Background: It never ceases to amaze me that I find some really appealing anime on the market that I wouldn't have given a second glance were it not for being a reviewer at DVD Talk. Just as some people browse the aisles of the rental outlets and stores focusing on comedies, action, or other narrowly defined genres, I tend to stick to things I'm pretty sure I'll like since my time is so precious to me. As I have no interest in transsexuals or transvestites, show like Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 1 sound boring. Yet, upon watching the show, I found it to be far more than a gender bender historical mystery; I found it to be a well crafted bit of fun that worked on multiple levels for me. That was why I was quite pleased to pick up an early copy of Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 2: Agent Provocateur to review, hoping that it did not fall into the dreaded sophomore slump other titles have of late. I'm sure you'll be pleased that it continued to build the tension and suspense just as nicely, starting to accelerate the pace a bit as the groundwork had been established in the previous volume. Here's my take after providing a recap for those who missed the first review:
Series: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 2 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 second volume brought us: "Searching for clues to her murder, D'Eon discovers his sister's life in the King's court was more than jeweled gowns and priceless perfumes. It involved dark sorcerers, manipulative royals, and a violet-eyed vixen whose dangerous power turns innocent mongrels into slobbering, rabid monsters. D'Eon and his comrades slip from Versailles to Russia, seeking an emperor who appears to control magic-wielding followers. And serving a queen who seems far too pleased to have Lia's spirit possess her brother's body. A tormented beauty's soul that is not resting in peace, but is alive and well--and looking for vengeance."
The episodes this time were 5) Palais Royal, 6) Knights of the King, 7) Gargoyles, and 8) Audience With The Empress. In them, the plot thickens as the so-called Four Musketeers (D'Eon and his band of merry men) face even more evils while trying to solve the murder as agents of King Louis, including spell casting poets that can change dogs into vicious creatures of the undead. Their initial suspicions prove faulty (a rarity in anime by the way) and while they do uncover a treacherous royal, they find the real killer has left for Russia. With the blessing of the King and Queen, they are imparted with a secret mission, one that could prove to be their last since France will not admit to having such agents if they are caught. Further complicating matters is D'Eon's need for closure about his sister's otherworldly status; the queen helping him with the matter in a most unusual manner that endangers his sanity as Lia is allowed to take over his body again. This plays an integral part in the rest of the story as the men set off to seek an audience with the Empress of Russia herself in a desperate gambit to see if Lia's ties to the powerful ruler were real or the source of her demise. In all, the show is picking up the pace but allowing the characters to develop in such a manner that fans of slower paced shows in general (not just anime) may find this one to be a true delight worthy of initiating themselves in the genre.
Okay, I'm obviously going to rate Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 2: Agent Provocateur as being Highly Recommended. It's the kind of historical fiction that allows anime companies to prove that a show can be entertaining without catering to the LCD (lowest common denominator) types or kids, also giving importers like ADV Films the chance to strut their stuff and prove their worth over and over again. In that sense, this kind of series provides them the opportunity to put up or shut up and to be frank about it, I want to listen to what they have to say. So, while the series may seem a bit offbeat to a few of you (okay, most of you), it really was appealing and fans of supernatural titles that don't rely on the "easy magic" where the blink of an eye, twinkle of a nose, or nod of a head defeats the suspenseful build up that true genre fans have to seek by means of books these days, giving them another reason to check this one out as the volumes are released.
Picture: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 2 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: The standards were present; the trailers, promotional videos (in this case, a Japanese promo event that usually aren't incorporated into domestic releases), artwork & photos, 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. I can't state enough how I enjoyed the two audio commentaries here; one for the women cast and one for the men, as each provided a significant look into the perspectives each group had in terms of the basic themes involved (the gender bending taking up plenty of time) and the historical aspects. While everyone did not contribute equally, both commentaries served to put some of the nuances on a spotlighted status, so if you're truly enjoying the show as much as I have been, listen to these well after you've absorbed the episodes a time or two or you may find some spoilers interfering with your viewing pleasure. Lastly, the slipcover case was very fetching but the paper booklet was again pretty cool with artwork, interview with Tow Ubukata (the creator), and more of the screenplay as in the last volume.
Final Thoughts: Le Chevalier D'Eon: Livre 2 was an excellent second 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 2: Agent Provocateur 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 the buzz is about. If you told me last year that I'd be enjoying a historical anime about a cross dressing aristocrat above some of my preferred giant robot/science fiction and harem shows, I'd have laughed in your face (loudly). It just goes to show you that if we push past our initial impressions, we can all find some new stuff to enjoy.
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.