Hunger … desire … lust … addiction … desperation … evolution … rage … depression … nostalgia … loss … These are just a few of the many attributes you can assign to post-modern human society. One could also throw in hope, love and happiness, but Boogiepop Phantom doesn’t really deal in those too much. It’s an exploration of the dark side of human progress.
One month before the series’s ostensible start–time is a bit fluid in this series–there had been an incident involving a pillar of light that resulted from an appearance by Boogiepop. Who, or what, is Boogiepop? A death god, so it is rumored. Once you see Boogiepop, you’re never seen again. Is Boogiepop real or just a rumor? Who’s really responsible for the recent disappearances of a number of school students? What was that pillar of light? What connection does it have to the sudden increase in the number of enhanced humans in town? And what in the world is that weird shimmer in the air?
Usually you have your protagonist(s), your antagonist(s) and a fairly linear plot. But Boogiepop Phantom is not a normal show. It somewhat resembles what would happen if you set Christopher Nolan lose with a group of animators and a plot outline. You gotta pay really close attention to the time notices that show up at the bottom of the screen during each change of setting, as it’s the only way to have any idea what order things are taking place. Some episodes are told completely backwards, some skip between years like a 5-year-old on a rainy day, and some simply meander. There’s also no particular main character. There are a few characters that wander in and out of the proceedings, but none of them is a true “main character”. The closest we come is Kirima Nagi, a “school student” of indeterminate age who has past dealings with the Towa Organization, a very very very secretive group with an eye on human evolution.
Towa’s fingerprints cover every part of Boogiepop Phantom, from Boogiepop his/her/itself in a roundabout way, to the composite humans they released on the world, to the truth about the pillar of light that set everything we see in motion … or did it? That’s really only a small part of the overall picture, really. Boogiepop Phantom is not the kind of show that you can boil down to a simple encapsulation of “evil corporation” or “high school sucks” etc. etc. etc. It’s not that the plot is a massively sprawling epic. There’s only 12 episodes, and the plot does resolve itself, but it is very intensive and multi-layered. There’s not a second of the run time that’s wasted, even if “character staring off into the distance” seems like a purely atmospheric moment when you first see it. There’s always something going on in a subtle way.
Boogiepop Phantom is also a show very deeply steeped in modern Japanese culture. Episodes centered on failed real estate ventures, closed theme parks, creepy stalkers and more require a fair bit of knowledge about these issues in Japan. If you’ve never seen any anime at all, this is really not the show to start with unless you really want a crash course in post-millennial cultural naval-gazing amidst a lot of really brutal murders. Oh, I didn’t mention the violence? Yes, there is a lot of violence in Boogiepop Phantom. Among the many, many characters there are several composite humans created by the Towa folks with the express purpose of murdering quite a few people to keep Towa’s secrets secret. And that’s only one part of the plot! There’s also the repercussions of a betrayal inside the Towa group; the actions of a rogue nurse at a local hospital; a seemingly autistic young girl who can make memory enhancing “butterflies”, and …. well, more. If it seems like I’m not talking about Boogiepop–or is it Boogiepops?–itself a lot, well, Boogiepop is a surprisingly minor character overall given that the show is named for it. Boogiepop Phantom is very much a ensemble piece, much greater than the sum of its disparate parts. But it all really does come together if you watch for the clues.
The animation in Boogiepop Phantom is kind of rough. It’s quite obvious that this was a somewhat lower-budget piece and the budget they had went to the people who did the storyboarding and other production, not the animation crews. It’s not that the animation is bad, not at all. It’s just not great. It’s very pedestrian, and none of the character designs could be considered especially magnificent–no Belldandy’s in this crowd–but it gets the job done that needs to be done. The vocal tracks are better overall, though I’m sure a studied ear could find issues in the tracks if they wanted to. It would be a crime to go through all of this and not mention the series’s music. Most shows have pretty basic background music that is content to fill in the gaps in the sound effects and dialogue. Boogiepop Phantom‘s music is a character in and of itself. It’s entirely done by a variety of electronic artists, and I suppose one could call it EDM, but it’s not really dance music, and it becomes a character in and of itself. It’s not that the music shoves the actual cast out of the way, but every bit of it is very carefully matched to something about the scene, and it’s used in to enhance the mood in surprising ways.
The set also includes a director’s commentary with each episode that I implore you to NOT listen to until you watch the whole show through at least once. There are a number of music videos that I would also recommend not watching until later, along with production art, promotional trailers and some notes from the production team that are very quaintly dated in their references. A very slight rap on the knuckles for Right Stuf, though, on the DVD packaging itself. The package hold all 4 discs in one case without the use of a flipper panel in the middle. Some of the discs hold other discs in place, meaning that you have to pull out the bottom discs to play the top disc, and if you want to play the bottom disc only the top one can come lose in the case. Not the best way to do things.
But that’s a minor issue. This is not a show to sit down and turn your brain off to. Save that weak stuff for the next harem comedy. Pop in a disc and prepare to exercise your brain. It will thank you later.