Blade of the Phantom Master: Shin Angyo Onshi [新暗行御史, Shin Angyō Onshi, 신암행어사, Shin amhaengosa] (2004)
AKA New Royal Secret Commissioner, Phantom Master: Dark Hero from the Ruined Empire

Starring Keiji Fujiwara, Sanae Kobayashi, Ryusei Nakao, Romi Park, Jun Fukushima

Directed by Joji Shimura & Ahn Tae-gun

I have a bit of an oddity here. Unlike most anime, Blade of the Phantom Master is based upon a Korean comic book series rather than a Japanese one. Its setting and visual style therefore reflect a slightly different feel than other anime. The most noticeable way this shows is with the obviously Korean sounding names. I can only wonder what kind of meaning was lost in an English translation of a Japanese adaptation of a Korean story, but I can’t do much more than call it a curiosity and wish I was more familiar with the Korean folktales that inspired it. The voice acting was originally recorded in both Japanese and Korean, and considering its Korean roots I would have preferred to watch that version, but for some dumb reason the American DVD release only retained the Japanese language track.

More unfortunate about its creation is that it was made after CG began insinuating itself into anime. From the very beginning, the film makes it clear that CG is going to play a heavy part of the production. This immediately made me regret choosing this for my next review, and there are several scenes that are just flat out ruined by it. Nothing sucks the fun out of an action sequence like making it with CG. The movie surprised me, however, by not relying on CG as much as I thought it would. It still has plenty of bad moments, but it also has plenty of decent scenes that don’t use any CG or only a slight bit that I could ignore. The CG is mostly used outside of the actual combat, which goes a long way toward making it more bearable. There’s also some good stuff in this film, and I wound up having a mostly pleasant experience watching this.

The film opens with a brief description of a fallen empire, and the agents that enforced its laws, the total badasses called Amen-Osa. The setup immediately reminded me of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Sure there are other stories with a similar post-apocalyptic setup (Vampire Hunter D springs immediately to mind), but when the story begins with a gun-wielding Amen-Osa traveling across the desert, a beginning nearly identical to Dark Tower, how could I avoid the comparison? And when Munsu sees an innocent man killed by hobgoblins, he has the pragmatism to not even hesitate at using the corpse as a shield against the oncoming horde, a pragmatism that reminded me of Roland the gunslinger’s ability to see things realistically where others would act emotionally.  On top of that, it was just a damn cool scene. After that, I couldn’t help but look for parallels to Dark Tower the whole way through, and even found parallels to all of Roland’s ka-tet. They even have a pet bat that I forced into the role of Oy. All my comparisons are pretty forced, but I found just enough similarity to fuel my desire for this to be an Asian styled Dark Tower.

Aside from the desert, the story starts out with Munsu meeting a hapless young man named Monlyon that wants to become an Amen-Osa to rescue his girlfriend, Chun Hyang, from an evil ruler. The two lovers soon became my parallels for Eddie and Susannah, although Monlyon doesn’t stick around for very long. Munsu reluctantly takes up the quest, and reveals his biggest difference from Roland of Gilead. Munsu is deeply broken by the loss of his homeland, and sees no reason to continue his duties. This leads into the second issue this movie has: there isn’t much of an overall purpose to the film. The original story it is based upon is a large epic, and this film is just one small part of it, an episode out of context with anything else. As a part of a series it would have been fine, but as a stand-alone work, it feels very incomplete.  We find out at the end of the movie that Munsu, like Roland, is hunting down a villain that he has a passionate hatred of. Until we learn this, the story has little in the way of a central goal to tie it together, but since Munsu’s nemesis never makes a single appearance in the film, mentioning him sooner would have given false expectations of where the story is going. I’m honestly unsure which would have been the worse of the two options, but I do wish they had found something better than either.

After rescuing the girl and finding out that she is a total badass with a sword, nearly beating the shit out of Munsu, the newly formed team heads off to another random adventure, this time to help out Jyun, a kid with fuzzy memories who I made Jake in my Dark Tower parallel. This second adventure takes up the bulk of the film’s plot, and it’s far more thoughtful than the first action-oriented story. It follows a more mysterious route as Munsu gradually figures out what has happened to the town. It’s pretty obvious that the guy with the magical acupuncture is brainwashing everyone, and I got a little bored through the middle part. The end though, makes up for it with some good action that unlike the first section of the film doesn’t rely on as much CG, making it easier on the eyes. We get treated to a ferocious sword fight from Chun Hyang, and Munsu’s showdown with a giant monster is cocky, creepy and crafty. It’s also got a nice twist ending. While I can’t say it was entirely unpredictable, I did like where it went, and I would have been upset with it had it ended differently.

Phantom Master has some good action with magical strangeness and clever combat that manages to make up for a few scenes of atrocious CG. It gives you a compelling world, but unfortunately doesn’t have the time to explore it or build up a strong rapport with the main characters. If this were part of a series, it could have delivered a great time, but as a single film all it delivers is a bit of fun without much value. It’s certainly worth watching for fantasy fans, but just as it isn’t quite the anime version of Dark Tower, neither is it quite the epic adventure I wanted it to be.