Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Boogiepop Phantom (2000)


We are all afraid of something. Usually it connected to the unknown or death (the greatest unknown). But in high school you can end up with a whole host of additional fears. Will my peers turn against me? Are my grades ever going to be good enough? Will he ever notice me? Will she laugh in my face when I ask her out? Will the angel of death come for me in a dark, dank alleyway because I’ve been talking to something that may be a ghost but is more likely a creature spawned from hell? You know typical teenage stuff.

In an unnamed Japanese city (not Tokyo because it appears as a destination later in the show) the high school aged teens are becoming prey to something dark. Some of them disappear without a trace. Others are found dead, sometimes by their own hand or other times brutally ripped apart. Rumors start spreading about an angel of death named Boogiepop (Debora Rabbai) that will take you away from the horrors of this world. Others say that Boogiepop is the killer and an unstoppable creature to boot.

Nagi Kirima (Rachael Lillis) isn’t sure what to think but dammit, she’s going to find out. So attempts to track down Boogiepop, discovering that magnetic waves are distorted whenever the spirit appears. In addition plants seem to accelerate growth and metal rusts quickly whenever Boogiepop appears. Can these phenomena hint at the true nature of this beast? Meanwhile student’s lives intersect, collide and end one by one. Nagi learns that the past may have come back to haunt the city. On top of all that, Boogiepop isn’t the only supernatural presence roaming this metropolis. There are others out there, including a thing calling itself Boogiepop Phantom. On her own, does Nagi have any hope of solving this puzzle, retaining her sanity and surviving the next night?

Good Points:
  • An amazing exercise in fractured non-linear storytelling
  • Oozing with dark atmosphere and dread
  • Some very strong performances by the English voice cast

Bad Points:
  • There are no main characters or obvious story threads
  • Revolves around the lives of high school kids, adults are few and far between
  • Relentlessly bleak and dower at times

The non-linear storytelling will either be a puzzle you want to solve, or a headache you end up avoiding. Where the series really works is in creating it’s oppressive mood of dread. It’s style works wonderfully with its themes and the English voice cast does an excellent job with so many characters and scripts to work with. While I’m not fond of “teenagers only” it does end up working in the long run. I think this is one of those series that will just click perfectly for some viewers and leave others very cold. It is one of my favorites and highly recommended if you want a take a ride on a dark fractured rollercoaster.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 5
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

In Depth Review
Lost in a hall of mirrors, Nagi isn't sure if the reflection
is harmless, or a deadly phantom she is hunting.
The world of Boogiepop Phantom is a dark and dangerous place filled with mysteries that turn into nightmares. It takes the insecurities all teenagers have and twists them into horrors. It takes pure ideals and hopes and tears them into bloody shreds. Memories, even good ones, can poison. Characters who actively fight and try to find some good often appear to be running circles and heading toward something that can’t be stopped – the dark angel Boogiepop. It is a bleak world with darkness literally in every corner. The final episode does offer some light, but the whistle in the air hints that the haunted aren’t quite at rest yet.

And I love this show for all those reasons and more. It takes a bold step in not presenting us with your typical happy anime teens running around getting in and out of trouble. There’s no hyper color hair, spazzy best friends or even super cool heroes to shake things up (although Nagi is pretty cool looking in her motorcycle leathers). Instead all the character designs are realistic, with natural colors for hair and hairstyles that you’d see at a high school in the year 2000. While supernatural powers exist in this world, they are rarely helpful. Most of them do harm to those who use them. Even kids who try to help others with their powers end up hurting others and realizing how much pain they are causing. There is a natural order to this world. When the supernatural appears, it is usually a force of horrible change that destroys and cripples. The world is only righted when those supernatural forces are defeated.

The supernatural forces gave her a big old shove,
but at least she went with a smile on her face.
Even the natural world is dangerous. Several of the protagonists in the episodes have serious emotional or mental problems. We see several characters that become obsessed with something only to end up destroying themselves and others. Insecurities lead to drastic actions. Some of the characters just can’t process what is happening to them and break in front of you. You get the feeling that some of these kids just needed a little push to go over the edge, and usually the series gives them a big old shove instead.

So Boogiepop Phantom is all darkness and despair, so why the hell would you want to watch that.  Because it is also a mystery, and the mystery is, why is this happening? The very first episode hints at a reason, a brilliant beam of light that shoots into the air and causes a kind of shockwave over the city. All the power goes out and then is restored. From that moment on, supernatural things start happening, kids end up dead or vanish, and Nagi Kirima is hunting for phantoms. But the structure of the story is where the genius is. Each episode is its own story, with it’s own protagonist and it’s own beginning middle and end. For the most part the main character of the episode is never a main player in the big story. Instead you are viewing the story of a supporting cast member as the huge events go on around them. In a way this is a horror version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but with 12 episodes and nightmare creatures.
Little tip, you see this woman, you run and hope
she isn't floating behind you.
But each story ends up intersecting another. Sometimes it only does it in a brief moment. For example in episode four, two girls walk by a crazy man the police are trying to restrain. They pause in their conversation to watch for a moment, and then move on, to keep talking about the recent killings. In the next episode we follow the crazed young man, building his story until he is being hauled out of his home by police officers. And guess what, one of those police officers ends up appearing in several stories. He has a direct connection to the overall story of what happened the night the light shot into the sky. But you never follow him directly, only watch as he appears time and again giving you a new piece of information by his actions or inactions.

Nagi plays detective but finds only more questions.
Each episode gives you a mini-horror story, and then gives you something about the larger story at hand. You begin to see some characters over and over again. Sometimes you see the same scenes but from different points of view. One of the returning characters is Nagi Kirima. You hear kids talk about her for the first couple episodes. Then you see her hunting, but you don’t know that is her yet. Later on that same scene plays again from a different point of view and you realize – hey I saw that in episode two.

For me, this is the real draw of Boogiepop Phantom. I love how all the pieces fall into place. How there are hints of other stories going on, but we never know all the details. I love how some characters appear to be helpful and kind in one episode, but when we meet them later we see them as horrible fiends that are causing pain wherever they go. I’m sure a huge amount of planning and scripting and rewriting went into making this whole thing work so well. It isn’t perfect. There are a few questions that are never answered, but I actually think that works to the advantage. We never do know all the answers to anything, but we have enough to understand how all the darkness can finally be battled. I find it amazing every time I watch the series how so many puzzles can be developed over the entire series and even as the last moment of the last episode plays out we are still putting things into place. It really is an amazing work of non-linear storytelling.

The darkness literally engulfs one of the helpless
Key to all this is the atmosphere and mood of the series. Boogiepop Phantom is a visually dark series. It dwells in shadows and night. The primary colors are black, grey, dark brown and the deep crimson of blood. You rarely see any blue or green in the series, and when you do it is a visual shock. It is very much an autumn kind of feel visually. It is also a very soft looking show. The whole image seems lacks any sharp details. Things look foggy at times, or as if we are looking through some fog or mist. It is all by design of course. It fits the themes of perception that permeates the show. None of the characters ever see the whole picture. Many times what they believe is not even close to what the viewers know to be true. And even we are not seeing the actual image; everything is separated from us by that layer of softness. Finally there are the dark corners of the screen. Nearly every shot in the series literally has dark corners, shadows that seem to bleed into the visuals. It’s an oppressive look, as if the darkness is closing in on everyone on the screen.

Ok, which girl with glasses is this? Didn't she die? Is
this a flashback?
If there is a downside to the visuals it is the fact that this show didn’t have a large budget. So they had to work with some limited character designs. This is a huge cast of characters, and sometimes it can be very difficult to tell characters apart, especially since most of them go to the same school and therefore they are all wearing the same school uniforms. You have to rely on voice acting and small details. There are four different girls who wear glasses in the series. You can’t use that as an identifier, so you have to try to remember their names, or use their hair or personalities as your way to tell them apart. Even then it can be tough. One of them dies early on and in a later episode I thought we were seeing a flashback, until I realized it was a different girl. I figured out that one girl had her hair parted on one side and the other had hers parted in the middle. But both look nearly the same. It can be a bit of task; especially the first time you watch the show.

The sound design and music in Boogiepop Phantom are handled very well. For the most part the sound effects include atmospheric rumbles, winds blowing and of course the juicier sound effects when one of the characters meets a gruesome fate. The show also plays with volume levels, sometimes allowing a sound to blast unnaturally loud, or have conversations fluctuate in volume as a character shifts his or her attention to something else.

Boogiepop or Boogiepop Phantom? Either way,
someone is going to die.
The music is mostly a series of electronic and techno tracks. These are edited in ways that create propulsive rhythms during chase scenes, or add to the mood with minimalistic sound design. It all works fairly well, but not all of it is pleasant (it’s not supposed to be). There is use of white noise with electronic clicks that you might call music, but really it just creates an anxious feeling in the listener. And then there is the Overture by Wagner. It is taken from his work Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. You hear it during the “teaser segments” at the end of the show. But then you hear Boogiepop whistling it. It becomes a theme for the entity, seeming to blow in on the wind. There is a hauntingly distorted and warped version of the tune used in the series, combining a full orchestra with some electronics and studio distortions. It’s amazingly creepy and used to great effect in the series. For opening and end credits you get a couple of songs that seem really odd choices. The first is a 70s styled jazz piece called Evening Showers. It’s a very groovy song, but seems a bit out of place with the show. The end theme is a rockin’ tune sung by a band called Kyoko. It’s called Mirai Seiki Maruhi Club and it ends the show with a nice punch.

Even characters that use their powers to help others
end up hurting people.
Last but not least is the acting. I’ve mentioned already that the English voice cast is really great. This must have been a real challenge to dub, but everyone is on his or her game here. Lots of familiar names from the old CPM dubs are present and some of these folks are given multiple roles to play. Some of these parts are very challenging; with conflicting emotions being played one minute followed by stark terror the next. The DVDs include some commentary tracks by the voice actors and director and nearly all of them talk about how the hardest part was finding the right tone of voice for key lines. The Japanese track is also very good, but the show is so complicated in story structure that reading subtitles becomes a bit of a chore on top of keeping up with the story. So for a first viewing I definitely recommend the English dub. Then try a revisit in Japanese.

I think this show flew under the radar for a lot of folks when it came out. I saw a few reviews, but some folks were frustrated by the style and storytelling. Others were writing off as just being weird to be weird. I can understand being frustrated by it, and if you want a simple scary story, then Boogiepop Phantom isn’t going to work for you. Some of the individual episodes are very creepy, but there is a lot more going on here. And that is why you can’t write it off as just being weird to be weird. It makes definite comments on how perceptions define reality. It dives into the power of urban legend and rumors. It shows how memories are both a blessing and horrible curse. It deals with obsession and how it corrupts even the most noble of endeavors. In its own twisted way it even shows that all of us need someone to understand us and accept us for who we are. In this case it may turn out to be a horrible monster, and angel of death or our own damaged psyche – but it is a need we all have. Those that find that acceptance and understanding achieve some measure of peace.

The beam of light that started it all, and yet it was the
end of another story...
When it comes to dark and twisted anime series I have a few on my list of favorites: Serial Experiments Lain and Paranoia Agent are certainly on there. But I have to say I find Boogiepop Phantom to be the most satisfying and exciting to revisit.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it is certainly the dark jewel of my anime collection.


  1. I don't know if this is good or bad, but just reading your bad points makes me never want to watch this, lol.

    1. Yeah, this series is not for everyone that's for sure. When I was writing for an anime website when this series came out, I loved it and the other writer on the site hated it, couldn't make it past the first disc. So we posted opposite reviews.

  2. On page or on screen, non-mainstream genres of fiction such as sci-fi and anime (though anime hasn’t figured largely in my own viewing) are the ones best suited to explore grand themes and philosophical questions in our cynical times. Nowadays, if you try to work them into a novel or movie that is set, say, in a haberdashery, you are likely to evoke an “oh, give me a break” for being pretentious. Yet we’ll accept the same issues on a space station orbiting Saturn. I don’t know why. This one sounds challenging in a good way.

    1. You make a good point, reading about the philosophical musings of a bank clerk does sound pretentious and dull. But throw in some aliens, dimensional doorways to hell or even a vampire or two and I'd understand why she would wax philosophical. I wonder if it has something to do with the way media has evolved. Or maybe I'm waxing too philosophical here. :)

      I love this series because I get something new out of it each time I watch it. This viewing really brought home how much the visual style was tied to the overall feeling of dread in the series.