Review: Dantalian no Shoka

[Synopsis]: After the passing of his Grandfather, Hugh Anthony Disward (Ono, Daisuke) receives a letter prompting him to travel to the estate and inherit his grandfather’s possessions. Renowned for his collection of all manner of books and tomes, Hugh’s grandfather left behind a vast library littering the whole of the house. Amidst the countless volumes he encounters a doll-like girl by the name of Dalian (Sawashiro, Miyuki) who is revealed to be the Black Reading Princess and the curator of the legendary Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian – a library containing 900,666 mystical tomes of enigmatic power and knowledge. After agreeing to become her keykeeper, Hugh and Dalian work together to search out mystical tomes across the land and gather them to prevent catastrophe and from the books falling into the wrong hands.

[Characters]:

While there are a few recurring characters, the story concerns itself almost exclusively with Hugh, Dalian and the people they meet during their journeys. This is somewhat problematic as the characters that do reappear aren’t terribly interesting or endearing and the people the duo meet are episodically introduced and therein lack sufficient context and character detail in order for them to prove the saving grace of the show. With that said it becomes evident that the show relies a great deal on the characterization and chemistry of its main characters to get by.

Lord Hugh Anthony Disward, the male protagonist of Dantalian and Dalian’s keykeeper does very little to set himself apart from other protagonists. It isn’t that he exemplifies particularly cliche traits or an over-obvious archetype but rather that he lacks characterization in general – he is as bland as protagonists come with very few traits to speak of. He is kind-mannered, handsome, and cordial however beyond these adjectives it becomes quite hard to define him as he can best be recognized by his actions rather than by his personality or his relationships with other characters. Alongside Dalian he creates a Sherlockian-esc duo with Dalian as the brains and him, military officer and previous Air Force Pilot, the man with the gun and the combat experience to carry them through the action scenes. To call Dalian the brains is a bit unfair within the context of the show as Hugh keeps up with her quite well and is highly informed while whatever knowledge Dalian has over him almost always stems from her relation to the Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian.

In respect to Dalian she suffers from a similar problem to Hugh in that she too lacks sufficient character detail. While she represents a connection to something as mysterious and impressive as the 900,666 mystical tomes Dalian as a character is doll-like, childish, condescending and knowledgeable. Those who have seen Gosick will find Dalian’s design and personality highly reminiscent of Victorique in many ways and the two characters as well as the aesthetics of the two shows are so similar it is almost impossible not to compare the two. Beyond her childish nature and knowledge of mystical tomes Dalian doesn’t have all that much going for her as her relationship with Hugh is tired and cliche at best.

So with the majority of the cast only existing within one episode of Dantalian’s episodic format and the recurring characters not offering anything engaging the show falls short by a large margin when its main duo, under-explored and lacking appropriate chemistry, also fail to become memorable.

[Art/Animation]:

The animation of Dantalian is fairly simple and straight forward, avoiding ever feeling flashy or impressive yet also avoiding ever feeling out of place or bad. While this ‘par for the course’-esc approach might work well for a large number of other shows, due to it’s lackluster cast Dantalian is a show that is in dire want of an area in which it can excel and by approaching the art and animation in such a safe way it again fails to become appealing in some regard. The animation surrounding the action sequences was quite bland as well and while the scenes often only lasted a matter of seconds they were unable to evoke any feelings of tension or excitement and instead managed to merely direct the story towards its next plot point.

The aesthetic of Dantalian is as one would expect after seeing the character designs of the show – it feels Victorian and Gothic and the show does a good job of maintaining this aesthetic throughout. While the overarching art style and animation of the show was unsuccessful in offering something engaging I will say that one of the episodes took a different approach that I found highly interesting and refreshing. Episode 9 takes place in an alternative setting which is visually illustrated by a complete change in art style and animation that broke away from the setting and aesthetic of the previous episodes. While this episode is not reason enough by itself to watch the whole show I would say that I found it to be the most memorable episode by a long shot.

[Story]:

Given the sub-part characterization of the cast and the lackluster animation and art of the show, the story is essentially the last place where Dantalian can redeem itself outside of perhaps its music however I’ve found that classically a show cannot be carried by its soundtrack alone. Unfortunetly I don’t feel that Dantalian succeeds in this category either and it may be in part due to its characters among other things.

The narrative approach of Dantalian is highly episodic in nature with each episode generally detailing Hugh and Dalian’s encounter with a certain mystical tome and occasionally two within one episode. What I found disappointing in this regard was that the premise of the show seemed to me to beg for an overarching plot of some kind or at least something that slowly manifest over the course of the show however neither narrative element is really present in Dantalian with nothing of any great consequence even appearing until the penultimate episode. The problem with the episodic approach beyond this point is that each episode, or at least the majority of them, must be entertaining or interesting in and of themselves in order for the show to feel worthwhile however when the show fall short of accomplishing this the viewer is left with hardly anything at all – disconnected stories concerning characters they were incapable of caring about. The stories themselves concerning each mystical tome aren’t all that uninteresting and I think had potential however when your means of exploring them is through the bland and uninteresting duo of Hugh and Dalian it becomes hard to enjoy the story as there is nothing happening or developing in juxtaposition to the plot – no great character chemistry or development to be found that strings together these narratives or to entertain when they lull.

Dantalian’s other problem is much more simplistic and stems from a pretty straightforward plot holes and lack of sufficient closure in some cases. The show raises some questions and mysteries concerning Dalian and her mystical archives however the show does hardly anything to resolve or shed better light on these subjects while simultaneously offering no compensation in the form of strong story telling or good characterization. The end of the show arrives with little preface and the conclusion doesn’t make a terrible amount of sense, progressing towards its final episode with what feels like large amounts of information missing that would have given better context to what little events that transpired.

The last thing I will say on this topic is of a more trivial nature however concerns an element of the show where I feel highly compelling work could have been done. Dantalian concerns books quite forwardly and in a somewhat formulaic fashion, at least for the majority of the episodes, the end of the episode arrives with Hugh reading a tome pulled forth from Dalian’s collection in order to avert catastrophe or save themselves. The passages read from the books never felt all that engaging but moreover never really possessed any allegorical nature to them. The excerpts sounded interesting and impressive however carried little meaning within the context of the scene or episode. Something that spoke to some kind of allegory would have been incredibly interesting and by giving some kind of commentary on the events of the episode provide something engaging to capstone each episodic inclusion with. While the show obviously forsakes this possibility I couldn’t help but feel that the otherwise impressive reading scenes could have been the saving grace of the entire show had they been done in a more inclusive or engaging manner rather than purely attempting to be enigmatic.

[Music]:

The music much like the art is more or less what you would expect from the show and the soundtrack doesn’t present anything particuarly memorable while still fitting well with the aesthetic and the events of the show. I will say that the music felt like it got considerably better around the midsection of the show and while the buildup and the context of the dramatic scenes were lacking, the scenes themselves in juxtaposition to the music were at least decent by themselves because of this improvement.

[Final Thoughts and Rating]: 

I would say that Dantalian was a classic case of wasted potential however beyond the individual narratives of each episode the show never really gave much detail or thought to anything overarching or even to its main characters. To briefly compare the show with Gosick I would say that the latter represents a mirrored story of successes while Dantalian fell short of what both shows were striving for. Victorique felt far more interesting than Dalian because, while they both exhibit childish behavior, condescending attitudes, and a similar design aesthetic, the context of Victoriques knowledge is more impressive innately which is to say she is intelligent to boot whereas Dalian is merely knowledgeable. More importantly, Victorique represents sufficient characterization – a troubled past, a romantic interest, an overarching story-line which centrally concerned her. In lacking these things Dalian is a far more forgettable character by comparison though they mirror each other at face-value so closely.

Rating: 4

Normally I feel a show would have to do something actively negative or bad in order to be awarded a score as low as this however Dantalian is a rare case where it did so little for its characters and plot that it failed to do hardly anything to the point of becoming memorable. The characters were uninteresting, the story, after a turn, was plagued by a handful of problematic plot holes, and while the aesthetics and music were not bad they failed to impress which is just as bad given the show’s problems elsewhere.

[Recommendations]:

Dantalian can best be described as a supernatural mystery show however I would say that the mystery elements are actually pretty light and the more important ones in relation to Dalian’s identity and roll as the archive of the mystical tomes of Dantalian lack resolution the point where i wouldn’t recommend the show based on this genre element alone. i think the element of the show I can best recommend is due to its consistant aesthetic and tone the show does quite well as a Gothic Victorian story and so fans of that aesthetic and that kind of world would I think reasonably enjoy Dantalian though they may have similar issues to what I have outlined above. Fans of Gosick will either love the show because of just how similar the two are in certain regards or they will dislike it greatly because of how Dantalian falls short by comparison and deals with slightly different subject matter.

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