Edited by The Davoo
Myriad Colors Phantom World is a sequence of highly entertaining animated gifs, which were released in twenty-two minute chunks over the course of the Winter 2016 anime season. It is an exceptionally well-crafted internet meme, with attractive character designs, vibrant colors, and flashy animation that loops into itself very easily. Ishihara Tatsuya and his team at Kyoto Animation have proven time and again that they are possibly the best in the entire world at creating anime gifs; and this intense memetic potential has lead to worldwide attention for much of their work. Unfortunately, there are some people out there who choose to view this gif collection as if it were an actual TV show–and those people tend to find themselves woefully disappointed.
It’s difficult not to be impressed with the level of detail that Kyoani seems predisposed to loading into their animation. From the opening of the first episode, wherein a sequence of optical illusions is used to set the tone of the series, I love how the mascot character’s hair falls to the sides of her face after posing for the classic vase illusion; and just how playfully the entire scene goes about pushing her into all of these examples. There’s a clever little fourth wall break when she peels the main character’s eyeballs open to wake him up, followed by a creative sequence of the world becoming progressively less pixelated as the character stumbles around.
But a question which I found myself asking early and often throughout my time watching this series was, “what is this all in service of?” Or, as they say back at home, “what’s the point?”
Haruhiko explains that the human brain is kind of iffy and imprecise in its ability to perceive reality, as exemplified by all of these optical illusions; and how a slight change in someone’s brain chemistry may cause them to see things which they had never realized were there all along.
Later in the episode, we learn that in this show’s universe, a gigantic virus leak has altered everyone’s brains in such a way that they can now see and interact with formerly invisible entities known as phantoms, which apparently are the explanation for all of history’s folklore and myths and stuff. Also, now there’s kids with superpowers.
What I don’t get here, is how the concept of altering the human brain is thematically related to the fact that the brain is already imprecise in its perception. The interesting thing about illusions is how they show us that, in spite of having certain visual information right in front of us, our brains are tricked into misinterpreting that information because of how they attempt to compress it. Changing the way that the brain works and causing it to perceive something totally new is pretty much besides the point, and does not effectively tie into the motif of illusion.
For that matter, breaking the fourth wall doesn’t really connect to either of these motifs. You could make the case that calling attention to the unreality of a story is kind of like shattering an illusion; but again, it’s not quite the same thing as having your brain tricked, nor having it changed.
Now, you could say that the theme of the series is tricks of perception in general; but the whole pixelation thing doesn’t really relate to anything. At first, I thought that this scene was meant to convey the way that we can’t quite fully process colors when we first wake up, and that Lulu banging the clock into existence was a really clever representation of Haruhiko’s eyes coming into focus on that object; but the rest of the room’s transformation isn’t from Haruhiko’s perspective, and makes it seem like he lives in some kind of weird digital fantasy world. None of this imagery is ever used again, so I still have no idea what it was really meant to convey.
Over the course of the first episode, none of the motifs which are introduced have any real connection to one-another, nor any real relevance to the overall story. Haruhiko is struck with a case of jamais vu at one point–which is another brain trick–for seemingly no reason at all. Neither of the phantoms that the characters do battle with in this episode have anything to do with illusions or mind trickery; one is a big monster that fights Mai in hand-to-hand combat, and the other is a bunch of possessed telephone poles which force the cast into a game of limbo. None of the characters’ powers are connected to illusions or mind tricks, either: Mai summons elemental powers by groping herself, Haruhiko makes record-breaking speedpaint videos and posts them to youtube, and Reina is Kirby–the most objectively perfect creature in existence. He’s completely round; he’s pink; and he eats everything. Kirby is the shit!
Now, it wouldn’t be unreasonable at this point to assume that Phantom World might be going for a Kekkai Sensen-esque melting pot of crazy powers and ideas; but the monster-of-the-week formula which emerges over the course of the proceeding episodes seems to be going for a more focused approach.
Every episode opens with Haruhiko reading a random wikipedia article which is tangentially related to the plot, and then establishing whichever main character the episode will be focused on. Where the series goes awry is in how tenuous the connections between the stories, themes, and characters usually turn out to be.
Monster-of-the-week storytelling is kind of difficult to do well, because it doesn’t leave a lot of time for the viewer to get invested in the situations and characters. Most of the time, the backbone of a decent episodic series is in developing a strong, likable, and versatile protagonist in the first episodes, and then throwing them into a series of fun scenarios. Take, for instance, one of the most widely viewed and beloved episodic anime series of all time–Pokemon.
Ash Ketchum is a very easy protagonist to understand and relate to. He has the incredibly broad goal of becoming the world’s greatest Pokemon trainer, and he’s very passionate about being the very best, like no one ever was. His first companion on his journey ends up being an unruly brat of a Pikachu who won’t listen to anything he says–but after Ash bravely throws himself in front of a wave of attacking Spearow in order to save him, Pikachu realizes that Ash is a pretty cool guy, and they develop a powerful emotional bond. At this point, the relationship between Ash and Pikachu has a bit of weight to it, and each episode is about taking these characters whom we understand and relate to, and throwing them into simple scenarios involving other goal-oriented characters with their own related stories.
Just about every strong monster-of-the-week series–from lighthearted stuff like Cardcaptor Sakura, Precure, or Digimon, to more out-there stuff like Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders or Casshern Sins–tends to start off by establishing the goals, personalities, and relationships of their main characters before launching into their episodic adventures; so that we know exactly why we want to watch them. Usually, the series then proceeds by creating scenarios in each episode which are related to the specific goals, personalities, struggles, and abilities of our main characters. For instance, in Heartcatch Precure, each episode usually establishes a problem which one of the main characters is facing in their own lives, and then presents an adversary who represents a more extreme version of that same problem, through whom the main characters will learn some kind of lesson that they can apply to their own situations. Phantom World instead seems so enamored with sharing all of its random article Wikipedia knowledge that it forgets to give its characters any goals or personality.
In the first episode, it’s established that Mai works as a phantom hunter because she lives alone and she needs the money; but this aspect of her character doesn’t seem all that connected to her personality. For one thing, I’m not even sure how someone who can barely afford to eat because they always fuck up all of their missions nonetheless manages to be in peak physical condition with big fat titties. Her ability to summon elemental powers by groping herself doesn’t connect to her personality or aesthetic in any meaningful way; and for that matter, I don’t even get why she dresses in that garish yellow sweater vest thing. Sometimes they show her in track shorts or other gym clothes, which makes sense, since she’s supposed to be athletic or whatever, but this yellow vest thing is a complete mystery to me. No one else wears anything like it, and all of them are about fifty times more appealing by virtue of not searing my eyes out of my skull with this hideous outfit. Seriously, that yellow vest thing is like 50% of all of my problems with this show. I don’t understand how that design got approved at any stage in development.
Over the course of watching this series, I could never get a read on whether Mai was supposed to be particularly smart or stupid, or what kind of interests or skills she has outside of being fit and fighting monsters, or if she has any kind of long-term goals. Every once in awhile it’s very mildly suggested that she might have some kind of affection for Haruhiko, but she doesn’t even fully commit to the whole tsundere thing. She’s just kind of bland and unmemorable outside of the crazy stuff that her tits get up to.
Episode three opens up by introducing the theme of memories, and suggesting that it would be nice if human memories could be copied and backed up in the way that computer memories can. This episode is focused on Mai, and how she remembers herself as having been a shy and kind little girl, but then in the end it turns out that she was remembering her childhood wrong, and she was actually a total brat. There’s really no reason that this episode had to be about Mai, and her personality and abilities don’t bring anything to the table in connecting to this theme. There is a bit wherein Haruhiko copies her muscle memories in order to learn her impressive fighting abilities, though this concept is played so fast and loose that it’s not even really interesting; but again, I don’t get how Mai herself manages to add anything to this theme. You could’ve done this idea with any of the characters without really changing anything.
It’s not so much that I expect every episode of every series to have perfect synthesis in their thematic ideas and characterization; but I just don’t get what’s supposed to be carrying an episode like this. I certainly don’t give a shit about Mai, since she hasn’t done anything so far besides grope herself, shake her tits, and punch some monsters, and nothing about this episode did anything to change my perception of her, or to cause me to care about her place in the story. While the episodes about Reina and Koito manage to give them a little bit more backstory and relevancy to the themes of the episodes, this entire series never manages to give me enough to go on with any of its characters to make me feel like I want to follow them on these adventures; nor does it present its themes with enough depth to make it worth watching for those either.
The series only gets even more asinine once it runs out of main characters to give their own spotlight episodes to. If each one had been an engaging character portrait which really got me wanting to see them in other scenarios, in the way that something like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya or Durarara made me want to keep watching those characters forever in whatever random scenarios the story could put them in just because they were so much fun to watch, then this wouldn’t be a problem. But instead, after five instances of pulling a random backstory element out of a hat towards the back of each episode before ending on a tacky, unearned moment of sympathy, the show then totally goes off the rails into a series of disconnected, unfocused adventures. Around the point where an episode was comprised of one-third repeatedly explaining Schrodinger’s cat, one-third everyone turning into cat people for the sake of cuteness, and one-third a bunch of random trippy shit happening for no adequately explained reason, with the cast just along for the ride, it sank in that this series was going nowhere fast.
Now, at this point in the video, you may have been staring at all of this gorgeous animation and thinking that maybe this show is worth checking out just for the visuals alone; to which I would respond, “…eh?”
Don’t get me wrong, I think that the animation in this series is exceedingly technically proficient, and that most of the characters are extremely cute; and that the constant use of depth-of-field shots and digital processing which are characteristic of Kyoto Animation are always impressive.
I’d even say that sometimes the visual direction is really clever and funny–like in this scene where the main characters think that they’ve just successfully beaten the limbo Phantoms, and then they turn around to see the bar dropping to a lower level, with really spot-on comedic timing. I love that whenever Reina overreacts to Haruhiko accidentally perving on her, she does these really specific and realistic-looking martial arts moves on him. There’s also this great bit in episode two where it’s been established that there’s a phantom which takes pictures of girls when they’re changing clothes in the dorm, and we keep getting just brief glimpses into the situation in the room, usually through the phantom’s photographs, while Haruhiko keeps getting thrown out the window and reappearing in the hallway outside. The timing here is pretty funny, and makes this encounter feel like a ridiculously protracted struggle which we’re only watching an abridged version of.
Unfortunately, there were only a few moments in the series which brought a smile to my face like this, and most of it left me either scratching my head, or wishing things were different. For instance, the first episode has this big action scene where Mai is fighting off this giant phantom, and while the combat is really well animated, it keeps cutting away to show what Haruhiko and other characters are doing, and it’s set in this kind of boring location with all these ugly dust clouds. It just ends up feeling a lot less interesting and cohesive than it should, and gave me the feeling like all of this great animation was being wasted on such a boring scene.
By the end of any random episode of this series, I’d always find myself struggling to remember what I’d just watched, or how the hell it managed to spend twenty-two minutes on such a bare-bones story. I think I zoned out through the majority of Kurumi’s episode, and by the time she turned into a magical girl, I really had no idea what was going on anymore.
The show often tries to go for these trippy, Alice-in-Wonderland-esque Phantom World scenarios; but it handles trippiness in the blandest, most unimaginative way possible. In episode four, there’s a world that’s supposed to look like a child’s fantasy, with everything drawn in crayon and the people being rabbits, which is all meant to represent a cute girl’s psychological hangups or something. Then, just two episodes later, we get taken to a world where there’s a bunch of talking teddy bears and big mushrooms everywhere and everything looks like a children’s book, which is all to represent a cute girl’s psychological hangups or something. It’s just two slight variations on the exact same type of generic trippy landscape right in a row. Then, in episode seven, we get one of those protracted scenes of the world going all topsy-turvy, but all of it is totally random and disconnected. It’s like a really poorly done version of the trippy part in the school from Urusei Yatsura Beautiful Dreamer, with a total lack of new ideas in how to handle a mindfuck scene.
As nice as the animation, character designs, and colors look on their own, the overall package is just kind of bland and unmemorable. All of the colors are bright and vibrant, but there’s no sense of personality or charm in the way that the show uses them. Kyoto Animation is known for the fact that each of their shows has its own distinct color palette to match the tone of the series–from Tamako Market’s poppy, adorable pastels, to Tamako Love Story’s earthy, rustic, and nostalgic tones. The aesthetic of Phantom World is… bright? Shiny? Tacky? It’s just whatever.
Likewise, I can’t seem to get a read on what kind of tone or personality the series is supposed to be going for. Most of the time it’s an irreverent comedy which throws caution to the wind on making sense and goes for over the top silliness. My favorite moments in the show were things like the infamous Mai boob shaking scene in the first episode, just because it seemed to so thoroughly embrace its own ridiculousness–but it never really returns to that level of stupid brilliance. Most of it is pretty middle-of-the-road–pushing lots of fanservice onto the screen without ever really being sexy, and lots of information into the dialog without ever really being smart.
And then there’s the parts where the show makes totally hollow attempts at getting moody and sympathetic. Towards the end of the first episode, the characters suddenly all feel sorry for the telephone poles they were playing limbo against, and semi-dramatically remark on how they hope that they can find a way to serve humans in their next life. What the hell? Why? Who cares about the damn telephone poles? The show occasionally dives into melodrama, like in Reina and Koito’s spotlight episodes, but it always feels really flaccid and token; like this was the requisite minimum level of characterization required to make the audience feasibly give a shit. Maybe it really was enough for some viewers, but I personally was left sorely wanting for more.
None of the characters have any chemistry together, nor do they have any meaningful connection to the type of series that Phantom World is; and as a result, it’s hard for me to imagine that the author of Phantom World really cared all that much about the characters to begin with. It seems to me like the reason Haruhiko was written to be this huge nerd with an infinite wealth of random trivial knowledge, was so that the author could write a bunch of stories utilizing his infinite wealth of random trivial knowledge–but in the end, he never managed to actually explore any of his ideas in any kind of meaningful or inventive ways. Instead, the show is about as engaging as… actually sitting around reading random wikipedia articles all day, while hitting random post on sakugabooru on a separate monitor. And at least while doing that, you can listen to your own music, instead of the incredibly bland and generic high-pitched electronic soundtrack backing the show.
I would be hard-pressed to accuse Myriad Colors Phantom World of not having anything going for it, or even of being a particularly bad show. It’s not that it outright sucks, so much as that there’s hardly any reason to bother with it. Just about every other Kyoto Animation series has just as much gorgeous animation and just as many attractive character designs and pretty colors as this one; and all of them have either more interesting characters and stories, or better use of irreverent, beautifully-animated comedy. Every garden-variety magical girl show I’ve ever seen handles the monster-of-the-week formula better than this show does, and I could get my fix of lighthearted but trippy alternate universes just about anywhere. I’m just not sure there’s any reason to be watching this show unless I’ve truly and honestly seen every other worthwhile anime series, and for some reason am not interested in rewatching any of them.
I’ve still got a bit more to say about this show, particularly in how it handles its light sprinkling of meta elements, but I’m going to save that for another video which covers more shows than just this one. Stick around on my channel if you’re interested in seeing that, and support me on patreon if you’d like to help keep this channel going. I’ve just started offering new reward tiers on there involving commentaries and behind the scenes posts, so check that stuff out if you’re way into my content. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one!