「幕末ファントム異聞」 (Bakumatsu Fuantomu Ibun)
“The Strange Tale of the Bakumatsu Phantom”
First, I need to preface everything I’m going to say in this post: this wasn’t a bad episode. In fact, it was arguably good and enjoyable. Everyone likes samurai, the temporary guest star was fun enough, and there was plenty of action. And personally, I have a soft spot for theatre. As far as entertainment goes, this episode ticks a lot of boxes. But I’m going to complain about it anyway. I know that I’ve consistently advocated that one should really switch off their brain for a show like this, but unfortunately Musaigen no Phantom World is not quite entirely mindless entertainment, which tempts the brain awake for a few minutes, just a small peek. Even that is sometimes enough for traumatic psychic injuries, which can only be healed by a stretch of ranting on the internet. Yeah, sorry. I promise, though, that this will be the last time I get entirely serious about Phantom World until the finale. Next week we’ll be back to fun and games and stupid jokes. Until then, please bear with my frowning.
This week of Phantom World features, prominently, a play within a play. It’s a device that you might be familiar with from, say, Hamlet, which makes an appropriate cameo appearance (I was doubly amused by the incredibly ‘ham’ actor, though I don’t think they would have intended that English pun). Now, I have no problems with the play itself. Both sides of the Bakumatsu joining forces to thwart a literal shadowy Phantom coup? That interesting. Silly, but interesting. I would watch it. As I’ve said before, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being silly.
It made me think, though: doesn’t this play within a play actually sound more interesting than the show itself? In fact, if this episode eschewed trying to frame it as a drama competition, and just inserted all of its characters into the Bakumatsu setting with no explanation from the outset, I think it’d actually be a better watch. It’d be pushing the absurdity envelope, perhaps, and will probably be kinda surreal, but I think it’d actually be better. Which is troubling, folks. A play within a play usually serves some greater purpose to the narrative, perhaps as a metaphor—again, see Hamlet. At the very least, there should be some plot purpose to it. Not with this week’s offering. It was more akin to some out-of-continuity, alternate universe indulgence. It could have been a different show by itself. And it had more going for it than what’s going on ‘outside’ the play. How did this happen?
To date, Phantom World has yet to really establish an overarching conflict. Or a major antagonist. Some goal for the protagonist. Whatever. None of the basic things that its play within a play actually has. And it really should have these by now. Phantom World is not a lackadaisical slice-of-life show. There is still a plot coupon hanging around, but not a single character really cares about it. Phantom World has literally lost the plot. The plot has been misplaced. Yeah, I’m sure they’ll get back to it eventually, but what are we doing in the meantime? Essentially filler episodes. Filler in a one cour series is… awfully bold, no? And this is in a series that already plays a few too many angles. Sometimes it attempts slice-of-life, sometimes it attempts monster-of-the-week action, sometimes it attempts gag comedy, sometimes it attempts bittersweet drama—not one of these, I feel, have really been afforded sufficient development. Phantom World hints at potential to excel at perhaps any of these, but instead does a poor balance of all of them. At least this episode keep its tone mostly coherent, mainly be dealing with its drama early and then immediately jettisoning it. The series as a whole, though, seems to have put little effort into finding a clear voice.
I don’t actually have a strong critical point here. I am not hating, or angry, or of really any strong emotional response. Mostly, I am baffled. Like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, I look around and can only ask, ‘what are we doing here?’ And I honestly don’t think I have an answer. I hope Phantom World gives me one before it is all over.