Reviewby Theron Martin, May 29th 2012
The Book of Bantorra
DVD - Collection 1
In an island-based fantasy setting roughly equivalent to 1930s America or Europe, Bantorra Library is a well-guarded repository for special types of books: stone tables which are each the physical embodiment of the essence and memories of one particular dead person. To touch a “book” or one of its fragments bare-handed is to see and gain insight into what that person experienced in life. The chief keepers and defenders of the books stored at Bantorra Library are the highly-respected Armed Librarians, magically super-powered individuals charged with investigating all matters involving books and, when necessary, defeating the guardian creatures of the labyrinths in which the books are stored. Opposing them is the Shindeki Church (aka The Church of Drowning in God's Grace), an elitist, hedonistic cult which, among other things, turns people into mindless living bombs (called “Meat”) and sends them after Hamyuts Mesetah, the Acting Director of the Library, a callous, monstrously powerful woman who relishes nothing more than the prospect of fighting someone who could actually kill her. Other matters that she and her colorful subordinates must deal with include a Meat who falls in love with a notorious woman from the past through contact with fragments of her book, a sexy trainee who encounters and falls in with a mentally unstable Book Eater, a reclusive Armed Librarian who is instigated to go rogue by a Church agent, and the Armed Librarian's resident telepath getting so hung up on the “cold case” murder of an actress that her path goes down dangerous roads of investigation. In the background Lascall Othello, a fairy tale-like figure, seems to play an integral role in bringing books into being.
The first half of this light novel-based 2009-2010 series shows promise. It looks good, features interesting characters doing interesting things, has some solid early stories, and bases itself on a fascinating concept with a lot of intriguing implications and potential directions for development. It also features no shortage of super-powered action and begins the process of building an elaborately-conceived world. By all rights it should be a great and memorable series.
And yet its first half does not entirely come together, resulting in it being less than the sum of its parts. The chief culprit so far is the lack of a clear overall story to unite the vignettes which compose the first 13 episodes. The four main stories in that span all happen consecutively in the same continuity, with details occasionally being referred to in later stories, but they focus on different characters each time and their events mostly stand alone, giving no concrete indication that they are building towards something and leaving the impression that the first twelve episodes were derived from a novel and a collection of short stories featuring the same setting and cast. (Episodes 13 begins a story arc that is far from resolved in this set.) These episodes also give no clear indication about why the Shindeki Church so fiercely conflicts with the Armed Librarians or why its leadership is so dead-set intent on killing Hamyuts. Granted, these issues may be resolved by the second half of the series, but the first half fails to lay any apparent groundwork.
The other problem is that the story doesn't exploit its most novel and fascinating element enough. The stone books pose all sorts of intriguing religious and metaphysical questions, such as whether they actually constitute a person's soul or are just records of their lives and experiences, but the series has yet to touch on that. They get a little more exposure as tools to facilitate research and investigations, but mostly they just get used as devices to justify flashbacks. The best of the early arcs is also the one which explores the books the most: the first one, which involves the “Meat” Colio Tonies and how he connects across time with a notorious but also tragic young seer called the Ever-Laughing Witch through contact with fragments of her books, an experience which changes both of their lives. Handled better is the mysterious Lascall Othello, who seems to have a hand in actually producing the books from the bodies of the dead and, in some cases, making sure certain people get a hold of certain books. Who or what he actually is, and what his true purpose is, has yet to be revealed, but at least it's periodically brought up and hinted at.
Throughout the first half the emphasis is heaviest on character development, with various different Armed Librarians being the focus of attention at one point or another. Perhaps most interesting is Hamyuts, a well-endowed woman who adores sewing bunnies onto her shirts but also has a nasty, cold-blooded streak; when she smiles, she shows a mixture of malice and eager anticipation. She can also take on a platoon of tanks armed with just a sling and win or sling down targets from more than a mile away. Her power is shown clearly in of the first half's most impressive scene, a shot of her landing on the ground cat-like and unharmed after diving hundreds of feet from an airplane; sure, this kind of feat is a common one in anime, but the way it is presented here shows far more of a sense of raw power than any impact crater could. Other Librarians who get substantial attention include Volken, a justice-obsessed young martial artist who figures prominently into the opening four-episode arc before disappearing for the rest of the first half; Mirepoc, a female telepath with a military officer's air and uniform who serves as the Librarians' chief tactical coordination figure and is the focal point of episodes 5 and 13; Noloty, a sexy, big-hearted, dark-skinned Librarian trainee who packs quite a punch and takes the lead in episodes 6-8; Mokkania, a reclusive Librarian with ant-controlling powers, who (along with the Church agent trying to manipulate him) is the focus of episodes 10-11; and Mattalast, the vaguely Irish-looking, bowler-sporting confidant (and, as we later learn, former lover) of Hamyuts featured in episode 12, whose power to see two seconds into the future gives him a big edge in fights. Several additional Librarians await their own turns, although the series is already stretching itself thin just to cover what it has and still maintain its action elements. The story develops other characters, too, such as the Ever-Laughing Witch and a young man named Enlike who figures prominently into the episode 6-8 arc.
The series certainly has no shortage of action, either. Battles presented throughout this run can be melee affairs, ranged battles using guns and/or hurled weapons, classical magical ones (i.e., characters chanting spells that send blasts of energy at each other), super-power-styled ones, or any combination thereof. All are well-detailed and many are excitingly-rendered, with plenty of flash and pop for the action junkies and no shortage of bloody violence and death for those who prefer such fare. The series does have a bad habit of inserting in disposable Armed Librarians just so the body count won't entirely consists of common people or organizational flunkies, however.
The series' visuals are its greatest strength so far, even when they are being eccentric. The Bantorra Library is a well-imagined mix of classical and early 20th century elements, and while the spectacularly-imagined Toatt Mines have a fantasy feel, the accompanying town and other urban areas look like something straight out of the early 20th century. So does most of the apparel worn by ordinary citizens. The outfits of the Armed Librarians are as diverse as their physical types, however, ranging from Mirepoc's military uniform to Hamyuts' shirt and trousers to Noloty's hip beach girl get-up to Ireia's maid outfit (but she has the look of a grandmother, so it feels more appropriate) to one Armed Librarian who dresses like a cowgirl. Male apparel and looks vary just as much. The result is an eclectic-looking bunch which certainly grabs one's attention but also feels incongruous for an established and highly-respected organization. Despite occasional lapses, character rendering quality is generally on the high end of the scale, though the animation does not impress as much; scenes of a horde of CG-animated ants in the Mokkania arc are particular weak spots. Except for Hamyuts' penchant for wearing her shirt open to show off her ample cleavage, fan service is limited to just a couple of scenes, but graphic content is sufficient to justify the 17+ age rating.
The musical score comes courtesy of Yoshihisa Hirano, who also scored Death Note and Broken Blade (amongst many others). This one has a similar musical style to those, primarily consisting of symphonic pieces which often carry heavy, ominous overtones. Although this works in some places, it comes across as heavy-handed in others. Opener “Datenkoku Sensen” is a typical Ali Project number, but closer “Light of Dawn” doesn't distinguish itself, either.
Although Sentai Filmworks has dubbed this series, it is only making it available on DVD so far and with only clean opener and closer for extras. Their English dub, contrarily, is mostly a solid one. Shelley Calene-Black is great as Hamyuts, as is Cynthia Martinez as Noloty, Clint Blackham as Colio Tones, and Marcy Bannor (the narrator from Princess Tutu) in an age-appropriate casting as Iriea. More debatable is the fit of Shannon Emerick as Mirepoc, as she performs Mirepoc with a curious speech affectation. Other roles vary but are rarely a downgrade.
Overall, The Book of Bantorra is a decent series which may end up being a good series if its second half shows more of an ongoing plot and more tightly pulls together its story elements from the first half. So far, though, its emphasis on character development over story development is actually getting in the way more than it helps.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B-
Animation : B-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ The series' foundation concepts, character designs, Hamyuts Mesata.
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