Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom
A young man awakens only to be attacked by a young woman calling herself "Ein" (German "One".) She gives him the name "Zwei" (German "Two")- since he's forgotten all his past, including his real name- and she trains him for the new role he's being forced to take, as an assassin for a group called Inferno, that "assists" upstart gangsters to take over the territory of others- but secretly wants to control those it "helps".
"Once you kill, everything in the world changes... you won't be able to accept people with a kind heart like you're able to right now" - Reiji Azuma (AKA "Zwei")
The "They Made Me A Killer!" genre has a long history, both in live-action film (from La Femme Nikita to this year's Red Sparrow) and in anime, from the execrable Crying Freeman to the considerably better Gunslinger Girl. The show currently under review is, in my opinion, one of the better efforts of the genre, in spite of some absurdities of the plot.
So let's get some of the stupid stuff out of the way before we go to the series' strengths:
(1) No matter how good you are, and even to prove a point, you do NOT go into a gunfight with only one bullet (a la Andy Griffith's Barney Fife), especially if you have good reason to suspect there might be TWO armed people coming for you;
(2) People shot 3 or 4 times at point-blank range, who then fall into the ocean, seldom simply get over it without SOME kind of assistance.
I was going to have a third point here about our chief protagonists passing themselves off as high school students two years later, but even though neither of them really looks like a teenager, the Wiki article on the game says that Zwei is 15 at the time Inferno gets hold of him, so I guess it's not impossible for him to pose as an ordinary high school senior despite how he's- uh- drawn. (Ein's age is completely indeterminate.) But isn't it amazing how two years makes so little difference in their appearance, but makes a world of difference in the appearance of another character (who I would not dare to name here!)
Now that we've got some inanities (and, at least, oddities) out of the way, let's consider the show's virtues:
Inferno is an interesting example of a seemingly very successful enterprise that is more than a bit dysfunctional at its core. Sure, it's effective at clearing out the "respectable" old-guard gangsters in favor of its ambitious newcomers by the most brutal means possible (including going after families, and this part of the show was painful to watch, especially concerning Zwei); but within Inferno there's individual ambition, as certain members cut quiet side-deals of their own, and plot to stab others in the back if necessary to get what they want. There are two main factions. One is led by Claudia McCunnen (despite the spelling in the subtitles, it's pronounced more like "McKinnon" as far as I can tell.) Claudia is the sort who will use physical intimacy- or at least the promise of it- to get what she wants, and she obviously wants to lure our young, handsome, and incredibly talented assassin Zwei into her personal service. The other main faction is that of Scythe Master (real name Giuseppe), the rogue psychologist who, through psychological conditioning and brainwashing, actually turned normal human material into the remorseless (or so he intended), super-capable killing machines we have in Ein and Zwei- the term "Phantom" is reserved for the killer who's the absolute best at this terrible task.
But there's a flaw in Scythe Master's plan- he hasn't completely extinguished the humanity in his assassins; they're not the perfect robots he intended. Zwei is our POV character, and we can see that he retains quite a bit of a conscience, and a rebellious streak as well. Zwei's training is, as noted in the synopsis, handled by Ein rather than Scythe Master- for ALL the assassins he PERSONALLY oversees the training of are women; there's a rather strong Pygmalion complex in Scythe Master, and, alas, it works both ways- he loves his creations, and they, in turn, are loyal to him (whether through any natural feelings or, more likely, through conditioning), a habit of thought which even Ein finds it difficult to break, despite Zwei's best efforts to get her to think for (and look out for) herself. Scythe Master has a flair for the theatrical- he thinks he controls all events, like the writer of a play- and this delusion might be his greatest weakness.
For her part, Ein is difficult to read. She's a pragmatist, in contrast to Zwei's idealistic personality. She usually speaks in a monotone (she can feign a more natural speaking style, with emotions, if she needs to play some role in preparation for a hit), and not only does she seem resigned to her fate, she also coldly recommends that Zwei accept this life as well, telling him that, in time, he will "come to feel nothing" just like she does- or rather like she THINKS she does; for Zwei begins to quietly stir some feelings in her again (jealousy emerges rather early in the process), and if she could be kept from backsliding, she might be able to break her psychological chains.
But that proves a VERY big "if". And even if she and Zwei wrenched themselves free of Scythe Master and Inferno, where would they go? I was watching the movie Goodfellas again recently, which is based on the true story of a gangster (at least he asserts it's true), and that film does help explain something I've often wondered about- why does the impermanence of the gangland life (and its frequent tendency to suddenly end horribly) have any appeal in the first place? The Goodfellas answer is for the "perks"- you get to boss others around, brutalize whoever you like (except for "connected" persons), and live the "high life"- great food, frequent company of the opposite sex, swanky hotels and gambling, etc. But our assassins here, Ein and Zwei, don't even have THAT (though Zwei does, as noted, become Claudia's "boy toy" for a while.) What they've got, mostly, is a pile of dead bodies- and vengeful family members (especially vengeful CRIME family members) who will NEVER let them have the return to a normal, peaceful life that Zwei wants (and tries to pursue, both with Ein and later with Cal, the "sister" of a victim of a crime connected with Inferno's activities.)
The plotting here is fairly complex; events happen thick and fast in the show. The pacing here is at least as good as the best thriller anime series I've seen, such as Ajin: Demi-Human. I was NEVER bored, and as proof I marathoned most of this (26 eps!) in a single weekend. We learn the deepest hopes and motivations of a number of the characters, even if they're usually people who won't survive to the end of the show, and we can at least care about the ones who themselves are still capable of caring for others. Sure, there's a bit of melodrama in the death scenes- all the main characters get a few words before shuffling off into the Great Beyond- but this show, much more than many others, has actually EARNED its license to practice melodrama. And there are some interesting musings about life, death, freedom, and murder (for example, the quote at the beginning of this review) that caught my attention and, at times, appreciation.
The background art here is splendidly detailed, from the rust on a swing's chains to a beautiful nighttime cityscape. The opening ballad (through Ep. 19), called "Karma", has a dreamy appeal, though the closing song (again, through Ep. 19) is a discordant, screechy thing that reminds me of the more annoying Rozen Maiden songs. But the last seven episodes close with an absolutely gorgeous ballad called "Transparent" (accompanied by some nifty visuals too.) There seems to have been a lot of care taken in matching the lyrics of the songs to the themes of the show.
A fast-paced show despite its length, which devotes considerable thought to its messages, though it is, probably inevitably given its milieu, a grim, perhaps even nihilistic journey; viewers are cautioned not to expect any "sunny days" here to last very long for our cast members. I particularly felt bad for a character named Lizzie Garland, an Inferno "field operative" who ultimately proves that a RELATIVELY sane and sober character is no match for the madness and evil of a world like this. It's certainly one of the best game-based anime series I've seen. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: FUNimation rates TV-MA; Righstuf suggests 17+. Nudity, murder by firearms violence (rivers of blood, but we're at least spared obvious gaping wounds), implied sexuality, and numerous other adult themes throughout.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review Status: Full (26/26)
Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom © 2009 Bee Train, Nitroplus/Project Phantom
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