Don't Judge This Book by its Cover

The Book of Bantorra is a curious one to evaluate. The blogosphere praises it to the high heavens, while professional anime critics think little of it. As with most such matters, the truth lies somewhere in between, but to what side does it fall? Is it a flawed masterpiece, or a forgettable affair with flashes of brilliance? Let’s find out.


The Book of Bantorra’s concept is very unique; I don’t think I’ve seen anything similar. After people die, they ‘fossilize’ into ‘books’. If that sounds confusing, let me explain it further. Upon dying, people leave behind a ‘book’ (resembling a stone tablet) that contains their life history, their deeds and motivations, their emotions: everything. One might indeed say that this ‘book’ is merely the crystallised physical manifestation of a person’s soul. Reading the story pitch had me intrigued. Imagine what we’d give to have the books of famous people. Yes, their lives have been extensively documented in biographies and the like, but humans lie. We may never know what people were genuinely thinking at a particular time, we can only speculate. But the books of The Book of Bantorra don’t lie; they lay every secret bare. Exciting, right?



Unfortunately episode one is far from exciting. There are a couple of key reasons for this. One is the art. Without researching about this anime, I want you to look at the visuals and try to guess when it was made. What did you guess? 1996? 2001? Try 2009. For context, 2009 saw the releases of such titles as Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, K-On, and Bakemonogatari.


The Book of Bantorra makes the aforementioned anime look like Ghibli films in comparison. The character designs are nice enough, but the colours don’t pop. The frequent use of grainy filters or dull lighting doesn’t help this problem one bit. Close-up shots of characters look great, but the same characters at a distance are off model. The linework is inconsistent. The opening sequence looks like the title screen of one of those old-school horror games whose names you’ve never heard of.


But all of this pales in the face of the CGI. The spell effects straight out of an old software ad were warning signs, but they didn’t prepare me for the CGI ship on CGI water. Yikes. This book certainly doesn't have the most appealing cover.


My reaction after seeing all that CGI

And if it seems unfair to compare a niche low-budget show with heavy-hitters from the same year, note that better-looking anime like Mushishi or Welcome to the NHK are just as niche and were made on a similarly low budget (and years earlier, no less). Nor is this a studio problem, since David Production would, only three years later, go on to make one of the most attractive and stylish anime ever in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. I wonder what went wrong here.


The other problem is with the muddled narration. You will often hear critically-acclaimed anime praised for getting concepts across through natural and organic story situations, rather than by dumping dull exposition on the viewer: “show, don’t tell”, it is often called. The Book of Bantorra decides to go with “don’t show, don’t tell”, which isn’t exactly the greatest approach. You can't get viewers excited about mysteries they don't even know exist. Episode one throws us straight into a confrontation between the main entities of the story, the Armed Librarians (mages who guard the Bantorra Library, where all ‘books’ are stored), and the Shindeki Church (a maniacal cult who opposes the Armed Librarians for...reasons).


I love cold opens, and some of my favourite works kick off with a cold open (Death Parade, ID:Invaded, The Malazan Book of the Fallen), but this particular one just does not work. In the works I mentioned earlier, you share your confusion with one or more of the characters, working out the details alongside them in real time. The buildup of mystery adds to the payoff, both on and off screen.


"What does this message mean? Find out, 18 episodes later, in...The Book of Bantorra!"

In The Book of Bantorra, the confusion seems unintentional on the part of the writers. There’s no ‘viewpoint’ character here. In fact, you don’t even know which characters you should be rooting for, or why they’re fighting. Lots of terms are handed out, with more taking their place by the time you’ve made sense of them; the same is done with characters. It’s not complex or high-concept, just messy. Opening with a brief account of the bloody history between the Librarians and the Church would have cleared so much up.


At this point, I am unimpressed, but for the purposes of the review, I trudged on.


By episode two, I am starting to understand what is going on, how many parallel plotlines there are, and what everyone’s roles are. By episode three, I am acclimated to the art (much less CGI, thankfully) and am beginning to connect with the characters and their motivations. By episode four, I am very impressed, with all the pieces starting to come together, some tough philosophical questions being raised, and the curtains closing on a touchingly bittersweet tale.


And then episode five forgets all about the previous four. What?


A book reading in progress. Note the vignette-like filter.

It helps going in to know what kind of structure this anime has. It is split into distinct arcs, most likely each arc adapting one of the source novels. Aside from an overarching plot that converges in the end, these arcs are largely independent of each other. Some may be centred on a specific Armed Librarian; others may focus on different characters, with the Armed Librarians participating. Do not watch this episode by episode; nor should you binge through it. It is best watched one arc at a time, giving each arc the focus it needs.


Once I caught onto this structure, I began to see the brilliance in The Book of Bantorra. Each arc establishes characters and their present-day conflicts, uses the plot device of their books to delve into their backstory, and, through the intervention of the Armed Librarians, attain resolution and closure. This use of the books presents a great way to tie worldbuilding elements into the storytelling, rather than have them just be ‘cool’ showpieces. Of course, some arcs are better than others, as is typically the case with shows of this kind. Some of the introduced characters are very well written, especially when focusing on the emotional hardships of their lives. There is a general theme running throughout these stories of how we evaluate our lives, what gives it meaning. Expect to see a lot of suffering. Despite the grand scale of the final arcs, the first arc is still my favourite of all, for its tragic and touching insights into these topics.


Joy and suffering go hand in hand in The Book of Bantorra

The Armed Librarians themselves do not receive as much focus as one might think, which is a bit of a shame, because they are such interesting characters, both on and off the battlefield. Each Librarian has a supernatural ability as well as a weapon or fighting style of choice. I like these ability-weapon pairings. Hamyuts Meseta, the mysterious and secretive ‘main character’ and The Most Interesting Woman in the World, has the ability to send out sensory fibres that latch onto people and things, feeling and hearing everything they say or think. Her weapon? A slingshot capable of firing pebbles at monstrous velocities. Makes a lot of sense, when you know not only where your target exactly is, but also the exact layout of the surrounding terrain. Makes it trivial to hit her mark from wherever she’s standing. Mattalast is another Librarian, armed with an extremely powerful...pistol. What, that’s it? But wait! He can see into the future, predicting his enemies’ movements. A gun is the perfect weapon for him, nothing more fancy is required. Then why not just a knife? Because he can only see a few seconds into the future, so his time window is small. A good amount of thought went into this.


Hamyuts Meseta

Which makes it unfortunate that their development doesn’t really go anywhere. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the way they are handled, particularly in later parts of the anime, will...not be to everyone’s taste. More episodes would have certainly helped, with some arcs being clearly rushed. It is clear that the team did not do the best job they could in adapting the novels. The cast is simply too large for 27 episodes. There is no breathing room between arcs.


Hamyuts gets the most development as the main force driving the plot. Her carefree nature belies her twisted inner personality. Until the very end, you never know if she’s on the good side or the bad side. Both? Yeah, probably both. A flawed and memorable character. Reminds you of Lelouch from Code Geass, only more selfish.


After the rocky start, I’m glad to say I enjoyed The Book of Bantorra. The innovative concept and interesting characters kept my attention, even if the final execution was a bit lacking. At the very least, I am interested to check out the source novels, should they ever be released in English (they probably won’t, sadly; not enough of an audience).


Now that's what I call a voracious reader


Scores


Art: C+. If you dropped this anime upon seeing the CGI ships and water in episode one, I genuinely don’t blame you at all. The art looks dated without having any of the charm of old anime. Character designs are nice, albeit frequently off model and a bit too fanservice-y for my tastes at times. Some background stills are actually nice. The art improves later on.


Animation: C+. Still frames abound; not a good look for a show with lots of action. The spell effects are simply not as impressive as they should’ve been.


Music: B+. Good soundtrack, if a bit over the top at times (as expected from the same composer as Death Note). The use of organ and choral chant does well to set the mood. Could’ve used a greater variety of tracks, though. The OP and ED are forgettable.


Voice acting (Japanese): A. An all-star cast, with the likes of Romi Park and Yuuichi Nakamura in key roles. And they deliver.


Story: A. Despite some struggles with narrative structure and pacing, The Book of Bantorra’s plot delivers great conflict at multiple scales, both grand and epic as well as grounded and personal.


Characters: B+. I like these characters but they needed more breathing room, more episodes to work with and develop over. New characters enter just as older ones exit the stage. The fact that their names can be hard to remember doesn't help. Hamyuts Meseta makes for an engaging ‘protagonist’.


Overall: B+

The Book of Bantorra may not seem like the most appealing anime out there, but there is genuine greatness buried beneath the confused storytelling and the substandard visuals. I advise you to give it four episodes before deciding whether to continue or not.


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