In an unnamed city somewhere in Japan, a shadowy figure known only in whispers and rumors as “Boogiepop” appears as the angel of death. But is that what he really is? And if not, who’s responsible for the grisly deaths that plagued the city years ago, or the rash of mysterious disappearances plaguing it today?
A difficult and murky, but also fascinating, series, Boogiepop Phantom sits somewhere in the crossroads between psychological thriller, surreal horror, dark fantasy, and brooding drama. Tough as it is to watch, it rewards repeat viewings, and the more you probe into it the deeper it gets.
- Creepy, atmospheric, complex and ultimately rewarding.
- Difficult to get into, due to all of the above plus a deliberately murky visual presentation.
- Director: Takashi Watanabe
- Animation Studio: Madhouse
- Released By: VAP
- Released Domestically By: Nozomi Entertainment
- Audio: Japanese w/English subtitles
- Age Rating: TV-MA (violence, language, disturbing images and situations)
- List Price: $29.99 (DVD)
- Psychological Thriller
- Serial Experiments Lain
- Paranoia Agent
A puzzle, a maze, a locked box
Boogiepop Phantom isn’t so much a story as it is a puzzle, one where the pieces all come out of the box unlabeled and where the instructions are deliberately missing. That makes it a frustrating experience for many viewers: they expect an explanation for everything upfront, and never get one. But if you stick with this series, in all of its strangeness and difficulty, it’s rewarding in a way few other shows ever try to be.
Phantom is derived from a similarly-named and -themed light-novel series by Kouhei Kadono, which hasn’t been released in English but is apparently every bit as oblique as its successor media (it’s also been made into a live-action film). The show takes place in urban Japan, five years after a series of unexplained murders took place and a month after a massive blast of light was seen streaking towards the sky from somewhere. There’s no one main character, but rather a gallery of characters (a la films like Traffic or Syriana), in this case mostly high school students, who are all in one way or another touched by these incidents or their aftereffects.
One of the consistent threads that stretches between all the characters is an urban legend about a figure—the “Boogiepop” of the title. Some describe her (it?) as an angel of death, who appears as a harbinger of someone’s doom a la Sadako/Samara from The Ring.
No instructions provided
The circumstances of Boogiepop’s appearances at first don’t seem to have anything to do with each other—e.g., at the end of one episode, she corners a student who finds himself extracting and devouring parasites from the souls of others, which are the manifestations of their anguish and self-loathing. (But over time the circumstances of each manifestation begin to overlap and connect with each other, and the farrago of little details that seemed unimportant actually begin adding up and pointing at each other as well.
As you can guess from this description, a mere summary of events wouldn’t do the show justice, because no one of the episodes fully encapsulates any of what’s actually happening. Instead of being taken from A to Z through the story, you’re shown different facets of the same general set of experiences (most of which are confusing or horrific to the participants). But if you go in armed with a certain degree of patience, and bring your attention to bear on things, the effort pays off. If there was ever an anime that rewarded repeat viewings, it’s this one: there’s something in literally every scene that demands attention and consideration.
Even with the lights on, it's still dark
Most everyone reading this ought to have figured out on their own by now that this is not an easy show to watch. It’s not just because of the fractured storyline, either; it’s that the physical act of watching the show can be off-putting. The imagery put on screen gives it a dank, paranoid, claustrophobic feeling—everything’s been heavily desaturated and sepia-toned, with the action at the edges of the screen often defocused. It’s reminiscent of a 16mm underground film, not the slick and colorful look typically associated with anime. (Ergo Proxy attempted some of the same things, although not nearly to the extremes of this show.)
The ensemble nature of the story brings to mind another mystery/horror anime, every bit as challenging as this one and in many ways even better: Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent. That show also dealt with the persistent power of an urban legend, one which gained strength and malignancy from its believers. Another show that comes to mind, Serial Experiments Lain, also explored the line between the human world and nether realms by way of a character who goes between both domains.
Footnote: The show's murky look has been made unintentionally worse by a poor DVD transfer. I suspect the problem lies with the original masters for the show, not the licensors that created the English-language edition, since the masters were created before high-definition originals became commonplace.