Boogiepop Phantom Shows Reality Can Be Terrifying, And So Can Anime

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

The problem with horror anime is that they are rarely scary. Sure, there are plenty of anime shows that rely on gore or shocking images and creatures, but they tend to be more like murder mysteries with gore, or action shows with horror imagery. Some times, though, the rarity of horror anime just makes the few genuinely scary shows all the more terrifying and special.

One of those shows is "Boogiepop Phantom." Based on light novels written by Kouhei Kadono and illustrated by Kouji Ogata, which helped launch the light novel craze in Japan, the show was helmed by "Perfect Blue" writer Sadayuki Murai, with character designs by "Serial Experiments Lain" key animator Shigeyuki Suga, two titles that have a lot in common with "Boogiepop," making them sort of a trifecta of scary anime that deals with reality, escapism, and very eerie atmospheres.

Like "Lain," it is not all that easy to describe the plot of "Boogiepop Phantom." But what you need to know is that five years prior to the start of the series, a small prefecture outside of Tokyo was shaken by a serial killer's rampage, and a month ago a beam of mysterious light shone to the sky, causing a bunch of teenagers to start developing powers. Now, students are once again disappearing, but rather than blaming a killer, it's the angel of death itself, the urban legend that is Boogiepop, who is said to claim the kids. But is the legend real, or is this just mass hysteria and a general wish to escape the harshness of reality? This is "Boogiepop Phantom."

What Makes It Great

Each episode uses a sepia color palette, with washed out colors and an ever-present fog filter that makes the show look like a dream (or a nightmare) where things are never what they seem. If David Lynch decides to make an anime, it would probably feel a lot like "Boogiepop Phantom." Likewise, the sound design goes a long way in giving the show an eerie atmosphere of dread, with a disorienting, vibrating pulse constantly ringing in the background as if to put the audience in a trance.

It also helps that the character designs, like those in "Lain" or "Perfect Blue," are more realistic and "bland" than your average anime, with no character having any identifiable features in order to make it easier for the audience to see themselves in them. There are no stylish designs, and not even the kind of cartoony slapstick gags or "anime faces" we see in many shonen anime, which helps blur the barrier between animation and live-action and therefore make it easier to relate to the story and get utterly scared.

Much like Satoshi Kon's phenomenal horror series "Paranoia Agent," this is an anthology series. The downside to it is that the show is a bit of a labyrinthian puzzle that is as impenetrable as it is spooky. This is in part due to the anime being technically the adaptation of a sequel to a story it references but never explains. Scenes are repeated from different perspectives episodes later, characters show up for a few minutes only to immediately disappear. This is not a show you want to watch while looking at your phone, but one that rewards attention as you start noticing everything come together towards the end.

What Makes It Great

Like the best anime thrillers, the major themes in "Boogiepop Phantom" are escapism and existential fear, rather than facing reality. The characters all want to escape and look for a way out as they realize that the world is rapidly changing and they have no control over things. Like "Lain," "Boogiepop" is profoundly concerned with the way technology was impacting society in the late '90s, as well as the growing cynicism of a generation that felt wronged by society, and even by their parents.

The show's teenage cast all have issues related to family, specifically with parents who neglected their duties and failed their kids in one way or another. This results in the protagonist of most episodes struggling with accepting reality and wanting to return to a simpler time. This idea is personified in Poom Poom, a Pied Piper-like entity that tempts people with a promise of retreating back to the days of childhood, free of pesky adults, bullies, and everything that makes life awful for teenagers.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Do you think horror and animation just don't blend? Do you like Lynchian narrative labyrinths with lots of moving parts that don't fully come together until the end? This is the show for you. "Boogiepop Phantom" is one of the few anime that are genuinely terrifying, partly because of its exquisitely nightmarish visuals and sound design, partly because of its more realistic approach to very human worries and fears that makes it easier to step into the shoes of the characters and experience their existential horror.

Watch this if you like: Serial Experiments Lain, Perfect Blue, Paranoia Agent, Erased.

"Boogiepop Phantom" is streaming on Funimation.