The fact that Boogiepop Phantom exists still eludes me to this day. One could chalk it up to simply being another product of the post-Evangelion boom in late night television anime alongside the likes of Serial Experiment Lain, produced by a prolific studio with money to spare on a risky venture. However, Boogiepop Phantom “doesn’t feel right,” it’s not normal, much more akin to stumbling across distorted, weathered, graffiti in a place nobody ever dares walk through. Through a long serialization of novels and two anime adaptations, Kadono Kouhei’s Boogiepop series can hardly be called obscure, but it never broke into the mainstream almost by design. Filled to the brim with pathos, Kadono’s personal philosophy, poignant social commentary and a harsh aesthetic, Boogiepop is the quintessential punk rock light novel. The core fanbase seems to be on a similar wavelength, sharing similar experiences and finding messages contained within that are hard to forget. Ranging from harsh critiques of the Japanese education system, commentary on mental illness, suicide, drug abuse, unconventional love and ultimately, an autopsy of modern Japanese society. This is why I can’t stop thinking about Boogiepop Phantom, not only because it exists, but for what it had to say.
The heartbeat of Boogiepop has not ceased since 1998. In spite of the series’ radio silence in recent years, it seems to always have attracted fellow abnormal people around it, thus garnering a cult following in both Japan and the West. I believe this is largely due to the persistently universal appeal of the themes that are likely to resonate with a very specific type of person, and it seems that us social outcasts were never alone after all. The fact that said themes still can be relevant today goes to show how deep the commentary of Boogiepop really goes, and perhaps highlights the stagnation of human society as a whole. Since its inception, Kadono-sensei has been continuously releasing novels in the Boogiepop universe, and while translation efforts have since been rekindled due to dedicated fans, the vast majority of said novels have no English translations. And considering the relatively small target demographic of the series, it is unlike to see an official translation unless hell freezes over. It’s uncertain if the commentary has continued up to the present, but it’s safe to assume so, as such problems have only strained society further since.
Boogiepop Phantom is perhaps the quintessential spin-off anime. It’s largely impenetrable for those who have never read the light novel series, since the majority of the events in Phantom are reliant on the audience to be familiar with them in order to gain a deeper understanding. It serves as fanservice for fans of the novels as it fits itself more snugly into the canon as a sidestory or a volume 1.5 than a direct adaptation of Boogiepop and Others. However, it not only contains information from the first volume of the light novels, but upon inspection of the production notes included in the Rightstuf DVD, has a myriad of easter eggs that only the most keen Boogiepop fanatics will catch. But, that isn’t to say the novels are required reading before watching the series, when I first watched the anime I was unfamiliar with Boogiepop, and despite being very confused, I was still able to piece together a generalization of what Phantom had to say in the end. If anything, Phantom was the catalyst to make me a bonafide Boogiepop fanboy, having since gone and read through the available light novels several times and then watching both television anime series. It is only now that I have returned to the beginning of my journey to revisit Boogiepop Phantom, and it’s because of my newfound familiarity that I was perhaps able to derive a more insightful reading of the anime this time around. Be it due to the rewatch allowing me to pick up on new things I now know as important or just my new background in Boogiepop 101.
The high school setting has been a consistent backdrop for anime for many decades. As a result, I see a lot of older fans complain about this cliche because they feel as if they’ve outgrown this, or because they wish to see older characters that better reflect them now. Thus, many have concluded that the abundance of high school anime is the result of Japanese people’s dissatisfaction with their current lives and their wish to return to a more simple time. A quick peek through the pink-tinged looking-glass enchant the most distraught salaryman, disillusioned university students or even current high schoolers, all of whom wishing for their bleak realities to be reformed into a more idealistic wonderland. But as with most things related to nostalgia, it’s oftentimes the case that the ideal is an over-glorified version of what actually took place. It is within this discrepancy that Boogiepop emerges- phantasmal, like bubbles.
In the afterword of Boogiepop and Others, Kadono-sensei reflects on his own time in high school, but not in the past, rather, in his early twenties:
“These days I rarely have them, but back in my early twenties, I often had dreams about high school. Dreams in which I was going to school, not dreams about having gone…
“In the dreams, I knew clearly that I had graduated several years before, but I was pretending not to know and going anyways.” (Kadono Kouhei’s afterword in Boogiepop and Others)
Boogiepop was deliberately set in high school not because it would appeal to the budding demographic of light novel readers specifically, but because Kadono-sensei wanted to encroach upon the demon of “Nostalgia.” Unfortunately, some people never grow up, I myself am one of these people, as is Kadono Kouhei. People who have been urged along by society to move up the ladder to adulthood, but plagued by lingering sentiments from days wasted wallowing in solitary pleasures. Sitting in the back of class with their head in the clouds, wondering what tomorrow would bring, but never reaching conclusions and never acting upon them even if something came to mind- the Stasis of Adolescence.
Enter the illusory Shinyo Gakuen
Boogiepop Phantom primarily grapples with disillusionment, specifically through explorations of growing up[a]. Adolescence as a topic is no stranger to the thinkers who have approached it, having been thoroughly explored in countless pieces of art, but I feel as if what Boogiepop brought to the table offered me something Catcher in the Rye never could. There’s a quote that stuck with me, and I feel like it offers a good jumping in point:
“Please remember this, Suema. There’s a difference between missing the old days and being stuck in the past. In the same way that the city must change over time, it’s important that people move forward with their lives. I know you understand.”
(Boogiepop Phantom EP5)
Shinyo Gakuen is a school of dreams, not quite literally, but rather an amalgamation of the memories for those watching or reading the series. Kadono-sensei wrote in his afterword how he found it puzzling that the school in his recurring dreams was not the one he attended, the dream school thus became the basis for the setting of the first novel. This dream was not simply a delusion, but perhaps more indicative of the regrets of Kadono-sensei. When I graduated high school, it just kinda happened. There was no big event, no sigh of relief or the feeling of having gained something important. For a milestone such as that, which I had been told would put the capstone on the “best 4 years of my life,” ended as quietly as it began. Unlike Suema Kazuko, I didn’t feel a pain in my chest from knowing that my high school years were ending, rather, I was confused as to why I was so apathetic. Walking away from all of that, I held the lingering doubt that I had done something wrong. I had played the game incorrectly but was still awarded with the end credits. Similar sentiments were expressed by Kadono-sensei in his reflections. Shinyo Gakuen thus became a place for him to relieve himself of regrets.
The end of high school marks the end of adolescence for many, and as such, graduation is the final moment of youth. But for those entering university, graduating high school feels like nothing more than the end of one level and the start of the next. In Japan, third year students must battle rigorous entrance exams, oftentimes unique to a specific department at each school, known as “exam hell.” However, at the time of writing this I believe this practice is starting to wane in popularity in favor of a more universal exam, but for the most part it remains unchanged from the time Boogiepop was written. I mention entrance exams because it is a recurring point of interest in the series, and is a key point of critique. Third year students are often referred to as exam students, their workload might be lessened in school because it’s expected that they are preparing extensively on their own or through cram schools. Failure means putting life on hold, these people dubbed rounin, as in a masterless samurai, whose sole purpose becomes passing entrance exams and working odd jobs, until their parents realize they’re hopeless and cut them off. This period of limbo is sure to put even more stress on young people regardless of how fun Love Hina might seem at times. All this puts an immense amount of stress on them to succeed, and some cripple under the pressure. In episode 4 of Phantom, which happens to be my favorite episode, concerns a mentally deteriorating third year who wishes to study computer graphics in university by his father pressures him to enter more prestigious schools, likely to follow his footsteps in a conceited manner. The student then begins to retreat into the comfort of his own delusions, projecting fantasies onto a drug-distorted reality after crippling under the pressures of school, work and the lack of choice in his future. A future deprived of agency results in a situation where he created his own distortion to control, but it was nothing more than a fleeting dream. People oftentimes will universally criticize escapism without taking the time to analyze the reasoning why the subject chose to abandon reality, and Boogiepop’s examination of escapism in the context of a rapidly degrading slice of society gives context as to why such people might feel that their fantasies are the only option.
In contemporary Japan, the rigorous schooling system has been a point of contention, with many artists and regular people not shy in their critiques. It’s no secret that some students crumple under the weight of bullying, overwork and the pressures of expecting to pass exams, it’s not uncommon to see these young people seek death as the only escape, a subject matter Boogiepop does not hesitate to approach.In a similar vein, I found the music of vocaloid producer Neru and his album Sekai Seifuku during my time in high school, and while his music is primarily commentary on the Japanese schooling system and contemporary problems young adults face, it was scary how much I could relate to it. Many have cited how Neru’s relatable music gave rise to his popularity [b]within the vocaloid scene and was the voice of many youth during the 2010’s. I think Kadono chose this point in adolescence to focus his story because it was a major turning point in his life, as it is for millions of others. Indicative of this turning point is Touka’s quote regarding the “changing” scenery of the town. It likely isn’t changing as much as she perceives it to be, as she is beginning to assimilate herself within it as a young adult instead of a child, and is realizing it’s not the place she used to believe it to be. No longer being led by the hand of her parents and instead walking with her own convictions. Moving on to new horizons whether you want to or not, whether you’re ready or not, is simply the first of many times it will happen in life.
Enter Pom Pom, the Pied Piper who whisks away the children of the Lost Decade! The Lost Decade refers to the infamous ten year period after Japan’s post-war economic bubble burst, from 1991-2001. This is a period of cultural disillusionment and oftentimes cited as one of the many causes of hikikomori, among other things such as the deconstruction of the hegemonic masculinity. It’s a complex topic to even look at the eye, lest amidst an already out-of-control discussion of Boogiepop Phantom, so I will save you further explanation for now. In Phantom, Pom Pom approaches high school students who feel at a dead end. In the anime one girl is feeling pressure from her parents to enter music school while her instructor bluntly advises her to quit while there’s time. After working her entire life to enter a music school, at the last minute being told to shift gears is too much and she loses it. She takes the red balloon and lets the helium take her back to a time before the stress. These students revert to children for much the same reasons we feel nostalgic about times in our life- we long for a simpler time. The time before the internet, before working, before exams, before drama and before politics mattered to us. Back when we could turn on the Playstation or Super Nintendo and game until the sun had long since sunk below the treeline.
I found the Pom Pom arc to be quite fascinating, since it seems to confront both nostalgia and provide commentary on the end of the Stasis of Adolescence simultaneously. When saying “Stasis of Adolescence” I am referring to the 3-4 year period of high school, in which you are essentially still on summer vacation from life. During this time, regardless of how troublesome it may seem, are generally immune to social pressures, unless you have special family circumstances. That is why many students pass these days in leisure without a concern for tomorrow until they see the ending and their advisors warn “have you given a thought to your future” and realize your summer vacation is over. Pom Pom offers an alternative solution in which kids can fully escape to their nostalgic days and forget everything, never growing up. The fact that this exists as an option, metaphorical or not in this universe, is indicative of the lengths as to which people would go to escape the pressures of entrance exams, looming threats of responsibility, and live in the endless comfort of the Stasis of Adolescence.
The Lost Decade was not simply an economic nightmare, but also proved to be a perfect breeding ground for a number of unusual social phenomena, being nothing short of a sociologists wet dream. Ranging from the rise of hikikomori who feel the need to drop out of society coupled with the ever-increasing escapist media aimed at otaku, the death of the “life-long employment” dream of fresh graduates tuned freeters, and the disillusioned youth caught between “the way things have always been” and “that’s not going to work in today’s world,” all slipping through the cracks faster than the system can catch up to them. This is the backdrop to which Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg calls Boogiepop to enter the stage. The rapid industrialization of post-war Japan finally caught up to it at the end of the Showa Era, the neon scenery of the cityscapes of old were no longer recognizable to anyone, and thus began a decade of disillusionment. Those lost within the sepia nightmare find themselves at odds with the social zeitgeist, saved before becoming a threat to the world. Or framed slightly different, a threat to themselves. Boogiepop is representative of the youth’s need for something to believe in, and they believe in a shinigami, who will kill them when they’re at their most beautiful, before they have a chance to whither. Thus:
“life is brief, young maiden, fall in love; before the crimson bloom fades from your lips, before the tides of passion cool within your hips, for those of you who know no tomorrow.”
Boogiepop Phantom crams an unfathomable amount of depth within 12 standard-length episodes, and even much more depth can be attained through cross-referencing with the novels or relating to current events at the time of the show’s airing, such as the aforementioned Lost Decade and even the alleged Y2K problem. But ultimately, Phantom capped off the Lost Decade with some sharp commentary on contemporary Japanese society, all framed through a crooked expression that one might describe as a smirk. Using his own regrets and postmortem reflections on his time in high school Kouhei Kadono crafted a poignant piece of pulp-fiction that proved to be relevant not only in 1998, but in 2020 and like far into the future. The youth of Boogiepop being a microcosm of problems plaguing Japan then and now. Hence why the heartbeat of Boogiepop can still be felt now as social unrest still persists. So when incomprehensive problems arise that can only be described as “supernatural,” Boogiepop emerges- phantasmal, like bubbles.
For me, I never grew out of high school (anime). I have reflected extensively on my life, both through blogs and behind closed doors, and have reached the conclusion that I have never grown up. This is why like Kadono-sensei, I never seemed to have moved past high school. Not because it was an important time for me or anything, though perhaps more aptly described as a rock to anchor myself to. Having swam a fair bit away from the shore, I realized the only thing holding me back was the only thing keeping me grounded, and this left me with a slightly bittersweet taste in my mouth. So now even some odd years through university and the ending quickly approaching, I feel like it went by so fast I never had a chance to gain my footing. Maybe we are always stumbling through life like a car crash in slow motion. So when I continuously revisit high school anime, maybe it’s because it’s a time I can relate to relative stability, but I know I did not think so then. Maybe the Stasis of Adolescence never ended for me. But regardless, that perception of stability seen in those rose-tinted memories gave rise in the amount of high school anime, and I can hardly complain. But with Boogiepop, like I mentioned in the write-up, felt more deliberate because of what Kadono-sensei had to say about everything. And I think it’s within that reasoning, despite any reservations I hold about my ability to properly convey the mess of thoughts in my head, why I find this series so often at the forefront of my thoughts alongside the likes of NHK, Oregairu and Genshiken. But I am still unsatisfied with my discussion of Boogiepop, ultimately. I didn’t even have a chance to interject more discussion about denpa influences either! ugu~ There is too much to address that could be fit into a reasonably sized write-up, and for the sake of making this discussion (seemingly) focused, I decided to prematurely stop myself after reaching some semblance of a conclusion.
BGM - ロストワンの号哭 by Neru
[a]microcosm of japan/the world at large