"Blade of the Phantom Master" Is Style Without Sense
The title character of Blade of the Phantom Master doesn’t actually carry or use any blades, opting instead for guns, dynamite, and magical soldiers from beyond the grave. The title seems to identify a supporting character who gets about a dozen lines and is little more than a plot device, deus ex machina, or fan service object as the movie requires, so it would be a rather odd choice if she’s the real source of the title the movie. Unfortunately, the kind of superficial thinking that went into the title seems to pervade the entire movie—while it may sound cool at first glance, it turns out to be pretty insubstantial and really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you think about it.
The Phantom Master’s proper name is Munsu, and he is one of the last of the Amen-Osa: secret agents tasked with rooting out government corruption in the mythical kingdom of Jushin. Assisting him in this task is a mysterious and lethal phantom army, summoned with much fanfare and CGI effects. At the start of the movie, the kingdom of Jushin has fallen, leaving Munsu seemingly without purpose or master, wandering through a desert wasteland. A chance encounter leads him to the corrupt Lord Byon, who is holding the beautiful Chun Hyang as a hostage until she willingly submits to his advances. It turns out that Chun Hyang is a world-class ass-kicker, and after Munsu punishes the wicked and sets her free, she declares that she will be his “sando,” or bodyguard. The two then engage in another adventure on a mysterious island with a dark but rather too easily guessed secret.
One of the first problems with Blade of the Phantom Master is that it doesn’t hold together as a single movie, feeling more like two disconnected episodes that have been stuck together. This might be because the movie is an adaptation of a serialized manga series, but knowing that doesn’t improve the clumsy segue from the first half of the movie to the second. It also doesn’t help that the movie doesn’t really manage to do much that’s truly interesting in either half. There is some dark comedy to be mined out of Munsu’s early encounter with a band of desert cannibals, and the rather gruesome way he escapes from them, but his following encounter with Lord Byon is fairly predictable. A traveling montage that runs just a little bit too long links Munsu and Chun Hyang’s travels to the mysterious island that drives the second half of the movie, which has too few genuine surprises. As a result, Blade of the Phantom Master doesn’t manage to get much mileage out of the mysterious benefactor of the island (who, of course, not as benign as he appears), nor can it wring much genuine horror out of the secret behind the mystery. Everything in the movie is competently done, but has all the life and vitality of a paint-by-numbers. It may all work decently enough, but it’s impossible to shake the sense that we’ve seen this stuff before, and done better.
If the characters make much of an impression, it’s not a terribly good one. Blade of the Phantom Master seems to be trying to set up its lead as a rogue with a heart of gold buried under all the cynicism, but our earliest encounters with him weigh a bit too much on the “cynical rogue” part and not quite enough on the “heart of gold” part. Put simply, Munsu is a pretty big jerk, and we never quite shake off that negative first impression. The only real sign that we should like him at all is the fact that he continues in his duties as an Amen-Osa despite having no supporting establishment behind him. This might work in the abstract, but it doesn’t really balance out his more negative character traits. Chun Hyang gets no characterization to speak of, with her only defining trait being an unexplained but dogged loyalty, which also marks the incongruously cute desert bat that also insists on following Munsu around. In principle, she really should be more interesting than she is, but her stony silence and inscrutable motives bore rather than intrigue. She might have had more of a chance of piquing our curiosity in a less predictable, more interesting movie, perhaps. It doesn’t help that her outfit is so outlandishly ridiculous and borderline sexist, since no male character on the show ever wears anything comparable.
The best thing about Blade of the Phantom Master is undoubtedly the animation, which is quite skilled and technically accomplished. The hand-drawn elements and the CGI effects and backgrounds are superb individually, and the two are melded together with surprising seamlessness. It’s easy to tell that Munsu’s phantom army is summoned and dispatched with CGI, but not even the keenest eyed will be able to detect the moments when they transition from CGI models to hand-drawn ones. The co-production clearly received a good amount of time and money, and the results are on-screen in its technical accomplishments.
Blade of the Phantom Master was another “ADV rescue” title, re-released by FUNimation last year. The visual and audio quality is up to FUNimation’s usual high standards, with a sharp and vivid anamorphic widescreen image and excellent soundtracks in English and Japanese. Since this was a relatively old title in the ADV catalog, there is a small but solid extras section included, with two “making of” documentaries providing a few tidbits on the production of the movie and the CGI animation. The latter featurette is especially illuminating, revealing some surprises as to which on-screen elements were actually CGI rather than hand-drawn.
In theory, technically accomplished co-productions between Japan and Korea are to be welcomed. However, Blade of the Phantom Master doesn’t make much of an impression beyond a technical one in practice. The ending of the movie clearly leaves the door open for more adaptations of the manga; if they come, let’s hope they can bring the story and the characterization up to the same level as the animation.