Boogiepop Phantom's Denpa-kei Fever Dream
Do Phantoms Dream of Electronic Waves?
This is a reworked “remix” of my old blog of the same name, published over 2 years ago. It had a lot of problems that needed to be reworked; mostly related to word choice sentence structure and an overabundance of extraneous details. I decided to “remix" this old blog because I really liked the ideas I put forth so I polished things up a bit here. This new script includes some sections stolen from my other blog “Sepia Nightmare” while also re-wording and re-editing many lines that have not aged well in the years that my writing has (arguable) improved. I also fixed some factual inaccuracies, reworked sentences to be actually readable, and injected certain ArtificialNightSky narrative elements to reflect the style I have since adopted.
The pulse of Boogiepop has not ceased since 1998. A steady, rhythmic beating of the electronic bzzt’s and beep’s from a faded beige workstation reminds us of its presence from within the shadows. In spite of the series’ radio silence in recent years, it seems to always have attracted fellow social rejects 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 flavoring of “strange” person. The fact that said themes still can be relevant today goes to show how deep the commentary of Boogiepop really goes. 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; all framed through a sepia-tinged lo-fi aesthetic and presented with a crooked expression one might describe as a smirk.
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. Subsequently, Phantom became the catalyst to make into the bonafide Boogiepop fanboy I am today, having since gone and read through the available light novels several times and then watching both television anime series.
When I first watched Boogiepop Phantom, I found it to be incredibly obtuse, yet very aesthetically intriguing. One of such elements reminded me of a small thread on a certain 4chan board. I frequently visit the /jp/ board for the doujin music and train threads, mostly lurking and occasionally looking into the threads other users would create that would often inform me of some unusual piece of Japanese media nobody else on the internet was talking about. One day I stumbled across a “Denpa Music Thread” which intrigued me, since I’ve always been fond of exploring all kinds of obscure Japanese music, so I started looking into this weird subgenre. Besides the somewhat hypnotic trance that one would slip into when hearing the voices of Japanese women singing words thickly-coated in sugarly otaku indulgence, my memories were jostled as I read about the broader subgenre; denpa-kei, or “denpa style” which extended beyond the music. I had originally heard about this in a now deleted video by the Youtuber “KenjiTheEnji” who made an information video about denpa-kei, though the script has been reworked and updated, rebranded as “On Denpa” posted on the Wordpress blog “On the Ones[a]”. Because of this video and the introduction to a fascinating Japanese style of music, the aesthetic influences of Boogiepop Phantom became much more apparent.
“Denpa (電波) literally means Radio waves (or any other kind of radiation coming from electronic devices). Therefore (as a slang) a "Denpa" (or Denpa-kei 電波系) person is someone who looks like he's constantly receiving and transmitting radio waves; usually weird and delusional individuals who don't try to connect with people around them and act in erratic and incomprehensible ways. They could be seen as incoherent, creepy, or insane people.” (http://denpa.omaera.org/culture.html). [b]
Denpa is characterized by people or groups seemingly being on “another wavelength,” a term that came into more widespread use after the infamous Fukugawa Serial Murder Incident in 1981, where the perpetrator claimed he was influenced by the “radio waves.” The idea of being brainwashed by “poisonous” radio waves began to be referred to as dokudenpa (毒電波). Though originally used in a more literal sense, the influence of denpa has cemented itself within the fringes of Japanese art, more often than not seen most commonly within otaku media. One of the originators of the genre being the visual novel Shizuku developed by Leaf in 1996, followed up by Kizuato in the same year. These niche DOS games would not go under the radar, as they were largely influential on writers such as Urobuchi Gen who began his career after being inspired by these two games. Denpa has been utilized in various other visual novels such as Subarashiki Hibi and Cross+Channel, along with many other mediums of entertainment, though I’d direct you to the aforementioned blog by Kenji for more denpa recommendations.
With all this in mind, I could not help but continuously remind myself of the denpa-kei influences in Boogiepop Phantom as I continued to watch the show. This is no more apparent than in the character writing of Tonomura Moto and Suganuma Yoji.
Right off the bat, episode one displays an unexplained energy beam going off into the night sky that causes electronics to go haywire. This is later implied to be some sort of a catalyst to the series of events that follow, and some explanation as to why weird events are occuring in the city. Meanwhile, this episode focuses on a girl named Tonomura who suffers from crippling paranoia, ultimately resulting in her disassociating with reality. It appeared as though she had become increasingly distant with one of her best friends, due to the other girl maturing at a quicker rate while Tonomura was left behind, hence her feeling increasingly disconnected from those around her. She becomes more detached as she drifts between events without conscious thought. This paranoia is reinforced with imagery of her wiping her hands obsessively to the point of skin irritation, disinfecting door handles before touching them, which is representative of her wanting to keep her hands clean of the society she has grown to recognize as repulsive. Her mental ailment became a self-perpetuating problem that continued to reinforce itself in her mind, growing more and more each cycle, eventually leading her to lose connection with her peers and society around her.
I found this strikingly similar to the denpa-kei style I read about prior. Tonomura is losing touch with reality and the people around her and this is exemplified through the visual motifs. Specifically of her chasing a spark of electricity along the cables in the city. Denpa literally means “electricity” and is usually used to label out-of-touch people like Tonomura, who are seemingly on their own wavelength, such that the socially deemed “normal person” cannot possibly understand. Besides the visual elements, what really sells the denpa-kei influences are the aesthetic choices within the sound design, which I will discuss in a bit later. But first, let’s discuss another character that exemplifies this denpa-kei style.
Episode four made for a genuinely uncomfortable viewing experience. This episode’s events were thematically similar to a movie like Perfect Blue, except this time from the perspective of the disillusioned stalker. Suganuma is the main focus in this episode. He is an average high school student despite being a bit of a loner. However, he is under constant pressure from his father to receive good grades so he could get into a good university. Constantly being reminded of such, the pressure he internalizes is artificially inflated from what his father actually expects, resulting in him feeling cornered with no way out. His father states a few times how his son doesn’t need to go to a top school, but at least a state university, and most likely just wants the best for him. Suganuma instead feels overwhelmed with the expectation to be successful and doubts his ability to succeed, so he starts to seek refuge in the world of bishoujo games, not uncommon to many other reclusive youth in Japan. These circumstances are some of the reasons why young Japanese men turn to the lifestyle of a hikikomori in the first place. The overwhelming societal and familial pressure where nothing but the greatest success is applauded, they crack under the weight of expectations. As is the case with Suganuma, who starts to spend most of his time either at work or playing a bishoujo game. He starts to become obsessed with the heroine of one of his games due to his desire to completely forget about his life’s problems. Then stuff starts to get weird. Reality starts to become increasingly difficult to distinguish from his drug-induced delusions, as he starts to project the image of the game's heroine on his new younger coworker. This is also significant since his workplace is the only place he feels power. At home or school he is at odds with authorities he simply cannot overcome. However, at work, he begins to feel like an authority figure once the new girl is hired and he is tasked with helping her learn the ropes.The depiction of Suganuma’s extremely delusional worldview and extreme infatuation with this girl in reality (or the game?) grow to obsessive levels and he starts tripping out.
He recounts the “My Fair Lady” story, where a professor makes a regular girl into a beautiful maiden. These events are happening in reality though, as Suganuma’s desires are persistently pushed onto this coworker against her will.. It becomes more extreme, escalating from simple favors to gain the girl’s trust to sexual harassment where he forces himself on her. There is a quote where Suganuma remarks that “You’ll always be right in the palm of my hand” which reminds me of that iconic shot in Perfect Blue, where the guy pretends to hold Mima in his hand by way of perspective. Not only is this potentially a nod to Satoshi Kon’s masterpiece, but is used effectively to symbolize Suganuma’s desire to hold this girl in the palm of his hands; not with the embrace of a person, but held as an object.
This stewed idolization of people is not only self-destructive, but has the likely possibility of harming the other party as well. There will reach a point where the person existing in your head that you’re infatuated with is so far removed from the one that exists in reality, resulting in the danger of you thinking your misplaced desires are the desires of the other party. And this is what happens to Suganuma. He goes so far down the path of insanity that he loses touch with the fact that his coworker is an individual; a human being with her own free-will, and his actions were obsessive and destructive. Being under the influence of that suspicious hallucinogenic drug the entire time most likely only perpetuated his delusions. The drug was also a crutch since he was shown to have become incredibly dependent on them when he ran out. He was addicted to his coworker as much as he was the hallucinogen.
The music of Phantom is mainly composed of unusual electronic sounds that don’t sound quite right. As if they are sampling a collection of various sounds emitted from electronics and formed into a melody, which itself was deeply influenced by noise, industrial and breakcore subgenres of electronic music. The sounds we hear are the chaos of being overwhelmed by the noises we hear on a daily basis in reality, coming to form a coherent melody. This all adds to create a strikingly unique denpa style. It felt like the sound director wanted to capture a feeling of getting into the mind of one of these disconnected characters and make the music and effects feel electronic and artificial. As if to make it seem like these would be sounds that would be emitted through various radio waves and were being received by a denpa-kei individual. The results are fascinating if nothing else, experiment with harsh crushed sounds and noise influenced effects to make the sound design feel like you were on a hallucinatory trip, and imagining the noises around you were parts of an avant garde symphony only you can hear.
The directing is quite interesting as well. There was a distinct style that the show captured that makes it feel like we are disconnected with the events on screen, by making it feel as if we were spying on the characters of a scene. I distinctly remember a shot in the first episode where Tonomura is being cornered in the infirmary and the camera is positioned in such a way that it is viewing the scene from an open window outside the building. This framing helps remove the viewer by increasing the abstraction of being an observer. It fills us both an incredibly intimate and a very disconnected feeling through this voyeuristic cinematography. There are also a number of rough short cuts quickly spliced together to make this feel less coherent and more akin to loosely strung together related events.
The oppressive darkness, grainy picture quality and the washed out colors of this anime give an overwhelming feeling that this is just a dream we are watching, but for the characters, it’s a sepia-tinged nightmare. I found the stylistic color palette to be one of the strengths of the show’s aesthetic because it felt like an amateur produced found-footage film. The overwhelming dark scenes felt more mysterious and enhanced the atmosphere because the shadows were voids of darkness. Consequently, we had such a limited view of what actually was happening furthering this feeling. It was minimalistic, only showing what needed to, yet maintained the dreamlike feeling. I was actually reminded of a video I watched in a psychology lecture about being in the mind of someone with schizophrenia in how the disconnected nature of the show felt. I’m not quite sure if this was the intent, but as a viewer, I felt overwhelmed from the presentation on screen, which gave off an uncanny visual verisimilitude in which I processed the events on screen as happening, but far removed from the usual “reality” of anime. Again, there was this dreamlike or hallucinogenic style emitted from the directing that made this anime let us get into the world of Boogiepop and reflect the feeling of denpa-kei. This overall feeling really got me into the mindset of denpa because nothing really felt real and that was the point. These characters were losing touch with reality and so was I.
Boogiepop Phantom was certainly a curious show. It used denpa-kei to exemplify the delusions of the characters and add a distinctive aesthetic flavor that is unlike many anime I’ve seen, only really similar to something like Serial Experiments Lain stylistically. As a standalone work, this show was a unique exploration of the human psyche and was a critique of modern society in some ways, all presented with an incredibly satisfying oppressive atmosphere. It’s highly recommended to read at least the first novel Boogiepop and Others beforehand since it will give a solid foundation for beginning to understand the details of the story. That said, it’s not required. The author Kadono Kouhei utilizes tons of foreshadowing in his writing, even making the novels veiled in a bit of mystery, though that is one of the major appeals I find as a fan.
This story might be confusing to some, but it left me craving for more. Not soon after watching this anime for the first time I went out and bought all the available volumes of Boogiepop I could get my hands on. Now it’s one of my favorite light novels, and novels in general for that matter.
Overall, I felt as if the denpa stylistic influence that I observed in this show were worth mentioning since it’s a unique movement in Japanese art that isn’t well-known outside of small circles in the community.
With Phantom, the denpa influence added in every crevice helped support the overall messages of the show. Kadono Kouhei crafted a very poignant piece of pulp-fiction that proved to be relevant not only in 1998, but in 2021 and likely far into the future. 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 Japan’s “Lost Decade” and even the alleged Y2K problem. But ultimately, Phantom capped off the “Lost Decade” with some sharp commentary on contemporary Japanese society, drawing influence from then-obscure subcultures, and presented our once-familiar society as the denpa-fueled fever dream it had been all along.
[b]!! elaborate more about "what is denpa"