Boogiepop Phantom Anime Review
Bugiipoppu wa Warawanai
Boogiepop Does Not Smile
US Release By
Sci-fi Psychological Suspense
12 25-minute episodes
2000-01-05 - 2000-03-22
One night, in an unremarkable city, a strange light appears in the sky, and the aurora drifts over the skyline. Things seem the same after that, but people begin to die in mysterious ways--some of them like the unsolved serial murders that plagued the area five years ago--and there are rumors at the local high school. Rumors of a being who can solve problems, take away pain, take away life. Some call it the God of Death. Others call it Boogiepop. But Kirima Nagi, a bad girl on a mysterious mission, is interested in more than just rumors, and has seen things that most people don't even believe in...
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Blending psychodrama, horror, and an X-Files-style plot into something dark and unusual, the experience of watching and putting together the pieces of Boogiepop Phantom is an original, unsettling, and absolutely engrossing experience. Each individual story follows someone as their world falls apart from within, while slowly giving the viewer the pieces of the greater picture that ties the series together, offering both a raw connection to a variety of disturbed characters and a challenging supernatural puzzle to keep the intellect engaged. Filmed from uncomfortable angles with a monochromatic palette of olive hues and scored with distorted fragments of music and commonplace sounds, the production establishes a relentlessly oppressive setting for its twisting plot and overlapping timelines, and the whole is completed by a large troupe of talented actors.
Boogiepop Phantom is a masterfully constructed work of art, maintaining a subdued but always powerful emotional character and stylistic theme from start to finish. Although far too dark and strange to appeal to many, I cannot recommend this twisting tale highly enough.
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Boogiepop Phantom is a quietly disturbing series of stories that blend psychodrama, horror, and an X-Files-style plot into something dark and unusual. The basic idea is simple enough--unpleasant things are prowling an unsuspecting town, and something else is out to stop them--but Boogiepop Phantom takes this high school horror movie premise and twists it in ways that leave it almost unrecognizable, making for an original, unsettling, and absolutely engrossing experience.
The most striking thing about Boogiepop Phantom is the visual style; the entire production is colored in sepia and olive tones, and even those scenes that don't take place in shadowy locations are vignetted, dimming slightly around the edges of the frame. This unique look combines with a pace that is slow, steady, and methodical to give each and every moment a gloomy, oppressive atmosphere unlike anything else I've seen.
Boogiepop Phantom is mostly an episodic series; each episode introduces a new group of characters and tells its own story. There are a few threads--some obvious, some not--tying them together into a greater whole that eventually brings the series to its climax.
Individually, the stories each paint a picture of some form of internal emotional collapse--traumatic experiences, neuroses, escapism--punctuated by physical brutality and overlaid with a sense of some dark supernatural force hanging in the air. This combination of things that go bump in the night and the all-too-real demons that plague the human mind are skillfully woven together. Despite occasionally seeming to work a little too hard at being deep and a frustratingly slow pace, the end result is powerful and gripping.
Although the individual episodes are impressive in their own right, the challenging way the overall story comes together is what impressed me most about Boogiepop Phantom. The series is laid out almost like a puzzle; in each episode we're given a few pieces, but they are out of order and fitting them together is left almost entirely up to the viewer. Events are introduced in three separate timeframes--at the time of the mysterious light, a month after it, and five years earlier--but through deftly-executed nonlinear storytelling we only see the fragments of the greater picture surrounding the events focused on in the current episode. Not only do most episodes include events from all three periods, but the timelines overlap and intertwine with no obvious clues to the exact order of events.
More impressive still is how satisfyingly the whole fits together in the end--I don't hesitate to say that this is one of the most tightly built TV series I have ever seen. For one thing, although strange and confusing at first, the events are not surreal, or illogical--merely paranormal. The story fragments, when presented, frequently don't make sense to the viewer or the characters who come into contact with them, but eventually all the pieces fit tightly together. Several large areas of the story are left conspicuously unexplored (or, more accurately, we eventually discover that they aren't really what the story is about), but once the final image comes into focus it is quite concrete, and none of the pieces introduced throughout the series go to waste or end up feeling like they were merely there for effect.
This is a marked difference from the dozens of sidesteps and mysterious details of another TV series that begs to be compared to Boogiepop Phantom, Serial Experiments Lain. To put it simply, although the two series will likely appeal to the same audience and stand alone in their bizarre, twisting stories and unusual storytelling, they are almost opposite in their details.
Where Lain creates a sense of the subtle, surreal breakdown of reality centering on the main character, Boogiepop Phantom is more about the internal breakdowns of individual people and their projection of their own problems onto the world around them. Likewise in Lain, the viewer is always kept at arm's-length, watching events unfold; in Boogiepop Phantom our perspective is inside the characters' heads, listening to them narrate their own stories, and the clouded lens through which we gauge their actions is created as much by their own confusion as by what events we are allowed to see. The product of each storytelling tactic is engrossing and remarkably similar, but the contrast is interesting.
I've already mentioned the relentless dreariness of the visual style, but another tactic used to enhance the mood of the series is creative camerawork. Almost every angle is slightly skewed; we see only parts of a face, our perspective is constrained to a tight close-up on some tiny part of a scene, or we see things from odd, uncomfortable angles. It is subtle enough that you might not even notice it at first, but the subliminal effects are strong, reinforcing the sense that something under the surface is not right.1
The character designs, though traditional anime style, are appropriately realistic--no colorful hair or even particularly distinctive faces. Combined with the large number of characters and Japanese names, this made it hard to keep track of exactly who was who (especially when a character would reappear after a several-episode gap), but it was still a wise decision, since that air of normalcy is important to the story. The only flaw I found in the visual style is that the character animation is rough and occasionally slightly awkward, but even these issues are barely significant enough to notice.
This series is so tightly constructed that there is only one thing that seemed a bit out of place: the credits, of all things. Each episode begins with a gritty, chaotic montage interspersed with bits of live action footage to go along with the slightly funky intro theme, which has little to do with the feel of the show itself; the same is true for the hard-edged end theme.
Aside from the opening and closing, though, the soundscape is enveloping and matched perfectly to the mood. Although a wide variety of musical genres are represented, it is more sampling than background music--most of the pieces heard are in fragments, and frequently distorted in some way. Similarly, all manner of distorted voices and everyday noises, accented by a variety of atmospheric chimes, are used carefully and effectively as a tool to enhance the mood throughout.
I don't have much to say about the Japanese acting, other than that it is extremely good. The entire spectrum of the broad range of characters is believable, from shy, disturbed schoolgirls and traumatized parents to a variety of deranged individuals. With so many different and well-played characters I can't single out any particularly impressive performances, but that in and of itself is a huge compliment. The English dialogue, based on a brief examination, isn't quite as strong, but it is still very good and the writing is solid. Almost more importantly, the distorted audio is well matched to the original, so the sensation of listening is almost the same.
On the whole, Boogiepop Phantom is a masterfully constructed work of art, both in the individual stories of emotional collapse that make up its episodes and the broader picture of supernatural intrigue that is slowly constructed through the series. Its often subdued but always powerful emotional character is maintained from start to finish, the mood and theme is never broken, and absolutely nothing is wasted. Although far too dark and strange to appeal to many, I cannot recommend this twisting tale highly enough.
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Serial Experiments Lain screams out as a similarly strange and cerebral series, and despite some differences either is a must see if you liked the other. Ghost Hound is the other obvious comparison; the story is somewhat similar, including themes of psychological trauma, and it has a similarly disorienting soundtrack, though the visual presentation and narrative structure are far more conventional. Baccano!, although almost opposite in mood, tells its story in a very similar nonlinear manner. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a children's story with a somewhat similar pace and at times a similar mood. Lastly, the Vampire Princess Miyu TV series and OAVs also bear some resemblance, in that they also examine human weaknesses and have a sense of relatively subtle horror.
Notes and Trivia
Based on a popular series of light novels by Kouhei Kadono, which are generally credited as starting the light novel "boom" in Japan. As of this writing four of the early ones are available in English from Seven Seas.
There is also a live-action movie, Boogiepop and Others, available in English from RightStuf. The movie is available both as a standalone DVD or in a box set with the anime series. The soundtracks to both the anime series and the movie are available in the US as well, also from RightStuf.
The series' full Japanese title, "Boogiepop wa Warawanai" ("Boogiepop Does Not Smile"), isn't used anywhere in RightStuf's advertising for the series, although it's front and center on the cover of their US-release DVDs. The verb "warau" can mean either "smile" or "laugh"; presumably it was intended to mean the former, but either is possible.
Interestingly, each episode has two titles--one in English, and another, sometimes different, subtitle in Japanese. Episode 6, for example, is titled (in English) "She's So Unusual," and subtitled (in Japanese) "The Way She Lives."
Footnote 1: Be warned that this is a fairly major spoiler; since the last episode is set after the supernatural cowl has been lifted, the visual style lacks the olive tones and vignetting of the rest of the series. I found the contrast absolutely amazing--it doesn't just look different, it feels different, palpably, driving home how effective the visuals are at establishing a subconscious sense of something amiss.
US DVD Review
RightStuf's original DVDs are fine productions. The video is beautiful--despite the darkness of so many scenes and all the gradients and intentionally grainy shots, it looked smooth and defined throughout, with no noticeable artifacts at all. The audio tracks are sharp and very clean as well; you get your choice of 2-channel Japanese or English, but the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack in English only. The menus are fittingly dark and well designed (though the same on each disc), and the episodes are well indexed. The extras aren't bad, either; there is an additional audio track with commentary by the English dub director, a variety of previews, and a few music videos (including an original CG one on the 2nd disc that is very well done and downright disturbing).
Rightstuf gave the videos a 15+ rating, which is about right, and it probably wouldn't appeal to many people younger than that anyway.
Violence: 3 - There is little physical violence, but when it does occur it is brutal.
Nudity: 1 - Nothing noteworthy.
Sex/Mature Themes: 3 - Nothing erotic, but many episodes feature strong themes.
Language: 1 - The subtitles are fairly mild.
Available in North America from RightStuf on a set of bilingual DVDs that also includes the live-action movie Boogiepop and Others; there is both a thinpak set and an "anime value" edition of the same. Was previously available on four bilingual DVDs, which also come in a box set, and prior to that on four subtitled or dubbed VHS volumes.soundtrack. Amazon also carries all of the above: Boogiepop Phantom DVDs.