear in the story, and only a couple of characters have clear anime designs. The rest look almost like a mix between anime sensibilities and Western animation at times. This further separates the show from anything even remotely like it.
Probably the big thing, though, is the fight scenes. These things are freaking glorious, largely because they aren’t overstated. Actual 18th century fencing moves are used, and the key always lies in the footing of the combatants. There are no wild and crazy fight scenes, but they are still incredibly tense and watchable. It is more like The Last Airbender in that regard, in the the way the martial arts were based on actual styles, rather than just made up to look cool.
If you are into fencing, the fight scenes in this will make you happy.
That’s not to say it’s all super realistic, though, which is an impression all that could easily give. The core plot revolves around a book that is, in essence, magic. What it is, where it comes from, and why it even exists is never really explained, but it has gotten into the wrong hands, and now people are trying to start revolutions in multiple countries, for their own goals. The book, called The Royal Psalms, can do some pretty nasty stuff, too.
Normal people can be transformed into zombie like monsters called gargoyles, which will obey the Poets commands without question. They are faster, stronger, and far more savage than any human, but still capable of wielding swords and other weapons with whatever skill they possessed before. In some cases, this gets pretty unpleasant for the heroes of the story.
D’Eon’s primary charge from King Louis XV is to recover the Royal Psalms and return them to France, and by the end of the series, we learn just why that was. The Poets on the other hand, want to transform the Royal Psalms into the Psalms of Revolution, to overthrow monarchies. Different Poets have different goals in this, with some wanting to bring the power of nations under one rule, while others want to establish democracies. So, even in the Poets, there is contention over the use of the Psalms.
A lot, and I do mean lot, of historical figures appear in this show, all recast and re-imagined to be wildly different than they really were, of course. A few core elements of their historical personas remain intact, as character traits that guide them in their new roles, however, which serves to create interest in learning more about who they really were.
The Marquise de Pompadour, for example, is on the side of the Poets in the series, trying to work to tear down the rigid and anti-progressive government. She works against King Louis XV, and has an extremely icy relationship with the Queen, with many of her motives seeming much more self serving than wholly benevolent. In real life, Marquise de Pompadour wanted to enact change, but did so by much more conventional means. As the King’s lover for many years, best friend for even more, and chief advisor until her death, as well as a close friend of Queen Marie, she helped enact many changes in French law, and was largely responsible for France becoming the cultural hub of the world. Even today, her affect on the fashion industry can still be felt strongly, with her influence remaining a major part of French culture in countless other ways, both large and small.
I could write a lot about all the real life characters who appear in this show, and the ways in which they were altered, but still retained some vestige of their true persona, but that lot would go on for a really long time, or cover a couple weeks worth of blog posts, so let’s skip to the star of the show, D’Eon de Beaumont.
In the show, D’Eon is a somewhat naive young nobleman and knight, who finds his vengeful sister’s spirit has taken up permanent residence in his body. Along his journey, he discovers all the ways she influenced politics across Europe and Northern Asia. When Lia takes control, D’Eon is animated to be clearly more feminine, and the longer she resides, the more feminine he looks, his character design slowly changing to reflect the effect her possession is having on him.
In real life, Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was an highly regarded solider of the Seven Years War, diplomat, and spy, who served France and his King, Louis XV with distinction. For almost 50 of those years, he lived as a man, with a few exceptions.
You see, D’Eon de Beaumont did infiltrate the Russian court of Empress Elizaveta disguised as a woman, and going by the name Lia de Beaumont. He was so accomplished in this, in fact, that no one ever suspected he was not, in fact, a woman. Later, in 1763, he became an ambassador to England during King George III reign, and cultivated strong ties with the nobility, which served him well when he had a falling out with the French government. He kind of published some secret papers he had on the French government, basically blackmailed them, and was kind of wanted for treason.
He remained in England, where it became a popular thing to speculate on his actual gender. He was always demure about the subject, until in 1774. The death of Louis XV, and the abolition of the secret police paved the way for him to return. There’s a lot of stuff that happened, regarding saving face and offense, but basically, it came down to D’Eon ending up claiming he had actually been born a woman, with his true gender being hidden by his father for inherited lands reasons. So, he got to return to France, but only if he really did live as a woman, which he did. For the rest of his life.
What makes this story so interesting is that, upon his death, it was learned that D’Eon de Beaumont did have male genitalia, but also very feminine features as well, including breasts. It is highly possible D’Eon de Beaumont was not just rather androgynous in looks, but was a hermaphrodite. Who can really say at this point for certain, but what is known is that something was different about D’Eon de Beaumont.
It’s also possible that he was transgender, and somehow learned a way to increase his estrogen levels. It’s really hard to say, but it isn’t impossible. The point is, of course, that whatever D’Eon de Beaumont’s gender identity truly was, he was an extremely remarkable figure, who played a pivotal role in helping shape the future of Europe in the 18th century, whether he wore a dragoon’s uniform, or a dress.
So, ya know, maybe remember that when giving transgender people shit. History is full of important figures who helped change the world while not fitting the easy to sort two gender system.
Many of D’Eon de Beaumont’s real life accomplishments are actually mentioned within the anime, so as a historically based story with supernatural elements, the series does actively encourage people to learn more about that period in European history, and the many incredible figures who helped shape the world we live in today.
Back to the anime itself, one of the stronger elements that it employs is the way the magic, for lack of a better word, works with in the world setting. The Royal Psalms are called that for a reason, as the incantations are actually based on Biblical Psalms, and the Poets are named such for their ability to recite, from memory, this often long and complex poems. Or songs, if you prefer. Or maybe prayers, as they frequently sound like that, too.
It’s one of the more creative and different uses of magic I’ve ever seen. The implications of it, how it works, why it works, and what you could do with it are mind boggling.
Now, all that said, let’s break down the rest of the important stuff.
Plot wise, Le Chevalier is excellent. The narrative is tight and engaging, while still be world spanning. The political intrigue weaves nicely into the story of magic abuse, and the beginning of the French Revolution. Many episodes are heavily dialogue focused, but never really feel like they are dragging, due in part to excellent camera work from the director, who keeps everything feeling tense, even when people are just having a conversation.
The big reveal at the finale is appropriately shocking, and the story over all holds enough twists and turns to keep a viewer well engaged. The script is absolutely excellent, and I recall the scriptwriters commenting that one episode had an over 100 page script. One episode of a half hour anime had a script that ran over 100 pages. Really let that sink in.
Animation wise, the show is good, if not great. This is mostly due to the use of CGI, which is beautiful, but doesn’t always mesh well with the rest of the animation. The city scapes are perhaps the most impressive, as they are done based on the actual cities they are supposed to be. Old maps, historical references and paintings helped guide the animation department to create an honest reflection of the 18th century world, so the backgrounds are stunning.
As I mentioned earlier, the characters are frequently not very anime in appearance. Most of the character designs are drawn from paintings of the historical figures themselves, though there are a few exceptions. Maximillien Robespeirre plays a role in the series, though he didn’t actually become a major part of French politics until after the Revolution, and is the most anime looking of all the characters. Robin, D’Eon’s squire, is a close second, however. Past that, great pains were taken to reflect the actual people as much as possible, while still giving them a look that was unique to the medium of anime. Overall, the character designs are really well done, with the most impressive being the also previously mentioned slow transformation of D’Eon into Lia.
On the music front, it is really pretty good. Not always great, but frequently magnificent. Michiru Oshima, well known for her work on Snow White With The Red Hair, and Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, moves between what sometimes sounds like background music for Inuyasha, to some really soaring classical pieces that are just amazing. Those are the ones you really want to listen for.
On the whole, Le Chevalier D’Eon is a magnificent piece of fiction that draws on real history, to create a Europe that might have been, complete with magic and zombies. It is intriguing, engaging, and ambitious. For the most part, it succeeds wildly, and where it does fail, it it only does so in the most minimal of ways.
Give it a shot, and then take the time to explore the real life history of the many characters you will meet. As a history buff, I highly recommend both the show, and the knowledge you’ll gain.