The Best Bee Train Show I’ve Seen
Maybe you haven’t heard of Bee Train as a studio, but they have less than a stellar reputation. You probably have heard of Gen Urobuchi, known for such series as Psycho-Pass and Madoka Magica. So what happens when these two get together to adapt one of Urobuchi’s early visual novels? Well, you get Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom, a dramatic tale of two assassins filled to the brim with twists and turns.
A Brief History of Bee Train
To really get at why the statement of this “being the best Bee Train show I’ve seen” is relevant to the conversation, we need to take a look back in history at the, now, defunct studio. Let’s start with looking at just who Bee Train were.
The idea for this studio came from Kōichi Mashimo, and was founded in 1997. Toting the idea of “a hospital for animators”, the studio’s goal was to foster young talent in the industry, focusing more on the artistic side of animation as opposed to placing emphasis on turning a large profit. Originally this studio was a part of Production I.G. before becoming its own entity in 2006.
Bee Train was not big on doing adaptations, especially after this separation but for whatever reason they took on Phantom. I can’t say why, but I will say it was a good move for a studio known for taking lots of risks. This becomes evident when you look back at the other projects they worked on.
Most famously, Bee Train became known for the .hack// franchise. Though you may still recognize them for a few cult titles such as Noir or Madlax. The former being their first truly independent production. The studio was known for a lot of oddities thanks to Mashimo, but perhaps the most baffling thing was their ability to get hit producing Yuki Kaijura for many of their musical compositions. This is more of an interesting factoid, as it is not relevant in the discussion of Phantom specifically.
As you can imagine, this idea wasn’t as successful as Mashimo likely wanted it to be. The focus on fostering talent and technique in animators is a noble ambition, but at the end of the day, your shows need to be… well, good. Not only that, but they need to make money so you can continue to function as a business.
So where does Phantom fit into all of this? Well for that, we actually need to look at Urobuchi.
Urobuchi, a Relative “Nobody” to Household Name & The History Behind Phantom
We all have to start somewhere, and before Urobuchi hit the anime scene, he worked for a visual novel studio called Nitroplus. While he had a hand in other projects before this, his first major title that he was the director and supervisor of, was Phantom of Inferno in 2000. Hey that sounds kind of familiar, right? This would be the basis for the anime, but that wouldn’t come to pass until 2009.
Phantom of Inferno was a fairly well-regarded title with a wide release both in the Japanese and Western market. One of the more unusual aspects, which did drag down the game, was that it was primarily released on DVD. This means you could pop the thing into your DVD player and play without a computer if you wanted, which is pretty cool.
However, this created some quality of life problems. Namely, the fact that you couldn’t save your progress. Instead, it utilized the password system that older games used. This is a fairly lengthy visual novel too, so you can imagine how this might present a few issues. In addition to this, the game wasn’t translated very well. Not to the point where you couldn’t follow along, but enough so to be distracting.
Other issues included the inability to skip previously seen dialog on most players, subtitles just not working at all, and a whole host of other problems. This game has multiple endings, like many visual novels, so it took a fair bit of dedication to see them all.
I should note that other versions of the game did exist, such as PC and Mac versions, that did not have these flaws. It played like any other visual novel, however, these versions along with an Xbox 360 version, were not released until a later date in 2012 and 2013 respectively. They utilized art from the anime, and may as well be considered functionally separate games for discussion purposes.
With all that said, there were some more innovative positives to this title. It told a mature story that didn’t place a huge amounts of emphasis on sexual elements (this was a fairly rare thing for games that got translated for wider release, for context, as translated releases were not too common prior to the year 2000. Source link.). Furthermore, the game also had a LOT of visual variety, which even in more modern visual novel releases is kind of rare.
Things don’t stop here though, before the Phantom anime we are discussing today was made, a 3 episode OVA series titled, Phantom: The Animation was created in 2004. These are actually easy to find, so I went ahead and watched them for reasons that will be made clear in just a little bit.
While all of this was going on, Urobuchi was working on other projects, such as the visual novel Song of Saya in 2003. He began to gain quite the following, which I suspect is what lead to the creation of Phantom: The Animation only a year later. His career would also lead him to creating a few manga series as well around the same time.
What sets Urobuchi apart from many other writers is his ability to tell these horrific stories with oppressive atmosphere, with plenty of twist to keep things interesting. Frankly, these stories can be really messed up, but they have this quality to them that makes them palpable for a lot of folks. It’s not something you really get in a lot of places, this raw and brutal material, which I believe is why so many connect with his work. Especially so in animation where that stuff is rarely executed well.
Even with his earliest work in the Phantom visual novel, these elements are strongly represented. As time went by, Urobuchi really carved a name for himself inside, and out of, the animation industry. There are many fans who will check out anything he touches, even if it is outside of their normal foray like in the case of 2016’s Thunderbolt Fantasy, a puppet driven drama.
This brings us back full circle, to Phantom: Requiem for the Phantom. While not his first major anime (it was his second), the culmination of everything from the game and OVA lead to a fruitful career that is sure to be talked about for decades to come.
Unfortunately, I can’t really discuss Phantom of Inferno, the game, in great detail since getting your hands on it is difficult and there isn’t a lot of footage. That’s why I haven’t really talked about it much in this section. I did manage to see some of it and read through a synopsis of each chapter and choice, so I have enough to formulate an opinion and comment on this as an adaptation. Plus, I watched the OVA series, as I mentioned. This will be relevant in the next section. Speaking of…
A Review of Phantom Proper – What Makes a Good Adaptation?
Before I really dive into anything I want to put a quick disclaimer upfront that I will be spoiling some aspects of the story related to the following:
- Ein’s character & the ending (minor).
- Cal’s character arc (medium amount).
- Some late plot points that are just kind of unavoidable (very minor).
- The 2004 OVA series in full, trust me, you aren’t missing anything.
For all the characters I will only refer to them as the name they are introduced with so you won’t have to worry about some of the major plot points in this discussion. I will be mentioning things related to them, but rest assured, you are fairly safe to read this review with little risk of harming your enjoyment of the anime.
Let’s start at the 2004 OVA because it will act as a good source of reference to both the visual novel and later 2009 anime adaptation. This sticks closely to the visual novel with its character designs (most of which are very ugly) and follows the same core beats of the later adaptation. However, it only has 3 episodes to work with, resulting in a rushed mess.
There isn’t a lot of good directing here either. Animation is pretty weak, there is a lot of recycled stuff. Music isn’t great either outside of the OP, and maybe the ED. It’s a hollow product that is vastly inferior to what came after.
What you get to see is the first chapter in these OVA episodes. There are 3 in total for the visual novel, so you are getting a decent glimpse at what a full series could look like if Phantom were to ever receive it. Thankfully, they fixed all of these issues moving forward.
As a directorial debut in the anime scene, this is a pretty poor attempt by Urobuchi. However, the emotion does come through and the greater idea of a further story is present. That’s why I don’t see this as a failed project.
For example, Claudia is introduced but functionally does nothing in the OVA’s except dangle further plot points that could be introduced in a full project. They are intriguing. Who was Zwei before he was forced into the life of an assassin?
The core twist is also present, though hastily done (due to time). Ein “dies” but is clearly still alive, only caught in the wicked clutches of Scythe Master (trust me, this is not a spoiler). All of the core players and concepts are present. I can see the excellent show this OVA would become while watching.
That doesn’t excuse it from being a fairly boring waste of time though, so don’t go out of your way to look these up. Just watch the Phantom anime, you’ll get everything here, but in a much better package. I watched this so you don’t have to, and as a point of reference for discussion purposes only.
When you put on the full series, it starts off in a very similar fashion to the OVA’s. It’s kind of goofy and a bit slow. This is perhaps one of the weakest segments of the entire anime, but one that is entirely necessary. It sets up the core themes and ideas, giving them time to mature, which is critical to the overall direction.
Again, to compare to the OVA, the directing is fairly strong. Music has vastly improved along with animation (though one aspect has been included which is worse, the weird “phantom” effect. You’d know it if you saw it.) and writing. Couple that with time, and you have a recipe for success.
I would also like to mention the updated character designs. They are way superior in the 2009 adaptation. Bee Train isn’t exactly known for having the best character designs, but I actually really like these ones. Ein is on the edge of looking kind of goofy, but they manage to keep her from crossing that line.
For the first chapter, as I mentioned, things play out in almost the same way they do in the OVA’s. However, there is one big difference, they combine all of the routes from the visual novel as well as planting kernels for future arcs that really payoff.
While it is true that I could not play through the visual novel myself, I am quite impressed by the way they were able to string together all of the various routes into a cohesive product based on what I read. When I say, all, I truly mean ALL of them.
This leads to more depth and makes the story all the more interesting, because not all of these routes are good, and a few of them are even exclusive. Really, it was quite a feat to behold and fairly mind-blowing when I found this out.
It isn’t really until the second chapter, or the middle of the anime, where this becomes apparent. Zwei is on a self-destructive spiral, trying his best to lose himself due to the apparent loss of Ein. This is where Cal appears and the story really begins taking advantage of the 10 episodes of setup it did.
Here is where we can also see some of the shortcomings of the visual novel, and how Phantom worked to improve them. I’m choosing to highlight this mostly through Cal’s arc because that’s where it is most obvious, but this is also present throughout. I’ll provide another minor example about Ein later as well.
Beyond this reason, Cal’s arc also acts as the biggest strength and weakness for the anime. Truly, I would have given Phantom a perfect 10/10 score had it not been for aspects of this arc. We’ll get into all of that though, but first we need to start with answering a simple question: just who is Cal?
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Anyway, back to the main feature…
Cal is introduced in a very nonchalant manner, well, relative for what the show is. A murder has occurred and Zwei is looking into it. That’s when he meets the young girl, the “sister” of the woman who was murdered. Cal is not a surprise at all, she comes up quickly if you look into this series even a little, and truthfully, I expected to hate her.
This could have easily felt like “let’s give the assassin a little girl to care for and restore his true nature” or whatever, have them do a thing for an episode, and BAM! kill her off, or have some unforeseen tragedy occur. The thing is, Phantom does do this but in a way that feels organic.
A big reason for this is just the sheer amount of time you spend with Cal and Zwei, it’s 8 episodes this charade is allowed to go on. That’s a lot of run time. Even then, Cal doesn’t cease to be relevant, as her arc continues to play a factor for several more episodes following the 8th episode “twist” event.
I keep saying “twist”, because the show likes to recycle some of the ideas it has. On the granular level, it does spice up the story and is really interesting, but the big picture causes this to be a little predictable.
It’s something that the source suffered from as well, and a troupe of Urobuchi’s if you are familiar with his other stuff. This isn’t to say that it is bad, but it does show that in this one regard, Urobuchi never really grew as a storyteller. I like his stuff though, and he doesn’t make a TON of stuff, so I suppose it is a necessary evil.
Speaking of the source material here, Cal is a weird character in the visual novel. You meet her, no matter what, but if you make any choice that doesn’t push her to the front, she kind of just vanishes. This makes chapter 3, what would be the “post 8th episode content” for the anime really bizarre. As a result, you get a kind of muddy transition that spills over into the anime.
Giving you the best of both worlds, the show lets Zwei and Cal do a lot together, but a necessary evil in this interaction is that she is introduced to the world of an assassin. In these episodes you see Zwei really struggle with who he has become and wants to use Cal as a means to return to the world he once knew.
The pair form a strong, almost father-daughter like bond. As you know by now, I’m a real sucker for that sort of thing, but even setting that a side, it really lets you get your hopes up for Zwei. You know what’s coming, of course, but it is easy to get caught up in the illusion.
In the visual novel, one wrong step and you get none of this. Cal just vanishes until the next chapter in a jarring, and strange series of events that doesn’t really work. Well, maybe, it also kind of depends on some other things. Like I said, Cal is an absolute train wreck in the visual novel.
This stark contrast is kind of baffling for me, since she feels integral to the plot, from just an anime watcher’s perspective. All of the weirdness the anime has, is thanks to this one major flaw in the source material’s writing and execution. I know I’m repeating myself a bit here, but this point is critical to understanding a lot of how this was adapted.
There are three very important scenes in these first 8 episodes of Cal’s arc that are worth mentioning. The first being the scene where Zwei buys Cal a pocket watch, this becomes a huge motif and one that adds a lot to the series. Secondly, the scene where Zwei discovers Ein is not actually dead, “threatening” Cal’s romantic views of Zwei. Finally, the confession scene where Zwei really lays himself bare as Cal tells him that she loves him.
For that last scene, the big take away is the promise Zwei makes to Cal. He says they will always be together until the end, a promise he failed to keep when it came to Ein. In a lot of ways, this represents a second chance for him.
Having these moments gives you a lot of insight into who Zwei is, Cal’s nature, and even periphery characters I didn’t get around to discussing. It frames all of the themes and ideas into one easy to digest capsule. This is a big plus for the show while giving some fairly obvious fuel for the plot fire.
Now, here’s where the story completely falls apart. Zwei is betrayed and he does everything he can to make it back to Cal in time. Much to his horror though, it is too late. Their home explodes and he has to flee, not even enough time to search for her.
I’m sure you can see where this is going…
Surprise! It’s a high school anime. Ein’s back too, and they are living together in Japan. Yup, bet you were expecting that one. I have to tell ya, this was where I thought I’d totally give up on the show. I just didn’t care, it was such a sudden derailment and jarring two year time jump, that nothing really mattered anymore. It was a reset on the status quo, but not for the better.
Why did this happen? Again, this is where the visual novel comes into play. Try as they might, this was simply unavoidable. While I thought of many ways to rewrite the story to correct the issues here, and about to come, I have to admit that this is actually a very well thought out way to fix the underlying source issues. So this is really a case of great planning, but less than stellar execution. It all works out in the end, and I promise the show recovers, but we need to talk about the problems first.
A minor issue, but I need to mention the OP’s and ED’s somewhere, is the total tone deafness in this homestretch. We still get to keep ALI PROJECT, this time for the opening, but the frantic song doesn’t really work here like it did in the prior ED. I love me some ALI PROJECT though, so it could be worse. Visually, this is meant to catch the viewer up on everything that occurred in the two year time jump. It doesn’t work very well.
Conceptually, I’m on board with how the ED starts. Ein delivers a thematic line and then it is the laziest ending. Naked people with guns walking into weird portals. I don’t know how else to describe it. The song, “Transparent” which comprises largely of the lyric, “Transparent” doesn’t help.
Disappointing because the first OP and ED have a lot going for them. I can’t comprehend how spectacularly divorced the direction is here because up until episode 20, the anime had so much cohesion in its presentation.
Other than this jarring shift in tone and setting, we have another love interest for Zwei pop up in Mio. Now, she’s the reason these two need to be in a Japanese high school in the first place. The daughter of a mafia boss, unbeknownst to her, she makes for the perfect insurance should Zwei and Ein be discovered now that they are on the lamb.
Finally, you have the (unsurprising) return of Cal. Just look at the provided picture. Her before and after is just too extreme. I was actually confused by this shift. Cal doesn’t follow the same rules as the rest of the cast when it comes to age. It’s just as jarring, if not more so, than the jump to high school living.
How old is Cal supposed to be? Oh, she’s 14, then 16, respectively. I know that such a development is possible but she looked like the girls from Gunslinger Girl so I thought she was roughly 10. This throws everybody’s age into question, and totally broke my immersion with anything going on. Normally character age isn’t that important, but in this show, it was because the narrative made everyone else seem a fair bit older.
This is the one place where they actually didn’t modify a design for a major character. It’s a misstep because the entire time Bee Train made tons of compromises and adjustments to the source for the better. Such a wasted opportunity. In this way Cal became a double edged sword for the series.
Thankfully they do retain Cal’s personality, even if she does look a bit like Claudia at first glance. However, now, thanks to Scythe Master, she has her perception of Zwei twisted. She wants to kill him for “breaking” their promise. Once these two start to clash, the anime wholly recovers, delivering some of the series high points.
There were a few scenes that stuck with me from Cal’s big finale. The first being an almost Evangelion level scene where she is visited by the dead, haunting her in regards to her actions. It wasn’t a long scene, but it was executed quite well. It might be a cliché, but the fact that this is the first place my mind went while watching should speaks volumes.
The next was the standoff with Lizzie, the best friend and right hand woman for Claudia in the organization. This scene was allowed to linger with long, unbroken, uncomfortable shots. It was a moment of exceptional directing that demonstrated a lot of real restraint on behalf of Bee Train’s team.
That just leaves us with the last scene where Cal and Zwei finally resolve things. When you factor in that this ending is absolutely ridiculous in the visual novel, it was impressive at how delicately it was handled. It’s not a groundbreaking moment in terms of storytelling, but again, I can not overstate how well they adapted this material.
After this, things move into the finale. The theme of identity is addressed strongly here as Ein goes on a journey to discover who she was. I am not going to spoil any of that for you, just point out an adjustment in her backstory that was another example of wise changes for the adaptation.
In both the OVA and source material her backstory is that she was “rescued” by Scythe Master from the life of a brothel worker, which she was forced into after her whole village was mascaraed in front of her. This adds an additional element of tragedy to the tale, but the story is already bursting with that, so it feels like total overkill. Instead, the anime actually goes in a different direction that increases the level of tragedy without that added baggage of feeling like too much.
For the series, she was just a normal orphan adopted by Scythe Master. That’s it. Such a simple change that does two things for Phantom. The first is what I’ve already mentioned, it avoids overkill on how dramatic the story is. More importantly though, it makes the finale all the more satisfying because she returns to something positive instead of an endless cycle of torment.
I’m leaving out a certain part of the ending though which I’m not sure how to feel about. I wouldn’t call it an unsatisfying end to this story, but I would say that it makes for a fitting conclusion. That’s something to maybe take with a grain of salt. I’m also sure I forgot to mention this or that, but let’s go ahead and move into the homestretch ourselves here.
Ultimately, what you get with Phantom is a show that takes its time and knows exactly just what to show you from the material it is adapting from. There may be a few stumbles toward the end, but it all recovers so strongly that it nearly makes up for any misgivings. I can’t recommend this anime enough.
You can see that gross “phantom” effect I was talking about here, they used it a lot
There is a misconception in the anime community that shows need to stick to the script so to speak when adapting. Hopefully I’ve been able to demonstrate through this discussion why the adaptation part of an adaptation, of any material, is really important. In the case of Phantom you can literally see the difference with the OVA’s. One was a mediocre experience, while the other was an unexpected surprise in (almost) all the right ways.
With that, we reach the end of our review for this one. You can watch the show for free via Funimation’s YouTube channel if you want to check it out. They only have it partially dubbed there, but the sub is all 26 episodes. The dub is what I’d recommend though as this is set in America, and almost everybody (even the extras) really bring their A game for this show.
Now I turn things over to you. What are your thoughts on Phantom? Any of it. I’d also love to hear about anime that diverged from their source material, resulting in a superior product. I know this anime wasn’t the only one to do that! Additionally, if you enjoyed this article please click on my Ko-fi donation button below and send a few bucks my way. I spent a lot of time on this for you folks and would greatly appreciate it. Finally, thanks for reading and I hope to see you back at Jon Spencer Reviews again soon!