#1 A superpower that defeats the entire purpose
Phi Brain is an anime that strangely reminded me of Yu-Gi-Oh! in a lot of ways. Like with the titular card game in that universe, the world of Phi Brain is obsessed with puzzles; everybody is out there making and solving them, it’s a major hype. However, the secret organization POG is making puzzles too and theirs are deadly gauntlets with high stakes, but also high prizes.
This brings us to Kaito, a spiky-haired teenager whose parents met their untimely ends in a puzzle once. Nevertheless, he still holds a passion for puzzle-solving today and takes on the POG’s challenges. Not for the money, but because he believes puzzles should never endanger the lives of the people solving them. While he frequently proclaims there is no puzzle he can’t solve, he tends to omit that he has an unfair advantage. In fact, he is a bit of a cheating bastard.
The first two episodes see him attain an ancient, magical item that brings forth a different personality in him, again like Yu-Gi-Oh! with its Millennium Puzzle. Effectively, this is an item that instantly lets him figure out the answer to any puzzle… rendering the entire threat of the show pointless. The first 20 episodes all put Kaito in various predicaments and see him struggle through a puzzle, only to then have him use this superpower and trivialize it.
#2 Frontloading all the world building
Getting into Phi Brain was a struggle because it wants to give you all the necessary information right away. There are a lot of scenes of characters standing around explaining all the concepts of the world to you and, while doing so, they casually throw in a bunch of jargon, abbreviations, and faction names, all of which also need to be explained.
Normal names just never seem to suffice and it’s sometimes downright absurd. The POG has names for its deadly puzzles, but there also puzzles that are slightly deadlier and have a different name entirely. There are a whole bunch of characters which are sometimes addressed by role (“solver” or “giver”), sometimes by a title referencing historical people, and sometimes by actual name. There is more, so much more, but it all just turns into white noise. The sooner you start filtering it out the better, because it adds nothing to the actual story or the enjoyment of the show.
#3 Pointless puzzles
Puzzles are pretty fun, right? I like puzzle games, I grab a sudoku or crossword now and then, it’s good stuff. However, if you were hoping to watch Phi Brain and puzzle along as Kaito tries to save the day, you are out of luck.
The show rarely allows you to see much of the puzzle, if it even shows you it at all. It might be in view for a few frames before the frantic editing cuts to the characters solving it. Some puzzles are even just nonsense, like the first one is a maze with no exit, but surprise, there is a secret switch not visible on the actual map. Some puzzles can just be massive structures where you have no reasonable way to even guess a solution, some are lame puzzles everybody knows like matchsticks, mazes, the thing where you slide cars around. Heck, some aren’t even actual puzzles, with one episode just being needlessly complicated Bomberman.
I’ll admit the show can be smart and the few times where it does have a puzzle you can reasonably solve yourself can be fun for those willing to pause the show on a frame where it’s in good view. These are, however, the exceptions rather than the norm.
#4 B-grade animation
Phi Brain is an anime original and, going by its profile, you’d expect some high quality. I mean, it’s a show that got 3 whole seasons and was animated by Studio Sunrise, the Gundam lads. It was even directed by Junichi Saito, the industry veteran that brought us Sailor Moon, Aria, Ojamajo Doremi. So… where did it go wrong?
I won’t say Phi Brain looks bad, it’s generally quite passable, but the animation and art direction is very mediocre. The character designs are already not that nice to look at, with Kaito especially looking like he came straight from a How To Draw Manga book. Most of the main cast feels like they’d be side-characters in a different show and the actual side-characters (villains of the week) are even more forgettable. There was this group of characters that were part of the secret organization and I can’t for the life of me recall how they looked, safe for the white afro dude.
A lot of the show consists of standing around and talking, but things do heat up when puzzles need to be solved. The action scenes aren’t bad and certainly plenty creative, even though they cheap out on animation in lots of places and characters frequently look poorly-drawn.
#5 Shounen and puzzles, not a match
I have been warming up to shounen anime & manga in recent years. In fact, I am currently looking to watch through Sunrise’s own Gundam series after watching the movie adaptation of its first season for a recent article. My tolerance may be increasing, yet I still couldn’t stand how generic of a shounen Phi Brain is and how many of the lame tropes it includes.
Kaito is a spiky-haired cool dude who wants to be the best at what he does, so he has to work through a roster of villains to prove himself and compete against the best puzzlers around. He has a screechy childhood (girl)friend, a boy genius who does the hacking and Google searches, and a thuggish rival who is almost as good as Kaito himself and has a good heart beneath his brutish behavior. The villains often need to be taught morals like the meaning of friendship or the importance of nature, and frequently this will convert them to our hero’s side.
The show just feels overly simplistic and predictable, making the choice to go with a shounen questionable. The passionate energy of shounen characters feel misplaced when they are basically just doing math and, on that note, why Junichi Saito? I love the man and his work, but his most well-known shows were all shoujo and magical girl anime.
I caught word that the second and third seasons were better and those list relative newcomer Hirotako Endo as director, with Saito only doing the composition and storyboards. Even then, season 1 left me mostly resentful, so I am not going to take a gamble and watch 50 more episodes of this.