Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Hugh Anthony Disward – known to his friends as Huey – drives through the English countryside, fresh from the bullet-ridden skies of World War I; he’s traded his fighter plane for a rural estate inherited from his eccentric grandfather. The only catch is that Huey must take ownership of the Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian, and also take care of a young girl named Dalian, whose very existence is closely tied to the mythical archives that occupied so much of his grandfather’s attention. This would be a simple enough task, were the archives not filled with Phantom Books – works of literature, music, and art imbued by their creators with a sense of magic; works dangerous, even lethal, to those deemed unworthy of reading them. Huey must become the Keykeeper who defends the world from the dangers hidden within the written words, trading the physical horrors of the First World War for a more intellectual battle closer to home.
It’s a story about the power of books; about the keeping of promises; about the magic that exists in simply believing in miracles. About “madness. Or perhaps fear. Emotions so strong that they burn. A desire strong enough to break through boundaries.”
The contract-with-a-magical-cohort angle and the Victorian/Gothic aesthetic have led me to call this the poor man’s Black Butler. It’s as though Dantalian set out to achieve the very same things but just couldn’t quite hit the mark: the character designs aren’t nearly as extravagant or polished, the audience never really understands the rules of Huey’s world (how many people know about the Phantom Books? How many mystical archives and Keykeeper’s are there?), and even at only twelve episodes long, the show still feels like it wanders around a bit aimlessly.
But Dantalian is a perfectly serviceable show in its own right – I would never warn anyone to stay away from it, for example, but the only people to whom I would recommend it are those who might object to some of the seedier sexuality in Black Butler. The artwork has moments of brilliance, particularly when it comes to the magical effects spawned by the Phantom Books themselves. Characters are memorable despite their relatively simplistic designs. (The biggest issue with the designs comes from the fact that all but one of the prominent male characters are blonde and have light colored eyes – they begin to run together visually if you aren’t careful.)
The problems that I had with No. 6 and its short length are absent in Dantalian. The latter doesn’t attempt to have a cohesive story from episode to episode, choosing instead to focus on individually contained tales that end when the credits roll. Some thread to tie it all together might have been just the thing to bump the show up from intriguing to impossible-to-look-away, but the lack of it doesn’t break the experience completely. Still, my favorite episodes were those that seemed to offer some glimpse of a greater plot at work: episode 6 introduces another anthropomorphized archive and it’s Keykeeper, one who chooses to burn Phantom Books rather than shelve them; episode 11 delves into Huey’s fighter pilot past and also introduces an antagonist just in time for the rushed finale of episode 12.
Speaking of antagonists, there really aren’t many to speak of. Each episode has its villain that struts about the stage, but they never feel like true threats to the world. As a result, the so-called conclusion offered by the final episode seems more like the end of an episode rather than of the whole series, and leaves the show on an unsatisfying note. More time probably should have been dedicated not only to Huey and Dalian, but also to the various other named characters who crop up here and there only to rarely (if ever) be heard from again.
If you have some time to kill on a weekend or late at night, click over to Crunchyroll and watch an episode of Dantalian to see if it’s for you. It’s a show that doesn’t require any real investment. You can put it down and come back much later without ever feeling that you’ve forgotten or missed something, but in return, it isn’t the visual equivalent of a page-turner, either.