Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Le Chevalier d'Eon is a fantasy/horror/occult anime series ostensibly based on the life of a real character.
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont was a member of le Secret du Roi, a back-door diplomatic initiative carried out by Louis XV, who could not trust his own ministers to carry out his policies (because they were a bunch of stupid, scheming aristocrats, basically). D'Eon served as both a soldier and a spy, and allegedly dressed as a woman in order to infiltrate the court of the Russian Empress Elizabeth, claiming to be Lia de Beaumont, a (presumably fictional) sister.
D'Eon later became ambassador to England. After the death of Louis XV, he was recalled, but refused to leave, and afterwards offered his secret diplomatic correspondence for sale. Louis XVI gave him a pension, and he returned to France, but insisted on being treated as a woman rather than a man. Louis indulged him in this, and d'Eon spent the rest of his life living as a woman. He fled to England during the Terror, and earned a precarious living as a fencing master, and by giving fencing exhibitions in which he fought in skirts. After his death, the autopsy showed that he was physically a male.
What does all this have to do with the anime? Nothing much, but d'Eon de Beaumont's story provides two things that seem to provide eternal fascination for the Japanese:
Our story begins with the murdered body of Lia de Beaumont floating down the Seine on a boat. The word "Psalms" has been written in blood on her coffin. She has been stuffed with mercury, which prevents her from decaying, which in turn disqualifies her for a church burial. (I have no idea if this was actual Catholic practice or not.)
Because she wasn't buried in holy ground, Lia's spirit is condemned to wander the earth--- and partly for these reasons, partly for others revealed later, she's really pissed off.
Lia's younger brother, d'Eon, is a junior member of Le Secret du Roi. He is young and naive enough to believe absolutely in the rightness and majesty of "Louis XV, who is in God's grace." He swears to avenge his sister, and is soon hip-deep in occult conspiracy.
On one side of the conspiracy are the members of Le Secret, who are directed by the (serene, lazy) king and by his queen, Maria Leszczyńska, who in this telling is a powerful sorceress. Her agents are identified by the letters nqm, the Hebrew word "naqam," meaning "to avenge." She also has conversations with the skull of a little girl known as Belle, who spies for her on the psychic plane. She is aided by Anna, d'Eon's betrothed, who is governess to Prince Auguste, later Louis XVI.
Opposed to the king are the Revolutionary Brotherhood, led by the Marquise de Pompadour and her chief henchman le Comte de St.-Germain, who seems to be Foreign Minister. St.-Germain has in his employ Cagliostro and the latter's wife Lorenza, and is working in the interests of the Duc d'Orleans, who they plan to make king in place of Louis. (Or maybe they just want the Orleans money and patronage.)
Sorcerers--- "Poets"--- base their power on the Psalms. The Psalms are treated in this story much like Buddhist sutras are in Chinese vampire films--- basically as spells that, as in Chinese vampire films, can be used to animate the dead--- who appear as horrid zombies with their blood replaced by mercury, and with the letters H^O written on their foreheads. (The carat stands for three dots in the shape of a triangle, which I seem unable to render here.) H^O stands for "hommes optare," a Franco-Latin phrase that seems to mean something like "(men) (to desire)"--- the series seems a little careless in the use of infinitives--- but which perhaps more useful as an anagram for "metamorphosis."
(The series as a whole is fond of mixing French with Latin, and with anagrams in general. The closing titles always remind us that Lia d'Eon is an anagram for Lion Dea.)
All this information is dumped on the viewer within the first three or four episodes. I advise taking copious notes.
This series is saturated with Christianity, but it's not Christianity as Westerners understand it. It's a very Japanese take on Catholicism, mixed up with Chinese Yellow Paper Magic and the sort of occultism that, back in France, gave us the Affaire of the Poisons.
Anyway, d'Eon--- remember him?--- finds that his investigations into his sister's death are cut short when the Duc d'Orleans has him arrested. He escapes with the aid of Robin, a boy page sent to his assistance by Queen Maria, and by Durand, another real-life member of Le Secret, and who in this story was in love with Lia. D'Eon also acquires the aid of his real-life Maitre d'Armes Teillagory, his fencing master, one of Louis XIV's old musketeers, who is addressed throughout by the Japanese word as "sensei," with all that this implies. Teillagory suggests they call themselves the "Four Musketeers."
The Musketeers are attacked by mercury-stuffed zombies. D'Eon is possessed by the spirit of his sister, who slaughters zombies left and right while quoting liberally from the Psalms of Vengeance. D'Eon is horrified by the depth of his sister's anger.
The Musketeers bust the Duc d'Orleans scheme, and the Duc is arrested. One of his accomplices, the Russian statesman Mikhail Vorontsov, escapes, and the Musketeers pursue him to Russia and the court of Empress Elizabeth. Conspiracies are met with counter-conspiracies, and the result is the ghastly death of most of the nobility and royalty of Russia. Lia continues to animate her brother's body, usually with violent results.
In Russia we meet the incredibly young Maximilien Robespierre-- or is he incredibly old?--- who possesses the volume of the Royal Psalms, which when activated by human blood not only predict the future of the royal house of France, but can project mighty sorcery. Our heroes pursue Robespierre to England, where they encounter his sensei, Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the Hellfire Club, and his posse including the Earl of Sandwich and and the poet Paul Whitehead. Their own magic motto is Novus Ordo Seclorum.
Another massacre, this one of the English nobility, ensues. Dashwood kills his disloyal student Robespierre, but he is resurrected. Lia totally kicks Dashwood's ass. George III abdicates to become a monk. (?!?) The surviving members of Dashwood's order flee to the New World, where they presumably become the American Founding Fathers.
We discover from all the infighting that the Revolutionary Brethren are not exactly united in what sort of revolution they intend. Dashwood and Pompadour want to chop away the rot surrounding monarchy in order to strengthen it; Robespierre wants to destroy all royals and establish a republic.
Nor are the members of Le Secret and the Four Musketeers without their own private agendas. King Louis is trying to hide a secret that would rock his throne, and for that reason is faithless to all. Conspiracies pile up. Reversals abound. The meaning of Versailles--- vers ailles, a book of poetry, i.e. the Psalms, is revealed. (This appears to be a false etymology, fwiw, but it helps to provide a truly cool climax to a major subplot.) Lia and d'Eon repeatedly get the crap kicked out of them. Most everyone dies tragically, except for d'Eon, who manages in the face of repeated betrayals to remain true to his own beliefs, and who narrates the story in his old age.
The plot is amazingly complex, and I'm not entirely convinced the writer Tow Ubukata succeeded entirely in tying up all loose ends. But it's a wonderfully stylish, intricate work, visually impressive, occasionally scary, often genuinely moving.
It's sort of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer set in the 18th century, except with a more complex mythology.
For everyone who's into cool swordfights, zombies, and eccentric aspects of 18th century history.