Reviewby Carl Kimlinger,
DVD - Complete TV Series
In an unnamed city at the turn of the millennium a massive light pierces the night sky. Power goes down, computers are wiped, and something happens to the city's inhabitants. Something bad. One month later rumors abound in the city. Rumors of a boy who disappeared in that light, who returns sometimes to feed on the living. Rumors of strange powers and stranger happenings. Events going back five years, culminating in that piercing light, have conspired to make the city a hotbed of horrific paranormal activity. Death and insanity walk hand in hand with monsters both human and inhuman, stalking the streets and parks and sewers of the town. And above them all—human, monster, ghost—is the being known as the Angel of Death, Boogiepop.
Maybe it was the X-Files, maybe it was Evangelion, or maybe it was just the natural result of the swiftly changing age, but the nineties were a great time for dark, experimental sci-fi. And few sci-fis were as dark or as experimental as Boogiepop Phantom. Boogiepop is bleak puzzle-box of a show, an achronological chain of blisteringly negative character studies that interlock to tell the tale of a town where unknowable forces meet with the very worst and, very occasionally, the very best that the human animal has to offer.
A great deal of the pleasure of watching Boogiepop comes from fitting the puzzle pieces together. The stories themselves overlap, events in one episode explaining inexplicable happenings from others, offering up a stream of little “aha!” moments. Often the main character of the next story will make a bizarre cameo in the current one. Other times the series will jump back in time for an episode, offering glimpses of characters or events mentioned only in passing before. A rumor one episode might be the plot of the next. It pays to keep on one's toes. Eventually the glimpsed fragments of the past and incidental peeks behind the curtain of reality begin to pull together and the larger picture emerges. It's eerie and ugly and tantalizingly incomplete—a sinister conspiracy, forcibly evolved humans, a missing detective, a mysterious vaccine, two superbeings, a five-year-old string of serial murders, and Boogiepop and that light in the night, explained only in tiny, disconnected fragments— but clear enough that putting it together is immensely satisfying.
The stories the series tells as we assemble all those scraps are a bit less satisfying. Not that they aren't brilliant in their own unpleasant way. The series has a knack for discovering new and often sadistic ways of combining novel sci-fi ideas with its recurrent obsessions: the alienation of modern life, the pain of childhood's death, the costs of denying reality, the ways power can twist the psyche. There's the boy who can eat memories and hides his growing insanity behind a self-serving veneer of righteousness. There's the girl who offers herself up to a man-eating phantom because she loves the boy whose form it has taken and cannot stand what her life has become. There's the sinister little Peter Pan who steals the inner children from teenagers defeated by oncoming adulthood, leaving them suicidal husks of who they once were. When an episode is hitting all of its marks, serving up interesting ideas wrapped in disturbingly well-written inner ugliness and seasoned with clues to central mysteries, the result can be simultaneously fascinating and stomach-turning. The episode where a new drug causes a barista to conflate his real crush with his virtual girlfriend is like a particularly hideous car wreck: you can't look away, even when the sight nauseates you.
That flair for ugliness is also the series' great weakness though. The show can sometimes seem like a condemnation of the human race as written by a disaffected teenager. Everyone is selfish to the core. Good intentions are just a disguise for self-satisfaction or terrified self-preservation. High-school life is an unending session of social torture punctuated by suicidal musings on the meaninglessness of life. Growing up is a process of discarding dreams and compromising principles. Adults are zombies drained of life by an uncaring society that forces them into soul-sucking dead-end jobs. After a while it gets tiresome. Cherry-picking the worst of life is no better for a show than cherry-picking the best, and it runs the risk of dragging the story into a pit of blind nihilism.
But Boogiepop is not dumb enough to actually fall into the pit. It's very best stories offer little rays of hope; hope of love, hope of forgiveness, hope of redemption—shining feebly amidst the death and psychosis. They also tend to be the long-running stories, those woven through and pieced together during the bleaker, nastier tales before them. There's the story of Toka, who's always suspiciously close by when Boogiepop stalks her victims, but who is also a genuinely good girl from a genuinely good family. Nagi Kirima is a meddling “hero of justice” who crops up everywhere and whose desire to help is rooted only in a fierce hatred of evil and an equally fierce compassion for lost souls. Between them they share moments that get surprisingly close to being downright touching. Though even they are no match for the little girl whose luminescent butterflies kick-start several of the stories. The end of her Greek tragedy of a life is so achingly, sadly sweet that for a moment you feel like you hopped over into a different series altogether.
Director Takashi Watanabe never put together a more stylistically unified or purposeful series than this. Prior to Boogiepop he was probably best known for the RPG-skewering frolics of The Slayers franchise, and he'd go on to direct messy disasters like Ikki Tousen and Demon King Daimao. This is the only time—with the possible exception of Shana—that he seems in full control of his craft. He paints Boogiepop's world with a relentless palette of sickly greens and greys, jumps with disorienting suddenness through time and space, and punctuates it all with fluid bursts of sickening gore. Jarring audio ticks and bursts of static are coupled with runs of distorted, overlapping dialogue and blended into an atonal score to create haunting soundscapes that speak of urban isolation and apocalyptic doom. The series looks, feels, and sounds like an unending sepia nightmare. Which is perfect. Maybe the character animation lacks precision and perhaps Watanabe's style owes too much to Lain, but it fits the series' world so well that neither really matters.
Right Stuf's dub stumbles over some Japanese names and suffers from a bit of stiffness here and there but is also meticulously constructed and scripted, as well as carefully acted. It has a slight deadness that is actually wholly appropriate to the series and knows how to carry emotions when needed. Its attention to detail really pays off in the sound design, which is slightly different but no less effective than the Japanese and best appreciated in its full 5.1 channel glory.
This is essentially a repackaging of the existing DVDs, so expect the same exhaustive collection of promo clips and music videos, line art, and character notes. Also expect to spend a lot of time with its commentary tracks, which feature a medley of English cast and crew and cover the entirety of the series. They run lower on steam as they progress, but contain such a density of detail—both about the series itself and the process of dubbing it—that it's well worth the investment of time.
As a series that has stood the test of time, it's tempting to slap the tag of “classic” on Boogiepop. As ever, that's a tricky label. The series is too self-conscious and psychologically narrow-minded to lay claim to perfection, and it lacks the epochal impact of Evangelion and the befuddling intellectual richness of Lain, its two most famous antecedents. But it is a long-lasting and expertly made example of what anime can do when it has courage and ambition to burn. And that's good enough for me.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Challenging, disturbing and fascinating.
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