Phantom Dream Series Review

vol 1Phantom Dream is the debut manga series of Natsuki Takaya, the creator of the award-winning, shojo manga classic Fruits Basket. With Fruits Basket receiving a new anime adaptation, I recently went back and re-read the whole series and enjoyed it so much that I decided to re-read some of her other works. I started with Phantom Dream, a shojo fantasy story filled with supernatural battles, romance and tragedy.

Synopsis:

Tamaki Otoya has inherited spiritual powers from his grandfather as well as the position of Shugoshi, a priest who is able to exorcise extreme negative emotions that cause people to turn into monsters. Unfortunately, the Gekka, a family of dark magicians, is trying to instigate these transformations to further their own ends. With the help of his girlfriend Asahi and several members of his family who have also inherited spiritual abilities, Tamaki must protect humanity and put a stop to the Gekka before it’s too late.

Review:

This sounds like a generic setup for a supernatural fantasy manga, but even in this early work you can see elements of what would earn Natsuki Takaya’s later series so much acclaim. This manga is full of nuanced characters and powerful emotional drama, but there are also plenty of signs of the creator’s inexperience. So, let’s examine what I consider to be Phantom Dream’s major flaws and and its greatest strengths:

Cons

1. Tamaki’s Characterization (in volumes 1 + 2): Tamaki is the protagonist of this manga, but for all of volume 1 and most of volume 2 he is incredibly hard to get a read on. We see next to nothing of his perspective, instead, we are almost exclusively told what his is thinking or feeling by Asahi. This is so bad, that at one-point Hideri, a relative who shows up in volume 2, complains that he doesn’t get Tamaki, and Tamaki’s mother says that he should just go ask Asahi about him! As a result, I found Tamaki to be pretty unlikeable during the early parts of the series. Thankfully around the end of volume 2 something happens that causes a shift in Tamaki. He starts to be more open and we’re finally let into his inner thoughts. I can’t decide if this was something Takaya intended from the start, something that happened because she realized she needed to modify how she was writing him, or if the change was simply a natural consequence of certain events that had taken place in the manga at this point. Regardless, this was a frustrating way to portray a lead character.

2. Inconsistent Art: There’s no two ways about it, the art in the early volumes doesn’t look great. Characters frequently look off and Tamaki and his mother, Kaname, regularly look like their eyes are too far apart. Pages feel crowded and the panels are jam packed with screentones and superfluous background decorations. Some of this may be a result of artistic trends that were popular at the time. I seem to recall a lot of 90’s shojo manga being heavy on the screentones, but here it feels cluttered, like Natsuki Takaya was afraid of having any white space. The art does improve as things go on. The last couple volumes look significantly better, with the page layouts having a much more natural flow and Takaya clearly having gotten a handle on drawing her characters. It takes a while to get there though.

3. Series Length: This series would have benefited from being at least a couple volumes longer. It covers a lot of ground in just 5 volumes and, at times, things can feel rushed or like a lot is being thrown at you at once. There are also a couple of characters who could have used some more fleshing out. Tokiwa and Migiri are characters with spiritual powers who were supposed to be helping Tamaki, but they wind up doing absolutely nothing useful for the whole series. Tokiwa’s only function in the narrative is to bring up a piece of information that pertains to Tamaki’s and Asahi’s relationship and Migiri just spends all her time nursing an unrequited crush on Tamaki. I guess, this was supposed to provide tension, but it mostly just fell flat. As things stand, neither of these characters needed to be in the series at all! It would have been nice for them to have had some more development or just something more to do.

Pros

vol 31. Complex Characters: Fans of Natsuki Takaya will not be surprised to hear that none of the villains in Phantom Dream can be considered truly evil. They certainly do terrible things, but they all have reasons for what they do and heartbreaking backstories that will have you sympathizing with them before you know it. Likewise, Asahi starts off as a seemingly stereotypical character, but there turns out to be a lot more to her then you’d expect. In the beginning she feels like a prototype of the lead character from Fruits Basket (she’s sweet, kind, a tad ditzy, and overflowing with love), but by the end of the manga she’s distinguished herself as a distinct and truly memorable character.

2. Ambitious Storytelling: This might have been her debut series, and a short one at that, but Natsuki Takaya clearly held nothing back when she was writing this. The story tackles some dark subject matter and is chalk full of twists and revelations, one of which I had forgotten about and was completely surprised by during this re-read. I’d say things don’t really get cooking until volume two, but once things get going, you’re in for a wild ride!

3. A Moving Conclusion: Tokyopop published Phantom Dream in english over the course of 2008-2010, so it has been at least 9 years since I initially read it. As I mentioned, there were several things that I had forgotten about, but one thing that had stuck with me over those years was the series ending. Re-reading it for this review, I found the conclusion to be just as poignant as it was when I first read it. I don’t want to spoil it here, so suffice it to say, it’s a beautiful end to a series that is ultimately about forgiveness, hope and the power of love.

While not as strong as Takaya’s later works such as Fruits Basket or Twinkle Stars, Phantom Dream is an interesting read with a lot to enjoy, despite its flaws. It might be a bit hard to track down now, but I recommend that any fans of Fruits Basket check it out to see how Natsuki Takaya got her start.

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10.

Be sure to let me know what you thought of this series in the comments. Also be sure to check out my reviews of Natsuki Takaya’s other works:

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