Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dantalian No Shoka (2011)

aka The Mystic Archives of Dantalian

At the end of the Great War, the former pilot Hugh Anthony Disward follows a letter telling of the death of his incredibly bibliophile uncle and his inheritance of everything his uncle owned to the man's rather dilapidated mansion in the country. There, Huey not only finds and inherits the expected - that is to say a large library and mysterious circumstances surrounding his uncle's death - but also what seems to be a rather cranky girl of dubious age (it's the good old "looks like child or doll, acts like a grown-up" that can make the inevitable romance aspect of a show like this pretty problematic outside of Japan; my moral stance is it's not paedophilia when nobody is a child) with a bizarre fashion sense named Dalian. Dalian isn't just any old little girl, though. The girl is in fact something called a "biblioprincess", the warden and physical embodiment of and gateway to an extra-dimensional library that keeps magically empowered books - so called phantom books - from harm and the wrong owner. Huey's uncle was Dalian's so-called key-keeper, responsible for protecting her, and, if need be, unlocking the keyhole in Dalian's chest to fetch a plot-relevant magical book. Dalian chooses Huey as her new key-keeper, and from then on, both spend most of their time either looking for, or just stumbling over, various phantom books and the chaos, destruction and swelling orchestral music that follows them, meeting creepy automatons, flesh-eating plants who are books, various disturbances in the force of love, and even zombies, until the show comes to a sudden end.

The twelve episode anime show Dantalian no Shoka is based on a series of light novels by Gakuto Mikumo. Like the novels (at least that's what the Internet tells me), the show is mostly separated into stand-alone stories - some episodes even feature two or three very short vignettes instead of a full story - and not very dependant on a larger story arc. There's an internal chronology to be sure, and some things that happen early on will be somewhat important later on, but for the most part, this is episodic TV of the old-fashioned kind, where nothing ever changes for longer than a single episode.

Fortunately, Dantalian's basic set-up is actually a pretty good fit for the type of show it is. Being only twelve episodes long, there's also no risk that much repetition can set in.

Seeing how the single episodes are written, I doubt there'd have been all that much repetition in the show's future anyhow, for if Dantalian does feature one thing, it's variety. Apart from all threats being based on a phantom book somehow, the writers are free to do what they want, so there are standard monster romps, an intensely creepy episode about the horrors of love and resurrection, another one that finds our heroes entering a fantasy novel (and a completely different drawing style to boot!) attacked by book worms - the show (and/or the books it's based on) is nothing if not imaginative.

That imagination is put into an interesting context. The show treats the time between the wars it takes place in as the point where traditionally Romantic European ideas meet - and sometimes battle - modernity as we know it, a thematic through-line that is not only visible in the nature and consequences of the phantom books (there's really a lot of E.T.A. Hoffmann as seen through a Japanese lens in some of the episodes, as well as an interest in art and occultism that seems earnest and well-researched), but also in the design of the show. The - rather bucolic - England the show takes place in is visually standing right between (a Japanese interpretation of) the Victorian age and a (Japanese interpretation of ) the Roaring Twenties.

This combination of elements that do not quite fit together, yet work in a very pretty way, alone would make the show worth watching; that the show actually uses these elements to explore the way change comes upon the aesthetics of a world makes it a must see for my tastes.


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