I have a stranger relationship with Boogiepop Phantom than I do any other anime.
It is entirely possible I may not have an association with any other piece of media in the rather particular way this series and I have danced around each other over the years.
I own a copy of the Ultra Limited series box of Boogiepop Phantom The Right Stuf International had put out far back in the anime memory hole more than a decade ago. I say this not as some trite means of attempting to show off (I see no value in that), but rather as a means of setting the scene. I purchased it in a Best Buy retail store in the still growing days of the anime boom years, mostly using a bag of discount sticker pieces from the Monopoly promotional games McDonald’s likes running.
It comes in a stately, intimately designed box. Included are pencil boards, art cards, and three music disks (two as a direct soundtrack, the other a “Music Inspired By…” collection) with their own art sleeves. All this in addition to four cases housing the show itself, and the whole box was under a markdown that allowed me to snap it up for little additional cost beyond redeeming that little bag of coupons.
Until a week ago, two of the four DVD’s were still sealed in their plastic wrappers.
I have attempted to watch Boogiepop Phantom on four occasions over more than ten years, if I include my most recent dive. Incidentally, four is my favorite number. It also is pronounced very similarly to the Japanese word for Death. It is likely the most appropriate of all numbers to finally sit through this series to its conclusion.
My first attempt, naturally, was shortly after I had purchased the show. I promptly repeatedly slammed into multiple thematic brick walls in my exploration of the first disk, dealing as those three episodes do with so many ideas of loss, psychological torment, perception problems, sexual assault, eating spiders, and a whole mess of other things.
It is around this time that I should mention I had no idea what Boogiepop Phantom was when I purchased it. It was merely providing me the very best value per coupon dollar at the store, and The Right Stuf International (now releasing titles under the Nozomi Entertainment banner) tended to be rather selective when it came to handling things for publishing. In turn, I felt completely comfortable purchasing it blind to the narrative contents. The Ultra Limited box, due to its design, does not even have a series description or text of any kind outside of the bare bones name, company info, and a listing of the extra physical items.
In short, when I made it to the end of the first disc (which may have taken the better part of an afternoon), I had a rather particular thought.
“I need to be older to watch this”
This is a distinctly different concept to me than “I am not old enough to watch this.” The latter is something one can usually excitedly remark when watching, say, an R rated film when they are not of age. There is a hint of joy in how the phrase tends to be handled, or alternatively perhaps also sense of skittishness if one is scrambling out of fear of getting in trouble from their parents or teachers.
The former though is something else, as it is an acknowledgement. It is recognition that the product in front of me was something I knew I was not really equipped to make heads or tails of. I did not necessarily dislike what I had seen, in that I liked the sepia infused tone of the art, I enjoyed the eclectic music, and it seemed to be a series keenly and methodically dealing with rather particular ideas. By my limited understanding, I could at least minimally ascertain it was a carefully constructed bit of media, regardless of anything else. But I knew I was having serious problems decoding what, exactly, it was trying to do. In such a way where I knew the only way I would really be able to figure it out was to watch other things, get more time with media and experience under my belt, and have another go at it some time later. Rather than having themes completely fly over my head silently, I could tell they were there, I heard them whizzing past and it was actually frustrating to a certain degree.
It is such an extremely specific time in ones life, where we make strangely adult decisions, sometimes, that I would find myself harder pressed to take now.
Naturally, I would make another attempt a few weeks later. That was plenty of time to grow up more, right?
Perhaps, though more likely perhaps not.
Regardless, I managed to press forwards. I watched the first disc again, and then powered into and through the second. I had made it to episode six of twelve. I imagine much of this was out of a combination of trying to ensure I watched my purchase, and not wanting to be beaten by a television show. I was already watching plenty of “good” things, I would tell myself. It was a horror piece, and I was aware of far more gorier products, and it likely was on at least some level bugging me that this had been bugging me so much. If this was a five stages of grief chart, this would be akin to the “anger” phase, despite me not really being really angry per se.
This is a large amount of psychological horror television to take in a large single session burst however, such as it was.
Sometimes we do not make the most adult decisions in this rather specific part of our youth. I needed, to an extent, a breather.
This would in turn develop into a large game of kick the can down the road, as I would not put the series back into a DVD player until well after I had graduated high school, college, and completed my graduate school studies. Boogiepop Phantom was still a part of my life though, as the music albums had a consistent part in my rotations and even received some airplay during a short time where I ran a little late night college radio show. The box set was consistently packed with my things between various moves, with every intention that this was going to be the time, the year I was going to really get around to it.
It was a nice sentiment, at any rate.
There reaches a point, when something has been incomplete for so long, that it becomes increasingly easy to merely justify its continued lack of completion rather than up and doing the work to get it over with. The “bargaining” and “depression” stages, if you will. There will always be time in the future, right? What is even the point after it has been on the back burner for so long?
The third attempt I began with a good friend who was also interested in the series, and started off at the beginning. We watched the first and second episodes one night, with every intention of trying to dig through the whole thing over the course of a few weekends. But, it does not particularly play well to group viewing, given the material, and we each had enough other things going on in our lives that we did not continue progressing with it past this point.
All of this is to come up to speed with the present. In many ways, the multiple entries I have done on other anime horror titles this month was to merely set up the mechanics to bring me to this point.
When you have owned something for so many years without completing it, it is rather difficult to get out of the mud and really make a dedicated go at it. It has developed a set of stories, circumstances, and personal feelings surrounding it and its incompleteness.
So this was the forth go around, the time I well and truly killed it.
Boogiepop Phantom holds some strange positions, even outside of my own personal relationship to my specific copy of it.
The light novel series, kicked off by Boogiepop and Others, became a multi-million seller in short order across Japan. Lighting up the charts like little else in the format before it, the modern light novel trend can be traced right back to it much in the same way something like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone made waves in shifting the young adult book market in the United States (even if the latter was a far more dramatic splash). Likewise, this also means that for every bargain basement light novel being adapted into a full blown television anime series, one can also thank dear Boogiepop for their incalculable contribution to generating hours and days of mindless dead tree media attempting to be the next runaway hit (and also some genuinely really nice productions we may never have seen otherwise).
Developed by Madhouse in a media background where “late night anime” as a network programming block was coming back into vogue, they had recently made Satoshi Kon’s adaptation of Perfect Blue. Test kitchen anime projects like Serial Experiments Lain were doing critically interesting things on the airwaves, and Boogiepop Phantom is very much a production of its time. To say the series is “weird” would not only be an extreme understatement, but a massive disservice, much in the same way one would want to say similar things about Lain. We also see a lot of familiar faces.
Sadayuki Murai, who had done script work on Perfect Blue, is on hand for not only the screenplay but also the task of series composition. Envisioned to function much like a book taking place after the original novel despite being a television show, in addition to having tie-ins to a simultaneously produced live action film, each episode would weave around the others as characters moved between each others personal stories, horrors, and woes against the backdrop of the larger narrative situation. It would effect be like chapters of a short story collection. Shigeyuki Suga, who was a Key Animator on Lain, was called in for character designs in addition to taking up the same role here to give Boogiepop Phantom its rather particular qualities and shapes. Additionally, and particularly noteworthy to my own interests, is the acquisition of Yota Tsuruoka to take up the mantle of Sound Director.
Tsuruoka has had a particularly successful career over the years in his handling of the audio experiences for a number of productions that individually would be incredibly noteworthy. Taken as a whole, his broad professional range is really quite something, his resume peppered with credits from the storybook qualities of Turn A Gundam, the wide thematic mix and matches required for each of the Haruhi Suzumiya and Bakemonogatari franchise works, the band-focused shenanigans of K-On, and the rather particular soundtrack and audio design required for such a personal cross-country trip as Kino’s Journey. Furthermore, he was the Sound Director responsible for overseeing the ear level technical tomfoolery sewn so much into Serial Experiments Lain.
In short, their work often showcases a level of attention present in someone who genuinely enjoys what they are doing regardless of genre. This is a keen thing to have in general, but particularly so when it comes to productions that strive so heavily towards messing with ones perceptions. And there is so very much one can do with that in the audio department of a psychological horror piece.
Boogiepop Phantom does not like violin stings, giant orchestras falling down staircases, or any of the other kinds of sounds or musical tracks one would normally expect in a “horror” series. It is aggressively against such notions, with pulling its sensibilities from mixing electronic hums and clicks, ambient industrial and even light aspects of genuine funkiness and DJ record spinning. There is a prominence of rhythmic bass tones, which is noteworthy because it allows it to have that vector of penetration into the psyche. It is not interested in having the audio experience tell you to be scared on a surface level, but rather to worm itself a bit further and then begin to expand and retract to add a set of mental pressures to the video sensation. Dead silence is as frequent as borderline upbeat keyboard tracks indicative of so late it is actually morning drives down a hopeful highway.
The series is interested in creating a consistent sense of dread, rather than jumpy and fleeting terror. A feeling that a lead brick had been tied to your head and you are reaching a level of quiet acceptance as you sink.
Dovetailed with a visual experience that is almost entirely shot in a vignette framing with a highly muted color palate and a fair amount of intentional blur and film grain, it makes for a very comprehensive experience of observational decent as it flutters between the different character stories.
The story of Boogiepop Phantom is something I have been carefully tiptoeing around in this representation of my experience with it. While the series would be ancient history to some, it is playing by a rather specific set of rules I would not want to compromise too badly. If I somehow encouraged someone to pick it up, I would want to leave them to their own devices with it.
This being said, it does succeed in its goal of operating like a book, each episode essentially amounting to a short story that is a part of a larger collection. Characters who are given their own spotlights in episodes weave in and out of earlier and later narratives seamlessly. There is a general progression of time moving forwards, and it judiciously follows that old narrative chart many of us learn in middle or high school English class where ideas like “climax” and “falling action” or “dénouement” get peppered around in reference to novels and plays. Where many other series might choose to end, it even continues, because it wants to follow the progression of a book collection.
A more recent analogue to Boogiepop Phantom would be Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent, also released by Madhouse several years later. It dances a similar psychological horror jig with character weaving and an episodic short story nature. However, Paranoia Agent did come from a different place, in that it was a collection of ideas Kon had kept over the years that had not found a place in his earlier works and were then redressed and approached with a linking narrative. In that respect, while I do certainly enjoy that series on the overall, the themes and levels of effectiveness between the episodes does vary more compared to the structure and more laser focused creative intent present in Boogiepop Phantom.
Taken as a whole, this is a series dealing in representations and processing of memory, perceptions, change, and leaving things behind as one grows older. Individually, each of those can be downright terrifying in their own right. Given new and vibrant life via the pillar of light event that kicks off the show (a transition from the end of the original novel), such things are then made even more so for those who find themselves caught up in the wide variety of rather particular after effects. It is a story of human population centers, be they personal, familial, the familiar, or cities. It is a tree with many rings.
We do not really have a central character to see progress, though we do see some more consistently woven than others. Their designs are realistic and yet bland almost to a fault, but all as a part of a larger effort to deemphasize the power of the specific individual. As a result, they find their strength in what they are to mean. This is a show that wants to be about concepts and themes, much as one would perhaps process something like The Twilight Zone but with a genuine central narrative hub. Were one to get too attached to any of the particular people, the viewer may be unable to move on with the rest of the series given the structure. Boogiepop Phantom as a piece of media wants the viewer to move on with their own lives regarding their problems as a key part of its message, to use the past to inform the present and future, rather than dominating them with crippling hangups that hinder the human experience. It deals with this directly as a part of the overall plot and for various individuals over the course of it.
I have such a long, strange, and peculiar relationship with Boogiepop Phantom as a physical object and series I have kept around me over all these years without finishing.
As I broke into the third and fourth discs to progress further than I had ever done before, and eventually brought the series to its conclusion, it did very much feel like it was a rather strange thing to be doing. Things were stagnant as they were for so long, putting it off as I had. Was this even the right time? To see something different regarding this situation, to make a move to finally make things better, did feel like an almost risky or uncomfortable thing to be doing even if from an outsiders perspective it would have seemed like a patently silly apprehension.
The narrative that would roll on the television felt like it was speaking directly to me.
I do not claim I am really in much of a position to give Boogiepop Phantom anything close to a numerical score that would be a more snappy representation of my thoughts on it. If anything, this may be the smallest write-up I may be able to manage for the time being, given the number of thoughts in play both for myself and the actual content of the television show.
I think to boil it down to a more compact size at present, even after writing all of this, would almost be inappropriate to the oddball relationship we have built over the years. I would want more time to chew on the completion of the series, and to also visit the commentary tracks included on my copies of the series that have followed me around for so long.
What I can say is that I greatly respect the choice of my younger self to keep this as a sort of time capsule for me from a much earlier time in my personal anime history. It is a weird and unusual gift, perhaps, but it is mine.
It will be an interesting thing to say I did for myself, to have kept it this long before finishing, rather than something I claim I may finally get around to do one day.
This is a story Boogiepop and I have together, and we will carry forward.
Finally, I can begin to understand what we share.
Pendant Light is a weekly opinion and editorial space concerning various anime questions and subjects, be it topical or otherwise. Much like its namesake, it might swing around or fizzle out at times.