Dantalian no Shoka
These days we take the written word for granted, but for the majority of human history this has not been the case. Over the millennia, those with the ability to communicate using these strange markings have been viewed with awe and suspicion in almost equal measure, and many believed that anything written was magical in some way. It’s only logical then, that people would begin to think that certain works were holy writ handed down by a deity, held the secrets to immense power, or contained forbidden knowledge that would bring misfortune and death upon anyone who read them.
Eventually certain books were, for one reason or another, deemed too dangerous for the general public.
Originally a light novel series by Mikumo Gakuto, Dantalian no Shoka (The Mystic Archives of Dantalian), takes place in England after World War 1. Hugh Anthony Disward (or Huey to his friends), returns to his ancestral home six months after receiving a letter informing him that his grandfather, Earl Wesley Disward, had been murdered by a burglar. According to the will, Huey can inherit the title, the estate, and everything contained within the mansion, but in return he must take over responsibility for the Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian, and look after Dalian as well.
Magical books have long been a staple of the fantasy genre, but unlike the majority of tales dealing with them, the main focus of Dantalian no Shoka is to seal away those works that were never meant to exist, or have fallen into the wrong hands. It’s a reasonably simple idea that can work very well with an episodic plot (Mushishi, Natsume Yuujinchou and Mokke use a similar method), but sadly that isn’t the case here. The straightforward premise doesn’t seem to have been enough for the writers, who have very clearly tried to cram as much as possible into twelve episodes. The story can often get sidetracked or bogged down in semantics, and there’s a tendency towards over-explanation and melodrama. In addition to this, there are several characters who appear to have been included just to show how “good” Huey and Dalian are, and because of these issues it can often seem as though the narrative has been cobbled together with hobnails and glue.
Now it may seem as though there’s little of interest to be found in the story, but that’s not actually the case. When the plot sticks to the point there’s a surprisingly nice balance between the mystery and supernatural elements, and there’s a good deal of imagination in the way certain phantom books are used or affect people. The series also ventures into darker territory that suits the main theme of the show very well, but these occasions tend to be spoiled by some truly inane humour.
That said, while there are some major issues with the storyline, Gainax have done a decent job with the visuals. There are several different art styles on display that reflect the nature of specific episodes, especially in aspects like design and colouring. The series also has some rather nice effects that work well with the detailed backgrounds to create some very atmospheric settings and scenery.
That said, there are a few issues that need to be raised.
For some reason the animation tends to be rather simplistic, and while this seems to fit with one episode in particular, it does become a problem during action sequences. In addition to this, there’s a certain “stiffness” to the movements that may be an intentional dig at British reserve, but it’s more likely due to carelessness or time/cost constraints. The character designs are unoriginal and uninspired, and while the clothing is somewhat reflective of the period, viewers will be forgiven for thinking that Dantalian no Shoka is nothing more than a copycat of Gosick.
The opening sequence is a decent montage that features the more prominent characters, some rather pleasant imagery, and a little action, all to the tune of “Cras Numquam Scire” (Tomorrow is Never to Know), by Yucca (featuring Ono Daisuke), a hauntingly choral track that is slightly reminiscent of “Lilium” – the opening song from Elfen Lied. The ending sequence is a short film about a little girl in a horned mask and white dress, walking barefoot through the forest while dragging a large trunk, and alongside the music box stylings of maRIONnetTe and their song “Yes, prisoner”, the overall effect is decidedly … unnerving.
Dantalian no Shoka is generally well served in the audio department, but although there’s a nice selection of classically themed tracks on offer, it should be pointed out that the majority of the series is actually devoid of musical accompaniment. The effects are well choreographed, but rarely overbearing, and it seems that a conscious effort has been made to emphasize the quality of the script and the acting.
For the most part the dialogue is pretty decent, although there is a degree of immaturity about certain conversations, and the explanations can sometimes sound pompous and overbearing. Then again, the latter may be nothing more than a reflection of each role, especially as the actors deliver some decent performance throughout the series.
There’s something puzzling about the characters as there’s very little in the way of actual development, but there’s also not much definition given to them either. Aside from being unable to write off the supernatural as mere superstition, Huey doesn’t actually grow in any way, and Dalian remains the stereotypical tsundere loli for much of the series. There’s also very little attention given to the supporting roles, in particular to the people using or afflicted by the phantom books, and one has to wonder if this was due to the attempt to cram so many different elements into the plot.
There’s also the issue of Dalian’s connection to the pink haired girl living in the “gourd”, but that raises a lot of other questions (especially about Raziel and Flamberge), so if you really want to know, just ask (or Google it).
Aside from the similarity in the character design and the fact both shows try to wade through various mysteries, Dantalian no Shoka has surprisingly little in common with Gosick, but that’s both a good and bad thing. The general lack of detail about the characters means that there’s very little justification for their actions, and aside from Huey, the lack of any real back story means that many of the roles lack the depth needed to take the story seriously. There’s also a surprisingly pro-censorship message built into the narrative, and this isn’t helped by the fact that the male lead is a lord, while Hal Kamhout, the Libricide officer, looks like a priest.
The biggest problem with the series is that it tries to do far more than it should, and this may leave viewers with a feeling of incompleteness come the end of the anime. While the story is interesting up to a point, the morass of people and events mean that there are no outstanding moments, and nothing to really capture the heart. There is entertainment to be had from Dantalian no Shoka, especially for those who like shows laden with symbolism, but this is nothing more than a veneer of “intelligence” that overlays the shallowness of the series as a whole.
It’s a shame that more effort wasn’t put into making this anime work as the concept is actually pretty good. The basic premise is sound, and if Gainax, the writers, and director Uemura Yutaka had taken the show more seriously, then Dantalian no Shoka could have been something truly interesting and entertaining.
And for those of you wondering how an entire library can fit inside a person, here’s an explanation from Sir Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld Companion”
“Even big collections of ordinary books distort space and time, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned second-hand bookshop, one of those that has more staircases than storeys and those rows of shelves that end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter.
The relevant equation is Knowledge = Power = Energy = Matter = Mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read. Mass distorts space into polyfractal L-space, in which Everywhere is also Everywhere Else.
All libraries are connected in L-space by the bookwormholes created by the strong space-time distortions found in any large collection of books.”