Phantom Dream

May 19, 2010 dreamkaleidoscope
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TITLE: Phantom Dream
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Natsuki Takaya
RATING: Older Teen (16+)
SCORE: 7 (Good)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Natsuki Takaya (mangaka of Fruits Basket and Tsubasa: Those With Wings), Yurara, Rasetsu, drama, romance, action, supernatural

Ever wondered how Natsuki Takaya, the mangaka behind the shoujo hit Fruits Basket, got her start? Well, here’s your chance with Phantom Dream, Takaya’s debut series.

Around a thousand years ago, there once lived a beautiful woman with omnipotent powers who was considered the guardian of Japan. She had two companions named Hira and Saga, both who also possessed strong magical powers which they used to help people in need. She and Hira were also lovers, but when the woman was savagely murdered, Hira’s grief turned to anger toward the entire human race. Naming himself the head of the Gekka family, Hira began using his powers to turn humans into jaki — demons filled with jashin (negative emotion) — in the hope that they would destroy themselves. Saga, in opposition to Hira, formed the Otoya family, using his powers as a shugoshi (priest) to exorcise the jashin from the humans-turned-jaki.

This ancient feud between the two families has continued onto the present day, when the story of Phantom Dream begins. Sullen seventeen-year-old Tamaki Otoya is the new shugoshi of the Otoya family, a direct descendent of Saga. Though powerful, he hates the fact that he is unable to prevent people from turning into jaki. All he can do is “clean up the mess”, so to speak. By his side is his ever-cheerful girlfriend and childhood friend Asahi, who provides him with unwavering love and support. Though aware of the fact that Tamaki will have to marry a girl of power his family chooses for him, Asahi wants to continue loving him for as long as she can. Things change, however, when Eiji — the jahoutsukai (black magician) of the Gekka family — appears, demanding the return of the Suigekka, a magical sword that once belonged to Hira. Surprising revelations then are made, putting in motion events that will lead to the ultimate battle between the Gekka and Otoya families.

I have to admit I was not very impressed with this series at first. It isn’t until about halfway through that things started to pick up, yet by the end, I quite liked it. I still don’t think Phantom Dream is as good as Tsubasa: Those With Wings or Fruits Basket, but considering that it was Takaya’s debut series, that can be forgiven.

What can’t be forgiven is a certain character quirk of Tamaki’s that I cannot believe Takaya gave him. It pretty much ruined the entire character for me and was one of the reasons why I didn’t care for the series at first. The thing is, Tamaki has a bad habit of (playfully) hitting and kicking Asahi — and we’re supposed to consider it funny. It’s not. I know it’s a total double standard, but while girls (usually tsunderes) hitting guys can sometimes be played for laughs — see Kagura from Fruits Basket and Kaname from Full Metal Panic, but not Naru from Love Hina, who pretty much just abused poor Keitaro — the same cannot be said for guys hitting girls. I can’t think of any situation in which that would be acceptable (except maybe a battle), much less funny. The thing that really gets me, though? In a bonus side story at the end of Volume 4, we learn that Asahi’s widowed mother is physically abusive toward her. Tamaki has known this since they were kids, yet he still hits her! Urgh! And to top it all off, when one of Asahi’s friends tries to tell Tamaki to stop hitting her in that same bonus story, Asahi says, and I quote, “It’s just how we show our love!”

No, hitting someone is never a way to show love. I don’t care if Tamaki never actually hurts Asahi, it’s not funny, it’s not cute, and it is definitely, definitely NOT romantic, and I am quite frankly horrified that Takaya would try to portray it as such when she handles the topic of abuse — both mental and physical — so sensitively in Fruits Basket. Fortunately, except for that bonus story, after Volume 2 these scenes disappear due to certain spoiler-y circumstances, so the reader can focus more on the plot instead of how much they want to pummel Tamaki into a bloody pulp. (Or maybe that was just me.)

Speaking of plot, the beginning starts off slow, with a kind of Monster-of-the-Day vibe as the reader is gets to know the main characters and learns about Tamaki’s various powers as a shugoshi, but things start to get a little more interesting with the introduction of the jahoutsukai Eiji and the rest of the Gekka family. I have to say this series has some great twists that are genuinely surprising, in particular the true nature of the jahoutsukai, which I found fascinating. Actually, anything involving Eiji tended to pique my interest, since Eiji was one of my favorite — if not the favorite — characters from the series. (I almost wish Eiji had been the main character instead of Tamaki. No, scratch the “almost”. I do wish Eiji had been the main character.)

Though the little life lessons Takaya becomes known for in her later series are occasionally sprinkled into the narrative of the story, to me, they didn’t seem to resonate as strongly. For example, Asahi’s “everybody has a star in the night sky” metaphor (meaning that there’s a little light (goodness) in everyone) just doesn’t have the same oomph as Tohru’s “there’s an umeboshi on your back” metaphor (about how people become jealous of others because they’re unable to see what’s good about themselves) from Fruits Basket. Still, Phantom Dream does explore some of same themes as FB, such as how things can never stay the same and letting go of the past, so it’s kind of interesting to see the seeds being planted.

Phantom Dream is undeniably Takaya’s most plot-based work. Fruits Basket was character-driven slice-of-life, and while T:TWW was somewhat plotty, it still felt more like the characters were moving the plot instead of the other way around. I mention this because the characters in Phantom Dream are generally not as vibrant or well-developed as the characters in Takaya’s later series. I’ve already ranted about how much I dislike Tamaki, but even if he wasn’t hitting Asahi all the time, I doubt I would have liked him. The way he kept moping about not being able to protect every one from the very beginning of the story, quite frankly, kind of annoyed me. Nobody can protect the entire human race. That’s just ridiculous. I might have liked him more if he had been more of the “I’m going to try my best to do what I can” school of shonen heros than an angsty, moody shoujo lead, depressed about how useless he is when he obviously isn’t. He was a little too passive for my taste to make for a compelling main character. As for Asahi, she’s very much the airheaded, cutesy, refers-to-herself-in-the-third-person, overflowing with love kind of character — almost bordering — if not crossing — into Mary-Sue territory. She definitely not a strong female lead in the mold of Kotobuki and Tohru, and I have a feeling that her personality will turn off a lot of readers at first, but I will say that she does become less grating as the story goes on due, again, to certain spoiler-y circumstances. Really, the only people on the “good guys” side I found remotely interesting were Kaname (Tamaki’s mother) and Hideri (one of the higoshi who are the protectors of the shugoshi).

It’s actually the members of the Gekka family who are the most intriguing characters to me. Each is given detailed backstory, and almost everybody gets the chance to grow and develop as a character, unlike those on the Otoya side, who stay fairly static (with the exception of Kaname, Hideri, and maybe Asahi). Some of the most touching scenes in the series are focused on those of the Gekka family. Like I said before, had Eiji been the main character instead of Tamaki, I might have enjoyed the story more.

You may have noticed that I’ve been flinging around quite a few unfamiliar Japanese words during the course of this review. Feeling confused yet? If you are, you may find yourself fighting the urge to throw these manga volumes across the room in frustration, because they get used — a lot. I don’t usually have a problem when manga translators choose to keep some vocabulary in Japanese, but the thing is, there are roughly about a dozen terms the reader has to keep track of, and a lot of them look very similar: shugoshi, shichiboujin, shieki, gohou, Suigekka, juzu, jahoutsukai, jaryoku, jashin, jaki, higoshi, hi, haku, kon. See what I mean? A handy rule of thumb is that all the words that begin with an “S” are terms related to the Otoya; likewise, all the words that begin with “J” are Gekka words, but that rule doesn’t hold true for “Suigekka” and “juzu” (prayer beads). Suigekka was Hira’s sword and rightly belongs to the Gekka family, while the juzu belonged to Saga and are used by the shugoshi of the Otoya family. It doesn’t help with the confusion that a proper glossary of terms isn’t provided until the third volume. I would have appreciated it more had they added the glossary from the very beginning. That might have been helpful.

Artwise, since this was Takaya’s debut series, it’s not as polished as her later works, but around Vol. 3 or so, you can start to see her start to improve. I believe this is around the time she started on her next series Tsubasa: Those With Wings, so you can even see some the characters in PD starting to look more like those in T:TWW. The change is probably most evident in Eiji, who begins to look like Kotobuki’s twin.

Overall, Phantom Dream is a decent debut, but if you want to check out Takaya’s work, Fruits Basket and Tsubasa: Those With Wings are stronger series. However, if you are still interested in Phantom Dream even after reading this review, I suggest you skip over the bonus story in Vol. 4. It’s just a filler piece with no real bearing on the series, and it’ll probably just make you angry.  I know it certainly made me furious.


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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. sylphalchemist  |  May 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    Reading this review reminds me that I need to complete Fruits Basket (I only got the first volume of the manga and the anime box set).

    From your description this looks like something I might enjoy (I like the supernatural genre) though the angsty male lead – who likes to express his feelings to his girl by whacking her around around – kind of turns me off ^^:

    I’ll put this into the MAYBE pile
    Thanks for the review ~

    • 2. dreamkaleidoscope  |  May 28, 2010 at 11:51 am

      Yes, you should definitely continue reading Fruits Basket. It’s my favorite manga series ever. There will be tons of gushing whenever I get around to reviewing it. It’s going to be sickening. *laughs*

      I think there are a lot better supernatual series other than Phantom Dream out there, though. (I’m a big fan of them, too. ^_^) If you want some really good supernatual stories, check out Chika Shiomi’s works. I’ve already reviewed Night of the Beasts and Canon, but Yurara and Rasetsu are awesome, too. ^_^

      – Zoe Alexander

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