Damn it, Gainax.
That’s the three-word version of my review of The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. To expand a bit, I did actually enjoy the anime, though that makes the disappointment of the last episode worse. To start with the good, though, the art was well-done, the animation fluid (a few static scenes excepted), and the music was excellent. I really liked the opening and ending sequences. Others have described the show’s atmosphere as its strongest point, and I agree. Edgar Allan Poe would probably approve. Really, all I wanted going in was Gosick with a better plot, and that’s what the first episode or two seemed to promise. A similar atmosphere but with an adult, competent protagonist in Hugh Anthony Disward and a more tolerable tsundere (or whatever word you want to use) in Dalian. Add an interesting premise with the phantom books, and as long as the writers come up with a competent plot, we have an excellent series.
Unfortunately, the plot’s the problem.
Up to the last episode, Dantalian‘s main problem was simply that it didn’t really go anywhere. Gainax took an episodic approach, which is fine, and most episodes held my interest, though there were a couple serious missteps. In episode three, for example, there’s a half-episode story about a group of children exposed to the phantom book The Book of Wisdom, which turns them into a bunch of geniuses. Their teacher (who gave them the book originally) leads Hugh and Dalian to a shed where they’re all hanging out discussing philosophy and politics and such, and they tell our brave heroes that they plan… not to do anything. Because plotting to take over the world or whatever would be futile or pointless or something. So, they’ll just continue to hang out and keep to themselves.
I guess that episode did subvert my expectations, but it hardly makes for a satisfying story and is the most flagrant example of episodes that fail to progress anything. Again, though, most episodes are good enough to at least make Dantalian a B-level endeavour. That is, until the finale.
In episode eleven, we briefly meet the Red Biblioprincess Raziel and her keykeeper, who’s just called the Professor. In the twelfth and final episode, they plan to create a zombie army in London by using newspapers as phantom books to turn the readers into zombies. Several problems come to mind. First of all, the whole idea seems silly and rather cliché. Second, they’re assuming everyone or almost everyone in London will read their newspaper. Third, what’s their motive? I don’t have a clue, and here’s where the episodic approach falls apart. This story arc really needed at least a couple episodes to develop.
Fourth problem, there’s a small flaw in the plan. As one NicoNico commenter sarcastically despaired, “If only newspaper could be easily destroyed by fire or liquid…” As it turns out, Hal and Flamberge, another keykeeper/biblioprincess duo, show up and do destroy the newspapers with fire. These two had an entire episode (ep. six) devoted to them, but that was all we’d seen of them so far, so their appearance (and quick disappearance) seems almost random. As for the Professor and Raziel, after seeing their newspapers burn they just give up and go home in about as bad an anticlimax as I’ve seen, on par with the genius kids from episode three.
We also get more of the Madokami look-alike, but honestly Gainax lost me if they ever explained what place she’s in, what relationship it has with the real world, or who she is. Hugh also gets to have an Evangelion moment (think Shinji sitting on a chair introspecting).
All that said, I’d still probably buy a Blu-Ray release, if it comes out in the US. It’s pretty enough to look at to justify that. I’d also be willing to try out the light novels the show’s based on. For now, though, it’s time to start on the new anime season (oh yeah, and I was one of the proud few who finished and enjoyed Cat God, but I doubt that’d be worth a separate review).