Phi Brain Ep. 1: Doesn’t quite hit the mark

When watching a show with a ridiculous premise like Phi Brain, there’s always the temptation to play the realism card. Gosh, how could anyone design a massive underground labyrinth full of traps without eliciting attention? Hell, why would they? Doesn’t anyone have anything better to do? Well, never mind Phi Brain‘s realism. It’s silly for giant robots to fly through the air too, so it doesn’t really matter whether or not Phi Brain is plausible. Rather, the more pertinent question is whether or not the puzzle premise is satisfying. To answer that question, I think the first episode just misses the mark.

Mysteries are basically cinematic puzzles. Of course, your mileage may vary, but in my opinion, the best mysteries are the ones where the audience receives just enough clues and information to answer the pivotal question: “Whodunnit?” Certainly, mysteries where the “solution” comes from out of the blue can still be satisfying, but not from a problem-solving standpoint. These films can still have great cinematography, acting, dialogue, etc., but they’re certainly not fun to solve. Hell, they’re unsolvable.

With that said, Phi Brain sort of reminds me of Liar Game, a manga series most recently known for its live drama adaptation. Both stories feature a moody, rebellious guy who is insanely good at problem-solving and both stories feature a slightly naive girl. Hell, both stories even trick their main characters into signing a contract to play a deadly game. The live drama version of Liar Game blatantly rips off the puppet from Saw while Phi Brain has some cloaked dude wearing a steer’s skull — how satanic and sinister. I love how he still has flowing anime hair though.

There’s a very crucial difference, however, between the two stories. Liar Game is less literal about the puzzle premise, but, like a mystery, Liar Game‘s scenarios are solvable. Now, Phi Brain isn’t anywhere close to being as moody or overwrought as Liar Game — in fact, you could even commend Phi Brain for being light-hearted and kind of fun to watch — but for a puzzle-centric anime, there are no puzzles to solve. There are puzzles, but we don’t get the chance to participate. Instead, it seems as though we are meant to sit back and ooh and ahh over the genius of the main character.


Nonoha and Daimon

Daimon Kaito, our resident boy hero, can solve puzzles by just looking at them. Well, that’s really cool and all, but what’s the fun in watching a puzzle-centric anime if I can’t follow along with the hero? How does he know that there’s something strange in one particular dead end of a massive labyrinth? According to Daimon, he doesn’t even know why. Well, golly. In the dangerous puzzle at the end of the episode, where failure will not just kill him but Nonoha as well, how does Daimon know which rope to pull? The answer is, well, he just does.

We never really get a good look at the rope puzzle. We only get random, chaotic shots of gears, pulleys and wooden knick knacks. For the moment, the puzzle frustrates even our hero but only for a moment. Daimon screams, cocks his head back, and suddenly, everything’s clear… for him, not us. Well, the audience doesn’t get to play along and I think that’s a shame. The animation seems decent. The premise sounds kind of fun if a little corny. The characters don’t seem unlikeable yet even if Daimon’s kind of generic. As a result, there’s potential here, but Phi Brain just misses the mark. What’s the point of a puzzle anime if I don’t actually get to solve the puzzles too?


The mystical armlet that gives Daimon his powers.

I guess future episodes can rectify this problem, but the first impression is a bit of a letdown.

13 thoughts on “Phi Brain Ep. 1: Doesn’t quite hit the mark

  1. Anchen

    I agree pretty much with everything you’ve said. I am also going to give it another episode or two to see if it rectifies those problems. I was hoping for Dan Brown or other type of writing where the viewer/reader could follow along. Instead I have the puzzle equivalent of Vicorica from Gosick was to mystery solving/detective genre. Do like that the female side kick might prove useful although I don’t think she’d ever evolve to Nao’s level (although Nao probably started off far less competent too).

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      It’s nice that Nonoha isn’t useless, but she’s still the damsel in distress — twice in one episode even. And yeah, Phi Brain seems okay. There’s just the potential for it to become horribly generic fast if it doesn’t actually utilize its puzzle gimmick to the fullest potential. I mean, you could do a shounen about any subject, even champion steer wrangling, but that doesn’t mean that you should.

      Reply
      1. Anchen

        Yeah like I said I was hoping something along a Dan Brown novel, but I guess there is a reason why Dan Brown is a bestselling author (even if the non puzzle parts of his writing aren’t that great) and not a comic/manga/anime writer. At least it is an original series so there is no manga or other source material to give spoilers to the puzzles, but I am really hoping that they will give some fair chance for the viewers in the future. Can hope. I’m giving it a few episodes.

        Reply
  2. Richfeet

    Ah, show you want the detective conan experience in this anime no? That anime should have ended years ago. However, this anime might have worked better in the Layton movie format. Elimination puzzle maze with different characters. A puzzle/survival with traps and puzzles and stuff. I have no problem with genius puzzle hero over here. Wait.. what? Glowing armband? Ok, I see, you see, the key to any mystery genre is to include the Audience. in the puzzle solving. I actually raced to figure out a clue before Conan Edogawa’s “insight” chime kicked in. thats what made that show a fun ride. Also I guess disembodied voice would have worked better than that silly getup.

    Reply
  3. Mira

    Gee. The Imaginenation feature on NHK World really made it seem like we were going to solve puzzles with Daimon. The first episode was a disappointment but I’ll give it a few episodes to see if they’ll let us solve the puzzles too.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I don’t think a half hour format is really all that conducive to puzzle solving anyway. It just seems too short to do both puzzle solving minutia plus character development at the same time. And in anime, they’re always gonna opt for the latter, even if generically so.

      Reply
  4. A Day Without Me

    I agree; not sure why its even puzzles if he just rolls his eyes and solves them without us even really getting a look at them. I think the larger problem is the utter lack of suspense in the show – the audience knows he’s gonna solve the damn puzzles, the audience knows who the ‘Minotaur’ guy is, the audience knows Nonoha isn’t going to fall to her peril… its a third-rate Shounen Jump-wannabe. Sure, we know that the scrappy leads of any shounen story will triumph, but the better ones at least manage to instill a slight feeling of possible disaster. That feeling is wholly absent here.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      I could overlook the lack of suspense if the show would just deliver on the puzzle gimmick. I read your post on the show and I’m not as negative about it. I guess there are so many bad anime out there that something as inoffensive as Phi Brain makes it watchable for the time being.

      Reply
      1. A Day Without Me

        Well, negative’s my middle name, didn’t you know?

        Anyway, wasn’t the worst thing I’ve seen this season, Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere was much, much, much worse. Phi Brain was just friggin’ dull, that was actively hideous on a visual and mental level.

        Reply
  5. a bystander (@seelosopher)

    I haven’t seen the Liar Game drama, but I’m a fan of the manga and my brain tingles every time Akiyama comes up with one of his schemes because I can go back to analyse the whole thing. However, I’m not sure if the shounen action format they seem to be going for here really lends itself to this type of audience participation.

    Reply
    1. E Minor Post author

      Yeah, the whole “phi brain” thing just reminded me too much of “SOLAR HANDS!” I can’t wait till other puzzle solvers show up and they also have funky names for their puzzle solving abilities. Plus, in the puzzle club, some people could be seen with Jenga. Jenga is not a puzzle!

      Reply

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