What They Say:
A young man with no memories fights to salvage his humanity when he’s forced into a life of murder by a dangerous crime syndicate called Inferno. The organization gives him a new name, Zwei, and molds him into a perfect killing machine, a meticulous instrument of death created to obey his masters’ every deadly command.
Zwei’s not the only puppet controlled by Inferno; Ein is a girl as beautiful as she is brutal and as lethal as she is lost. While mafia violence escalates around them, the two assassins grow closer, and Zwei begins the struggle to reclaim his past and save Ein from a blood-soaked future.
Contains episodes 1-26.
Please Note: This review covers the Blu-ray portion of the release for the technical aspects.
The audio presentation for this release is similar to the previous DVD edition as we get the original Japanese in stereo and the English mix upgraded to a 5.1 one using the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec. The show is one that works a familiar pattern from Bee Train in how their shows operate so we get some good music that sounds solid throughout both mixes and the action is where things pick up a bit. The 5.1 mix obviously bumps things up across the board, but it also simply sounds louder as well. The dialogue plays a bit role in the show with lots of pregnant pauses and the like and it has a good feeling overall as it’s worked across the forward soundstage. The Japanese mix was our primary track for this release though and it definitely fits in with what similar shows have done over the years.
Originally airing in 2009, the transfer for this twenty-six episode TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The series is spread across three discs with ten each on the first two and the final six plus the extras on the third disc. The series has a somewhat typical Bee Train look and style with its animation and the transfer works with it pretty well. The bit rate ranges pretty wide at times as is to be expected, but it spends most of its time in the mid 20’s. The show has lots of solid colors and a darker look to it overall because of the story and it avoids heavy noise and breakups in the backgrounds. When the colors go vibrant they definitely stand out, but it’s a fairly standard palette here overall and it doesn’t draw you in hugely with its visuals. The transfer has a good clean look to it overall though and steps things up over the prior DVD release.
The packaging for this release is a double sized clear keepcase as it has to hold the four DVDs and three Blu-ray discs. It has a sort of chunky feeling about it with the slipcover and the size of the case but it works well enough to hold everything together. The slipcover and the case artwork itself is the same with no differences to be had. The front cover is given over to Ein in her slimmed down tank top and pants look with her knife out and running with a rifle case. It works with a dark looking character design which is made even more indistinct because of the gray and deep red background that’s used, and a shadowed version of her as well. It’s not the most engaging of covers, which means it’s like the previous DVD releases. The back cover goes with a full gray background that’s only broken up by the Blu-ray stripe along the top and the character artwork for Zwei, who is sitting along the corner with a small shadowed version of himself sa well. The cover is kept simple for msot of it with a few shots from the show and a brief breakdown of the plot concept. The biggest area of information here is the technical grid along the bottom as it deals with both formats and has to be pretty condensed in order to keep the flow. The artwork on the reverse side is pretty moody and better than what we get on the front as the left panel has the shot of Zwei from the eyecatch while the right side has the full episode breakdown by number and title as well as all the extras.
The menus for the release are standard fare in that they use various clips from the show for a full screen layout, though it does at least start with a bit from the opening sequence that gives it a good bit of style and sets the tone. The clips continue to set the tone pretty well with a variety of pieces that are dark in tone and highlights the action just right. The menu navigation is smaller than I would have preferred, a continued problem with FUNimation releases, with the text on top of the clip animation itself in red which makes it harder to see when the background is black. Submenus load quickly and are easy to access but they largely follow the same problem. The discs default to English with sign/song subtitles rather than reader our players’ language presets.
This release ports all the extras from the DVD release and puts them all on the third Blu-ray disc. The primary extra for this release are the twelve picture drama episodes, which are better called picture comedy episodes, as it takes a lot of the characters from the series and puts them into weird and amusing situations, such as having Inferno’s higher-ups argue over field trip snack budgets. There are amusing things to be had here, but it feels very off after watching the show. Also included are the clean versions of the opening and closing sequences which is always a welcome piece and a brief set of commercials.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
The path of the Phantom franchise is a curious one in North America as we’ve seen the visual novel game released years ago by Hirameki and the OVA series released by Media Blasters. Media Blasters went on to package the two of those together eventually so you could get the full experience. With this series, clocking in at twenty-six episodes with animation production done by Bee Train, we get a much more fleshed out and fully realized piece of work that’s essentially another chapter in the girls with guns series from Bee Train except that one of the girls is a dude. The pairing would work just as well if both were women I think, though it’d alter some of the interactions the come up over time as there are a few dalliances that would be complicated by it.
Phantom’s structure is really quite interesting in this first half of the series. We’re introduced to Ein, an attractive young woman who is a master assassin trained by a man called Scythe Master for an organization known as Inferno. Inferno is working to usher in a new age of crime organizations in the United States by using a highly skilled assassin to go out and off the competition that won’t ally with them. Because of how good Ein is at her job, they’ve managed to make a very good showing on the west coast and has them expanding even further as they eliminate their competition. Where this series start is with Scythe Master showing the Inferno trio that he has something new that they want to see which will help them in their goals.
That something is a young Japanese man that he’s gained through a recent mission whose mind he’s wiped. As it turns out, the young man has a real natural talent for assassination and the field in general because his instincts allow him to kick in and stay alive in pretty much any situation. Showing this off by having Ein track him down and try to kill him inside an abandoned facility out in the desert, we get to see easily that both of them are very good at what they can do, but he needs a whole lot of training. And upon showing this off to Inferno, they give him the go ahead to start in on that process to turn Ein, who goes by the code name of Phantom, into a trainer for the young man who is given the name Zwei.
What sets the series apart is that there are essentially three parts in the first half of it that we get here that moves things along. The first part is the introduction where we see Zwei drawn into all of this as he’ll be killed otherwise and he goes through all the training, including his first hunt against someone who has screwed up with Inferno. The training isn’t overly detailed but the pairing of Ein and Zwei works pretty well since they’re both relatively emotionless about it since neither has their memories. The second arc is more interesting as it features the pair going off on their first missions together which leads to a surprisingly complex piece that has numerous criminal organizations in the area that get caught up in it, which leads to an attempt to kill some dozen individual targets in the course of a night. But even more surprising is the third act, that has Ein and Zwei on the run from Inferno as Zwei regains his memories and they have to figure out how to survive.
Going through three arcs like this, and unfortunately including a recap episode within the first half, gives the show a very odd feeling to it. The focus on each arc within the first half of it moves things along and gives it a good deal of definition. Rather than going for a continual series of assassinations, it spends its time clearly focused on each aspect. The training has a lot going for it as it puts a very confused Zwei with the emotionless Ein and has him grappling with what he has to learn. At the same time, we get a good feeling for what’s going on with Inferno in general and their plans. The group certainly has ambitions, not that they come across with any sense of realism or true definition, but they have the fun goal of eliminating the old families that won’t go their way and ushering in an era of new crime lords under their control.
But it’s watching Ein and Zwei that makes it what Phantom is. Though they’re very controlled overall, there are decisions that have to be made when they’re on various missions and seeing the training that Ein puts him through helps to bring out both their personalities. When she’s in the position of a superior, their relationship is clearly defined as she has the ability to kill him at any time. When it shifts to them working together, she still has the role of teacher, but as he progresses with things such as his acting and shooting ability, they become more equals. And the third act of it with him gaining his memories, making him superior to her in a way because she’s still unknowing and subservient to Scythe Master, she becomes simpler in her approach, looking only for orders to follow and keeping to just what is safe.
With the second half of the series, it shifts things forward some six months after Ein disappeared into the waters, Zwei has now become Claudia’s right hand man and is excelling at the role of Phantom, even though he’s remembered some of who he was. The idea of Phantom having to kill of its predecessor seems rather appropriate for Inferno and Claudia is building him up nicely all while undressing him when it suits her so she can have her way with him. Claudia’s game is pretty intense as she’s intending to use anything and everything at her disposal in order to secure her position with Inferno, a difficult thing since it’s a very male dominated group. While Ray pretty much treats her alright, Wisemel has it out for her and the two are pretty much playing against each other at various points under the table to slow the other down.
The focus is kept largely on Zwei at this point though as he carries out the jobs she has for him and deals with a deal she’s trying to broker with a Japanese group that we saw much earlier in the series. Where it goes into an altogether unsurprising direction is when Zwei is asked to help out a young girl named Cal who had her best friend Judy shot down in front of her during one of his missions. Zwei, going by Reiji with her, has his pangs of guilt and tries to assuage it by helping her out with some meals and the like all while making sure she doesn’t know enough to implicate him or anyone in Inferno for what happened. The Inferno guys just want Cal dead, so Reiji instead offers to make her his new assistant, thereby continuing on with the training of a potential new Phantom. While she’s a bit off at first, and he’s not entirely serious since he’s just trying to buy time, Cal does have some of that innate skill that both Eren and Reiji had that made them so attractive to Scythe Master.
The entire arc with Cal is appropriate enough since it’s just a variant of what happened to Reiji early on, albeit with significant differences since she knows who she is and Scythe Master isn’t controlling the situation. The storyline gets fairly convoluted as it progresses though because of Claudia’s plans and those of the Japanese gangsters that are involved as they actually have hidden ties to Scythe Master that become apparent and even within that there are other plans afoot involving hidden daughters in Japan of mafia bosses and the like that speaks of how to control your closest associates. That the entire arc with Cal ends in a big explosion isn’t a surprise either, but it leads to one of the more confusing elements of Phantom, which is the final arc of it all. So avoid the rest until the summary.
After the explosion that rocks Reiji as he thinks Cal is dead, and Cal thinks Reiji abandoned her because neither of them checked for the other afterwards, the story advances two years and puts us in Japan where Eren and Reiji are high school students. And unless I misread the sign, they’re second year high school students. Which means that at the beginning of the series when Reiji wakes up to Eren chasing him, he must have been fourteen or so at best. And Claudia was messing him over pretty good as a boytoy along the way too, especially considering how gangster-cool he was trying to look through much of this second set of episodes. Reiji simply looks too old to pull of high school at this point and while you can give on Eren a bit, it’s still a very hard sell based on what has come before.
The time in Japan definitely feels forced in a few ways, as the pair ends up spending time at the school where the hidden mafia daughter goes and she’s even got a bit of a crush on Reiji, though he’s unaware of her true nature. It’s all very idyllic and you can see how Reiji is getting back into a reality, but it’s all because Eren wants to see him happy. When Cal ends up arriving in Japan to destroy all this happiness, she’s gone from a short girl just before her growth spurt to a buxom hourglass of a woman with a real eye on vengeance for wrongs never truly made because both of them were idiots. Mixing in all the Japanese mafia elements, the Inferno grudges and Scythe’s own plans, it’s a big convoluted mess of a story that all comes down to killing, killing and more killing. And ending with a scene just before the final credits that truly made me angry.
My first time watching Phantom had me doing a lot of comparisons to previous Bee Train series in the whole girls with guns vein and watching it again it still can’t be helped. In watching it a second time, I was curious to see if my impression of the second half would change with some hindsight, but I still largely find it a curious turn of events at best and just very awkward storytelling in general. The story with Cal itself isn’t bad, but it just comes off as too forced and awkward to really flow well after everything else that had been dealt with. I generally do like what Bee Train does in this genre and there are pieces to Phantom that I do enjoy, but as a whole it’s a difficult work that falters in several ways and leaves you feeling off from it all. It doesn’t have a natural enough flow past the first half and that does a fair bit of damage along the way depending on how you perceive and deal with Cal.
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, Picture Dramas, Clean Openings, Clean Closings, Original Commercials
Content Grade: B-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B-
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B
Readers Rating: [ratings]
Released By: FUNimation
Release Date: January 31st, 2012
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.