What’s it about? Inspired by the letters her great-grandmother sent home, Ton and her best friend Shinyao decide to study abroad in London. When Ton chases after a strange thief who’s stolen their luggage, she soon finds herself embroiled in a paranormal battle involving three young men who all work at a cafe founded by her own great-grandmother. What is this organization, and what did Ton’s grandma have to do with it?
“Another season, another otome VN adaptation,” I thought as I looked (a bit wearily) at the cover art for Phantom in the Twilight and rolled those ever-fickle reverse-harem dice. And then, lo, Lady Luck looked down and smiled upon me, surprising me with a supernatural mystery series complete with spunky female foreign-exchange students, Gatling-gun-toting waiters, and kickass great-grandmas. Oh yeah. This one has my name scribbled all over it.
To be clear, Phantom isn’t technically an otome VN adaptation; it’s a Japan/China original anime co-production. That said, it’s also being produced by game developer Happy Elements, so that tie-in game can’t be far behind. The same thing happened with Dance with Devils (a series I will fight for any day of the week), which allowed it to tell a more clear-cut, linear story instead of trying to cobble together bits of multiple character routes and splintering narratives.
This may also explain why Phantom‘s protagonist is such a breath of fresh air. Without being tethered to the blank-faced self-insert model so common in these types of stories, Ton is free to have personality oozing out her ears. She’s outgoing, courageous, and a bit short-tempered, as quick to defend someone in need as she is to tell them off when she thinks they’re at fault. Ton sets the tone (sorry) for the entire premiere, injecting every scene with a sense of bright adventure, and I love her already.
Better still, the episode doesn’t try to sideline her when the fur (literally) starts flying. Ton is willing to fight to protect others even when she’s helpless, which speaks to her bravery, but Phantom doesn’t punish her for this or damsel her in spite of it.
Instead, her great-grandmother Rijan’s ring activates to create a magical chain weapon, which Ton uses with instinctive ease to help take down the week’s monster. Not only is Ton already a helpful participant in the battles, but she’s given that power by another woman who’s already being built up as a heroic (albeit complicated) figure.
Granted, Ton’s poor best friend Shinyao, the more traditionally feminine of the two, does get kidnapped by episode’s end. It helps that Phantom has a sense of humor about it, but it’s still possible the series will fall back on some tired gendered stereotypes or lean into a “not like other girls” mentality. So far, though, between Ton and Rijan, I’m feeling real good about the way Phantom is handling its female cast, and looking forward to spending more time with all of them.
An engaging heroine is the most integral element to a successful otome or shoujo adventure story, but she’s not the only thing that can make or break it. If the boys are predatory jerks, it can kill the fun in a big ol’ hurry.
Thankfully, while the lads of Cafe Forbidden are by no means perfect, they seem to be basically decent dudes. Both Luke (a werewolf) and Toryu (??) are friendly; and although Vlad (totally a vampire) is a bit prickly, he and Ton soon develop a combative back-and-forth that’s enjoyable rather than uncomfortable. This episode was mostly focused on Ton, so none of the guys got much screen time, but if our protagonist is any indication of the show’s writing then they should all charm the pants off of us by series’ end.
There’s also an undercurrent about consent and what Ton wants that gets brought up on multiple occasions. First, when Vlad grabs Ton’s face out of shock that she looks so much like her great-grandma Rijan, Luke immediately smacks him and tells him to stop freaking her out.
Then, after the fight is over and Vlad wipes Ton’s memory in an attempt to keep their secret safe (and keep Ton away from the violence, one assumes), Toryu questions if this is what Ton really wants while Luke straight-up scolds Vlad for overriding her will. (Luke is already Best Boy, if you were wondering.)
I don’t approve of Vlad’s actions (although I can understand them), but it bodes well that Phantom seems intent on directly addressing them as inappropriate. It suggests a story that’s not only presenting an active female protagonist, but fighting for her right to stand toe-to-toe with the paranormal pretty-boys. There’s room for strong character growth and a valuable argument about female agency here, so I hope to see that play out in the coming weeks.
The greatest hurdle to Phantom being good clean fun is the supernatural age-gap element. As is common in these stories, the boys are all significantly older than Ton—like, “knew her great-grandmother personally” levels of older. And I’m not clear on if Ton is in high school or college, though the end credits lead me to believe it’s the former. [UPDATE: Ton and Shinyao are in college.] Whatever the case, given the genre, it seems real likely this series will develop an age-gap romance.
As we’ve discussed in the past, age-gap relationships aren’t inherently toxic, but they are always worrying. Phantom has couched its story in a number of fantastical elements that help create a layer of unreality (nobody’s going to run into a centuries-old vampire in the real world, after all) and has thus far taken care to balance the power between Ton and the boys as much as possible.
Currently, it reads much more like a teen escapist fantasy than a grooming manual, so as long as Ton maintains her agency going forward, I’m not too fussed about it. Everyone’s comfort levels vary, though, so I did want to let folks know about it going in.
Beyond that, though, I adored this premiere. It hits that same great balance that Code: Realize did between sincerity and humor, taking its characters seriously without ever losing that sense of silly paranormal fun.
It’s also a pretty good-looking series, with solid animation, lovely London backgrounds, and some distinct character designs (particularly Mysterious Monocle Man, who is almost certainly going to become a trash antagonist I can’t help but love). And while I’m by no means qualified to discuss this at length, I must admit I’m digging the idea of two generations of Chinese women saving a bunch of British butts, given the country’s imperialist history.
There are plenty of things that could go wrong, mind you. Ton could still get turned into a damsel, or the boys could take a turn into the predatory and possessive (their organization is called The Twilights, after all), or the series could get mired in monster-of-the-week tales without properly developing its characters or central mysteries. Right now, though, I am all hype for this one. Phantom in the Twilight, welcome to the watchlist.