Originally published on September 23, 2003. This was my second attempt, after my Akira review, to write a “professional review” and analysis. It’s dicier than that one to be honest, and occasionally overreaches in my current opinion. But it still has some decent insights worth sharing.
Gothic Coming-of-Age Parables in Boogiepop Phantom
Boogiepop Phantom (2000)
directed by Watanabe Takeshi
12 episodes, 360 minutes.
Though it feels like anything but, teenage angst is a species of earnest innocence. Things seem so serious and significant, which can only be if one has not yet acquired the coping mechanism of cynicism or indifference. So if you are like many youths growing up in comfortable middle-class environments, the most important things are what’s in front you: school, peers, the flutterings of infatuation mistaken for love. Oftentimes, things genuinely large do appear: the death of loved ones, the disappointment of discovering the brutishness of society and the indifference of adults, who seem to be busy suppressing the pain they felt at your age by dismissing it all as a “phase.” You wonder why, as you stare outside the train window at the changing cityscape, few grown people have mapped the landscape of your mind, leaving so much uncharted territory full of depth and sadness and anger and joy: the whole topography of the soul. This is, after all, your whole world, all of nature–and perhaps the supernatural too–seen through this individual, subjective lens from which only time will provide some kind of escape. Or perhaps not. You wonder how far the facades go, how many “phonies” there are. And how they got that way, if they were all like you once, and how they could have missed the importance of all that’s going on inside you now.
Such emotional extravangance may, in fact, be a kind of childishness, but that makes it no less important to understand and appreciate. Coming-of-age stories and rituals have always been part of cultures, and in our modern Western world where youth has itself become a cult, there is a whole subgenre of “teen” stories from Catcher in the Rye to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Anime producers in Japan, of course, aren’t deaf to the needs of their youth, and in the wake of such artsy, psychologized bildungsromans such as Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain comes Boogiepop Phantom. Despite its pretensions to student-film artsiness, complete with nonlinear storytelling and portentious lines spoken in hushed whispers, Boogiepop is really doing the same thing that Buffy did over here in its early seasons: supernaturally allegorize the trials of high school in clever, sometimes poignant, and sometimes shocking ways. For instance, in Buffy, destructive peer pressure is depicted with several students possessed by the spirit of a hyena pack; in Boogiepop, repressed guilt is represented by invisible insects eating away at their victims’ hearts. Sexual obsession is distilled into “S” perfume, where the “S” stands for “slave” as much as “sex” or “sin-amon.”
Sometimes I wonder why such allegorizing is necessary. After all, there have been plenty of successful stories that tell about these things in a straightforward manner. My working theory is that it’s because only by showing things in dark, ominous shadows, with “Manticores” and “Boogiepop”–the Spirit of Death–does the fright and pain of growing up become clear. The thing about teenagers is that this is usually the first time that they’ve encountered things like sex, death, and love. Experience is so much more intense and painful the first time around, and much of that pain is caused by the way adults trivialize it or ignore it altogether.
Some examples: the sexually obsessed boy, who derives fulfillment from a virtual girlfriend in a video game, is constantly harassed by his parents to study for college exams and nothing more. A cheerful, loving boy becomes malicious and cruel to even his devoted sister when his father prefers to work on an amusement park rather than attend the school play. (Perhaps the father was too busy reliving his own youth rather than to pay attention to the real ones in his house.) A mother discovers that her murdered teenage daughter exchanged diaries with a friend, secretly telling each other of their miseries and hatreds kept wholly hidden from the mother’s eyes. Japan is perhaps one of the most workaholic societies in the world, which may explain the thread of negligent parenting that runs through so much modern anime, and in a rigid school system oriented around studying for entrance exams, students are expected to keep all this under wraps. Be cheerful, obedient, and get on with it, though Death lurks in the alleys and soul-stealers prowl the streets at night.
But Boogiepop Phantom, like its spiritual predecessor Evangelion, is not content to leave its viewers in a state of commiseration. It’s not enough to simply recognize the suffering of youth, and thus merely offer some self-indulgent “identification” with the characters; no, real art never leaves people in the same state as before. The fact is, as unpalatable as it sounds at that age, the advice to “be cheerful, obedient, and get on with it” is based on actual hard-won experience, distorted as it may be by resignation and cynicism. It is possible in fact to be cheerful, even happy in a genuine way, despite terrible suffering and angst. How does one move on, then, in a healthy way? It’s not really the place of a TV program to offer definite answers–there is no substitute for just growing up–but there are some hints here and there in this show.
There is a supernatural Pied Piper in Boogiepop who offers friendship and also red balloons to despondant teens. When the teen takes the balloon, the carefree child version of the teen–his or her soul, “the things that were once important”–runs off with the Piper. The balloon offers some giddy substitute happiness, but if the teen lets go of the red balloon, they have lost everything they once valued, which leads to suicidally despair. Near the end, the lone human hero working against the forces of darkness, Nagi Kirima, confronts the Piper. It turns out she alone cannot do it; she also needs help from Boogiepop, who is in fact a friend of this world in this show. Though she represents death, she also represents real acceptance and reconciliation. Together they fight against the soul-destroying forces of undue regret, envy, and despair. The Piper and his creator, a girl who bears the bad memories of the whole town, are vanquished–not by erasing memory, as an earlier episode revealed to be a false solution, but by sending out those memories and having people come to terms with them directly. Boogiepop is one of the few shows that genuinely earns its happy ending–things really do turn out fine, but not by quick fixes or by forced climaxes. The characters had to endure what they went through first.
When I watched the show for the first time, that was the “point” I got immediately, though I didn’t understand the nuances of the plot. The show is, admittedly, too convoluted for its own good. On the plus side, it rarely devolves into preachiness and its pretensions are, at least for me, bearable because there is no lack of actual substance in this show. A second viewing made everything hang together much better, with the evidence of actual planning and craft showing clearly. The plot threads and timelines actually match up. This is no small feat for anime TV. So while the plot is hard to follow, the spirit and the intent of the show are clear. It feels emotionally “right” even when one can’t figure out everything about the organization or human evolution experiments or what not. Perhaps the confusion is intentional: growing up is terribly confusing, after all. One you are disliked or shunned by peers, as many of the characters are, the world indeed looks like a huge conspiracy arrayed against you.
The bildungsroman theme will get picked up again in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the ultimate example of an extreme growing-up story in modern anime. Boogiepop would probably not have been made if not for Evangelion’s success. But it succeeds in being its own thought-provoking experience, one carefully tuned to the frequency of youth that some of try to forget, but can often remember all too well.
Michael is on hiatus for the remainder of August. The Vault series resurrects entries from his personal blog about anime, written from 2002-2006. Entries will appear in the series every other day.