It's hard to rate this series because it's a collection of five short stories. The only links the stories have is the Phoenix, and the immortal bird of legend tends not to play a huge role in any of the stories, often just being in the background watching the events unfold.
Some of the stories last for four episodes, others one. Some of the stories take place in the past, others in the future. Some of the stories involve battles between Gods, others focus on battles against nature. There's almost too much variation.
The first, four episode story is probably the best of the lot - it flowed well from episode to episode, despite there being a lot of twists. It started with a man washing ashore somewhere, getting captured by a tribe and needing to save the life of a woman to save himself from being executed. The focus then switched to an Apocalypto style raid on the tribe by another country. It then switched yet again, this time to a father and son type of story where one of the invaders raised one of the few survivors of the raid as his own. And, during all this, the story kept switching back to the man who washed ashore trying to survive with the woman from the tribe he saved at the start, with them ended up trapped in a cave and left to the mercy of nature.
Out of all of the stories, the was the most involving. I found myself struggling to care about a lot of the characters included in the series, with some taking drastic actions without any real development having occurred, but in the opening story it was easy to care about the 'father' and 'son' who tried to survive during times of war. My only real complaint about it is that the Phoenix might as well have not even been in this story at all. It did nothing other than get hunted on and off a few times. If the Phoenix had played a more important role, like it does in later stories, I could understand its involvement, but it was just there for no real reason. The messages of the first story are that death is a part life that must be accepted and that war is pointless, neither message needing the Phoenix to be expressed.
The second story occurs in space; on the moon. That's right - a jump from the ancient past to the far future.
The story takes place during a time where the Earth has died and the remnants of the human race have escaped to space. At some point after their escape, some humans on the moon discovered the Phoenix, which has the power to give life, and they managed to get one of its tail feathers. Research on the feather took place on the moon, and one of the men in charge was on the verge of understanding it when an 'accident' occurred, resulting in the destruction of the lab and the death of most in it. Right before the researcher died, he was attempting to save a female friend from falling to her death, her last words being "You traitor..."
After the opening described above, the story quickly caught my interest. The researcher who died had been revived after the 'accident', half of his brain having been replaced by a machine. When he awakened, he couldn't distinguish one human from another - they all looked like distorted monsters to him - and he had no memories of his past. However, he discovered shortly after awakening that robots appeared to be living organisms to him, with one robot in particular looking like a woman, resembling the woman who called him a traitor before his death. Shortly after discovering his new 'female' friend, he runs away from the humans with the robot, escaping to the lab that was destroyed at the start.
I liked the second story a lot. It wasn't as involving as the first, mainly because it only lasted for two episodes, but the story was fascinating. It was basically a story of redemption, where one man had to correct his past mistakes by living on. If there's one thing that's suggested a lot in each story included, it's that, rather than being a blessing, immortality is a curse; a punishment that must be endured.
What follows the above is the only one episode story in the entire series. Back in ancient times once more after the leap into the future of the second story, this time around the story was about a woman killing a healer in order to prevent the healer saving her father. As a punishment for killing the healer, the Phoenix forces the killer to take on the role of the healer she killed, trapping her and taking her back in time. In order to make amends, she must allow herself to be killed by herself and hope that, at some point, the the cycle of life and death stops. It was a decent story but, compared to what went before, it wasn't great and it didn't have the length required to make me care a great deal.
The next story switched back to the four episode formula the series opened up with. This time around, still somewhere in the past, a member of the royal family of some clan or another gets the face of wolf put on him after having his own face scalped. He awakens sometime afterwards to discover what has become of his face and, eventually, heads east to another country in order to try to get his old face back after being informed that his future will be brighter if he does so by an old woman who can predict such things.
I liked the fourth story but never really got into it. The back-story of "Dogface" is never explained in detail, and I was left mystified with regards to what exactly lead up to him getting captured and losing his face. Likewise, I didn't get how the wolves face became his own, mouth movements and all. The only thing that came across clear as day was the message of the story, the message being that no religion is right or wrong; only the people themselves are wrong. Despite it lasting for as long as a movie, I felt the story needed more time, or at the very least needed much better explanations.
What really bothered me was the love story aspect of the fourth story. One of the many 'Gods' of the nation in the east fell for Dogface at first sight, never even having a conversation with him before deciding to follow him. She also risked her life for him without much chatter between the two. Their relationship never came across as a real because not enough time was put into it by the author and/or the animation studio. And the end of the story made little sense, with her leaving Dogface randomly, Dogface randomly getting his face back and the two seemingly ending up back together, despite Dogface losing his memory for some reason.
Moving onto the final, two episode story, the story once again took place in the distant future, just like the second story did. In the future depicted in the last story, humans had moved under the surface of the Earth in an attempt to survive after life could no longer be lived above ground. One scientist (Saruta), however, stayed above ground in an attempt to solve of the mystery of life in order to save the earth. He tried and tried to create life, always falling short. When he was on the verge of giving up, the Phoenix appeared before him and told him that a miracle would occur. It turned out that the miracle would be a young man who arrived at Saruta's lab after escaping from the underground cities because his companion - an alien shapeshifter - wasn't allowed to exist. He ended up getting shot and killed by someone who followed him. The miracle occurred when the Phoenix allowed him to drink her blood and made him immortal.
Following these events, every other life on Earth died, leaving the young man alone. It was then that he realized the true pain of loneliness, with nothing to do and no-one to talk to. For billions of years he lived alone in a wasteland, unable to die. He was eventually rewarded by being able to see the rebirth of the world as it began anew and the cycle of life started over.
For me, the message of this final story wasn't very clear. Why wasn't the man simply allowed to die, instead being forced to suffer the pain of loneliness? If I had been in his shoes, seeing the world restart wouldn't have been enough to make up for billions of years of boredom. The main message of Phoenix - that immortality is a curse - came across well in the last story, but it still seemed a bit pointless compared to the earlier stories.
If you're still with me after reading the descriptions of all five stories and my thoughts, I'm sure you'll understand the difficulty of reviewing this title. On one hand, it's far more meaningful than most series out there and has none of the "moe" elements that plague anime based on a lot of the more recent stories. The mangaka clearly had some important messages about life he wanted to express and did so as best he could. But, on the other hand, the series is all over the place because of the variation between each story, and I wouldn't call any of the stories included polished. The stories were released in manga form a long time ago and, compared to the character development and the like in more recent anime, the age of some of of the stories shows. Depending on how you look at it, Phoenix is either very flawed or brilliant because it avoids the holes stories from our age fall into time and time again.
In terms of the visuals, Phoenix is very nice to look at. Someone on Amazon described the art/animation as being something he imagined Disney coming up with after "going on a bender", but I don't think that's an insult when we're talking about an anime TV series. The character designs are rather cartoony, with characters having HUGE noses and the like, but it looks very nice. It's different than most art nowadays, but not in a bad way. The worst thing you can say about the art is that the character designs of the characters in the five stories are mostly very similar, the recurring character Saruta always having the same big nose and stumpy look. The animation was pleasing, too - whenever there was action, it flowed pretty well. There were some nice fight sequences in the fourth story.
I can't really comment on the music because, honestly, I can only remember the orchestral opening. Since I've only just finished watching the series (well, last night...), that doesn't say a lot good about the soundtrack. But, although I can't remember any amazing tracks, I can't say I remember any bad music, so I suppose the soundtrack was simply good without being amazing.
To sum it up, I'm pleased I watched Phoenix, ignoring the fact it isn't highly rated and isn't a name known to many. It isn't like any of the other anime I've watched, and that's why I respect it. I've watched a ton of anime that have no messages; series that were made just to put something on TV - Phoenix isn't one of those series. And like an IGN reviewer is quoted as saying on the back of the box set, Phoenix has a quality that keeps viewers hooked, preventing them from leaving until the end. In an age where I'm used to constantly checking my DVD timer to see how much longer an episode has left to run, Phoenix was a breath of fresh air. It's far from perfect, and it isn't something I'm willing to score too highly, but it's definitely a series I'm proud to own on DVD, and one I'd recommend to those tired of all the "moe" rubbish going around.
One last thing (honest!): I STRONGLY recommend you, the random reader who has somehow survived to this point, look into getting the box set. I imported the box set for a lowly sum of £13.99 from PlayUSA, and I'm sure Americans can get it for even less. The box set is made up of a thin box and three book-like cases, which are basically hardback book covers with plastic stuck on to hold the discs. For what is a budget set, getting these unique cases - which I haven't seen used before - is a major plus point. The case covers are even reflective, making the set appear even more expensive than it really is.