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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Mystic Archive of Dantalion

Facts:

Paranormal investigations in Interwar England. 12 Episodes, available on Crunchyroll.

Bottom Line:

This is not a perfect show- it starts with a dragon and ends with zombies- but the parts in the middle that are half fairy tale, half Victorian adventure is a mighty fine drama. The show is highly episodic and inconsistent among the episodes, and due to creative differences ends rather abruptly. I would recommend against watching episode 2, and would encourage you to start at episode 3 if it wasn't so very important to meet Dalian and Huey in the first episode. I almost gave up on the series until the book of wisdom absolutely blew me away. It is in a sense a story about stories, and less compelling the more you are aware of the originals, but the originals tend towards the obscure, leaving us with some interesting moments, intelligent themes, and clever plotting. Not a conventionally child-friendly show, though if you have a friend or daughter who can identify with the protagonist it will probably be fine.

I should mention that MAoD is much better than this bottom line makes it out to be. Without even realizing it, I watched the entire thing in a single day and found it actively pulling me from the distractions of the day.

The Big, Glaring Problem:

Here we have an intelligent paranormal period piece that stands very well on its own legs. Then the producers, for whatever reason, decided that it needed more of the vocabulary of a standard anime. This gives us wholly unnecessary things like a big glowy fight with a golem that is tonally inappropriate and glaringly out of place in the second episode. And the grand spell pose; there are ready poses that are elaborate and ready poses that are sexualized and ready poses that are just plain silly, but the process of pulling books from the archive involves unlocking the breasts of a twelve year old girl, at which point her baffling kelp-like chest hair waves about and opens up for Huey (whose relationship is otherwise kept appropriately chaste) to shove his arm up to the elbow into her body as she arches orgasmically, and is one of the most disturbingly peculiar examples of the form I have seen, far outstripping the sexually questionable fire penis noted in the earlier Kaze no Stigma review.

A Story about Stories:

Or perhaps more precisely, this is the daydream of a young girl who reads a lot. I was not quite this girl in my youth, though I was not far off, and can certainly relate to the fantasy of the proper, brave and magnificently attractive hero coming to take me by the hand and show me that all these stories are so much more exciting when lived. Except that this show is smarter (or at least more ambiguous) than that, since neither the bibliophile in the dark room we see at the start of episode 1 nor the war hero that Huey is revealed to be are ever compared in a way that would allow one to infer that the show believes one mode or the other to be superior.

It is these moments where MAoD really shines. The encounter with the book of wisdom that the schoolchildren find is perhaps one of the finest single tales you will see in anime, and plenty of the other episodes stand out in their own right. We go from the realist horror of the Book of Soul Exchange to the comedy of The Magician's Daughter without really being able to point out where or even if the tone changes, and in neither cases is the desired emotion unexpressed.

But because this is so clearly a Mary Sue fantasy, the characters lack depth. Dalian is an adorable twit, Huey is every good girl's fantasy and their friends are generic comic relief. The episodic clients and villains are similarly one note. This, if anything, serves to highlight the strong plots, as the characters end up playing the role of archetypes in this fairy tale England, existing not so much to live and grow as to proceed through the questions and twists of narrative.

Recommendations:

If you liked Huey and Dalian's friendship, check out the underrated Spice and Wolf. If you were disappointed that you didn't get more (and better) episodes like the Golem episode, go watch the less mature Black Butler. And I think fans of the bibliophile aspect will enjoy the meditative Mushi-shi, though only if you are in a patient and calm mood.

Finally:

This is a strange and inconsistent show. It is perhaps for the best that it ends where it does, since I am not sure it was necessarily improving. The good episodes are absolutely exceptional, but a good third of the show is weak. Even during the weak episodes, the dynamic between Huey and Dalian is enjoyable enough that you aren't likely to tab out halfway through. If you just watch episode 1, then 3 through 7, you will have seen most of what makes this series good and missed most of where it falls flat. 

Due to the exceptional nature of the Book of Wisdom episode, I really feel bad about this score, but based on how much I enjoyed it overall, I give Mystic Archive of Dantalion a 6/10.

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