Reviewby Theron Martin,
The Mystic Archives of Dantalian
Sub.DVD - The Complete Series
In early 1920s England, Hugh Anthony Disward heads to the estate of his late uncle, who was a renowned bibliophile. Though they weren't close, Hugh has nonetheless inherited the estate, along with the responsibility to look after "Dalian", who he initially assumes is a pet. He instead discovers that Dalian a doll-like girl known as a Biblioprincess, an expert on books of all kinds but especially Phantom Books, which contain forbidden knowledge. She also has a keyhole in her chest, and when it is opened by a key that her recognized Keykeeper (i.e., Hugh) possesses, he can access the otherworldly Mystic Archive of Dantalian. Together, the two investigate a number of incidents involving the dangerous misuse of Phantom Books of all kinds.
The Goth loli fad which rose in anime during the 2000s arguably peaked in 2011 with two series: Gosick in the Winter and Spring seasons and this one in the Summer season. The two bear a number of similarities, especially in the main characters: both feature a pint-sized girl who dresses in Gothic fashion, is highly knowledgeable, surrounds herself with books, has a weakness for sweets, and a tsundere (or at least tsundere-like) personality. Their hair color and idiosyncrasies (Dalian always says “yes” and “no” in English, for instance) may be different, and Victorique of Gosick isn't explicitly mystical, but that's about it for differences. Both are also looked after by the male lead, with whom they solve numerous mysteries in a 1920s-era European setting. The biggest difference between the two series is their length and how that affects the story; Gosick was 24 episodes long but could have easily been shorter, while Dantalian is only twelve regular and one bonus episode and could have stood to be longer.
The other big difference is that while Gosick eventually evidences a strong overarching plot, Dantalian doesn't. Most of the episodes are stand-alone tales, with one early episode even consisting of two half-episode investigations, and there is essentially no story carry-over between them. A couple of other Keykeepers and their Biblioprincesses show up in their own feature episodes, but neither reappears again until the final regular episode and plot connections between them are nothing more than peripheral. The only other real sense of continuity between the episodes is the recurrence of a couple of characters introduced relatively early on: a former military subordinate of Hugh and a female childhood friend, the latter of whom is now a fully adult young woman on the cutting edge of fashion trends and whom Dalian sees as a rival for Hugh. (The series never makes it explicit that Dalian is in love with Hugh, but she is definitely possessive and hold some degree of affection for him which goes beyond their working relationship.) The only other sense of continuity to the episodes are the regular appearances of the pale-haired girl in the mystic library, whom Hugh is strongly implied to have somehow encountered when he was a kid. How that happened is never even hinted at within these 13 episodes, though. There are also some implications late in the series that Dalian and the girl in the library are connected, though no explanation of that is ever delved into, either.
The investigations that the main duo and one of the guest duos (the other guest duo is a villainous pair) get involved with are a diverse lot which mostly – but not exclusively! – have dark, horror-tinged overtones involving the mystical Phantom Books; the slightly lighter one involves the former military servant's efforts to woo a gorgeous young woman who already has innumerable suitors. Most involve at least a modicum of action, though on the whole I wouldn't classify this as a true action series. The content can get quite graphic, even harsh in a grisly sense, such as one episode where characters are repeatedly killed and then temporarily brought back to live in a vicious exchange of lives for lives. Lightening things up a little throughout is Dalian's penchant for breads and sweets, which she desperately tries to disguise but rarely succeeds, and the way Dalian good-naturedly tolerates Dalian's demands without wholly submitting to them provides for a decent character dynamic.
The other thing distinctive about the series is its storytelling flair. The series goes to great effort to capture the look and feel of a 1920s-era mystery/adventure story, with Hugh using a revolver for his weapon and lighter for a flashlight and getting around in a car with a front crank as a starter. Strict adherence to period fashion and detail supports this. The literary spirit of the series is captured in the way it uses phrases from old texts to power its magical effects and explores books of widely-varied types, including an opening episode which features a progenitor of pop-up books. The mechanic for using these like spells is sometimes a bit clunky, however, as it involves long-winded phrases being used in situations where there shouldn't be time to say them. There's also, of course, the dramatic scenes where Hugh unlocks access to the Mystic Archive with an invocation, using his key to unlock the lock in the amulet on Dalian's chest, and then effectively reaching into her chest to withdraw the book he needs for the given situation. It's a visual effect very similar to what would be seen the following TV season in Guilty Crown, and it's hard not to read some degree of sexual connotation into the act. The series otherwise avoids any hint of sexuality beyond a couple of references to certain characters having mistresses and a bit of trash-talking when Dalian meets her fellow Biblioprincess in one episode.
The series getting picked up and released recently by Funimation, after years of languishing in licensing obscurity, is an interesting bit of probably-coincidental timing, as it results in it coming out during the airing of one of the other two major projects helmed by director Yutaka Uemura: Saga of Tanya the Evil. (The other is Punch Line.) This is quite a different project in visual style than either of his other works, however, and the animation production in this case was done by Gainax. At times the animation of the action scenes do show Gainax's distinctive visual flair, although the artistry in general is more restrained in style and color than their works normally are, with an overall dark tinge being a regular element. Backgrounds often look like photos were taken of actual structures and mottled to look like drawings, which actually helps contribute to the overall effect. In terms of character designs Dalian cuts a striking figure with her normal black dress, while Hugh is a satisfyingly handsome fellow. Attention to period detail is impressive. Also notable is one late episode which takes on a wholly different visual look and animation style to indicate that Hugh and Dalian have actually entered a Phantom Book.
More impressive is the musical score, however. The series deals with a lot of potentially creepy content, which the expertly-handed but rarely-heavy musical score promotes beautifully. Opener "Cras numquam scire" is a lovely, haunting melody which sets the tone for the series quite well, while closer “yes prisoner” easily has some of the most bizarre (mostly live-action) visuals that you will ever see in an anime closer. It's worth checking out even if you don't give the whole series a try.
This series originally simulcast on Crunchyroll back in 2011, though it is no longer available there. Funimation is taking the rare (for them) step of releasing it subtitled-only and only on DVD, although the DVD does look pretty sharp. Included on two disks are all 12 original episodes plus an OVA episode released in 2012; this is listed only in the Extras menu on the second disk. Its only other Extras are clean opener and closer, so this is a minimalist release all-around. A combination of that and its age may be way the price point for the series is much lower than normal for a first-time seasonal release.
Like most largely-episodic series, The Mystic Archives of Dantalian has its ups and downs but comes out on the positive side overall. It is, however, hurt by throwing out some potentially bigger plot hooks but never doing much with them. The series seems to adapt most of the first four of eight novels, so perhaps the later novels bring things together better. It's not a series that ever strongly demanded a proper release but should definitely be of interest to anyone who liked Gosick or who appreciates Goth loli in general.
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : B+
+ Captures the look and feel of period Gothic horror stories well, main heroine has strong aesthetic appeal
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