Halloween Week: Boogiepop Phantom

It's a strange thing listening to the commentary tracks of the people behind the English dub of Boogiepop Phantom and hear them talk about how nothing looked or sounded like it. When I went through my blitz of watching everything I could get my hands on in college and came upon this series, I had seen something that looked and sounded EXACTLY like it that came out a year-and-a-half beforehand. That would be Serial Experiments Lain. Its visuals are extremely similar, right down to the moments where a heavy grain filter is utilized on animation set against a live-action background. It's likely not a coincidence it shares a decent amount of staff. However, instead of being a copy of a popular work, studio Madhouse's title instead is the rare anime that serves an audience coming out of a unique, intelligent work wanting more and gives them exactly what they want without feeling like a cheap knockoff.

To discuss this series properly, it would be good to get some bearings. See, Boogiepop Phantom is based on a long series of light novels by Kouhei Kadono, and the anime is actually a sequel to the events of the first book. While knowledge of what happens in the book is not necessary to get the gist of the anime, it contains characters whose back stories are far better explored and explained. If you buy the Right Stuf boxset, it comes with the live-action movie that covers the events of the first book, but I'd recommend getting the English translation of the light novel Boogiepop and Others for pennies from wherever you like to buy used books.

Since the live-action movie won't be the focus of this article, I'll only touch upon it briefly. It gets the story across, but like many Japanese live-action films from the same time period (2000-ish), it has very cheesy special effects, lighting that only adequately sets the scene without doing anything to help the mood, and a general bland feeling all around. In its attempts to focus on the horror aspects, it neglects my favorite part of the novel, which is the idea that even though we spend so much time with our classmates in high school day in and day out, we actually have no idea who most of them truly are. It does have a really classy, piano-driven score by Yuki Kajiura I still listen to today even if it's a little too subdued for the film's subject matter.

Now, onto the anime! One night, a pillar of light suddenly expends from a skyscraper and shortly
after, the skies are filled with aurora curtains. In the city below, a myriad of bizarre phenomenon begin to occur. People begin to develop strange abilities, and when they do, the dark figure of the Boogiepop Phantom is not far behind them. Is the phantom a ghost, Death, or is it something else entirely?

Instead of going the normal route, the twelve episodes instead focus on a different person or group and then their stories are interwoven with each new episode while other characters are made clearer, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle snapping together. Sometimes, the episodes act like a Twilight Zone story showcasing one aspect of human behavior accelerated by the supernatural. For example, one plot line features high school student Jonouchi as he suddenly has the ability to see people's deepest pain as bugs leeching off their bodies. While these make up a good amount of the series, there are stories that act to fill in the narrative gaps so the show doesn't fall into a predictable pattern. It's a very involving way of storytelling, and it's an ideal series for marathoning as it's reasonably short and it works best when all the details are fresh in your mind.

As I've said, the aesthetics are very to similar to Lain. Ruddy skies by day and at night, deep, looming shadows of technology mixed with decay punctuated by blinding monitors and humming street lamps. Heavy vocal distortion is used to portray the inhumanity of characters or people who are losing their humanity. Even the Macintosh speech program gets some play during the eye catch. I was half expecting it to say, "La-yer 3" after announcing the show's title. However, unlike Lain, Boogiepop Phantom has not received an extensive high-definition restoration job, so it doesn't look as pretty on fancy new TVs restricted in its SD square aspect ratio. If you can ignore the similarities and limitations, though, it's a good looking series and despite some characters with glasses looking similar, it's visually easy to tell everyone apart, which is essential when you have a cast of dozens who constantly intersect with each other.

The style is mostly where the similarities begin and end with Lain. While they both ask questions about human evolution, Boogiepop Phantom is more literal, creating a world where people change overnight and asking if humans are truly ready to take the next step. Animation is better able to portray the horror aspects of the series, but they're really the weakest aspect of the franchise. Its real terror comes not from the man-eaters and evolved hunters hiding within the population of the city, but the unresolved psychological issues of the characters that cross wires with the sudden expansion of the limits of their minds. It's more Paranoia Agent than The Ring. By far, the most unsettling episode is "My Fair Lady," and really, it could exist without the fantastical elements. It's about sexually frustrated Yoji, a restaurant worker who looks to a girl-raising simulation on his computer to create the ideal partner. As he becomes a drug addict, the walls of reality start to crash down and he attempts to control a co-worker into becoming his perfect woman. Its an authentic portrayal of a disturbed individual elevated to a higher level by supernatural elements, and the effect is chilling.

If there was one thing that stood out as unique to the series, it would be the music. Not limited to a single artist, it is instead done by a variety of musicians under the banner of "The Art of Club Music for B.P." featuring such artist names as SiLC, Flare, and Audio Active. While there is room for a couple pieces of thumping techno and a Wagner tune that is one of the franchise's trademarks, the soundtrack is best described as soundscapes, evoking a fragile mood rather than melody. While it's not particularly suited for listening to around the house, it provides a proper and subtle partnership to characters who are not mentally all together.

If I sound too academic when talking about this series, it's despite all of Boogipop Phantom's qualities, it's hard to form much of an emotional attachment to it.  I do say it's good for marathoning, but those aspects also can hurt when I'm watching only a couple at a time. Many vital details fly away after one day. I think it has to do with the way the characters are overwhelmed by their circumstances. Because the series is so focused on the darkest corners of their minds, it's sometimes hard to be sympathetic when you see nothing but their worst behavior. It's easier for shows with one-shot episodes to drown individuals in negativity when it knows it doesn't have to deal with them again. Here, the characters are known more as the girl who burned her fairy tales or the guy who eats emotional bugs and not distinctly people. It also doesn't help that the middle episodes rush through a few characters rather quickly. It's odd when a series wants to spend less than five minutes with a person who can read everyone's thoughts.

At the end of the day, Boogiepop Phantom is a thoughtful, intelligent story executed well, and despite borrowing some aspects from other series, it burrows a place of its own. I don't know if it would be the ideal title to break it out for Halloween since its frights are more psychological than anything else, but it is worth seeking out if you find yourself going through the weirder and more complex anime titles out there like Stein's;Gate and thinking, "Hey, I wonder if there are more things like this?"


Popular Posts