Episodic anime is a tricky proposition. In the absence of an overriding plot, character development can sometimes be difficult, and making the audience feel truly involved is more difficult. Some series like Natsume Yuujinchou overcome this by making their episodic tales heart-warming and relatable. Emotionally cooler shows, like Mushishi, do so by the sheer brilliance of the writing and the magnetism of the lead. Dantlian no Shoka, lacking either of those qualities, has settled into a kind of detached purgatory – usually enjoyable but rarely memorable.
I like the characters here, especially Huey, who clearly has hidden depths we haven’t seen. He carries a lot of pain with him and he’s seen some terrible things. The problem is, we haven’t seen those depths – bar some brief flashbacks with the lilac-haired Yomihime. Dalian is too one-note to really engage the audience – all tsun and no dere – and no one else is around often enough to carry the load. Dantalian carries itself at a kind of emotional arms’ length from the audience, and because the stories – though generally good – lack the jaw-dropping brilliance of a Mushishi caliber series there’s really nothing to bring the audience fully on-board. This member of the audience, anyway.
This week’s “Phantom Score” is an absolutely typical example of what this series is. A good story, interesting and somewhat thought-provoking, but capable of generating only a modest emotional reaction. The subject of artificial humanity is actually fertile ground for Dantalian, and the show feels very comfortable in exploring the case of Christabel Sistine, the odd young violinist Huey and Dalian meet in the park with her friend Dallaglio Hayward, who fixes Huey’s violin. When Christabel begins to play a crowd gathers quickly, and Dallaglio whisks the girl away with the promise to return the violin later.
As it turns out Christabel isn’t a real girl and Dallaglio isn’t her friend, he’s the inventor who created her – an artificial human capable of playing the two surviving sonatas by fictional Milanese composer Guillermo Baldini. They’re phantom scores, with “Utopia” effectively making listeners slaves by sending them into bliss so powerful they’ll do anything to hear it again, and “Twilight” – which brings a rain of death, destruction and despair. Naturally there are nefarious businessmen, Kendricks (businessmen fare very poorly in Dantalian no Shoka) pulling Christabel’s strings for their own gain, and the tragic death of Dallaglio and Christabel that occurs as a result is sad, no doubt. But it’s sad from a distance, as if it were someone else watching a really sad show and then telling you all about it.
I like this series, but I’d really love to love it. It has style, it’s extremely smart and literate, the OP is beyond beautiful and it offers an engaging premise. But Dantalian no Shoka – at least the anime version – is a tease. It only lets you see so much of what it is, occasionally (such as last week’s bookworm classic) shows you brilliance, but always pulls away before you can get too close. With two episodes to go there are some tiny hints that we may finally get inside Huey’s pain – the flashback occurred in the postscript this week, and we appear to be getting an appearance from a regular character in the novels – Raisel, the Red Yomihime that was responsible for the shenanigans in the bombed-out village in episode six. Perhaps, just perhaps, Dantalian is going to start bringing it all together and start showing us what’s really happening in Huey’s head.