The Mystic Archives of Dantalian
Hugh Anthony Disward (or "Huey") inherits an old mansion and a personal library from his grandfather upon his death/ In the basement of the mansion, he meets a mysterious girl, Dalian, whom the grandfather had apparently adopted. She is a Dantalian, one tasked with storing and guarding the prohibited books of the demons. These so-called "Phantom Books" endanger the balance of the world via their mysterious powers, but people are fascinated by the taboo, and naturally, the pair soon find themselves caught up in numerous cases of humans attempting to find, use, or meddle with these books.
The worst possible thing that could have happened to Gainax, in my opinion, was to lose Hiroyuki Imaishi, who had directed the studio's best-regarded work in years and taken the studio out of a long slump of mediocre series. When exactly that happened, it seems that the studio didn't exactly have an excess of talent waiting in the wings; the evidence I have for that is The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, the first series released after his departure and the first (and to-date only) directorial work of Yutaka Uemura. It is an astoundingly lazy and uninteresting series, and while it's unclear to me to what extent Uemura deserves blame as compared to the author of the possibly also subpar source light novels, it's one to skip regardless of who is responsible for the mess.
Dantalian wants to be a spooky, Gothic-esque mystery with the added atmosphere of being set in the Victorian era. It fails on the first count because its stories rely so heavily on convenience and its characters react to the supposed supernatural events in a nonchalant manner that, to me, feels completely impossible. The first episode rapidly lays out this problem, with Huey finding Dalian in his grandfather's library and barely seeming to care or even register that his grandfather had adopted a little girl with strange powers; to take the cake, he's as uninterested in finding out what these "phantom books" even are as the show is in explaining it. Indeed, the phantom books are a vague plot element that functions as nothing besides that, for different books can heal, exchange souls, or give children unnatural precociousness, and yet what purpose they really serve is, to my knowledge, neither given nor implied. Is this yet another item listed under the generic umbrella of "magic"? Was their creation supposed to aid or hinder humanity in any particular way?
I don't know, and I don't think that the people behind this series really did, either. Instead, expect endless convenient plot twists to solve the mysteries, their absurdity going unacknowledged. The most ridiculous one was a carnivorous "book-plant" whose maneater part, a flower, only blooms one night every fifteen years, that particular night being that in which burglars attempt to ransack the mansion to find a "death book" (that in reality is said plant). I must also say that the show's invoking "resistance", as in bacterial resistance to antibiotics, as an explanation for a character's ability to come back from the dead ranks as among the most idiotic plot twists in my recent memory. It's truly enough to make most of the show farcical rather than at all sinister.
There's no atmosphere to Dantalian because the show's writers and artists don't build any. We jump into the first nonsensical mystery, which involves dragons romping around the mansion and needing to be captured (for what that actually matters), without having any time to gain our bearings nor gauge why any of this might be important. From the start, it's also clear that Dalia is much more than a little girl, for she apparently has some sort of mystical spirit persona who occasionally appears in creepy, dream-like sequences as a white-haired figure in glowing clothing, and we do learn that there are others of her kind. It's so generic for "supernatural" and "magical" shows and so poorly-developed, however, that I can barely call it world-building.
Indeed, it seems to me as if nobody behind this show actually had any concept of how to build atmosphere. The art itself is generically pleasant, and Victorian enthusiasts might enjoy it for the clothing, but it suffers from an overly-dark color palette that appears to have been the artists' idea of "macabre and spooky". Brighten the scheme a bit and they would just seem like generically Victorian characters; I've never seen a show that tried so hard to use its visuals to add an "air of mystery" and so thoroughly failed. The animation is often of poor quality, and in a show clearly trying to aim for semi-realistic character builds (as opposed to, say Gurren Lagann's cartoonish exaggeration), this is a big strike against it. The one redeeming quality to the attempted "atmosphere" is a lovely and operatic pair of theme pieces, which frankly might be the only things I genuinely like about this show, but sadly, I found the in-show music completely unmemorable.
And yes, if it isn't obvious by now, I don't like The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, not at all. Its failed attempts at atmosphere might have been forgivable if I'd either liked the characters or felt that the story had any weight, but neither is true. Dalian is an unpleasant tsundere, voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro in what reminded me of an uncomfortable and poorly-thought out impression of Rie Kugimiya. Huey, while having the benefit of being an adult character rather than a teenager (for once), isn't much better, having little in the way of drive or desires beyond functioning to serve Dalian, and his intelligence level and personality fluctuate widely from episode to episod. Indeed, a pistol he "always carries on him" in one episode that saves them is mysteriously absent from another, in which he says "I don't carry it inside of the house". It's inconsistencies like this that make me think he's not even a character, but yet another of anime's ignoble line of cipher-protagonists. There are hardly any other characters worth mentioning, aside from a pair of "Phantom Book Hunters", one female and one male, who mostly served to remind me of why I despise the trope of a female subordinate being madly in love with an abusive and uncaring male superior (she friggin' dresses in bondage gear!).
As for the story, I simply didn't care that much because I never knew exactly what the books were nor felt the necessary desire to know. This show, unlike many, is at least not full of distractions from the main plot, but this only gives more room for the writers to show that they simply don't know what they're talking about. Indeed, the deepest possible themes that I could detect were some nonsensical ramblings about "other worlds" and "age and the present having no meaning", which have the profundity of your average Visual Novel premise; to make matters worse, the final episode is literally nothing besides utterances of such generic sayings. Nice try, Mystic Archives of Dantalian, but regardless of what bad advice Hideaki Anno might have given you, an Evangelion-style ending wasn't going to save your skin.
Some bad anime are enjoyable to write about because their flaws stand out so distinctly, but The Mystic Archives of Dantalian is ultimately just a boring show, both to watch and to review. A single episode in the show exhibited some promise of a potentially better story, in which Dalian and Huey travel into the world of a Phantom Book, allowing the show both to experiment with another art style and actually develop a concrete "power" of the Dantalian instead of simply spouting vague nonsense. While that episode wasn't interesting enough that I would call it "good", I would much rather have watched a show based on that premise than the empty mess of a series the rest of it turned out to be. Both Gainax fans and afficionados of the gothic lolita subculture ought to skip this in favor of better entries in their respective canons.
Rumor has it that Yutaka was fired from Gainax after this show, and as much as I feel sorry for him, I can't entirely blame the studio for this choice. Even Scooby Doo! does a better job of constructing atmosphere than this. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: There's a fair amount of bloodshed in this series, and given the theme of the show, it's unsurprising that occultism is brought up on a regular basis. If they really want to see it, this would be fine for pre-teens and above.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital stream on Crunchyroll, Japanese with English subs.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
The Mystic Archives of Dantalian © 2011 Gakuto Mikumo / G-Yusuke / Kadokawa Shoten / Mystic Archives of Dantalian Production Committee
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