I have to admit, it's been a while since I've had the will to take on an anime I've never seen before. Taking the chance on new (to me) series just wasn't paying off. So much of what's available follows the same formula, or panders to certain sects of the audience that want little more than style over substance, fan service, or whatever you want to call it. Don't get me wrong, I do appreciate certain guilty pleasures, such as Dragon Ball Z and Hellsing, amongst various others, but indulging in these visual treats is like beginning a love affair with pizza - You might enjoy eating it every night at first, but after a while, you're bound to grow sick of it and move on to something else. Well, I'll preface this discussion by saying that I've heard a lot of interesting things about Boogiepop Phantom over the years, but I never went out of my way to give it a shot. Well, big mistake on my part, because this anime provided me with an experience unlike any I've ever seen, and I mean that in the best possible way. This approach to 'storytelling' - a debatable term considering a lot of what transpires doesn't really make a whole lot of sense - was the refreshing style I needed to reinvigorate my desire to dabble in anime I'm not yet accustomed to.
Sitting down to write this review however, I found myself in a bit of a quagmire - As a reviewer, I'm supposed to relay to you the ins and outs of the series, but Boogiepop Phantom is structured in a way that doesn't really allow me to take the typical route - If I were to give you a detailed plot synopsis, I would undoubtedly ruin much of the intrigue the series was aiming to present. You see, the story is told in nonlinear fashion, and although mention of this will undoubtedly make you think of The Grudge or various Quentin Tarantino films, Boogiepop Phantom takes it to a whole new level. Before my dissection on why this show works as well as it does, I'll introduce you to the premise that sets everything else into motion: Five years ago, a sudden rise in serial killings shook the (unnamed) city to its core, killings which stopped as quickly as they began. Although neatly tucked away in the back of everyone's mind, the ambiguity of these murders continues to haunt the city. Fast forward to the present, and a new phenomenon is causing people to scratch their heads - A pillar of light appears over the city. A number of high school students witness the event, and eventually begin to disappear one by one. Although it's only logical to assume the unknown serial killer has returned, a mysterious figure not unlike Death - Boogiepop - is given credit for the series of strange events.
Things get a bit complicated from there. It's not just the timeline that seems to jump around, it's the focus as well. Throughout each of the 12 episodes, we see the larger picture unfold from multiple characters and perspectives. The first time around, each episode felt like a fresh step in what's otherwise a pessimistically disjointed presentation. Each puzzle piece (perspective) seems to be unrelated to the events at large, but progressing through the series proves otherwise, as similar events are revisited multiple times through different viewpoints. As time went on, I was left with questions more and more, and since Boogiepop Phantom's atmosphere is due in large part to the intrigue that's spawned by its ambiguity, I wasn't sure it was actually aiming to provide me with satisfactory answers after all was said and done. Not that I felt the plot was lazy or anything, but I was concerned the intent of the series was to leave you with something a bit more profound than closure. In some cases, ambiguous endings can add something powerful when applied to the right stories, but Boogiepop Phantom is such a head scratcher until all its threads are unraveled, that it wouldn't have been a rewarding experience if that had been the case. Fortunately, the series wisely wraps everything in a tidy little bow by the end of the final episode, and seeing everything finally come together in a cohesive package is highly rewarding.
But let's go back to what really makes this show tick - It wasn't the story itself that sucked me in, rather the way in which it's presented. Namely, it's the atmosphere that kept me mesmerized from beginning to end. First and foremost, the entire series has been artistically designed as a nightmare in sepia-tone, with corners darkened by shadows and the clarity of the images hazy. More impressive is the cinematography - It's often simplistic enough at first glance; innocent and beautiful. However, the music and visuals culminate into something that's bleak and altogether haunting. Because of the overall presentation, it's hard to categorize the series into a single word, but I'll say that it's both psychologically twisted and enlightening, and is served up with plenty of science fiction and horror. The biggest surprise of all was just how thematic the series is through and through - It seems to focus long and hard on the faults that plague most of humanity, and although this message seems to be a little too unforgiving (I'm not a fan of blanket statements), there's little shimmers of love, hope and redemption that shine through. It doesn't balance out the bleak outlook on humanity as a whole, but it was refreshing to see the writers actually acknowledging that there are still some good qualities about us left in the world.
I've said it before and I'll say it again - This is truly an experience unlike anything I've ever seen from anime. The series almost sets itself up for inherent failure by crafting something so complex by design, but actually does a great job of blending everything it has to offer without tripping over itself. Furthermore, the series doesn't go out of its way to entice a larger audience with fan-service - There's some violence, sure, but it's all integral to the mysterious and thematic events presented throughout, and as far as unnecessary T&A goes, there's not even so much as a panty shot. Boogiepop Phantom could have destroyed its integrity and effectiveness as a result, but it plays its premise straight and aims for something a bit more cerebral. If, like me, you haven't taken the time to see this series over the years, now is the perfect time to rectify that mistake by diving into this complete collection. You won't regret it.
Presented in an aspect ratio of 4:3, Boogiepop Phantom isn't exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. Part of the reason for this is obviously the artistic intent, which strives to make this show look like a hazy nightmare in tunnel vision. Nothing has any great sense of clarity and characters often have a glow around them, almost as if you were trying to look at people in the sunlight after being trapped in a dark room for hours on end. Still, I can't help but feel that this could have fared a bit better - Black levels can get respectably dark on occasion, but for a show that spends so much time in the shadows, the contrast should have a strong presence, but it never really does. Continuing in the complaint department comes in the form of banding, which appears regularly due to the shadowy tunnel vision. There's also some ugly macroblocking more often than not, although it's not as apparent during brighter sequences. It's a strong series, but the DVD left me wanting more... a lot more.
I'm impressed by the options that are available, but not necessarily their presentation. This show features such densely layered music and sound effects, to the point where the soundtracks as a whole are just as important as the visual style itself, if not more so. For this reason, I was hoping the English 5.1 track would actually offer something substantial in the way of spacing or directionality, as to enhance the 'nightmarish' vibe of the series, but it left me wanting more often than not. You should stick with the English or Japanese 2.0 tracks that are available, as they sound a bit more natural.
As far as which language you're going to want to listen to, I'd say the voice acting is (as always) superior on the Japanese track. That being said, I was impressed just how faithful the English translation was. If you throw on the subtitles and listen to the English dialogue, you'll soon notice that it's almost the same, word for word. Still, the English actors had a tendency to take me out of the moody effect of the series, so stick with the original Japanese source if you want to enjoy Boogiepop Phantom the way it was meant to be.
Director's Commentaries - There's a director's commentary for every episode on the set, and wow are they informative! They feature not only the U.S. Producer, but select members of the cast as well. Most anime commentaries I've heard in the past typically go for the 'let's have fun in the sound booth while self promoting' route, but these tracks actually offered a wealth of information that's not only a great insight into the making of this series, but what it's like to work on an anime behind the scenes.
Outside of this, the supplements aren't really all too impressive. The rest of the bonus material comes in the way of short Promo vids, Music Videos, Notes, an Art Gallery and clean Opening/Closing Music. Not the most impressive supplemental package overall, but having commentary tracks for each of the episodes is solid.
After the first couple of episodes, I feared that Boogiepop Phantom would have been a full pasta bowl of loose ends. Fortunately, the series is all business - the violence isn't gratuitous, and absolutely zero time is wasted on racy skin or undergarment shots - and things are tied up nicely after all is said and done. It's hard to describe exactly what Boogiepop Phantom is, but whatever it is, it's good. It's a dark and atmospheric nightmare that rivals the palpable uneasiness in earlier seasons of The X-Files, and it's an experience that drops its puzzle pieces at such a magnificent pace, that you won't be able to see the full picture until the final episode has concluded, and that's a large part of what makes this series so hauntingly captivating. If you're looking for some anime with substance, something that will play with your mind and present many dark, but not entirely unrealistic thematic ideas, then Boogiepop Phantom is exactly what you've been waiting for (not that the series is new or anything). The series alone is worth a high recommendation, but a lackluster A/V presentation and unimaginative extras keep a good release from being a great one. Recommended.