I think by now we’ve all scrolled over someone’s disappointed wailings on Myriad Colours Phantom World. Maybe you were even one of those left feeling deflated, because you were expecting more from Kyoto Animation’s latest series. But then again, somewhere along the way, perhaps you caught a glimpse of something in its day-glow shades; something that persuaded you, for reasons unknown, to stick with it for one more episode. Both of us had the same experience of the show here at the blog, and I’ve been scratching my head for a while over what strange enthralment the series held. But now, I think I’ve put my finger on it, and the secret was waiting just below the top layer of goofiness and monsters-of-the-week.
Plenty of anime are set in high school, as well we know, especially with the magical high school trend in recent seasons, so the theme of learning is prevalent. But this was my first experience of being directly taught about the magic, mystery and myths of real, painful, confusing, wonderful 3D life through an anime. It’s a celebration of our permanent innocence, and how we are always learning new things about ourselves and the world around us, and once I touched upon this thought, all of its treasures were brought into the light.
Lingering on dreams and the joys, aches and fallible nature of memory and perspective, Phantom World shows its main characters’ childhoods in all their truths, whether happy or hurtful. In a sense, it breaks away from the old rose-tinted spectacles that the school years are often placed behind. In giving us this level plane to view their lives in relation to ours, it subtly shows us the worldly and soulful expansion that anime is capable of achieving, giving us the warm feeling of being among friends and escaping from life’s mundanity, yet at the same time reminding us that real life has its wonders too.
Faith, in particular, has a large part to play here, as Haruhiko calls on the Egyptian god of wisdom Thoth to bolster his phantom sealing ability, and Mai conjures of the elements of the Chinese Wu Xing when she fights, each of them believing in their existence, and that these presences will channel their power through them. They show us the potential of imagination, what we can accomplish through that faith, and in this sense Kurumi stands at the series’ heart. She’s open to the world, an empty vessel for all its knowledge, but still has the imagination to bring its magic to the fore. She’s a fragile, fearful, lonely little soul, but these flaws are all accepted as strength to feed into her growing gifts as a phantom hunter.
Rather than being the kind of aspirational show, with the swagger of Bleach or the awesome courage of Madoka Magica, which can leave you feeling inadequate and wishing to be “better”, Phantom World comes to terms with faults. It helps you believe in what you can achieve, simply through being you. One of my favourite things about this show was that it had a withdrawn character in Koito who didn’t miraculously break free of her inhibitions just from being welcomed into someone’s group of friends. Instead, she channeled her confidence into her abilities and supporting her team, not needing to snap into happy-go-lucky mode to prove her self-assurance. What’s more, she doesn’t smile because someone’s asked her to, or to make anybody else comfortable. Her authenticity and sense of self come first; this is how she deals with her shyness and channels it into her ability.
Mai’s boisterous and rage-prone nature, and Kurumi’s need for security personified by her bear and knight Albrecht, are also accepted as things we can learn to manage rather than repress. Reina bottles up her feelings and wants to the point where she shrinks into a detached mirage, but her friends help her remember where she belongs, so she can take the steps she always needed to make a happier life for herself. Kurumi conquers her fears and saves her friends when they need her help, even when she’s missing Albrecht as her shield. Mai gets in touch with her inner nurturer, the one she’s always known she’s embodied but couldn’t express, when she needs to take care of a regressed Haruhiko. And he learns his crucial lesson on the flipside of hers; that he is always cared for, recognising that his strength comes from his childhood hardships and loneliness.
In a single, natural step, in this world where humanity and the supernatural coexist, Haruhiko has a chance to take time off from being the responsible leader, and to have a taste of a happy childhood where he can be secure in his vulnerability. And in this pattern, the fluctuation of life and its discoveries, Haruhiko and Mai, in meeting this challenge together, influence each other and learn from it in their separate ways. Afterwards their relationship deepens, becoming a sibling’s connection where each is a stabilising and comforting presence to the other. It’s these innocent forces of love and acceptance that lead the series on, with the message of the power of friendship supporting, ultimately, the power you discover in yourself.
All of this is painted with a bright effervescence, lighting up conflict and sorrow with the reassurance that everything will fall into place, as we learn to take all struggles in our stride. In her focal episode, it’s Haruhiko’s fairy friend Ruru that tells it best. When given a wish, all she wants is to be human-sized, so she can stand by her friends and be accepted as their equal. But by the end she realises that, tiny and unruly force of nature though she is, she’s always been loved by each of them just the same.