The Mystic Archives of Dantalian Episodes 1 and 2 – Knowledge is Power
If Kami-sama no Memo-chou is Gosick transplanted to modern Japan, then the Mystic Archives of Dantalian is Index transplanted to the post-Great War era. Former WWI pilot Hugh Anthony Disward (he goes by Huey) receives a peculiar bequest from his late grandfather: take care of his estate, and of Dalian. He’s surprised to discover that Dalian is (or at least appears to be) an adolescent girl, and the protection he is asked to offer extents not just to his grandfather’s huge library, but the mystic archives Dalian safeguards.
In some ways, however, the above comparison is unfair. While Kamimemo and Gosick share many outward similarities, they also are quite similar in structure, with the ostensible mysteries of both shows being window dressing for character development and the plots of individual episodes often lacking. By contrast, Dantalian sheds the action-heavy, conspiracy-laden jumble that was Index’s plot for something far more simple. Dantalian is not really a mystery show or an action show in the traditional sense. It’s not even an exercise in Victorian-themed horror, although it borrows heavily from that genre. What’s driving the show, at least for now, is the unfolding relationship between Huey and Dalian.
Given Index treated its title character as a maguffin half the time (and Kamimemo, for all the great development it gives its interesting cast, still can’t make Alice seem like more than a cardboard cutout), this emphasis on the relationship between the main characters is welcome, particularly given they’re the only permanent cast members we’ve met so far. Huey, in a welcome shift from the other three series I’ve mentioned, is an adult with adult sensibilities, which means we get to avoid the standard teenage angst that plagues such shows. Dalian, despite her youthful appearance, is a ageless immortal, and her maturity and weary wisdom pop up to ground the show’s basic themes.
That’s not to say the writers don’t make Dalian the little girl when it suits them, having her become jealous when Huey’s attention falls on other, attractive women, or playing the tsundere when Huey wounds her pride or declines to bend to her will. But the show makes it clear that Dalian’s imperialistic manner is as much a part of her distance from humanity as it is a part of her closeness to it. The show also makes clear that she accepts Huey by choice; she could have refused to partner with him, but doesn’t, sensing the right moral character in him to allow him to do the job well.
Oh, right, the job. I suppose I should talk about that.
In brief, Dalian is, literally, the door to the Mystic Archives, home to hundreds of thousands of “phantom books,” supernatural texts that can grant great power to the wielder when read. In the wrong hands, the books can cause immense destruction, so Huey’s job is not merely to protect Dalian but to locate and retrieve stray phantom books that are loose in the world and seal them away.
That said, the show is insistent that the books are not cursed or evil, but rather that it is men in their weakness who abuse them. In the first episode, the pages of a book come alive and slaughter a household because the reader was a selfish killer; in the second, the power of a book is used not to cause a crime, but conceal it. Human frailty and evil come from human nature, which the books empower but do not corrupt.
This is nice to have established early on, because in both episodes Huey is empowered to defeat the effects of the books by using other phantom books, taken from Dalian’s stores, to counter them. Using the books is a draining exercise, but Huey is ultimately none the worse for wear. Huey’s moral character makes him someone who can be entrusted with the books, which is why he is perfect for the position.
That said, I hope the show livens up the narrative structure soon. Watching Huey and Dalian encounter some eldritch horror is hardly scary if one knows there is always a solution in a book, and that by reading a few pages Huey can trump whatever monster confronts him. There’s only so many ways to package such a plot before you need a new element to spice things up. Providing Huey with books of mass destruction doesn’t serve to maintain a sense of danger or menace, which I would think is important in a horror-themed show.
There’s some indication from the opening that there are other girls like Dalian running around, and occasionally the show has what look to be flashbacks to Huey’s younger self having entered the extra-dimensional space of the archive and talking with Dalian’s sister/true self/something. (In a testament to her skill, voice actress Miyuki Sawashiro voices both the earthly Dalian and the extra-dimensional one, and sounds completely different in each role.) I probably should just relax and accept that intro episodes are intro episodes, and not get hung up on the need for a show to present its main plot up front.
That being said, the main plot is probably what will make or break this show. Unlike Victorique and Kujou in Gosick, I don’t think the relationship between Dalian and Huey will be enough to carry the show. (It only barely preserved Gosick as it is.) The supernatural elements and the historical flavoring are nice, as is the solid art direction. The question is whether underneath the pretty wrapping there’s something to substance waiting to be found.
Dantalian hasn’t provided any proof that there is, but it hasn’t given any indications that there won’t be either. Like many other shows this season (like Kamisama Dolls and even Blood-C, which finally managed to provide some plot development in episode four), there’s enough talent here to catch my attention, but not enough to convince me that the full series, when all is said and done, will certainly have been worth my time. But it has convinced me it’s worth spending another couple episodes to find out more.
Dantalian is streaming on two different sites: NicoNico is streaming on the day of, but requires registration, while Crunchyroll is streaming a week after (for premium subscribers as well as normal viewers), and has commercials. For those (like me) with a premium subscription to Crunchyroll, I’d recommend that source just for the HD video; otherwise, decide how much you hate online registration and make your decision from that.