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Memories of Phantasm 7, Hisoutensoku Episode – my review

After that “silly symphony” attempt we got with previous episode with Shiki, I really wondered what they could put out next. How does this series still cope after all those episodes? Is this one really worth? Is it better than 6? What is right and wrong with this series? That’s what I’ll be trying to answer throughout this review.

Let’s forget about “silly symphony” and attempt something else

I really wondered what could come after that Shiki episode. To my surprise, Manpuku Jinja decided to go a complete different route by embracing Cirno’s story from fighting game Hisoutensoku. This is the first time the circle uses a fighting game as a basis where most viewers were expecting another take on a danmaku one. The artistic approach behind this will seem obvious to a part of you reading this. Also, this might also be the opportunity to get rid of the grimace feast we saw on episode 6.

Yes, it’s obvious they chose an easy route again by emphasising on a popular and cute character. It’s not a bad idea per se. It’s even pretty appreciable as it may help building something around the ice fairy and give her some more developed personality. And, you may disagree but I think they succeeded. Sure we still have the stupid 9-ball and “you’re and idiot” gags but when you know Manpuku Jinja’s animated series well, you know what to expect. I said many times they try to cater the widest possible audience. So this shouldn’t surprise you after 7 episodes, and what shouldn’t surprise you either after all that time is the lack of something so ubiquitous in commercial animation that some of you take a bit too much for granted (I’ll come to that at the end). And seriously, it is not that bad. At a time, we have to stop the bad faith. Just because you see something you don’t like, that doesn’t make the episode a no brainer. “But look, there’s no fighting scene, Dioxaz, no sakuga moment in that episode, it’s the worst!” some may be tempted to reply. Alright, let’s come to that.

Characterization, writing, and storytelling

Let’s talk about aspects 4chaners and all other internet posters never talk about because they’re too busy in bashing with all their jadedness.

After 7 episodes, I’m relieved to notice again how endearing their characters still remain. And to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with what they did with Cirno and Daiyousei (litt. “great fairy”). I guess it has to do with their portrayals, their attitude and the lines they deliver (something you can only gauge with a translation when you don’t speak the language). Those are the strongest points in Manpuku Jinja’s handling of the series and this doesn’t change here. Also, I don’t have to mention the quality of the music, sound design and backgrounds which are top notch as always. Also, the mood that emerges from some scenes is really nice and the episode still flows nicely without never making you asleep.

However, that episode reveals a weakness that’s been there since the beginning but only started to get obvious from here for me. The storytelling is almost non existent. I believe this is partly why this OVA gets an undeserved bad rep among some viewers. Sincerely, there have been many MMD drama attempts that were much more touching than this whole series. Staying true to the games stories is one thing but what this series lack is building something new and ground-breaking around them. But I guess they don’t have the time and have to be concise. Instead, the circle prefers choosing having a hundred lines of dialogue instead of taking more time in order to create something deeper. You all noticed how insanely fast those episodes are produced. And indeed, this leads us with some nice whoopsies, just like I will show here:

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Observe Alice’s eyes and Utsuho’s mouth. What the hell did the character designer in those shots smoke when he made them? This is not something you would expect from an OVA of that class. I hope the circle is not reproducing the same operating model of big commercial animation studios here, as it’s us, viewers, who will be in trouble this time, not just that poor ice fairy

Not a battle scene, rather a confrontation

What made a welcome return in that episode is a battle scene… erm, no, not really as it doesn’t last very long. It’s more accurate to name what happens between Cirno and Utsuho “a confrontation”.
If you read my reaction on Twitter, I admit I’ve been a bit too harsh. Even during that simple confrontation, you can sense how our ice fairy is in trouble. This shows a personality aspect of Cirno that is not commonly seen in fanworks (especially animated ones), her determination and courage. So, does it mean it sucks? No, your beloved sakuga is here and well present, just not as obvious and epic as in episode 4 for instance (remember that clever frame recycling from one of the openings in order to build a part of the battle scene with Sakuya). That fight scene might have looked rushed to you but it’s not as bad as what we saw in episode 1 of Maikaze’s OVA for instance. But I frankly admit I really wish that confrontation was more epic and a bit longer.

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No, this isn’t a battle as it is too short but yes, the sakuga is still there as Cirno tries to dodge and block those threatening fireballs. Another amusing detail is the wallpaper-like PCB pattern that wraps what I think is the Underground Geyser Center

Controversies of Phantasm

Don’t get me wrong, producing a series like this one is already a ground-breaking effort on its own, I acknowledge it. But between producing short openings or PVs and producing long episodes, there’s an immense gap that the circle seems to have a bit underestimated. Some viewers quite rightly noted that the openings always end up unanimous while the episodes themselves always leave mixed impressions.

There’s a simple reason behind that. Making a short OP doesn’t have the same set of constraints that a full episode have. In order to make an episode, there’s a whole new set of things to consider like giving a tone, writing a story, decide what you will tell (what you will include or prioritize and what you’ll have to exclude or rule out), making stronger and decisive artistic decisions. With an episode, you have more things to show. They could have made sure the episodes stayed in tone to the openings but that would have required stronger storytelling elements, one of their weakest points, as I wrote earlier. They instead thought it was better to rely on high quality art and animation to compensate for that caveat. And definitely, the choices they will make in order to compensate for that caveat just can’t be unanimous. You just can’t produce what is literally an animated postcard and hope everyone will enjoy it. Hence the choice of including fanservice, memes, filler scenes and making sure our characters look like they always have something interesting to say in order to justify that “let’s watch it for the art” orientation.

Also, I see some viewers complaining how it doesn’t even follow the original stories accurately, throwing in the circle’s own interpretation and choosing what they want to show instead of what should be essential. This is unfortunately a point I can’t verify as I’m a sucker with the games. However, this is an area which must be explored with good stepping back and no jadedness. If you have some interesting thoughts, you can drop some into the comments.

But… but!! Where are the voices?! I can’t hear anything! Don’t tell me you didn’t notice, it’s the most striking thing in the series! (also, a word on fandubs)

Reading complaints about being no voices in Youtube comments (both from Western and Japanese viewers) always bring me a smile, especially after 7 episodes.

It’s not the most striking if you’re used to watching fanworks, especially Touhou ones*. It’s not when you consider it’s a fanwork, too. And it’s not when you start thinking and considering what having good voice acting actually involves.

*There’s Nico Nico Douga for that, and also Touhousubs’ Youtube channel if you want a careful selection of them, with English subtitles, all reprinted with actual permission from authors

The constraints I listed above remind a bit of the ones you encounter when you want to go full voice for your own work, like recruiting your cast, testing it, giving acting directions, waiting for the lines to be delivered, double-checking the lines are properly delivered, eventually checking if some lines have to be redone, adjusting the tone of your animated feature to the strength and weaknesses of your VAs, adapting your story so the low number of VAs you have at your disposal isn’t detrimental, eventually adjusting the audio quality of your voice recordings (eq-ing, dynamic compression, volume, panning, effects, etc.) and make sure there’s homogeneity between all of them, etc. Ironically, that’s a whole set of things they completely decided to rule out, either as taking the easy way out, or as an assumed artistic choice, as it gives way more liberty this way (no need to alter your story because of the voices and you’re free to choose the tone you want). I speculate they were too afraid of screwing up their episodes so they ended up with written dialogue only. And this will be the final part of this review before concluding.

Again, if you’re familiar with Touhou fanworks, you probably noticed how easy it is to screw everything up with subpar voice acting. Just look at the Cookie☆ voice dramas. Just look at anything that features voice*. A hint of cheese will always be there no matter how good the voice acting is. I guess this has to do with how Touhou Project stimulates our imagination like no other franchise has done it before, thanks to how ZUN built this wonderful universe, set of characters and background behind them. So, in order to accommodate that, one of the smarter choices is to rule out voice, as it is the hardest resource to get right and as it immediately kills that imagination stimulating factor I mentioned above for this specific franchise (a bit unrelated of an example but sometimes there’s nothing wrong with preferring a well-known TV series to be read as a manga instead of being watched, as even low-grade and trivial full animation, rushed audio work, generic soundtrack and stereotyped voice acting can add their own share of cheese on their own… but it’s a whole other debate).

*I’m also including those so-called Yukkuri voice and Voiceroids here, as an improper and abusive use of them can lead to very cringe-worthy and questionable results, especially on non-parodic content (I’m not talking about people who make a cutting-edge and innovative use of them, rather the habit of using them as cheap trendy and attractive tricks because some people mistakenly think it’s nicer to have voice than nothing)

So, in the end, it’s not a bad thing at all that this OVA series has written dialogue only and no voice. I sincerely hope it will remain that way. Sure it kind of looks dodgy and clumsy. Sure there’s a little too much dialogue to make us forget that clumsiness and sure watching the endless lipflaps moving in the air without producing sound will feel unnatural to most of you, because of the strong influence commercial animation had on us for more than 90 years now. But keep in mind they’re just drawings. Think of it as an animated book and strongly convince yourself this is a fictional and imaginary world, while keeping in mind you’re not watching something meant to be aired on regular TV. If you succeed, you might find the characters cuter that way and like it better. You might even think it has its own charm and how it can be set apart. Also remember how people did when talking movies weren’t still a thing.

Now, if you just can’t because you can’t and because you think I’m a moron to be able to waste my time in making all this up, there are fandubs. A vast majority of you will only watch it like this anyway. Currently, the best fandubs are the ones made and directed by Chinese amateur VA shourei小N. They have variety (many VAs are featured, including NENE and vivian198808), excellent audio quality and the quality of the performance is rather good. vivian198808 also make her own ones alone, but I think her voice is too soft to be versatile enough (note: she also makes full voice versions of some well known MMD dramas). Other fandubs to note are the ones made by ヘイ眠気覚まし. But again lack of versatility and audio quality in earlier episodes are subpar. Another notable mention is 鶏子だよぉ (http://trkdy.com/). Because of how her Marisa sounds, she can almost be designated as the true successor to Pika Aizawa… except that can’t be because she’s obviously not as versatile (her voice is medium to high pitched and not soft enough, so deep and soft voices aren’t her strengths).

Call me weird but I love these awkward moments when watching the original episode with no voice. They just feel special because they look so awkward (just like this particular one).

The pikadub! the pikadub, dumbass!

And this leads us to another point you think I didn’t notice or I ignored on purpose. No, I’m coming to it. During the 3 first episodes of Memories of Phantasm, there was a series of fandubs that were unanimous with almost everybody. They were made by solely one person, amateur VA Pika Aizawa.

What was so great about them is how they sounded very close to TV animation standards, making the series look and sound like a potential flagship TV animated series. She was energetic, full of self-confidence with an unmatched versatility, allowing her to perform all kinds of characters. She by herself single-handedly eliminated the need to see elsewhere and even come back to the original unvoiced episodes for most. Except, she wasn’t so perfect. She was acclaimed because her acting matched what almost every ordinary anime enthusiast from the West expects when watching anime. That’s why those fandub versions had so much success. As a side note, it also brought some undesired and more clueless viewers to the party.

Now, coming back to the actual performance itself, it did have some weaknesses indeed. As versatile she was, sometimes her timbre sounded a bit too similar from a character to another. She was also prone to free-wheeling and exaggerating a lot, as it is very in fashion in the anime industry. Western viewers typically love this but that doesn’t make her acting the de facto example. The free-wheeling can get irritating after a while and you wish she was more subtle and tempered. The best example was her rendition of Marisa in the Bluray version of episode 1 of this series. Because, yes, she did eventually get called by the circle to perform on one of their release (as a bonus audio track however), unlike what some 4channers like to claim on /jp. It was just too much to me, to a point it even felt a bit jarring. Her first version (the one which made her famous on Nico Nico Douga and Youtube) just sounded right because it was more tempered.

And finally, the worst happened. After dubbing 3 episodes of Memories of Phantasm, dubbing episode 1 of amateur MMD series Angels of Paradise (as Marisa) and releasing a Voice drama CD, she definitely quit the scene and wiped everything she did off Nico Nico Douga, probably as a result of that excessive and unwanted fame. People were here just for her fandubs of Memories of Phantasm and nothing else. Everybody only cared about the “pikadub” without even thinking about it. It was the ubiquity for many viewers. Now she left, this whole set of viewers are completely lost now. I hope this will help them in being a little more curious and open-minded, and realize how having someone like Pika Aizawa was something exceptional. Now the future of Memories of Phantasm is without her, that’s how it is (and I repeat, there’s nothing wrong in watching it unvoiced).

What to think now?

That section about voices and fandubs was probably too long. I’m sorry about that. You may notice how I finally more reviewed the series as a whole rather than episode 7 itself.

So, how good is the episode in the end? To be honest, like I said, we have to stop the bad faith. As much as the grimace feast we had previously was kind of disturbing, the return to something we’re more used to was more than welcome. Well-developed characters, nice moods, nice dialogue and even slice of life scenes which don’t act as soporific, as they would with Maikaze’s series. We also had the welcome return of some sort of battle (even if it short). We for once have the feeling that something is happening again (episodes 5 and 6 were vague in that regard). So, for a Memories of Phantasm episode, it is a good one. Sure it can’t be as exciting as previous ones because the discovery and novelty effects are long gone and far behind us. But there’s something else that makes the episode lack excitement, after 7 of these.

Seriously, I really wish the circle work better into the storytelling department as it is once again the true Achilles’ heel of this series. Look what Kyoto Fantasy Troupe did with their episode. They should take this as an example or at least a reference. I don’t want them to abruptly change their plans and being more story-oriented all of a sudden, as that would be even more detrimental if they screw up. No, what I’d really like is that they consider one of those elements, in order to add a slightly deeper tone and minimize memes and fanservice progressively (The Sealed Esoteric History had none of these).

Also, the other thing that bothers me and other viewers is how they give more and more the image of not knowing exactly where they go. Just look at the teaser at the end. The usual post-teaser segment (concluded by a nice “Next phantasm…”) always seen in earlier episodes is not even present here. Not very inspiring.

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Respectively “The preview for Episode 8”, “Everybody is waiting patiently for it” and “That’s it!”*
Umm… yeah, that’s not exactly what I’d expect from a teaser…

*credits to Kuilfrayt for the translation. The English subbed version of the original unvoiced episode can be watched here (an alternate English subbed version by Melancholic Celeste can be watched here)

To give an image of professionalism, you have to know where to go. Showing indecisiveness is definitely not a good thing and will upset your viewers. So, to people at Manpuku Jinja, next time try at least to pick-up a scenario or game that will allow a slightly deeper tone and make you work on your storytelling a bit more. I don’t care if it must take more time than usual. Episode after episode, your audience widens which means bigger expectations and you have to take that in consideration, too.

So, umm… after being drown in my own thoughts, what if you’re not familiar with the series? The answer is simple. You can try them at their Youtube or Nico Nico Douga channel (or some of the fansubbed and fandubbed reprints). For me, both first fourth episodes are worth as they all have their share of interesting segments (but also some signs of laziness that may disturb you). Episodes 5 and 6 are special in their own kind as they gave the impression of trying to find their feet and never finding them. They’re more like experiments. Not the ones I’d recommend to purchase. And there’s this one, which tried something and quite succeeded. If you like Cirno, take it. If you’re too jaded and annoyed by their story shortcuts and choices, I can’t do anything for you.

And for those familiar with the series like me, this one is definitely recommended because of the good time you’ll have by watching it, even with a confrontation rather than an epic battle. If episodes 5 and 6 disappointed you, this one may do the job.

I sincerely apologize for my lack of conciseness. But I think writing thoughts as they come can be interesting too, especially from the perspective of someone with non-existent journalistic background. If this set the record straight about all crap that can often be read on forums and message boards and give you some comfort about what to think about this series, well that’s good for me. Because that’s what I wanted.

Whatever the route they pick up (hoping they never screw up), I wish the circle good luck for the future, as making decisive choices and decisions is definitely something not easy, as there are some other type of constraints that we, viewers, often forget or ignore the existence because not involved in the process or not really aware what really happens during the making of an ambitious animated feature.

Someone on the /jp section of 4chan cleverly noticed how this particular segment shared similarities with the original Cookie☆ voice drama* with the same exact place, the same exact BGM used as a base and how Reimu drinks her cup of tea (she’s even shown eating a cookie!). Again, an intentional reference made by the circle. In the end, having those references is definitely not a bad thing when subtly introduced, like here.

*can be watched with English subtitles here: part1part2part3