Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
Blade of the Phantom Master
Strolling casually through the desert, Munsu—a government agent once beholden to a fallen empire—succumbs to the inevitable and collapses from dehydration. He is rescued by Monlyon, a young man on a camel who is traveling back home after having failed to acquire the skills necessary to save his sweetheart from the clutches of a despotic local lord. The boy's passive naiveté rubs the cynical older man the wrong way, but Munsu nevertheless parts company having acquired a cute little bat-mascot and a mission. Later, having lain to rest his young acquaintance's wishes, Munsu takes his newly acquired mascot and Sando, an even more recently acquired sidekick, and allows himself to be persuaded by a young amnesiac named Jyun into visiting an island occupied by a suspicious doctor. Something ominous is afoot on the island, and Munsu, despite his protestations that he's not in the business of helping people, is compelled to uncover the truth—no matter the blood spilled to reach it.
Based on a Korean comic and touted by its creators as a shining example of cooperation between Korean and Japanese animators, Blade of the Phantom Master opens in a flurry of action intense enough to raise hopes of action-clogged theatrical fun, but makes an abrupt shift a third of the way through from rip-roaring action vehicle to atmospheric mystery. No attempt is made to reconcile the two parts—or even to maintain a narrative of consistent quality—but the end result nevertheless has a sort of clunky patchwork appeal, its disparate elements enjoyable on their own merits even as they fail to form a satisfying whole.
The film works best as a series of scenes, each divided from the next by plot developments that are simultaneously necessary for providing some semblance of continuity and superfluous in the face of the visual nature of the series' appeal. The meeting with Monlyon and some business with hobgoblins (who are apparently using Blade as a vehicle to escape whatever third-rate RPG spawned them) are merely preludes to a lengthy action set-piece that begins with the glorious CGI summoning of Munsu's jester-masked demon army and ends with Sando and her giant iron claw ripping through town in a display of magnificently preposterous martial-arts acrobatics. All of the time wasted on Jyun and his memory loss is no more than an excuse for a psychedelic dream sequence in which the camera floats through a grove of human-shaped trees blanketed in rippling, water-like light, and the entire mystery of the second half is simply dull firmament, mounted in which are a flame-shrouded, swooping aerial sword fight, the occasional jolt of from-nowhere brutality, and an unexpectedly lyrical coda.
Does it matter that the opening bout with hobgoblins is cursory action at best, that the writers mistake a willingness to kill innocents for edginess, or that the film's credo ("there are no miracles") comes across as self-consciously nihilistic thanks to amateurish dialogue? Does it hurt that a strong heroine like Sando is immediately reduced to servitude? And what of a supernatural mystery in which the villain is obvious, or an ominous island whose secret is more Night of the Living Dead than Twin Peaks?
Of course it matters. The closest the film ever gets to building something greater than the sum of its parts is earning the cynical yet oddly peaceful note on which it ends. Any other emotional response it can boast is thanks to composer Kô Ôtani's excellent mix of eerie quiet, delicate solos, and blood-pumping thunder, and not to the writers. Fights are furiously fast, cleanly edited, and cogent—as concerned with the kind of slow motion ballet that Hong Kong martial arts films are famous for as they are with the superhuman feats that anime is—but incapable of much beyond an immediate visceral thrill. Between the bouts of invention even the visuals, for all of the consistently superior animation and the lush detail in the watercolor backgrounds, are listless and perfunctorily composed.
With plenty of action and little else that matters, Blade offers its dub cast a perfect chance let their ham hang out. Performances range from Nancy Novotny, who makes the quiet best of Sando's three or four lines, through Michael Dalmon whose feudal lord whips from snarling menace to wheedling with bipolar zest, to Jason Douglas as Munsu, who growls onto the screen, gets his teeth into the scenery and starts chewing for all he's worth. While a shade lighter than the solemn Japanese, the tone isn't far enough off to be problematic, and the translation only occasionally makes serious changes to the original script, usually in the timing of internal monologues.
Amidst a small crowd of lesser extras (animation/storyboard comparisons, production art, trailer and TV spot collections), ADV's release of the film includes four rather meaty extras: a fairly informative ten-minute "making of the CG" feature, and three interviews with a trio of the principal Japanese actors (Keiji Fujiwara, Sanae Kobayashi, and Romi Paku) that run through all the usual questions asked of voice actors about their roles, but most importantly begin with a short but revealing clip of each performer acting in the studio.
Blade is essentially a series of glittering moments marked by visual invention and slick action and hung upon a story that has too many shifts in tone, too few surprises, and too many dips into boredom for its lean eight-five minute runtime. The cumulative effect of those moments, though less than the sum of its parts, is nevertheless potent enough—especially for the eye-candy-susceptible—to forgive the film its shortcomings.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Impressive action set-pieces; inventive visuals; solid score.
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