Hi, all you fine folks out there in the Otakusphere and beyond. It’s time once again for me to take another pick from the anime people have submitted to me as I go In Search Of… my next favorite anime.
So what is this feature? Every month, I pick out an anime that has been submitted to me, and I watch it. I tell you what I think about it, and whether I think it’s worth watching again. You can help me by submitting to my list. Generally, I’m looking for stuff I haven’t watched, but I’m willing to rewatch things I haven’t seen in a while as well.
This month, we’re going In Search of… Boogiepop Phantom.
Now there are a lot of anime that I haven’t seen. I mean, I could probably start listing titles that I haven’t seen, and I would still be here years later. (And I would likely have exhausted fingers.) But usually, I try to watch what amounts to classics in anime. I’ve seen Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Spirited Away. I’ve caught a few episodes of Lupin, watched Evangelion, and one day will attempt to watch Gundam 0079 again.
One of those classics that I’ve never seen is Boogiepop Phantom. Going into it, I knew that it was in the same vein as other shows about weird goings on, like Serial Experiments Lain or Texnolyze. I bought a copy of it about five years ago as part of a Right Stuf sale, and I just had never watched it.
I had heard it wasn’t as dense as some of those other shows.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. So what is Boogiepop Phantom?
It’s a 12-episode series that was based on a light novel series by Kouhei Kadono. It was directed by Takashi Watanabe with a screenplay by Sadayuki Murai. According to Wikipedia, the events in the show take place after the first two light novels (something that makes a lot of sense after I read it) and before that.
(Interestingly enough, Murai worked on the screenplay for Perfect Blue. Another classic that I haven’t watched.)
So I’ll be honest, I lifted a lot of the information off of Wikipedia, but I think production-wise, what is the most interesting for me is that this was produced by Studio Madhouse at a time when that still meant something. It also came out in the year 2000, which helps me understand some of the thematic elements present in the show. But we might get to that later.
So this came suggested by Quiddity (or Ge999f on Twitter), who has been an anime fan for at least as long as I have (20 years) and likes many the same shows. Probably just as importantly, he maintains A Fan’s Guide to Galaxy Express 999, a blog where he has watched all of Galaxy Express 999 and has written recaps of all of the episodes and their corresponding manga chapters. It’s a really great resource if you’re interested in Galaxy Express 999.
But let me let him introduce himself.
Mecha and sci-fi tend to be what I gravitate to. No one show I would consider my favorite, but my top anime in no particular order would include RahXephon, Escaflowne, Serial Experiments Lain, Wolf’s Rain, Galaxy Express 999, FLCL, Kyousougiga, Gundam, Ideon (and Boogiepop Phantom.)
So what makes this show special?
The show has a great, mysterious atmosphere to it, is a very effective horror anime and has a fairly unique setup with non-chronological storytelling.
OK. So let’s start there as we go on a journey through the dark streets of a nondescript Japanese city and hear the tale of Boogiepop Phantom.
Through a muddy window
So I’m going to start by saying that I’m going to avoid spoilers. I may slip up. This is a 21-year-old show, and I hope that you’ll forgive me if I do.
Off the bat, though, there are two things that either you’re going to be on board with, or you’re not. The first is the visual style. For much of the time I watched the show, I struggled to find a good way to describe it. My personal best description is that it looks like someone smeared Vasoline around the edges of the frame.
As things get more spooky and mysterious, the effect creeps toward the center, making it feel claustrophobic.
This is combined with the colors being severely desaturated. Some images and scenes were in black and white.
In total, it creates an effect that one person described, like watching old late-night television. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. I can imagine these episodes being introduced by Elvira or Vincent Price as part of a late-night horror show on UHF.
Well, maybe not that campy, but it echoes the days of CRT televisions, right down to the graininess.
It’s an aesthetic choice, and it’s either one you’re with, or you’re not, and I was with it.
The effect combines well with the general creepiness of the show to create some surrealistic moments. In particular, a doctor shows up a couple of times, and each visit with her is painted as dreamlike.
The low saturation in the color scheme makes the colors that do exist pop. Red, in particular, is a thematic color that returns several times.
While I could see someone saying the visuals are off-putting or bland, I disagree with that assessment. To me, the visuals suited a show where a lot of people encounter a lot of crazy things and go kind of crazy because of it.
These choices, though, are not the thing that is most likely going to throw someone off when they watch the show.
Through a glass darkly
It’s hard to talk about this next point without discussing something about the plot. The show is divided into two types of stories. The first is individual tales where high school students encounter some sort of supernatural event. For instance, one boy discovers he can eat people’s guilt.
These stories are largely self-contained. When you get to the end, there is a conclusion. It generally involves the Boogiepop Phantom showing up and taking them somewhere.
We’ll get back to these stories in a bit because I think they’re a large portion of what makes this show work.
The other portion of the story follows Nagi Kirima, Toka Miyashita and some other characters. So here’s where I think this show stumbles a bit. I watched all 12 episodes. I took notes for 12 episodes. I don’t think I could tell you who these characters are.
The story around Echoes, herself, is understandable, but the light, Manticore and even the Boogiepop Phantom remains nearly wholly opaque to me. Now, it’s with no small amount of trepidation that I admit that. I’m sure if I watched it a few more times, the pieces would start to fit together, but on first viewing, I can only guess at the events that occurred before the show, and the show decidedly does not want to hold your hand.
You aren’t expected to have complete knowledge, but you are expected to have a basic understanding. Even with the bits of exposition that are included, it was difficult for me to follow.
None of this is helped by really bland character designs. The only character I could pick out without context clues is Nagi. Even then, I was confused when she showed up in a school girl’s uniform.
Toka was even more confusing. And I found myself trying to tell Saotome apart from a dozen other male characters.
I’ve seen plenty of weird films and anime. Not being able to tell the characters apart at a glance makes it really hard to follow the recurring characters. The agest of the characters seem strange as well. Nagi frequently is treated like an adult, but she is in high school.
Of anything, my confusion over the character designs is my biggest complaint about the show. But I’m really torn on how big of a deal to make of it. On the one hand, I was frustrated that I couldn’t recognize Toka and the girl with the glasses at the end for major characters.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that it matters.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
One of the things I debated about when I started writing this was whether to start with this point or to end with it. I figured I would touch on the aesthetic elements first and then talk about why the overarching story of Boogiepop Phantom doesn’t matter.
To be honest, as I watched this show, I kept going back to Paranoia Agent. Yes. That show came out years after Boogiepop, but they share a similar DNA in a lot of ways. It’s the short stories in Paranoia Agent that are really the best thing about it. The stories about what people hide, what they are obsessed over, their secrets. And in the end, Lil’ Slugger comes along and relieves them of their pain and suffering.
Do we really need a conclusion to that story that explains who Lil Slugger is and why he exists? No. We don’t.
Sure. We get one. And it’s more satisfying than Boogiepop’s explanation, but it’s not the best part of the show. In fact, it may just be an addendum to make people like me satisfied.
Boogiepop is the same way. The ending I get seems to be from a different story. Once Echoes’ story ends, I don’t feel like I need more. But the individual stories leading up to that are all fascinating in some way.
For instance, I’m going to indulge in a few spoilers for episode 2, the teen who eats other people’s regrets, started that journey by wanting to be a hero. He gets offered a special drug that he thinks will make him a hero. And for a time, he believes he is a hero, right down to acting smug as he eats the giant spiders of regrets.
The problem becomes that he’s not making people better. He’s just making them forget. And when they forget the things they feel guilty about, well, they just become worse people.
This is the theme that runs through Boogiepop Phantom. It’s about people who want to escape into their delusions. They want to imagine themselves better than they really are. Or perhaps they don’t put themselves into the position of others.
These individual stories are what form the heart of Boogiepop Phantom. While Nagi and Toka and even the Phantom itself exist in this world and play a role, their stories are secondary to the most exciting tales.
This is where Boogiepop shines.
A Mystery Half-Solved
In the end, I liked Boogiepop Phantom, but I kept wondering how much better I would have liked it if I had known the story leading up to it. When I read people’s descriptions of the show, they talk about the three girls who are ostensibly supposed to be at the show’s center but barely appear.
I wonder if there is some thematic element that the larger story is telling me that I’m missing because I don’t know what is going on.
On the other hand, I wonder how much it really matters. The individual tales are compelling enough without having additional material thrown in.
It’s a story that I will need to revisit again to see if I can tease out those clues and better understand the pieces I missed.
So until I come back and watch this show again, I’ll just have to ponder that.
So for now, dear readers, this is iniksbane, writing from the middle of a mysterious beam of light. Over and out.
And always, thanks for reading.
And please, if you think there is a show that I should watch that I don’t have marked on my My Anime List, please please fill out this form and tell me about it by filling out this Google Form.
Please. Pretty please.
Next month, we will journey to the world of gangsters, losers and the most deadly game of rock, paper and scissors as we talk about Kaiji, the Ultimate Survivor.