Archives in Anime: The Mystic Archives of Dantalian
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
I'll be honest, I put a lot more work into this article than I thought I'd have to, but that's what happens when you try to analyze an anime that came out a decade ago and expect the internet to magically produce everything you need. Full disclosure, I've watched about half of the first and only season of The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, several episodes of which were subtitled in Spanish and then translated by me with my limited high school understanding of the language as well as Google translate. I was adamant on not shelling out money for an anime I was already aware wasn't very good, so this was my compromise...I guess. But, I've read episode synopses from multiple sources and I've put together what is my woefully insufficient understanding of the anime as a whole.
I just wanted to put it out there in case someone wants to point out I've made many errors. I'm sure I have and I'm only one person with a life she's supposedly living.
With that caveat out of the way...
The Mystic Archives of Dantalian, or Dantatlian no Shoka, or Bibliotheca Mystica de Dantalian, is a 2011 anime adapted from a 2010 manga, which was adapted from a 2008 serialized light novel. The story takes place in post Word War I England and follows Hugh Anthony "Huey" Disward as he takes over his late grandfather's estate that includes custody of the Biblioteca Mystica de Dantalian, a library of forbidden knowledge and magical "phantom books" contained within a young woman named Dalian. As Dalian's new keykeeper, the two track down errant phantom books while unwrapping the mystery of the archives.
I won't lie, there's a lot of confusion within the anime about what is and isn't an archives and I'm not sure if some of that is baked into the DNA of the show or if some of it is lost in translation. Dalian is referred to as both an archives and the biblioteca as if the two were the same, which we've learned from the many articles on this site that they're not. She's also called the Black Biblioprincess because this anime manages, in twelve episodes, to be as confusing and overstuffed as possible. The concept and the setting are intriguing enough, but the set up is rushed and there's very little breathing room before the next episode goes off full tilt. Also, for a guy who was just ostensibly introduced to a world of magic books, demonic possession and the like, Huey takes to it all with a level of calm that I find fascinating and annoying. It's almost like we don't have time for him to process any of this, so might as well make him eerily okay with everything happening like it's super normal.
Anyway, Dalian is, essentially, the vessel that contains an infinite space for storing phantom books and, apparently, a young woman who passes whatever book or scroll or tablet Huey needs to counter the phantom book they're facing in their dimension. You might ask, "Why?" or "How?" and the answer is simply because reasons. The show tries to explain it through a Chinese fable about a gourd that contained an entire world. You could also equate it to the final scene of Men in Black with aliens playing marbles with multiple galaxies or the T.A.R.D.I.S. from Doctor Who.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention how Huey, for lack of a better term, gains "access" to the archives.
Yup! Dalian has a lock on her chest that Huey opens with a key and then he reaches inside her to get a book that'll hopefully save the day. As if you weren't already creeped out by the imagery, in the manga Dalian looks much, much younger than how the anime depicts her. Aging her up to a young adult loligoth was definitely the right call, but the imagery of Huey pressing his hand into Dalian is a whole lotta NOPE. You could say it's consensual because Dalian does give Huey permission, but it's still a clusterfuck of sexual politics wrapped up in a very short sequence.
This is part of disturbing trend I've noticed of women acting as vessels for an archives. We see it here with Dalian as well as a previous article about Gwen from Angel and, a character I'm planning on covering fairly soon, Ivy from the Dresden Files series of books. In most of these cases, women or young girls are the keepers of all knowledge, but are still under the control of male guardians, or employers in Gwen's case, who use them to obtain said knowledge. Their agency is always tied up in the actions of the men around them and rarely do they act independently or utilize their infinite knowledge in a way that benefits themselves. The only outlier in that he's of the male variety is the Archivist from The Magnus Archives, but then we have to start talking about those who are born with infinite knowledge and those who have an archives thrust upon them.
So, it begs the question, why is this called The Mystic Archives of Dantalian when the very concept of an archives is absent? Dalian is, at best, a storage locker for the 900,666 phantom books and the girl who lives in the phantom book zone seems to have an innate understanding of what book Huey requires whenever his grubby paws reach inside. There's no organization or arrangement of the materials to be found. Does Dalian have an inventory of what books are checked in or checked out of her chest of holding? What's the acquisition process for obtaining a new phantom book?
I reached out to my friend Zack Davisson, a manga translator as well as a writer and lecturer on Japanese folklore, about the significance behind going from Dantalian no Shoka to The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. According to Zack, there's no significance beyond wanting an engaging or exciting title to draw in an audience. Dantalian no Shoka, translated into English, means Dantalian's Bookcase and, yeah, not a super exciting title. The English editor likely chose Mystic Archives because it sounded cool and offered a better idea of what the show was about while also being vaguely alluring. As Zack told me, the titles are, first and foremost, about marketing and a fair amount changes in localization to make them more appealing. For example, the manga Demon Slayer likely wouldn't have gotten as much traction under it's original title of Sword of Oni Destruction nor would Dick Fight Island have received as much attention with the original title The Eight Warriors. It's not about the accuracy of the title, it's about what will sell to an audience that has a wealth of choices at their disposal.
Thus, The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. Intrigued? You should be.
It's not surprising given our collective cultural understanding of what makes libraries and museums is more or less firmly cemented. Archives, however, are less well known and far less understood by pop culture media, which makes them the go-to alternate term when a creator doesn't want to use the word library. An archives can literally be whatever a creator wants because there's no solid idea of what an archives is in pop culture for anyone outside the profession to protest.
At Zack's urging, I tried to find the English editor for Dantalian to ask them directly about the title change, but I've had zero luck with it. So, if anyone out there knows who the English editor was and how to contact them, please let me know because I'm genuinely curious about the title and the translation.