Working through Boogiepop Phantom was not my favorite anime viewing experience, but possibly one of the most unusual due to the overall aesthetic presentation of the show. The story was obtuse, especially so for those like me who were not familiar with the source material prior to watching the anime which acted as a sequel to the novel. Despite this, I could not help but be drawn in the intense style emanating from this anime that reminded me of a particular themes I discovered one day browsing 4chan.
I used to be a frequent visitor of the board /jp/ mainly for the Comiket music threads and Train threads, mostly lurking and occasionally looking into the threads other users would create that would often inform me of something I was not aware of at the time. One day I stumbled across a “Denpa Music Thread” which intrigued me because I like to listen to all kinds of obscure Japanese music so I started looking into this style which I was not familiar with. However, besides the somewhat hypnotic trance that one would slip into when listening to denpa music, I was surprised to learn of Denpa-kei, or the denpa style which extended beyond music. I learned more about this in a now deleted video by the Youtuber “KenjiTheEnji” who made an information video about Denpa-kei. Because of this one video and the introduction to a fascinating Japanese subculture, the aesthetic influences of a show like Boogiepop Phantom became more apparent and much more interesting with it in the back of my mind.
“Denpa (電波) literally means Radio waves (or any other kind of radiation coming from electronic devices). Therefore (as a slang) a “Denpa” (or Denpa-kei 電波系) person is someone who looks like he’s constantly receiving and transmitting radio waves; usually weird and delusional individuals who don’t try to connect with people around them and act in erratic and incomprehensible ways. They could be seen as incoherent, creepy, or insane people.” (http://denpa.omaera.org/culture.html). With this in mind, I could not help but continuously remind myself of the denpa-kei influences in the character writing of Boogiepop Phantom. I believe one of the prime examples for characters in the series who exemplify this style is Tomo and Suganuma.
Right off the bat, episode one displays an unexplained energy beam going off into the night sky that causes electronics to go haywire. This is later implied to be some sort of catalyst to the series of events that follow and some explanation as to why weird events are occurring in the city. Meanwhile, this episode focuses on a girl named Tomo to paranoia and essentially succumbing dissociating with reality. It appeared as if she had become increasingly distant with one of her best friends due to the other girl maturing at a quicker rate while Tomo was left behind. So Tomo felt left behind after what appeared to be her only friend leaving her behind so she started to lose her connection with her peers and eventually society around her. She grows more detached, drifting between events and starts to grow incredibly paranoid. We can see her wiping her hands obsessively to the point of skin irritation, and disinfecting door handles before touching them. I’d imagine this is a result of her extreme mental state wanting to keep herself away from the society she feels so distant from. Nonetheless, I found this strikingly similar to the denpa-kei style I read about prior. Tomo is losing touch with reality and the people around her and this is only exemplified with the visual cues of her literally chasing a spark of electricity along the cables in the city which would be a visual motif referenced often in the show.
However, what really sell the denpa-kei influences is the aesthetic style and sound design, which I will discuss a bit later after touching on the other character I found most interesting.
Episode four made for a genuinely uncomfortable experience. This was most thematically similar to a movie like Perfect Blue, except from the perspective of the disillusioned stalker and not the prey. Suganuma is the main guy focused on in this episode, he is a generally average high school student but a bit of a loner. However he is under constant pressure from his father to receive good grades so he could get into a good university. Despite this, the pressure he internalized is largely artificially inflated from what his father actually expects. His father states a few times how he expressed that his son didn’t need to go to a top school, but at least a state university and most likely just wants the best for his son. Suganuma instead feels overwhelmed with the expectation to be successful and doubts his ability to succeed so he starts to seek refuge in the world of galge, not uncommon to many other youth in Japan. These circumstances are some of the reason why young Japanese men turn to the lifestyle of a hikikomori, because of the societal and familial pressure to not fail that they just crack under the weight of expectations. As is the case with Suganuma, who starts to spend most of his time either at work or playing a galge (lit. “Girl Game”, often referred to as a Bishoujo Game, a type of visual novel targeting a male audience). Because of his desire to completely forget about his life’s problems, he starts to become obsessed with the heroine of one of his games and then stuff starts to get weird. Reality starts to grow indistinguishable from reality as he starts to project the image of the games heroine on his younger coworker, and this is when I started to feel extremely uncomfortable. The depiction of Suganuma’s extremely delusional worldview and extreme infatuation with this girl in reality (or the game?) grow to unhealthy levels and he starts tripping out.
He mentions the “My Fair Lady” story where he explains it as a story of a professor making a regular girl into a beautiful maiden, so essentially here he is taking over this girl’s personal will just to push his desires onto his coworker. It becomes more extreme, escalating from simple favors to gain the girl’s trust to sexual harassment and forcing himself on her. There is a quote where Suganuma remarks that “You’ll always be right in the palm of my hand” which reminds me of that one shot in Perfect Blue where the presumed stalker pretends to hold Mima in his hand by way of perspective.
This idolization of people is quite unhealthy all things considered, because there will reach a point where the person existing in your head that you’ve infatuated yourself with is not actually the one that exists in reality. And this is what happens to Suganuma, he goes so far down the path of insanity that he loses touch with the fact that his coworker is an individual, a human being with her own free-will and his actions were completely unhealthy. Not to mention he was under the influence of some weird drug the entire time which most likely perpetuated his delusions and served as a crutch, since he was shown to have become incredibly dependent on them when he ran out.
Boogiepop Phantom really excels in it’s style if nothing else. The music is mainly composed of usual electronic sounds that don’t quite sound right. As if they are sampling a collection of various sounds emitted from electronics and formed into a melody. This adds a striking denpa style, as if the sounds we hear are the chaos of real life forming a coherent melody. It feels like the sound director wanted to capture a feeling of getting into the mind of one of these disconnected characters and make the music and effects feel electronic, but not overly produced, as if to make it seem like they would be sounds that would be emitted through various radio waves and were being received by a denpa-kei person in their delusions to sound like music. The results are fascinating if nothing else, experiment with crushed and noise influenced sound effects to make the sounds design feel like you were on a hallucinatory trip, and imagining the noises around you were parts of an avant-garde symphony.
The directing is quite interesting as well. There was a distinct style that the show will capture that makes it feel like we are disconnected with the events on-screen, as if we were not in the room with the characters but were spying on them in a sense. I distinctly remember a shot in the first episode where Tomo is being cornered in the Infirmary and the camera is positioned in such a way that it is viewing the scene from an open window outside the building. Mixed with the short cuts mashed together to make this feel less coherent and more akin to loosely strung together related events. To me these loosely connected scenes reminded me of watching something like a slideshow of family video, with a minor overarching theme to barely string it all together.
There is also a distinctive feeling of oppressive darkness, grainy picture quality and the washed out colors of this anime that give and overwhelming feeling of a dream that we are only observing, but for the characters, it’s a nightmare. I found the stylistic color palette to be one of the strengths of the show’s aesthetic because it felt like an amateur produced found-footage film. The overwhelming dark scenes felt more mysterious in atmosphere because the shadows were like a void of darkness, and we had such a limited view of what actually was happening.
It was minimalistic, only showing what needed to and maintained a dreamlike feeling in the air. I was actually reminded of a video I watched in a psychology lecture about being in the mind of someone with schizophrenia in how the disconnected nature of the show felt. I’m not quite sure if this was the intent, but I as a viewer felt isolated from the presentation on-screen, giving off an uncanny visual verisimilitude in which I processed the events on screen as real, but not quite connecting them to the usual “reality” of anime. Again, there was this dreamlike or hallucinogenic state the style emitted making this anime let us get into the world of Boogiepop and reflect the feeling of denpa-kei. This overall feeling really got me into the mindset of Denpa because nothing felt real, and that was the point. These character were losing touch with reality.
So Boogiepop Phantom was a weird show man. It used denpa-kei to exemplify the delusions of the characters and add a distinctive aesthetic feeling that not many anime I’ve seen attempt, in the same vein of something like Serial Experiments Lain I’d say if I were to compare the styles. However, despite the fascinating aesthetic strengths of the show and directing style, I could not help but feel like the reliance of prior knowledge from the novels took away from most of the enjoyment I could have gotten out of this anime. As a standalone work, this show was a unique exploration of the human psyche and was a critique of modern society in some ways all presented with an incredibly satisfying oppressive atmosphere. But on the other hand there were too many scenes where I was left lost trying to keep up with the extreme lack of explanations towards many of the backstory. This made the story feel more confusing that it should have been that left me craving for more of the visual spectacle rather than the dialogue that would most like not mean much to me as it might to a novel reader. Overall, I felt as if the denpa stylistic influences that I observed in this show were worth mentioning since it’s a unique movement in Japanese art that isn’t well-known outside of small circles in the community. I highly recommend looking more into this if it interests you.
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Denpa introduction: http://denpa.omaera.org/culture.html
Interview with novel author: http://www.gomanga.com/news/features_boogiepop_001.php
Read before watching Boogiepop: http://animeboards.com/showthread.php?t=60133
Thematic Analysis of Boogiepop: https://web.archive.org/web/20160430032540/http://kilesa.tk/2005/08/11/stanton/
Toru Honda, the leading thinker for fellow otaku: https://web.archive.org/web/20050624023834/http://www.asahi.com/english/Herald-asahi/TKY200506040207.html
Analytical Essay Regarding Denpa: https://goo.gl/JTCGFT
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