Title: Boogiepop wa Warawanai
Length: 18 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Horror, drama
Year of release: 2019
Getting your head around what Boogiepop is trying to do, fundamentally, is bizarre. Using horror-cum-mystery storytelling, the classic light novel franchise builds up these arc-based stories talking to our inner humanity with a blend of psychology and philosophy. Despite the major character deaths, teenage super heroes, and aliens, the series emphasises the importance of empathy and self-reflection. After more than 20 years, the highly influential series finally received a straight-forward adaptation (note: the 2000 adaption Boogie Phantom is an anime original side story set after the first 3 episodes of this series) – does it do its name justice?
While the titular character, it’s hard to describe Boogiepop, the stovepipe wearing face of the series, as the protagonist. The stories are told achronologically, spiralling inwards from far away perspectives on the mystery and gradually into the heart of the matter – with Boogiepop quietly observing and gently nudging its actors into position to get the best ending with the minimal effort. That is, surprisingly, nothing to do with apathy, but rather the series’ core philosophy.
The mysteries themselves feature aliens and spiritual abominations that are tied into several different lines of existential philosophy and psychological theory that the narrative manipulates in interesting ways. There are a trio of protagonists, in fact, with Boogiepop emphasising the importance of understanding, whose role is almost always to expose the misguided actions of the antagonists, asking what truly is evil. Then there is also the almost-classic super hero, the human Nagi Kirima, who, due to a history with these supernatural phenomena, attempts to take on the burden of problem-solving all on her own, and her can-do attitude in the face of deadly adversity is something that always makes the series shine. And then there is the uninformed humans who are dragged unwillingly into the situation and given the chance to ‘evolve’.
As a biologist, I must roll my eyes at the series’ use of the term ‘evolution’ amidst all its science, because the series’ ideas have nothing to do with survival or adaptation. However, the term is used more classically to reference becoming ‘better’, and, as a human first and foremost, I do love the way these ideas are used. Somewhere around the middle of each arc, it will become clear that the TOWA organisation, a group monitoring humanity’s ‘evolution’ and attempting to stabilise it, are highly interested in the issue. All the ESP and supernatural hogwash is specifically to draw attention to the idea of humans ‘evolving’, but it does not mean ‘evolving’ on a species wide scale (hence why, as a biologist, I’m willing to overlook it), but on a personal level.
To put it bluntly, a bit of psychoanalysis and a lot of empathy is required to dive into the cause of each issue. For example, the second arc features a girl with a high sex-drive who has her emotions taken away, only to find herself reconnecting with those emotions. There is two aspects here: the unnatural overcoming of trauma (bad, Boogiepop declares) and the natural overcoming (good!). Boogiepop monitors these issues, and while disagreeing with the TOWA organisation’s philosophy on evolution, usually aligns with the goal: personal demons cannot be simply beaten. There’s some sort of manifestation of city-unnerving powers in the process, and maybe some deaths here and there, but Boogiepop wa Warawanai is a fundamentally personal series. Sometimes it takes doing the wrong thing to realise you need help, and sometimes the most powerful thing that Boogiepop can say is ‘you are not my enemy, yet’. The threat to humanity is not extinction, but forced trauma that cannot be overcome, a result of refusing to overcome or cheating your way out of your own troubles – that’s an extremely powerful message.
And, on the whole, the delivery of that message, narratively speaking, is impressively resonant. Nagi Kirima’s backstory arc, taking up the series’ ‘Boogiepop at Dawn’ sequence, is the series at its best. This is partially because we have such a rich character to dig into by the time this arc is given, and partly because of the character’s undying spunk, but also because of the unabashed acceptance of the series’ philosophy. Yes, there’s a brief mention of Freud’s psychosexual intercourse – I mean discourse – but the way that fear is put under the microscope is very impressive. Likewise, the King of Distortion’s finale and Stairway to Heaven, while sadly not breaking Led Zeppelin’s trademark over the franchise’s love of rock n’ roll, twisted every single theme into an inspirational and heartfelt ending. I did have a couple issues here and there with the VS Imaginator arc, which went on too long with too many wishy-washy characters, and it even made a misguided attempt to compare the plight of a slut-shamed girl to a closeted homosexual boy. But on the whole, Boogiepop wa Warawanai is an impressive written piece.
I’ve almost touched upon it. Almost. That VS Imaginator arc wasn’t just a rough watch because of the couple of narrative misbeats. Using all this cerebrally intense ideas, Boogiepop needs to stylistically keep your attention. What good is a message if it’s not entertaining, right? The series has some interesting ideas to do this. The aliens are actually terrifying, and the series uses horror cues to demonstrate the folly of ‘unnatural evolution’ (so to speak), and the confrontations can lead to intense, unnerving super-power battles… and then there’s the series love of music in the lipservice, referencing classical pieces and even rock n’ roll.
While the fight between Fear Ghoul and Nagi in the Boogiepop at Dawn arc was exhilarating at the height of the tension, and Masaki’s martial arts in the VS Imaginator arc were impressively animated, the series struggles with presentation. Credit where credit is due, the sound direction is a strong point, but doesn’t match up to Boogiepop Phantom’s. The general level of animation is acceptable, though I was saddened when, due to production time constraints that were generally apparent, one of Nagi’s chances at a fight scene was handled with stills and cuts to black. But it’s at a visual design level that the series lets itself down. In a bid to be ‘normal’, Boogiepop wa Warawanai uses very bland character designs, but with such a large cast this is a double edged sword – all the faces can blend into one another! Except for Spooky E, of course, whose unintentional ugliness surprised me. Likewise, the storyboarding is too often flat, and is paired with mediocre editing. On the whole, the series feels directed too lazily for the potential that such a cerebrally intense series demands. In a medium rife with Monogatari’s and Ikuhara’s pushing out Sarazanmai’s – even the strained production of Akanesasu Shoujo mustered up something – the level of art here is just too low for the content, and when the narrative beats move around too much in the overstretched VS Imaginator arc, it’s easy to lose attention. There are occasional nods to the psychological horror tools that the series demands, particularly during the King of Distortion arc, but it doesn’t feel like quite enough.
Make no mistake, the production is ample to get the message across – but it does little more. On paper, this show is up there with the lesser talked about classics. In reality, it falls short.