Have you heard of Gosick? It is a 2011 light novel which portrays a young man and his fateful encounter with a girl who loves rare books, they get involved in mystery cases and create bonds with different people and themselves. I recommend that show. Sadly, I will not be talking about it. Instead, I am going to review another light novel adaptation that also occurred in 2011, a story of a young man and his fateful encounter with a girl who loves rare books, they get involved in mystery cases and… you know the rest. Today, it’s time to rediscover Dantalian no Shoka. Good grief.
About the show
Dantalian no Shoka (ダンタリアンの書架) also known as “Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian” is an adaptation of an eight volumes light novel. The anime was announced on June 2010 and began broadcast during the 2011 Summer season. The adaptation has twelve episodes and an OVA.
After the death of his grandfather, Hugh Anthony Disward, a retired World War I pilot, returns to his grandfather’s manor as his will states that he will own everything with the only condition that he should be the guardian of the Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian an archive that contains forbidden knowledge—and also take care of a mysterious girl called Dalian. Upon meeting her, he discovers that she is the guardian of the Archives and while investigating his grandfather’s abnormal death he becomes her Keykeeper. Hugh (also known as Huey) and Dalian will investigate cases of people misusing the mysterious books called Phantom Books and use the power of them to restore the order.
There are so many ways to say a show was dull and unappealing but here we are. Before I trash this show let’s find the silver lining. This show was short, so I only had to endure it for twelve episodes. The character design was fine, at least for Dalian because every other character was a copy of themselves, even the other main character. The soundtrack was on point and fits well with the setting of the show (after WWI). And that’s pretty much all.
Mystery stories that involve magic or supernatural shenanigans can be tricky to portray because you don’t want to fall in the “everything was solved by magic” trap, you want your audience to explore different ways to solve it. Dantalian falls into that trap in almost every episode. Phantom books are the equivalent of a monkey paw where it can grant you whatever you want but you’ll pay the price and that is an interesting premise. Things that are better not left in ignorance. And yet, they fail to bring that to the anime. After they say the name of the book, which is frequently during the first five minutes of the show, you already know what would happen in that episode. “Oh, someone has the Book of Armaments and the owner is a traumatized ex-soldier? Gee, I wonder what the mystery would be!” Another problem is solving the mystery, they always have the book to solve it, even death can be solved. There’s no sense of endangerment or risk for our characters. “How to fight the Book of Armaments? Don’t worry, I have the Book of Shield, written by the mad Greek philosopher Papanikolopoulos” Rinse and repeat for twelve more episodes.
How bad a show can be when the best episodes are the ones where our main characters have less screen presence or just nothing at all? They are cardboard cutouts: The Tsundere little girl and The Brave Young Man. Nothing more, nothing less. They lack any sense of depth, conflict or appeal. Everything is superficial and if you like that sort of stuff, well it’s fine for that. They are the equivalent of janitors for the story, because everything happens to them, but they only act at the end. There’s one episode that seems similar to the plot of Misery but they get involved and get captured by the crazy fan. In a conventional show our MC would try to escape, confront the fan and discover what kind of book she has and fight her. Not here, they do nothing and they become the audience for the exciting scenes that happen to others. And then the episode ends. Anti-climatic endings are the rule here.
Who’s to blame for this failure? Apparently the Light Novels do not suffer from these problems. This was the directorial debut of Yutaka Uemura and it was the last work he did for Gainax. It is possible that he wasn’t prepared, although now he has done a wonderful job with Youjo Senki. My theory of what happened with this adaptation is something I like to call the beginning of “Zombie Gainax”. Much akin to the “Zombie Simpsons” hypothesis, we are seeing the decay state of what was once the greatest studio who took risks and created memorable stories. But at this point, there was almost none left of the original team that created works like Evangelion or Panty & Stocking. And Dantalian no Shoka marks the decline of the legendary studio, after this flop, they could never achieve what they did during the golden era.
I will not recommend Dantalian no Shoka. It is a boring and frustrating show that offers nothing to the genre. Go watch Gosick, or Index for more action-packed mysteries. Maybe if you want to research the decline of Gainax as I was, but you don’t really need to see the twelve episode to understand why this anime doesn’t work. I wish I knew that before.