Blade of the Phantom Master is a surprising anime smoothie both in conception and execution. It pulls together a number of genre ingredients, throws them into a blender and hits the frappe button. With pinches of mystery, horror (zombies AND goblins, be still my heart) and more than a dash of action folded into the lone gunslinger western recipe, the resulting blend is creative and most importantly, delicious. With that, I'm officially done with torturing this particular metaphor.
I briefly mentioned the conception of this film. It came about as a collaboration between Japanese and South Korean animation studios in 2004 as they adapted early chapters of the serialized South Korean manga created by Youn In-wan and illustrated by Yang Kyung-il. In 2007, ADV released the film in the United States before transferring the title to Funimation in 2008. What follows is a review of the Funimation release.
As the film opens, we are introduced to the world of the Jushin empire and its secret government agents known as the Amen Osa. The Amen Osa act as protectors of the people defending them from acts of corruption and oppression. One such agent of the empire is Munsu. As the film starts, we see him walking through the desert, looking very much like a man with no name. As it turns out, he is actually a man with no ruler as the Jushin empire has fallen. The Amen Osa have been disbanded and the rule of despots is on the rise. During his travels, Munsu encounters Monlyon, a young man whose land has fallen under the rule of Byon, one of those despots I mentioned earlier. After subjugating Monlyon's people, Byon captured his true love, a young woman named Chun-Hyang. Munsu meets Monlyon as he returns to his land dejected after failing in his recent attempt to join the ranks of the Amen Osa. Just as Munsu has learned of the extent of Monlyon's plight, they are attacked by carnivorous desert goblins. This attacks ends very badly for Monlyon but it gives Munsu the impetus to travel to Monlyon's land and free the people from Byon's rule.
When Munsu reaches Monlyon's land, he gives us our first glimpse at an Amen Osa's secret weapon. He uses a medallion on his neck to conjure the army of the ghostly legion of Jushin aka the Phantom Soldiers. They spring forth from the medallion in a CG vapor swirl slowly attaining a solid form that blends into the rest of the hand drawn animation. Just as they begin to dispatch Byon's soldiers, we along with Munsu are properly introduced to Chun-Hyang. During her captivity, Byon had her fitted with a massive claw for her right hand. If you think that's intimidating, you wouldn't want to tussle with her left hand which wields a lethal blade. Acting under Byon's command, Chun-Hyang decimates the Phantom Soldiers and turns her focus to Munsu. Surprised by Chun-Hyang's power and skills with the blade, Munsu is pushed to the brink of his abilities. Fortunately, Chun-Hyang ceases her attack after recognizing a memento from Monlyon on Munsu. Seeing a part of Monlyon in Munsu, from this point on Chun-Hyang assumes the name of Sando representing the guardian of an Amen Osa.
If you think I've given away the whole plot, I assure you everything described thus far is merely the 'assembling of the team' and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the central mystery which occupies the remaining two thirds of the film. When Munsu and Sando meet a young boy named Jyun who seems to have lost his memory, they feel compelled to help him. When they take him back to his land, they encounter an island of people with a distinctly 'Wicker Man' vibe along with a doctor named Yuite who the people hail as a miracle man for saving them all from an epidemic. What follows is an interesting mystery with Munsu and Sando playing detectives while double fisting guns and brandishing blades along the way.
Although the film is densely plotted, the true driving force are the characters. Munsu has more than a little of Clint Eastwood's nameless gunslinger in his DNA. His gruff exterior masks a compassionate soul, perhaps a necessary side-effect of his assumed role as an Amen Osa. His actions are often brutally logical, as witnessed in the resolution of the early desert goblin attack. He is consistently enigmatic and provides the film with a worthy core to center the action around. Of course the action can't be mentioned without giving Sando her dues. Although she gets short-changed as a character, she speaks volumes with her emotionally bruised eyes and her blade. She features prominently in most of the major action scenes with a character design reminiscent of Fifth Element's Leeloo.
Despite all the resounding positive notes struck by the film, there are a few deficiencies worth mentioning. The dense plotting leaves absolutely no room to expand Sando's character beyond the action cipher that she becomes. Then there's the matter of the massive claw that is Sando's right hand. I would have appreciated at least one establishing scene to address the claw. The whole venture is entertaining but ends up feeling like the pilot or first few episodes of a longer show featuring continued adventures of the central characters.
The movie was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The video presentation was quite pleasing with a sharp image serving the expansive color palette nicely. I did notice a small stutter during a scene transition after the first desert battle. This didn't bother me too much but it's worth noting. As mentioned earlier, CG effects were employed during scenes featuring the Phantom Army. Although the effects were obvious, as I believe they were intended to be, I was impressed with how well they blended into the rest of the hand-drawn animation during scene transitions.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround for the original Japanese track as well as the dubbed English track. During the major action scenes, the surround sound mix really came alive adding a nice emphatic punch to all the Phantom Army battles. Unfortunately, this made the audio mix during the rest of the feature all the more disappointing as the rear surrounds were hardly used at all. I chose to watch the feature in its original Japanese language but did sample a few scenes using the dubbed English audio track. The dubbing fared well as the English voice actors seemed to be a good fit for the characters and didn't resort to any unnecessary theatrics.
There are a number of extras listed on this DVD, although not all of them are equally substantial. First up is a Making of the CG. This extra is approximately 10 minutes long and mostly consists of the makers of the film demonstrating how the Phantom Soldiers were created using a 3D CG process on computers. It is an interesting look at some of the more unique scenes in the film. Following this, one can find Storyboards to CG. This acts as a companion piece to the Making of CG as storyboards for the Phantom Army are shown during the animation process. Production Sketches for all the characters are also included. The most substantial extra consists of a round of Interviews with the Japanese Cast. This piece is approximately half an hour long and offers a surprisingly detailed discussion as the same list of questions is posed to three of the central Japanese voice actors. They go beyond the standard scripted answers and give some thought to the South Korean origins of the tale and the cross cultural impact of the collaboration. The remaining extras include 3 Theatrical Trailers, 2 short TV Spots and trailers for other films that are Also Available.
Blade of the Phantom Master is a surprising blend both in conception and execution. It pulls together a number of genres like mystery and horror topped off with a nice helping of action in service of the well known lone gunslinger western recipe. The result is a creative film that features an enigmatic lead in Munsu, the Amen Osa. Unfortunately some of the other characters get a little short-changed and don't seem very well rounded. This may have been due to the dense plotting of the piece or because only the first few chapters of the manga were drawn upon for this adaptation. Despite these minor shortcomings, the central mystery of the film and the general tone is compelling enough to make me wish for additional adventures featuring the central characters. For that, I give this film a rating of Recommended.