As it turns out, the story in Dantalian no Shoka 9 is a little silly, and when you think about it, doesn’t make much practical sense. But the presentation is so striking that you won’t care at all. In other words, the animators at Gainax got bored again.
There’s only a slight disorientation when the episode starts. When we see the different art style and the limited palette, we can guess that we’re not in Dalian’s world, we’re probably in a book. What I felt instead was admiration that the animators had taken up this completely different style to tell their story, consistently for almost the entire episode. It looks good but … flat. Too green and beige, or if it’s night, too blue and grey. It’s a world we will visit only once, and I was instantly intrigued. What is the story here? How do Dalian and Huey fit in?
The story itself is messy. We see little scenes where an apprentice mage named Ira (or “Eyebrows” as Dalian calls her) runs about collecting plants, we hear about her would-be boyfriend Tito, a bug invasion, and conflicting opinions of how to deal with it. There’s much more to their world than they tell us. What is the friction between the Chief of Uta and the soldiers? What events led to that? What we have here is the beginnings of a long fantasy trilogy, but we only get to see a half-hour of it. It’s frustrating.
So it’s a relief when Dalian and Huey appear and provide us with an anchor. But their first appearance is just an aside, a view out a window, and then the story of this world continues. It isn’t until later that Ira meets the two. Dalian is instantly snarky (“Eyebrows girl”), and I felt a little more at home. But again, we don’t follow them but continue to follow Eyebrows, sorry, Ira, in her attempt to get the poison to the city for the impending bug invasion.
There’s a question of the story, I mean, the story within the story. It’s obviously a book, and the fact that Dalian and Huey are there means the book has been invaded somehow, but what are the invaders? The bugs? Our heroes? Something else? What would Ira and her grandmother and Tito and Mr. Salut be doing if the book had been left alone? We’ll never know. Dalian and Huey take charge (even their “unlocking” scene is styled differently here), the Chief recognizes the two for who they are, which itself feels wrong, and the bugs are dispatched.
And we learn the whole story. Incessant rain has brought about in infestation of bookworms. Huey is laboring to fumigate the damaged books. So does this mean that they had to pay a visit to every book that was damaged? And they haven’t answered the question hinted at in the fourth picture above: how did the infestation affect the stories themselves? How did their appearance in the story change the characters? Dalian and Huey had made quite an impression on young Ira, and while we close by watching Dalian leaf through the book, complete with a picture of a happy, middle-aged Ira, is that the story they would have had? Not to mention the bugs (do bookworms have wings? … I’ll write that off as a manifestation of fear). Never mind. Once again this series has taken a questionable story and made it fascinating to watch.