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Two young people, no memories of the previous lives, just that they've been trained as the ultimate assassins in the employ of a shadowy crime syndicate. That's not going to mess with their heads at all, is it. Ein and Zwei are the killers in question, and their story is certainly intriguing - for a while, at least...
In the underworld, there's no more sought-after - or feared - assassins than the pairing codenamed Phantom. Known simply as Ein and Zwei, their entire existence is simply to kill, and train to kill. Zwei had once been a tourist, but after witnessing one of Ein's hits - and shown some impressive natural ability by quickly locating Ein's sniping point - he was captured, his memories erased, and given a choice - train to become an assassin himself, or die. Not much of a choice, really. Choose to die, and that's it - choose to live, and there's at least a chance that he'll be able to escape and rediscover his missing past. And so Zwei's undercover life begins...
This is a little complex in places. The series is based on the visual novel Phantom of Inferno, which I reviewed a few years back and wasn't overly impressed with (I promised in that review that I'd eventually try and finish the game, and update the review when I did - I have to admit it hasn't been back in my DVD player since then). The game first spawned an impressive 3-episode OVA series (also reviewed here, which was obviously successful enough to lead to this TV adaptation. The basic premise in all three outings is the same: Ein and Zwei have been captured by organised crime group Inferno, subjected to intensive training (and, in Ein's case, a certain amount of brainwashing), and given a simple choice: kill for Inferno, or be killed. In such circumstances, life is always going to be the better option.
Inferno itself is an organisation filled with internal divisions as its members jockey for influence and power. Ein and Zwei initially come under the control of the appropriate-named Scythe Master, an truly evil bastard who has developed the conditioning techniques used to create Ein and Zwei - he's opposed within Inferno, though, by the beautiful and manipulative Claudia McCunnen who, using her knowledge of his true identity as leverage, uses Zwei as her tool to ruin Scythe's position in the organisation, furthering her own aims in the process.
Ein and Zwei get caught in the middle of all this manoeuvring. Living and working in close proximity to each other, and constantly under the stresses and strains that go with all the killing they have to do, it's inevitable that feelings eventually develop between the two - but with Zwei retaining a sense of his own identity and eventually deciding that he wants to get both himself and Ein out of their cycle of death, and Ein under the influence of Scythe's conditioning and feeling that she's got nowhere else to call "home" anyway, circumstances conspire to separate them and throw several problems in the path of love and freedom.
That's the basic setup, then. The 26-episode series can be split neatly into three arcs: Scythe's rise and fall, Claudia's rise and fall, and Ein & Zwei's eventual attempt to escape their destiny. The first two of these are where the series is at its best, with the political jockeying within Inferno forming the backbone of the story, punctuated with impressively done hit-job scenes to remind us what Phantom are really about. In a way, the series is almost another of Bee Train's "girls with guns" show, having a lot of the gloss and style of shows like Noir and Madlax - but with a more believable setting. The introduction of young girl Cal into the second arc, giving Zwei yet another reason to want to get away from the life of a killer, is an inspired stroke for that stage of the story.
But while Cal's introduction works well for a while, she's also the reason that the series ultimately loses its way. The third arc moves the setting from the American west coast over to Japan, placing Ein and Zwei (now living under the names Eren and Reiji, and posing as brother and sister) into the roles of high-school students & trying to live normal lives - until Cal, feeling the pain of her apparent betrayal at Zwei's hands, comes looking for them. It's here that the series essentially falls apart: first of all, the high-school setting makes no sense given what's already known of the show's timeline at that point (being at least three years' on from the beginning of the series, both of them should be in their early 20s by then), while the personality of Cal when she makes her appearance is so far removed from the loyal young girl that Zwei first took under his wing that it's almost impossible to make the mental connection. Yes, there have been influences on her to make her that way, but it still doesn't seem right - and that's the problem with the whole arc, when compared to the two that preceded it.
In the end, it feels as though somewhere along the line someone was decided that, great, we've created three characters here that the audience can connect to and feel sympathy for: let's mess with that relationship, and see how much we can undermine it. Cal goes bad, Zwei resorts to using innocent third-parties for cover, and even when you feel that a happy ending might be salvaged from the wreckage of the storyline, rocks fall and everyone dies. In the figurative sense, at least. It's a huge "Screw you!" to everyone who followed the series to that point, and to say I was unhappy with the closing arc would be an understatement.
I'd go so far as to say, stop at the end of the second arc (episode 18). The ending there is a downer, but less of one than the final arc manages to produce, and you don't have to deal with the wreckage that the final arc is, which should at least leave you feeling that watching that far was worthwhile. For the show to do so well for two thirds of its run and then fall apart is hugely disappointing (and I can't blame Bee Train for that, as I understand the series follows the storyline of the game quite closely). There's a lot of good stuff here, but because of that closing arc, you might want to think before you buy.