In Defense of Phantom’s End
There are going to be enormous spoilers for Phantom ~Requiem for the Phantom~ (particularly the very end) within this post. Read at your own risk.
Phantom‘s ending has unleashed a shitstorm in various places around the ‘net — there are people who love it, and people who are incredibly pissed off at it. Lots of Bee Troll and Bee Trainwreck accusations are being thrown around, too. And, I must admit, I was among those viewers royally angered by the ending when I first saw it. “WTF?” I thought. “Reiji and Elen just spent the whole series trying to escape from Inferno, they finally get back at the Scythe Master, and they even find Elen’s home, and then Reiji is killed by some random dude! Just like that! And Elen is left to die herself, or commit suicide, or be alone the rest of her life! What the hell? They’re the heroes!”
But this is why Phantom‘s ending works: Reiji and Elen are not heroes. They are just two people trying to survive and find a place in the world that is just for them, far outside of the bloodshed they know in Inferno. Remember this.
Sure, Reiji and Elen are badasses. There is a certain appeal to assassins, after all. They have a certain mystique about them. What drives a person to kill for a living? What kind of person does that? And assassins usually have such style to the way they do work. However, there is a price to this. Take Reiji. He is raw in the beginning, but as he throws himself into the work more — so that Inferno does not kill him off — Reiji becomes more comfortable in that skin . . . but at the expense of his humanity. There is this confidence that just radiates from Reiji after he “kills” Elen the first time and completely assumes the role of assassin to punish himself and give in completely to his despair. Pimp!Reiji looks damn cool, and he has slick moves, but as he admits many times, Reiji kills people so that he is not killed himself. And, in the process, he slowly loses the essence of who he is until he decides to fight back against those who would have him kill indiscriminately.
It is the same with Elen; she has been killing people to ensure her own survival for longer than Reiji has. Inferno may be forcing them to kill people through various means, and the people they kill may not be the most savory people, but Reiji and Elen kill them nonetheless. That said, know that I am not passing too much judgment on them. I actually like both Reiji and Elen, along with some of the other killers in the series. (Most notably Lizzie and Cal.) But, again, Reiji and Elen are not heroes. They do not kill to fulfill some lofty, noble goal — they kill so that they stay alive. However, as Reiji and Elen march forward, adhering consistently to the mantra of “kill or be killed” they increase the likelihood that there can be only one fate for them, one end to their story. (And, surprise of surprises, it is not a completely happy ending!)
Reiji and Elen make several attempts to escape Inferno throughout the series. The first time, Reiji bestows an identity upon Elen and gives her a reason to live beyond being a mindless killing machine who can barely stave off the despair of death. But that fails because neither Elen nor Reiji is truly ready at that point to completely shed the assassin persona each has to assume for Inferno. The second time, Elen and Reiji briefly succeed in escaping from Inferno because by that time, each has gone through enough pain to know what he or she truly desires. The third — and final — time, Reiji and Elen seemingly find a beautiful place where both truly belong . . . except it ends it ends with Reiji dead and Elen’s status ambiguous, at best.
Why is this?
The pragmatic explanation is that Inferno finally kills Reiji. Now, the way Reiji dies is unclear, to an extent. The man in the carriage passes behind Reiji, obscures the camera and a single gunshot is heard. Reiji falls to the ground a few seconds later, presumably dead. The obvious explanation is that the faceless man kills Reiji as part of an Inferno job — and I believe that is the correct explanation. It is made clear numerous times throughout the series how important saving face is for an organization like Inferno. The “kill or be killed” motto extends to entire groups, as well. If Inferno does not look strong, then other groups will eat it alive; thus, Inferno needs to kill anyone who wrongs them, particularly after said person runs roughshod on one of the group’s highest ranking members.
But I have read a small contingent of people argue that Elen actually kills Reiji in the small fraction of time that the man passes in front of Reiji. However, I just do not see how she could have done it. She is looking at flowers one moment, pulls her gun out at lightning speed to kill Reiji and then is back to looking at flowers immediately after? Phantom stretches reality (to say the least), but it does not stretch it that much!
Enough of that, however. Thematically, Elen and Reiji die because they have finally abandoned “kill or be killed” now that they have a true home. The tragic element behind their escape attempts is that Reiji and Elen use killing to escape killing and live as themselves. It is a fact of life that Reiji and Elen must kill to survive in the world they have been pulled into. From the beginning, both Reiji and Elen despair at being forced to kill, but both do it because, at this point, living is preferable to dying. And, in the back of their minds, probably more so for Reiji than Elen, they both have some hidden hope of escaping and being free. These two will try to earn their freedom by any means necessary; if that means killing, then they will bite the bullet (pun intended) and do it, because the light at the end of that freedom is something to hope for.
Most everyone kills to stay alive in Phantom, and most of the deaths come when the killers are unable to kill anymore. Elen “dies” the first time because she opts to protect the Scythe Master instead of killing Reiji. Claudia dies because she is backed into a corner and can no longer defend herself, so she dies at the hands of her oldest friend. Lizzie dies because she cannot kill another person who she believes does not deserve to die. Cal dies partly because she is physically unable to best Reiji, but also because I really think she does not have the heart to kill him. Scythe Master dies because his creations cannot kill Reiji and Elen.
But these deaths have a common theme that I believe is missing from the final death in the series — that sense of living an incomplete life, of not being able to fulfill what one sets out to do. Elen cannot escape with Reiji the first time. Claudia cannot climb to the top of Inferno. Lizzie could not protect her best friend. Cal could not reconcile the pain in her heart until the very end. Scythe Master could not make that perfect killing machine. With the notable exception of Elen (who is “resurrected” later in the series), these people all have lives/goals whose end result is death and sorrow rather than something that can be complete and give them happiness.
“I will kill. In order to live, I will kill,” Reiji says in the finale, and plenty of times before that. But that final time has a different ring to it, as does Reiji’s death as compared to the deaths of other major characters in the series. Ostensibly, Reiji dies because he, too, cannot kill anymore. However, why can he kill no more? Six months is not that long. He certainly still possesses the talent that allowed him to be one of the best — if not the best — assassins in the world. Hell, I would not be surprised if Reiji knew that killer was behind him, waiting to strike. So, why does he die? Why does he not kill to continue living?
It is because Reiji has fulfilled his mission and his promise. Getting Elen back home, giving Elen her life back and seeing her true smile for the first time is all Reiji cares about. In the back of his mind, Reiji knows Inferno will eventually hunt him and Elen down. Inferno tracked them to Japan, so it is not too big a stretch to say Inferno could track them to Mongolia, especially since Reiji and Elen do leave a trail. Also, Inferno could have received information about Elen’s origins from the Scythe Master before he died, or they could have found the information within files he left behind, or whatever. The point is, Inferno has the means to track Reiji and Elen down, and they will do it, no matter how long it takes.
The thing is, this does not matter to Reiji anymore. He wants to live, for sure, but he knows, eventually, he will probably have to kill again once more to run away and live. And once Reiji gets to this beautiful piece of Mongolian countryside with Elen, he realizes he no longer has to kill. Elen has her home — the place where she belongs — and now, so does Reiji. “Even if I can’t find [my memories], I already have the name [Reiji] gave me,” Elen says. “I have memories of being with you. These memories are enough for me to continue living. These memories are enough for me.” Elen finally has something to give her real fulfillment and a sense of actually being a person instead of a killer. She is free. This is the place where she can show her true smile.
Reiji does not actually see that smile until he is on the verge of death, but he knows from the moment Elen steps onto this plain that this is her home. She is not fooling with him. Even though her memories have not returned, she can feel it in her bones. It is mission accomplished. Reiji and Elen achieve a worthwhile goal that is beyond killing. They simply find a place where they can be humans and live like normal people. Just one moment in this place as Reiji and Elen, even if they are to be killed, is more fulfilling to them than years of killing people just to stay alive as Zwei and Ein.
Interestingly, the way Reiji dies, it is as if he — and the narrative — almost does not want to taint this pure place. There is this strange sense of acceptance to Reiji’s death. No attempt to defend himself. No suspicious glance at the carriage driver. He just stares straight ahead at Elen being as happy as she can be. And the death itself is not bloody or dramatic. Just a bullet to the back, and Reiji drops to the ground shortly after. It is as though Reiji thinks that if he is going to die somewhere, it might as well be this place, on his terms. No more running. No more killing. He accepts his fate because he is finally free. Reiji dies when he is at his happiest.
Elen’s fate is a bit more ambiguous. The only part I am convinced about is that she smiles at Reiji just before he dies. If Reiji knows it is inevitable that Inferno will catch up with them, then I am sure Elen knows as well. Elen does not smile at Reiji because she is retarded (as some bloggers and forum posters have so sweetly suggested) but rather because her true smile is the one sight she knows Reiji wants to see more than anything else. She is truly happy and wants Reiji to be truly happy before he passes on. In her way, she is as accepting of their fate as Reiji himself.
But what happens to her after that has me scratching my head. Is she dead, too? Or is she alive? All we know is that whoever kills Reiji does so with a gun equipped with a silencer. We do not see the type of gun at all. I am no firearms expert by any means, so I really have no idea how much a silencer would affect the ability to shoot through multiple people — or even how strong a gun one would need to do that in the first place. But since we don’t see the gun, if you wanted to, I suppose you could assume the killer has a firearm of sufficient strength to kill both Reiji and Elen in a single shot. (Plus, this is anime. This series is not completely realistic, anyway.) The symbolism suggests Elen is also dead: Her image fades away after she smiles, she lays in a very deathly sort of pose at the end (in her own Heaven of sorts?) and one petal on the flower is missing.
And, really, just because she says her memories are enough for her to continue living does not mean she will actually continue living. She has just found her peaceful place in the world. But I could also see the side of people who plead the case that Elen is still alive. She could continue living because she finally has the life that Reiji always wanted for her. However, I just cannot see why Inferno would let her live, as well, unless McGuire secretly thought Scythe Master was so annoying that he is actually thankful that Elen killed him!
So that is my case for Phantom‘s ending. It is a wonderful — though undeniably tragic and sad — culmination of Reiji and Elen’s journey to reclaim their humanity and rid themselves of the bloodshed and death that defined their lives with Inferno. Really, if people are going to have a beef with some aspect of Phantom‘s finale, I think it would be Scythe Master’s masked chicks and how thoroughly they are owned by Reiji and Elen, though understandably so. Elen makes it clear that Scythe Master does not understand true human nature and what people really live for and protect with their lives, which means Scythe Master can never create a “perfect” killing machine. Still, they get freaking curb stomped. The fight is cool, but it isn’t even close.