Background: Stylish series in anime aren't seemingly as popular these days as they used to be for some reason, as likely due to the lower budgets many shows have had as anything else. Shows about what amounts to transsexual leads are probably rarer than hen's teeth too, not to mention historical fiction set in a country other than Japan. Still, quality shows are found in the funniest of places these days any I, for one, am not going to overlook them simply because they sound weird on paper. That brings us to the subject of today's review of Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1: Psalm of Vengeance, a show set in France during the pre-French Revolution days that really struck me as a high end offering set to come out later this month.
Series: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1 had some of the darkness associated with Witch Hunter Robin with the look and feel of Kaze No Yojimbo. The series follows the life and times of an infamous cross dresser from hundreds of years ago, D'Eon de Beaumont; an aristocratic fellow that served as a spy and secret agent for King Louis XV. The times were simple back when this was set; there were three kinds of people, Royalty (the first estate with all the rights and privileges of rank), the clergy (the second estate with some protections by the church against the nobles' whims), and the peasants (who had no rights at all). D'Eon was lucky to be one of the royalty and a servant of the King's Court, at a time when it meant something special. France was poor from a series of failed wars and to help maintain order, a group of secret police are in place to serve the country. D'Eon is one of them and finds that his sister Lia has become the latest victim of a serial killer. The word "psalms" is written in blood on a floating coffin containing her body, a body filled with mercury so that its spirit can't continue on to Heaven, and D'Eon becomes obsessed with finding her, especially since moments before the death he is handed a series of cryptic papers that may very well lead to solving the mystery.
What D'Eon finds out is that his well placed sister was a spy for the crown as well and the trail of blood leads to a well connected Russian that has found favor with many nobles, tentatively due to the quality furs he sells them. Each corpse is marked with a special symbol as well and that trail also leads to the French nobility so D'Eon finds he must tread carefully as his group of fellow agents knows the danger involved in investigating such matters as well as the political intrigue of accusing the privileged class of crimes. In any case, without giving away too many spoilers, D'Eon's personal investigation leads him to become a secret spy for King Louis XV. The king is aware of the matter but due to his station, can't get involved, especially since those with lots of money are more powerful than himself in some ways.
As D'Eon and his friends soon find out, the investigation is not simply about a handful of nobles killing off women but of sorcery and secret societies that may further corrupt French interests around the world; something that D'Eon simply can't tolerate as a loyalist to the crown. In his favor, the spirit of his sister sometimes takes his body over, altering his appearance a bit to look like a woman and giving him extra abilities to combat these foes, albeit at a cost to him. This provides the impetus for the story that is based on a man who many thought was a woman for decades until after his death (in real life, according to historical accounts), blending the realities of history with the fictional story that made me stand up and take notice with the show.
I'm not going to spoil the whole show for you by providing a breakdown of all the action but the "murder mystery with a sense of supernatural" seems like a winner on all fronts to me. The cover said it like this: "Paris, 1742. A coffin floats in the shimmering Seine. On the lid, a word written in blood--Psalms. Inside, the body of a beautiful woman. Lia de Beaumont. Now her brother, D'Eon, seeks the reason for her mysterious murder, and uncovers an evil that shadows both the palaces of kings and the dark alleys of Europe. A power wielded by spell-casting Poets, and manipulated by royalty. A force so powerful it brings Lia's soul back from beyond to seize the only weapon she can possess to avenge her death--her own brother. History meets horror. Fantasy meets mystery. Experience the next revolution in anime with Le Chevalier D'Eon."
The episodes this time were 1) D'Eon & Lia, 2) Les Quatre Mousquetaires, 3) Sword of Indignation, and 4) Follower of the Revolution. While the story moves far too quickly at first in order to set up the situation, it quickly settles in to a nice pace where the intrigue builds up and the secrets unfold. That's the main reason why the episodes worked so well but the technical qualities I'll discuss in a moment sure boosted it up too (as did the extras). When I first read the overall concept, I thought it was pretty lame but I admit that it won me over quickly thanks to the quality of effort on both sides of the Pacific. As such, I rated the show as Highly Recommended for all fans of anime but it might prove to be worthwhile to many of your less anime-friendly friends as well given the way the story unfolds. If later volumes prove to be as good, a spot on the yearly top ten list seems highly likely, a change of pace for ADV Films as it has poured increasing efforts into smaller, less interesting projects of late. I welcome this change of pace for them and admit that this is the type of project to get them noticed by jaded fans and critics alike.
Picture: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1 was presented in the original 1.77:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen color it was shot in by Japanese director Kazuhiro Furuhashi. The animation used to display movement appeared to be top notch with fluidity and detail surpassing the majority of titles on the market, providing it with a sense of realism rare in anime these days. Due to the nature of the material, much of the action takes place at night and some of it allows a bit of noise to come into the picture but this is the exception rather than the rule so you won't be disappointed in terms of how it looked overall. The DVD master also showed some care that allowed the largely (at night anyway) muted colors to maintain a sense of stability over the brightly colored pastels of the kiddy shows. Watch it for five minutes and you'll immediately notice what I mean when I say that this looks very solid.
Sound: The audio was presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround with the standard choices of Japanese and English for the viewer to pick from. There are English language subtitles too but what struck me as odd was that the vocals in the English language dub sounded more natural than the original vocal tracks did. Neither of them offered up the kind of fake French accents more mainstream projects provide these days so on that score, they succeed and fail (the series is set in France so accents should be present, just not fake ones), but the dub sounded more natural in that regard overall. Neither was badly made however so take that as a complement to the dedication of ADV Films director Steven Foster and the local team of voice actors. As far as the eerie music and special effects were concerned, both of the language tracks sounded about even. There may have been more a little bass in the dub but the separation between the tracks and the headspace they both offered was a significant improvement over the usual shows I've been listening too, directionality offered up to take advantage of your home theatres.
Extras: Most initial volume releases these days seem to carry five episodes and limited extras but this one bucked the trends with a mere four episodes. Thankfully, that didn't result in a lack of extras too; a plentiful assortment offered up that shows ADV Film's commitment to the series. The standards are present; the trailers, promotional videos, artwork, and a clean opening & ending, but there was a lot more too. There was a set of historical notes to give a sense of the times the show was set in. You might want to check these out before watching the show, even if they appear a bit detailed and confusing at first. They add some idea of the times better than my review is designed to do and flesh out the historical basis for some of the characters. There was also a production commentary on the first episode with director Steven Foster and the voice actor for D'Eon (David Matranga). They spent a lot of time detailing the specifics of getting the series to the point where they were proud of their work as well as acknowledging it as a team effort. This was followed by a historical commentary by Janice Williams (a key player in the show's production here in the States) and translator Amy Forsyth for the second episode. While they tended to ramble a lot, the commentary was just as filled with detail about how the show was made and some of the details of the cast (though few spoilers to where it was headed). There was also a sweet 20 page booklet that provided artwork, character backgrounds, an interview with the lead Japanese writer, a series of storyboard breakdowns, and a chunk of the screenplay. THIS is the kind of extra that I really enjoy getting, one far too rare in anime these days and a great way to fight piracy (as opposed to extras located on the DVD itself that copy over just as easily as the show). Good job!
Final Thoughts: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1 was an excellent opening volume that provides a lot of hope for future volumes of the series, hence the high rating. The original material was superior and the ADV Films presentation only enhanced it in my eyes. The technical values, the writing, the acting, the extras and pretty much all other aspects of the show were a marked step towards the type shows I have long expected from the company and surpass the generally weak flops that have caused many fans to turn away from the genre in recent years (so many titles are too generic, boring, or rehash old ground rather than show creativity, intelligence, and material we can show our friends as examples of why we like anime). In short, Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1: Psalm of Vengeance was a great series that literally transported me to another time and place with how finely made it was. Check it out for yourselves when it comes out later this month and I think you'll see what all the buzz is about.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.