Reviewby Theron Martin, Apr 1st 2013
Phi-Brain: Puzzle of God
Blu-Ray - Season 1 Collection 1
16-year-old Kaito Daimon is a brilliant puzzle master, one who prides himself on never having encountered a puzzle that he cannot solve. That brings him into contact with the mysterious POG, a secretive but powerful organization who uses Givers (i.e., puzzle-makers) to test Solvers like Kaito in Philosopher's Puzzles, larger-than-life puzzles which have real elements of danger but also treasures at their end. Their ultimate goal is to develop Phi-Brains, individuals with the mental acuity to be able to crack the legendary Puzzle of God. While Kaito is leery of getting involved in such a potentially dangerous affair – for he believes wholeheartedly in the purity of puzzles as entertainment rather than deadly challenge – he ultimately cannot resist and finds himself wearing the armband Orpheus, which can enhance his puzzle-solving ability even further. He also soon discovers that he is not the only Solver at Root Gakuen High School, as three of his fellow students also bear that distinction and the nickname that goes with it. His tomboyish childhood friend Nanoha also sometimes proves handy with puzzles when she is not manhandling Kaito.
Somewhat surprisingly, Phi-Brain actually did not start out as a shonen manga or computer puzzle-solving game, as it gives the overwhelming vibe of the former and has some flavor of the latter. It is, instead, an original anime creation by Sunrise which has had a nearly concurrent manga adaptation. It has proven popular enough to warrant two 25-episode series to date, with a third series of unspecified length due at some unannounced (as of the time of this writing) time later this year. Understanding why is not difficult, as the franchise accomplishes the improbable by applying a shonen action-style flair to the very cerebral “sport” of puzzle-solving, to the point of making the normally sedate hobby into a relatively thrilling endeavor. As much as it sounds like an Anime News Nina parody, it actually can be entertaining, though one cannot take it as seriously as it takes itself.
When the series works, the puzzles are almost invariably responsible. Every episode has one or more highlight puzzles (typically but not always Philosopher's Puzzles) and often depicts or refers to several lesser ones, which can range from classics like tangrams, mazes, find-the-paths, and “who's lying and who's not” logic challenges to more recent favorites like Sudoku and slide-the-car puzzles to more innovative ones, such as a color-based variation on the old shade-the-box puzzle, one which involves stacking scale buildings under certain restrictions, and one which involves grouping paintings by artists' initials to spell out a coded passcode. Many of the puzzles are done in English in the original form, and only a few of those using Japanese actually require any working knowledge of Japanese; for instance, one puzzle requires knowing how a Japanese keyboard compares to an English one, but another that involves putting kanji in the right places in a circle can be done based merely on the way the kanji looks, as it involves making a chain of kanji with two elements where each kanji has its elements identical to adjoining ones in the adjacent kanji. (A rough English equivalent would be to do the puzzle with syllables, such as hydra-drama-macho-choker.) The puzzles are usually ones that viewers can solve, too; I tested one of the Sudoku and one of the other grid-based puzzles this way and found them both to be solvable at a medium level of difficulty.
However, the whole puzzle-solving structure can also be a problem. While characters show off their impressive intellect by recognizing and even quickly solving both common and obscure puzzle types, in certain cases the plot forces them to be stupid just to heighten tension; that someone who is a puzzle master would not instantly recognize a Magic Square scenario strains credibility past the breaking point, as does failing to quickly recognize that consonants like M, C, D, L, and V which must be translated into numbers could involve a Roman numerals conversion. Attempts to ramp up the drama in the puzzle-solving also sometimes come off as unintentionally comical, and the actions of some of the villains involving their puzzles and efforts to inflict distress on the hero take on a painfully cartoonish flair. While the notion of puzzle-solving as the key to unlocking an ultimate treasure is fair enough – somewhat similar concepts have been used in movie series like National Treasure and the Indiana Jones titles, among many others – the existence of a monolithic organization like the POG which has such power and resources despite being obsessed with puzzles is ludicrous and smacks of something that might appear in a kiddie cartoon. At many points the series feels like it is just a variation on Yu-Gi-Oh aimed at somewhat older audiences, except with puzzles instead of cards.
The cast does not help much, either. The main cast members are a decent enough bunch, if mostly a collection of common shonen archetypes: Kaito is the bad boy-flavored puzzle master with the tragic past, Gammon is his hip rival, Cubik Galois is the boy genius/science geek (although the robot he rides around in is pretty cool), and Ana Gram (yes, that's really his name) is the cross-dressing oddball. Nanoha seems like the typical athletic/martial arts expert-but-can't-cook childhood friend who can manhandle just about anybody, but her photographic memory and occasional keen insight result in her actually being more than just a hanger-on in some of the puzzle-solving scenarios. The other supporting characters are even more pure stereotypes, with the only one who is even the slightest bit fresh or interesting being the class president, as are most of the villains. Some of the character dynamics can be interesting (especially how Gammon interacts with both Nonoha and the Giver Erena), but these are still pretty basic and there isn't a lot here which cannot be found in dozens of other series.
Sunrise apparently put so much effort into designing and executing the puzzles that they ran out of time and effort to do a good production job on the series. Oh, it hardly looks sloppy and does have some occasional good CG effects, but minor quality control slips and clunky-looking animation are regular occurrences. Kaito and Gammon get character designs which visually portray them as delinquents (one has to wonder how they can get away going to school dressed like that), while Nonoha and Cubik get bright-faced looks which make them appear to always be staring wide-eyed at things. Beyond Erena, other designs are decidedly ordinary; in fact the only place that the series impresses artistically is in the layout of the Root Gakuen campus, which would put many colleges to shame. Who wouldn't want to go to a school like that? Graphic content is minimal and fan service nearly non-existent.
Akio Izutsu, who has no other anime credits beyond this one, produces a musical score which uses an eclectic variety of numbers to enhance both silly and dramatic moments, usually effectively. Opener “Brain Diver” by May'n is a highly-charged, rockin' number which well sets the tone for the series, but closer “Hologram” is less remarkable.
The English dub, courtesy of Sentai Filmworks, consists of several hits and one big miss. Chris Patton thoroughly hams up the role of Gammon but never in a way that feels inappropriate, while David Wald proves to be a surprisingly good fit for Kaito. Most other roles are cast and performed well, including following the Japanese dub's lead by having the very effeminate Ana Gram voiced by an actress rather than an actor, but there is one major exception: Shelley Calene-Black, who has done some wonderful voice work in other titles over the past year, is utterly miscast as Erena. Her vocal quality and delivery style do not at all suit the role of a lightly-pitched 14-year-old, and the miscasting is obvious enough that one need not even compare to the Japanese performance to notice it. The English script revamps some of the insults and includes some ad-libbing by Patton but otherwise sticks relatively close to the original. It does, however, drop lines of dialogue in a couple of different places (in one case it can be noticed even without the subtitles on) and is inaccurate in spoken numbers in a couple of others; the latter is a problem hardly limited to Sentai, though, as Funimation dubs also experience this from time to time. The subtitles are fine except for one place where “Children” is used when it clearly should be “Puzzle” instead.
Sentai's Blu-Ray release (it is also available on DVD) has no significant problems in a transfer or video quality sense, but the content's artistry and animation are simply not sharp enough for it to look all that impressive, either. The DTS Master Audio 2.0 tracks for both languages are not top-caliber stereo mixes but work plenty good enough, with respectable fidelity and dynamic range on both tracks. The packaging takes the typical Sentai no-frills approach of two disks in a regular-sized case, and the on-disk Extras likewise follow suit by only providing clean opener and closer.
Phi-Brain can definitely be entertaining, especially if one has a penchant for puzzles. However, it is also quite capable of making its viewers cringe. Through its first 13 episodes it does the former more than the latter, and that, apparently, is enough to make it a hit show.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : C+
Story : C+
Animation : C+
Art : B-
Music : B
+ School campus design, puzzles, puzzles, puzzles galore!
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