This four-part series is an adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's unfinished Phoenix manga (Hi no Tori: Phoenix) which the artist updated sporadically over 40 years but, sadly, never finished. The anime, an adaption of chapter 6, is a generations-spanning drama told across 1,300 years. It follows the story of Romi, a space colonist who travels to a new planet with her partner George in an attempt to start a new life away from a dying Earth.
It's a hard anime to review without venturing into spoiler territory, and that's something I want to avoid as much as possible. The story unfolds in very unexpected ways that deserve to be discovered by the viewer, and in this Tezuka again proves to be the master of imagination and the human condition. Across 4 thirty-minute episodes we are transported between planets, cultures, heroism and tragedy. There are a lot of big themes contained within these bite-sized episodes, all of which are thoughtful and affecting.
Were I to pick one, I'd suggest legacy is perhaps the strongest thread on which to pull - the idea of outliving your children and experiencing the results of their actions on the world around you is beautifully handled here, as Romi's son is forced to endure 13 years of loneliness, managing crops and surviving on a new world while he waits for his mother to heal during a cryo-sleep. His reaction to finding out a malfunction has trapped her for 1,300 years is absolutely heart-rending, though what happens next is entirely unexpected and leads to a new chapter for Romi once she awakens on the barren planet of her memories to find her son long gone.
Similarly, the fate of Earth and its people, once discovered, is chilling. Simple interactions between individuals have planet-shattering consequences and the last shot of the final episode is both haunting and, somehow, hopeful.
The idea of desire turning to destructive greed is also central to driving events, though this is perhaps an over-simplification of how the story unfolds. Romi's desire for her son not to be left to die alone is facilitated by her return to cryo-sleep, but ultimately leads to her losing her son. Wanting to return to Earth - despite having discovered an idyllic life - leads to tragedy for all involved. In so many ways Romi is the victim of her own desires, her actions leading to creation and destruction in a cycle that is truly fitting to the use of Phoenix in the title. Meanwhile, the desires of the humans around her are more clearly driven by greed and lead to shameful acts, while the non-human characters are always selfless and giving, which suggests desire is a decidedly human trait. Whether or not Romi is driven by "greed" is a much more nuanced question, but one worth debating thanks to the masterful direction and storytelling used throughout that allows for multiple legitimate interpretations.
At times this is a hard anime to watch. The simple retro designs across the series are always beautiful, but the actual events themselves are often horrifying. All credit to Studio 4°C for taking Tezuka's retro character designs and seamlessly updating them into a sharp and modern animation style. I can't say I'm in a rush to watch the show a second time, I'm one of those sensitive types and I confess I had some very depressing dreams the night after, so it really won't be for everyone. I am however glad to have experienced it, if only to catch a glimpse of humanity through Tezuka's insightful lens.
Slivers of happiness and connection told across such a vast expanse of time, with Aesop-like lessons strewn throughout make for compelling viewing.