“Boogiepop Phantom” (2000) Vol. 1: A critical analysis of “Portraits from Memory”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the cult anime “Boogiepop Phantom,” a trippy sci fi-horror mashup that examines memory, aging and the uncanny. Every week, this blog will analyze one episode of the series at a time, using the episode’s title as an entry point for analysis. This week, we’re analyzing the first episode: “Portraits from Memory.”

Traditionally, a portrait is a depiction of a human figure (as opposed to a landscape), and a memory is understood as a kind of archive, typically of an individual’s knowledge–everything that has been experienced or learned. To create a portrait from memory would mean to create a representation of a person by drawing on that archive. However, that representation would be inexact. Human memory is a fickle thing, and memories can be influenced by the environment where they’re made or where they’re recalled.

The first image of “Boogiepop Phantom” is a brilliant light shooting into the night sky. This event is the environment where the portraits from memory will be drawn, and it will shape the characters that will be depicted. The key word is “portraits,” since every episode will follow a different character.

The episode introduces many of the quirks that are singular to this show: the repeated pulse sound effect; the skips back and forth through time and narrative; the muted color palette and the vignetting, the black around the edges of the screen.

The last two are the most tied to this title. The muted colors will be removed for the final episode, which will take place in a “present” as opposed to the “past” of the earlier episodes, suggesting the dimness of memory compared to the clarity of present. For now, the muted colors will also add to the atmosphere of the series. The characters are a sickly pale, and the environment is dirty brown or shadowy black.

These characters look like ghosts wandering through the unnamed city, which itself is a kind of memory, an archive or storage place for lost and missing people. The theme of missing people serves as the start of much of the mystery in this series–in this episode it’s student Saotome Masami–and other characters hunt for them like forgetful people trying to recall slippery memories.

Saotome is sought by fellow student Moto Tonomura, who harbors a crush on him. But Moto is shy, and her habits grow increasingly obsessive–hand washing is the most noticeable–as the episode progresses and she struggles to cope with her own emotions and unrequited affection.

Memory is tied to identity; we recognize other people because we remember them, and everyone is both who they are and who we remember them to be. Moto comments that a friend of hers isn’t who she once was. In other words, she is not who Moto remembers her to be, as if she is a different person.

In “Boogiepop,” memory is tied to life and forgetting is tied to death. To be remembered is a kind of immortality, but it’s also a mask. If we are remembered, we can live on after we depart, from view or from life. But if we live on in the environment of fickle human memory, we live on as we are remembered, not as we were.

In a flashback, Saotome asks Moto, “Why do they even bother to live? They all die anyway.” He’s talking about rabbits, but the human sting returns when Moto appears to find Saotome while wandering the city. It’s not really him. It’s something that looks like him. Moto confesses her love to it, but the Saotome-thing does not recognize her. In fact, it wants to kill her.

“You don’t remember me?” she asks. He does not.

“It doesn’t really matter though, does it?” he replies.

“No, not really,” Moto says. “It doesn’t matter.” She falls to her knees. Forgotten by the object of her affection, she is prepared to die.

But she does not. Another thing that looks like Boogiepop, an urban legend and personification of death, appears and kills the Saotome-thing. Moto later reflects on the episode, unsure if she should trust her memories: “I’m still not sure if that was Boogiepop or not. I could have simply imagined it.”

“I’m still alive. Maybe,” she concludes, the the words that close the episode. If she can’t trust her own memories, how can she trust her very existence?

In another show, light might serve as an intimating presence, but it doesn’t here. A flash of light is what leads Moto to the false Saotome, and her confrontation with the Saotome-thing is punctuated by flashes of light from a passing train. Neither light source fully illuminates the screen or the situation, instead only offering poor glimpses of identity and reality. Fuzzy memories indeed.

The final quirk we mentioned was the vignetting effect. Vignetting is a technique that darkens the corners of an image and uses extra light to illuminate and draw attention to the center, and it is frequently done in portrait painting and photography. In this series, the burst of light seen in this episode will draw attention to the characters in the center, illuminating the environment where they’ll form their memories and where we’ll watch them. Light is supposed to illuminate the environment and the characters, but in this series, it’s up to us as viewers to figure out how lucid that illumination will be.

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