It Bugs Me: Phantom World Episode 1

You know, after a while you start to expect certain things from certain animation studios. You can expect Studio Deen to mostly make shit, for example, or for Trigger to put out really quirky shows. Kyoto Animation has become synonymous with well-animated shows, and have had a run of very well-received shows over the past decade. So when I saw they were putting out an action show called Musaigen no Phantom World, or Myriad Colors Phantom World, I expected it would be the best show of the season. On paper, it looked really good. In practice…well…welcome to the first installment of “It Bugs Me,” where I rant about stuff I really don’t like.

Phantom World opens with a bit about optical illusions, which is actually a very meta way to start the show, since the scene is itself an optical illusion. At first glance, it appears to be an interesting and important way to start the show, but once you’ve trained your eyes to see the trick, you realize that it’s actually just a bunch of irrelevant bullshit designed to pique your interest.

Absolutely no information is delivered in this cold open. These optical illusions aren’t new or mind-boggling. They’re chosen because so many people recognize them and already know the trick. This is basically just delivering information that everyone already knows. And what all this leads up to? “If our brains were, for whatever reason, to become altered, the world we perceive would become vastly different. For example, entities thought to be fictitious until now could appear before us in our reality.”

That makes enough sense in the moment, but in the long run, it completely contradicts some very important parts of the series. You see, the way it’s being presented, it’s all about perception. The idea that fairies and demons and the like have always been there, but we’ve only now gained the ability to see them. But later on, we see that phantoms are interacting with humans and causing havoc, implying that there’s been an actual physical change, rather than just one of perception.

Maybe the show proper will explain in a bit more detail. Let’s see how it kicks off.

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Okay, so…fact and fiction intertwined? Maybe something happened in the brain to make fictional beings actually physically appear? That doesn’t quite line up with it being related to perception, but surely it will explain–

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Oh, right. Of course not. I guess I’m still stuck with questions as to how optical illusions are actually relevant so the opening still makes no sense.

After that, we open on our first real cliche: the protagonist waking up. There are a few pitfalls that newbie writers tend to fall into. One of the biggest is starting the story with the protagonist waking up at the beginning of their day. It makes sense, logically, to begin a story with your main character beginning the day, but it’s also boring, largely because everyone has seen this before. And it shows up in every medium. It shows up in writing. It shows up in film and television. It shows up in video games. Sometimes it’s possible to justify it or use it well. In the Legend of Zelda series, for example, Link usually begins the game asleep or unconscious, and they use that time to establish the scene, mood, characters, or setting before the player character gains control. Also, at this point, it’s more or less a running joke that Link is a little sleepyhead. But it’s so overdone that it’s really hard to get away with. It’s even overdone in anime. The “wake-up-late-for-school-hurry-out-the-door-with-a-piece-of-toast-in-your-mouth” bit is so overused that you’re more likely to see parodies than it being played straight.

The only thing this scene can really do is set up the world, but they don’t do much beyond visuals. We see things go from looking pixelated to normal as he wakes up and interacts with the room, but we don’t see anything like that again. Is this how the world works, or is it just supposed to represent that he’s still sleepy so everything seems blurry? I don’t know, because that’s really the only time anything ever looks like that in the first episode.

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Our protagonist pulls his pants from the hanger his school uniform is on.

Our protagonist runs to school and meets up with his partner, Mai, who is in the process of battling a demon. It’s at this point that I took a look at the three main character designs: that of our protagonist (named Haruhiko, incidentally), his fairy thing (Ruri), and Mai, and realized that something about the designs didn’t quite pop. Almost as if they weren’t designed for anime, or even for manga. As if there were a few images of them so that the animators had to base them off of something, but the characters weren’t drawn frequently enough that whoever designed them knew how to make them look particularly appeali–oh fuck it let’s stop beating around the bush I’m talking about light novels. I realized this show was adapted from a fucking light novel.

Now, light novels aren’t inherently bad. I’ve heard good things about Spice and Wolf, and I’ve been enjoying Log Horizon and Durarara. So there are good ones out there. The issue is that so many of the light novels we see adapted tend to be, for lack of a better word…bad. Most of them tend to be based around one of two things: a self-insert power fantasy (Mahouka, Sword Art Online), or a harem centered less on fanservice and more on a story quirk (Inou-battle, Noucome). So I’m always a little distrustful of anything adapted from a light novel. But because of their text-heavy nature, the character designs aren’t always as important. Sometimes they end up translating well. No Game No Life and Chuunibyou, for example, had some great character designs. Sometimes it’s a bit hit-and-miss, like in OniAi, where there are one or two really strong designs and everyone else seems a bit generic. And sometimes you get stuff like Kanojo ga Flag wo Oraretara, where the character designs are awful.

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I would confuse the characters in this show so frequently because they’re all so generic and indistinguishable.

Anyway, long story short, if something makes me go “oh, this is a light novel, isn’t it?” it’s probably not going to be a fantastic show. Also, character designs. They all just seem a bit off, like the characters are from different shows. I get that Ruri is probably supposed to look like that, but they also clash a bit with the characters we meet later.

So remember a few paragraphs ago when I was asking about whether or not the phantoms have always been there and it’s all a matter of perception?

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Yeah, they definitely interact with the physical plane. Which makes it really strange no one has ever seen them before, since the problems they cause seem to be relatively noticeable.

We’re also introduced to the Token Loli, who’s actually pretty cute but makes it pretty clear that this is going to be a harem, or at least something resembling one. Because the Token Loli is such a stock archetype that, even if the other girls don’t quite fit nicely into the stock harem tropes, she makes it clear that no, this show probably isn’t going to be doing much to set itself apart from its peers.

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At least she’s really cute, though.

Anyway, most of this scene is pretty inoffensive. We get some fanservice, but it ties into the magic system and it’s not overly blatant, so that’s fine. Whatever. We’re given exposition on the location, but it’s information we need. Then, Haruhiko ends up in a graveyard and meets a girl named Reina Izumi who eats phantoms, voiced by Saori Hayami. That’s not really relevant, but I just wanted to bring that up because I love her voice.

Anyway, after seeing her eat the phantom, Haruhiko runs at her and starts screaming about dumb nerd stuff to her. This is the first real time you see him go on a tangent about absolutely useless trivia that the show only seems to throw into the story in an effort to look smart.

And then we get to the scene where I first realized I would absolutely hate this show.

As Izumi attempts to run away from the weirdo who just came up to her and started yelling out stuff about Aristotle and manticores, she trips and begins to fall down the stairs. At this point, Haruhiko develops stupidly unnatural speed.

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Izumi trips and begins to fall.

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Haruhiko runs down the stairs….

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…and places himself between her and the ground before she can land.

Okay. So that’s bad enough. But then?

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Ohhhh, boy. Oh fucking boy. Haruhiko, in an attempt to keep her safe, manages to position himself in such a way that her breast will land on his hand! He has to keep this from happening at all costs! So what does he do? Why, he grabs his own hand…

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…and uses that to yank his body around so that he doesn’t touch her boober! Cliche averted!

Ruri then reaches Izumi to–and keep in mind that this is all taking place in the amount of time it takes a human body to fall roughly 2-3 meters–grab her shirt and flip her over so that she doesn’t land face-first.

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Wait, whaaaaaaat? She fell in such a way that Haruhiko got a clear shot of her underwear?

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“No, sir! I didn’t see you playing with your dolls again!”

And of course, her reaction is to freak out and exact violence upon him.

This scene pisses me off so much. Remember when I railed on the “waking up in the morning” bit earlier? At least that’s just a dull and generic trope. This? This one is flat-out offensive. It’s so horribly overused and terrible. And the worst part is that they’re trying to pull off another optical illusion by adding some very minor variation. And there are some stupid people out there who are actually falling for it! Let me break down why exactly those people are so stupid and wrong.

First of all, they did not do anything to cleverly subvert the tired old joke. They merely varied the way they told it. It doesn’t matter that Haruhiko didn’t actually grope her breast. He still accidentally did something she saw as perverted, and she still retaliated in a predictable way. It’s like saying “You thought X would be Y, but it was me!” and then pausing, waiting for everyone to sigh as you finish your dumb meme, then finishing not with “Dio!” but “John Cena!” It’s a bad meme where either punchline is more or less the same, but everyone’s heard both punchlines so it’s still not funny. And at least in this case, there’s a little bit of metahumor in the varience since you’re using a bait-and-switch meme on a bait-and-switch meme. Not here. If you think that setting up an accidental breast grope and ending with an accidental panty shot somehow breathes new life into an old, tired joke, you’re wrong. You can argue that it maybe breathes a little life into it, but the life is far from new.

Secondly, attempting to go for the “oh, what a cliche that I’m finding myself in!” does not work. That’s not how you do meta or self-referential humor. Yes, it’s self-referential, but that does not inherently make something good. Metahumor is hard to do well, and it usually requires some complexity in order to pull it off. When it fails, it comes across as a cheat attempt to justify lazy writing.

Let me give you a good example of this sort of humor from a different KyoAni show: Free. In the first episode, we see the main character sitting in a bathtub and his friend offering his hand to pull him up. As he stands, the camera focuses in such a way that makes it seem like they’re actually going to show a full-on crotch shot, until you see that he’s actually been wearing his swimsuit in the tub the entire time. Free teases until the last second before revealing that, no, of course they couldn’t actually show it. It’s a short shot, but by the end of it, it’s basically parodied itself. Most good metahumor is like that. It’s something taking a jab at itself. It has to be, otherwise it just comes across as condescending, and when you’re condescending, people start looking for reasons to knock you down a peg. You can’t say “we know this is a cliche, but since we’re telling you that we’re aware we’re using it, that somehow makes it better,” because it really doesn’t make it better. It just means that you knew better, but for some reason decided to go ahead and do it anyway.

Doing self-referential humor also requires building yourself up so that you’ve actually established what the “self” that you’re referencing is. Half an episode is not nearly enough time to do that, especially considering that most of the shows that pull this dumb fucking grope stunt also do so in the first episode, so it looks even more like a generic example of the trope rather than a clever variation on it.

Here’s how you can do this stunt and actually pull it off in a way that doesn’t make people hate you:

  1. Genderflip it. We’ve seen guys accidentally land on girl’s boobs dozens of times. Only one show comes to mind where the girl accidentally handles the banana, and that’s Ao Haru Ride.hdakAUu
  2. Don’t make it someone’s first impression of the show. Let’s look at the Ao Haru Ride example again, where that happened right near the end of the show.
  3. Have strong characters who can give more than just the stock reactions. For example, imagine how this scenario would go down between Haruhi and Kyon. Both are relatively strong characters so you’d imagine how they both might act. The scene would be meta and referential, and while Kyon would probably, like Haruhiko, internally comment on how it’s a ridiculous cliche, it’d be with his characteristic snarkiness. Maybe he’d also throw in a comment lamenting that he couldn’t accidentally be groping Mikuru and/or that it’s Haruhi of all people he finds himself in this situation with. I’d imagine Haruhi would react almost enthusiastically, and the aftermath would be more Haruhi accusing Kyon of pulling such a hackneyed trick on purpose and Kyon telling her not to be ridiculous than anything resembling physical violence. And hey, I can come up with a half-baked scenario like that on the fly because those two characters aren’t completely generic. If you have to go for the gag, either do it after you’ve established how your characters might act, or have them react in a way that develops them.
  4. Actually subvert it. Look at Evangelion. Shinji accidentally gropes Rei’s bare breast while absolutely surrounded by panties, but she barely reacts. That’s why it’s uncomfortable and unnerving rather than funny: because it’s not a normal reaction and you don’t know where exactly she stands.
  5. Look, if all that’s too difficult for you, just go big with it. Own it. Be as shameless and over-the-top with it as possible. Relish in it. Don’t try to justify or downplay or apologize for it. Can you at least handle that?

Basically, fuck this show for pulling this damn stunt, and for pulling it in such a terrible way. Even worse is that, in order to set it up, they require the protagonist essentially torpedoing himself beneath her in ways that should break the laws of physics, or at least require astounding agility (when we’ve already been told he’s not particularly athletic). I mean, you couldn’t at least position them so that they shatter my willing suspension of disbelief when they fall?

But I’ve already spent too much time on this. Shall we move on?

Izumi considers joining their phantom-hunting group after being given a meal. She eats a lot. A character quirk I see all the time, but whatever. It works. It’s fine. What isn’t fine is when Izumi asks for details and Haruhiko starts with “Let’s start with what phantoms are,” and follows up with this gem:

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No. No, no, no, no. No. Stop. Please. No. You can’t just fucking do that. What makes you think it’s fucking okay to do that?

This is what’s known to some as “maid and butler dialogue,” referring to the fact that it’s exposition that consists of characters telling each other what they already know. It’s a construct that exists solely for the sake of the audience. If they both already know the information, there’s no reason for them to convey it to each other. It’s something I frankly find absolutely disgusting.

But he has to explain it to someone, because whoever wrote this shit can’t figure out how to convey that information in a better way, and it’s important that we know how exactly phantoms got out into this world. We get an explanation that again leaves me with confusion. A virus got out and altered the human brain, allowing us to see phantoms. Okay. I got that. Most phantoms are harmless, but sometimes they lead people astray. Makes it seem like this means that fighting phantoms isn’t something that needs to happen frequently, but sure. Whatever. Sometimes thing happen because phantoms, and before this, I guess humans wrote it off as “this is weird, but there’s probably a good explanation for it.” But then it talks about how breastfeeding infants began developing superpowers that could combat the phantoms? Uh…what? Now, I’m not a neuroscientist. I’m probably the furthest thing. But from my understanding of the brain, while it can prompt the human body to accomplish some pretty crazy things when in an altered state, it can’t change our physical bodies too drastically, and it certainly can’t affect the physical world outside our bodies. I could be wrong here, but it seems like there has to be something going on beyond just “yeah, something changed our brains and now we have superpowers.”

So with that blatant infodump done, the show becomes tolerable for a while again. Izumi agrees to join them, and they go out to handle some telephone poles that have come back as phantoms and are causing radio disturbances as they jump around and play limbo. The explanation for why they’re causing the disturbance makes sense. It’s fine.

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Well I think limbo is a pretty specifically Catholic belief, but whatever. Catholicism is the most well-known Christian denomination anyway so it’s not like this is untrue or anything. So are we going to incorporate some Christian symbolism into this, which would be relatively unique for Japanese media?

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Oh. My bad. He’s just spouting useless trivia again in order to sound smart. Sasuga Haruhiko.

In order to appease the spirits, they have to do the limbo to sort of fulfill the phantoms’ purpose and put their souls at ease. Limbo…under a live telephone wire.

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Izumi is the first to fall. Haruhiko is the next one, after he accidentally nudges the wire.

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Oh. Well he managed to recover from that pretty quickly.

Which leaves us with Mai, the girl with the huge boobers, to finish the limbo.

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You know…I could get upset about this. I could slam it for being dumb and ridiculous. Others have. But I won’t. Because it is dumb, and it is ridiculous, but at least it’s so absurd that there’s no way it’s meant to be interpreted as serious. “This is turning into a dating sim cliche?” Bad gag. Limbo knockers? Pretty decent gag.

So Izumi seals the phantoms by eating them, at which they simply become broken utility poles again. It’s at this point that I really have to wonder what exactly sealing entails. Phantoms, at least some of them, are obviously sentient. Ruri proves that. What does sealing do to them? Eating them or trapping them in a notebook and then destroying the notebook seems like it would completely obliterate them or their spirit. If they’re malevolent, that’s one thing, but in this case, once the spirits have been appeased? It seems a bit weird to me. But whatever. Maybe they’ll explain that later.

Mai also points out something I notice at about this time: that they don’t really seem to work together as a team considering Izumi and Haruhiko are both there to seal phantoms and Izumi’s method is by far the more efficient one.

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But if Haruhiko’s not there, who will spout pointless facts?

We then see a scene introducing us to Headphones Girl, who hasn’t been introduced so I’ll only ever refer to her as Headphones Girl. She’s only there to establish that she’ll be relevant going forward. Can’t knock the show for that, though. Gotta establish your main cast early enough.

And that’s the end of the first episode! But the ride doesn’t end there! Oh, no. I’ll be back every week to tear this show apart episode by episode. Join me for Episode 2, coming soon!

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