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"Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom": Bleakness in Three Acts

by on March 3, 2011

Ever got to the end of a story and wondered what the point of it all was? That’s exactly the thought I had after watching Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom. That’s not to say the series is badly made, of course. But the story it tells is so utterly nihilistic that there really doesn’t seem to be any useful net gain for the viewer at the end of it all.

Spoilers for pretty much the whole series follow.

Phantom can be split into three distinct “acts”, each one advancing the story by means of a time skip. Throughout the series, our main character is an initially unnamed Japanese teenager who, whilst visiting the United States, has been recruited as an assassin by a far-reaching criminal organization named Inferno. “Recruitment” in this instance amounting to being brainwashed and having his memories erased with the aim of turning him into the ultimate assassin. With this technique having been performed by Inferno scientist Scythe Master, our protagonist is then dubbed Zwei. Why Zwei? Turns out that Scythe Master has already performed the same trick with a teenage girl, named Ein, who currently holds the title of Phantom, Inferno’s ultimate assassin.

While retaining the ability to reason, Zwei nevertheless agrees to perform missions for Inferno, his only other option being death. Along the way after his training with Ein, Zwei quickly makes his first of many kills and quickly becomes an equal to Ein’s prowess, earning him the Phantom title as well. Eventually, Zwei discovers his real name his Reiji Azuma, and even after a several disturbing sequences showing off his and Ein’s abilities as emotionless killing machines, he is eventually inspired to leave Inferno and start a new life with Ein, whom Reiji has now bestowed onto the name Eren, away from Inferno’s influence.

Somewhat realistically, since while skilled assassins they are also still teenagers, Reiji is caught and ordered by Inferno to track down an escaped Ein, leading to a confrontation between him and Scythe Master himself. In all honesty, with some tweaking, had the series ended at this point it would have seemed a natural conclusion, but the preceding events only cover the first ten episodes.

The series then jumps ahead six months, where we find Reiji working under his own will as Inferno’s uncontested new Phantom, nonchalantly killing anybody he’s ordered to, while living his own life, such that it is, in the meantime. It is here that we are introduced to another of the series’ main characters, the young urchin Cal Devens. Sympathetic to her plight after her only guardian was accidentally killed in an Inferno-related gunfight, the teenage killer Reiji “gallantly” takes in barely-pubescent Cal. And none of the other characters seem to think this is strange.

Upping the unsettling quotient is Cal’s overjoyed reaction when Reiji states that he will only permit her to stay with him if she cooks and cleans for them. Somehow, the young Cal’s cohabiting with the patently much older Reiji in this way smacks too much of some very disturbing wish-fulfillment on behalf of the story’s original creators. In any case, seeking a way to continue living with Cal without interference from Inferno, Reiji begins training her in the ways of an assassin, in way that carries more than a passing resemblance to the events of Léon.

Sadly for Reiji, his little fantasy is disrupted by Inferno, who bomb his apartment, and apparently Cal with it. Subsequently reunited with Eren, Reiji finally turns his back on his title of Phantom, and the two of them escape to a new life together.

The series then picks up two years later, in the familiar anime territory of Japan, and the even more familiar anime territory of a high school. The series also gets a new title sequence, which I initially thought was some bizarre attempt at a heretofore unseen concept in the series: humor. But no, the series introduces some of the usual clichés of anime high school life into the show, such as a new shy love interest and her pushy friends, while Reiji and Eren pretend to be an ordinary brother and sister.

This fantasy is soon shattered by the arrival of the new Phantom, Drei, who has finally tracked them down. The viewer won’t be surprised to learn that Drei is none other than young Cal. Somewhat more surprising is the very advanced growth spurt she’s had, while the rest of the cast retain their look from two years ago. Unlike Reiji and Eren, Cal’s memories haven’t been blocked by Scythe Master, and she retains her bitterness at Reiji for believing her dead back in the States. With all the players set into place, the time soon approaches for the final encounter between all three holders of the Phantom title, as well as Scythe Master himself.

Let’s look at an unavoidable fact: the world and characters presented are not particularly pleasant in the slightest. Reiji is one of the worst examples of this, as while initially he has his memories wiped, he is still able to make decisions for himself and choose whether or not he should follow orders, albeit with his only other option being death. This makes one certain scene early on in the series particularly disturbing, and from that point on, I found it impossible to adequately care for his character anymore, such was the severity of the line crossed at that point.

The nihilistic nature of the series ended up being so inherently absolute that it was hard to genuinely care about any of the characters at all. Not exactly helping matters are the numerous well-beatan tropes that the series runs with. Emotionless girl? Check. Brainwashed assassins? Check. Repeated one-on-one one-shot gunfights that leave only one left standing? Check, check, and check again. That’s not even mentioning the not one but two recap episodes this 26 episode series has.

So is there anything worthwhile about it? While I didn’t particularly care for the story as a whole, it was told well, with lots of interesting character intricacies and subplots scattered throughout the series. Of particular note is the series’ main antagonist, Scythe Master, who is quite successfully portrayed as an utterly monstrous human being, and surely one of the most unpleasant characters seen in recent years. Visually, I liked the series character designs, which tended to be more on the realistic side of things. Exceptions would be Eren and Cal’s younger designs, who are far more generic.

The initial opening theme is appropriately quite moody, with the second one represents quite a departure from the tone of the series that, coupled with the rather lighthearted visuals, initially made me believe it was an episode from another series altogether. The ending themes are somewhat reversed, with the first one being a case study in cacophony and the second one being far more atmospheric, with a few spoken lines at the beginning that are indeed dubbed into English on the English track. On that front, performances all round were impressive for the material on offer, with particular praise to both Kent Williams as Scythe Master and Shay Moore as Lizzie Garland.

Released across two sets, the only notable extras to speak of are several short “Picture Dramas” that feature several short stories told through a dialogue track and still images, although a couple of them use hand puppets. As that last point may imply, these are amusing little side tales that are particularly out-of-place contrasted to the resolutely humorless series itself.

Ultimately, I came away from Phantom feeling that I didn’t gain much from it at all. While the characters and general concept of the series had some interest, even with the reused tropes present throughout, its utter lack of humanity effectively killed any enthusiasm I might have had for the show. And considering this is a series about killers, perhaps this is appropriate. In all honesty, this isn’t a series I could genuinely recommend to anyone.

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