「永遠のファントム・ワールド」 (Eien no Fantomu Wārudo)
“The Eternal Phantom World”
I consider Excel Saga to be the archetypal absurd gag anime of its time. In its penultimate episode (depending on how you count the deliberately not-fit-for-broadcast one), it actually dropped all of its comedy and went into full plot mode, just to see if it could. I thought that maybe Musaigen no Phantom intended to do something like that too. Even Ruru is suddenly domesticated, cutting off a major source of hijinks. And really, these final two episodes are certainly much more serious than any other. Is Phantom World better for it? Possibly. Is the end result as a whole, good anime? That, I’m afraid, is harder to say. I have issues with this finale, just as I have issues with the rest of the show, and I think it’s best I address them together as the final impressions. If I were to nitpick at everything that annoyed me in this episode, I’ll miss Spring 2016.
Let me start with the conclusion, which I am quite loathe to actually say: I think that Musaigen no Phantom World‘s writing is fundamentally broken. This is an anime that has, beyond necessity, twisted itself into a sort of unique mess that seemingly could only be resolved with even more bad writing. A major problem, I felt, was that Phantom World had no idea what it was about. It had a theme about children’s family issues, but that certainly wasn’t what it was about because it didn’t tie into the theme about human cognition, which was not what Phantom World was about either because it didn’t tie into the theme about human/phantom coexistence and so on and so forth. The result is that the ‘plot’ is not something that is cohesive and overarching, like proper plots should be, but simply something that our characters stumble into on occasion, then stumble out of. Usually the plot is tied to the goals and motivations of characters, but I can’t honestly tell you what they are in this case. Fighting phantoms is just something our protagonist group happens to do when one shows up. Reconciling with family is also something that they just happen to do when a phantom inspires them to do it. As such, I couldn’t really bring myself to care for anything these folks actually did other than on the, ‘oh, you’re the protagonist, I should pay attention to what you’re up to’ level. And, really, I’m not sure Phantom World cares either. What happened in this finale? ‘Oh, by the way, this. By the way, we’re hackers now. By the way, we have a stuffed bear who can do it. By the way, huge corporate conspiracy. By the way, Enigma plans to TAKE OVER THE WORLD. It could be Phantom World deliberately being comically irreverent about its narrative (until, of course, it decides not to be), or it could be Phantom World simply lacking the capacity to give a damn (until it decides it wants you to), but it hardly makes a difference at this point.
Some of you may recall that Steins;Gate had a very similar turn as the one in this final episode of Phantom World. They wanted to hack CERN, needed specific technology to do it, and uncovered a huge conspiracy. But the technology needed in Steins;Gate was something the characters actively worked towards acquiring, as opposed to something that just fell into their lap like in Phantom World. In Steins;Gate, it was an obstacle, and gave its characters agency, while in Phantom World it was an arbitrary magical plot key. And in Steins;Gate, this all happened relatively early in the story, while in Phantom World it’s all packed into the finale. ‘Well, duh, Passerby,’ you might say, but it illustrates another thing I really don’t understand about Phantom World: why didn’t they set this up earlier? Sure, they showed the plot coupon once in a while, and also Haruhiko trying to fix it, but all of that was irrelevant in the end. This could have been the overarching plot. This could have been used to draw all those disparate themes together. And at the very least, Phantom World could have eased us into this final arc instead of their chosen strategy of Suddenly! Stuff!
I sometimes see people describe Phantom World as just a mindless comedy that doesn’t need a plot, or even coherence, but I think that this finale arc proves that it had at least some aspirations for more than that. And even gag-heavy shows can do plot if they want. I think Amagi Brilliant Park is a useful comparison here, as a ‘KyoAni show’ that manages to do it better. Amaburi establishes its premise in its first episode, with a clear goal. They need to attract visitors to a theme park, gotcha. There’s an overt reason why our protagonist acts, so no matter what random hijinks comes along we have at least this context. And, perhaps subtly importantly, at the end of every episode Amaburi would display a counter, as if to remind us, yes, they’re still doing this. Come episode 12, the big finale needs answer only one question: did the protagonist achieve the goal? That’s it. We’re done. Premise, progression, denouement. It’s clean, at least more so than Phantom World‘s approach of more or less winging it.
It’s a shame, because Phantom World definitely had the potential to be more than this. The augmented-reality-esque setting could have been interesting. The corporate conspiracy could have been interesting. Some parts are exciting, some parts are cool, some parts are funny. I would note Reina’s episode as having an excellent aesthetic, and being the first real sign of the potential depth in Phantom World. The cat episode also had some really interesting visuals for a brief moment, showing that a show about hallucinations made real could have worked as something more surreal. Episode 11 showed us that director Ishihara Tatsuya might just have a bit of CLANNAD left in him. The tiniest flashes of brilliance here and there, and then it’s gone. I can’t even honestly say that I’d recommend Phantom World as a good comedy. It’s much too muddied for that, with the narrative not really serving the jokes, nor the jokes really serving the narrative. Humour is the most subjective thing, though, and I’m not saying there are no laughs in Phantom World, but if you just wanted a funny show there are many better, just as there are better action shows, or better dramas, and even better shows at mixing those elements together.
I don’t particular enjoying criticising anime. I am, at heart, an anime apologist. I don’t hate on shows. I simply despair. If you personally enjoyed it, I am genuinely glad for you, but on my part, I could only look on what it could have been, and sigh. If only I even knew what it wanted to be.