Helen McCarthy on Koichi Mashimo’s spy game
A Japanese teenager visiting America witnesses an assassination and is kidnapped. The secret organisation Inferno erases his memory and brainwashes him through a combination of drugs and hypnotherapy, exploiting his natural survival instinct to make him into a deadly weapon. He is the second experimental assassin created by Scythe Master, so he is given the name codename Zwei.
Scythe Master’s first subject, Ein, is Zwei’s trainer and Inferno’s top assassin – the Phantom. Outside her work, she is completely apathetic, but she and Zwei slowly form a relationship that awakens her forgotten past and sends her on the run. Zwei finds his own protégé, Drei, and continues his murderous rise until tragedy turns him rogue. Inferno sets out to reclaim its two lost sheep or slaughter them, setting the stage for a bloody resolution.
Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom is a TV series by Bee Train, based on the visual novel game Phantom of Inferno from Nitroplus and Kadokawa. The 26-episode series aired in Japan in 2009 after a manga adaptation with art by Masaki Hiragi. It made its English language debut from Funimation in 2010 and has already appeared in two DVD sets, but this is the first time the whole series has been collected in one box. It was preceded by a three-episode video series from Earth Create and KSS in 2004, which does not form part of the box set.
Older fans will doubtless hear the distant echo of Crying Freeman, while acknowledging the influence of Evangelion on the apathetic, manipulated Ein. More recent echoes come from Bee Train’s own Noir. But director Koichi Mashimo has been making unexpectedly clever shows since 1986’s Ai City. He’s foxy enough to allow the echoes to amplify his work rather than detracting from it. The real-world, near-present scenario and the subtle aura of sexual tension between the protagonists tip the show further towards the adult spectrum, despite their age. Comparisons with The Bourne Identity are not too extravagant: this is a dark, serious drama and doesn’t flinch from its own seriousness.
One very striking feature of the series is its pacing. Bee Train’s shows are often subtle and multi-layered, but they also inflict rapid, almost choppy cuts on the slow, minimalist evolution of story and character. Their use of flashbacks and recaps can also jar. Although Bee Train started life as a subsidiary of the renowned Production IG, some of the art and animation in their work lacks polish. Madlax and Wild Arms are examples.
That can’t be said of Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, which looks lovely, but the recaps and flashbacks are still annoying. They don’t break the mood, but they do force a change of pace and focus at inappropriate moments. The music of Hikaru Nanase comes to the rescue and helps to bridge those unfortunate gaps. It all makes a slightly uneven package, but one with enough goodies inside to be worth exploring to the end.
Requiem for the Phantom, the complete series, is out on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.