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Le Masque (Masuku) (1993)

     by Mitchell Perkins and Wanda Daughton

This comic is weird. Not necessarily totally bad... but definitely weird.

I... guess this is a C grade? I feel like if someone turned this in to me, the Phantom Studies Professor, as a final project, I wouldn't really know what to do with it but I wouldn't think it merited failure, so I'd have to default to the average. It doesn't pretend to follow the Phantom story closely but also makes it clear that it's based on it, even going so far as to directly reference it in its text, so we're looking at a case of burgeoning creativity rather than an overzealous reviewer connecting dots that aren't there. (This time. Every day I get a little better about that.)

If you happen to be a manga buff, you might be interested to know that this is the same author responsible for the popular 1980s manga and anime series Vampire Princess Miyu. Ironically, this is not a vampire Phantom story, though.

This is a two-volume story that was originally released in serialized form, which is common for manga series and helpfully parallels Leroux's novel's first release as a serial. Like Leroux's book, this story also suffers slightly in the transition from serialization to single story - there are a few too many dangling cliffhangers and odd plot twists that were included to keep audience interest until the next installment.

Volume 1:

On the first page, we get to see our Phantom in a mirror, and as should surprise no one, he is a bishonen - literally pretty boy, a Japanese term for a male character that is intentionally presented as beautiful and somewhat androgynous, usually in order to appear romantic and desirable to a female audience. I had to wait a while to get past the mask-wearing to ascertain whether or not he even has a deformity, but it turns out that he does not; this Phantom, like the 1998 Julian/Sands film's or several venerable pornographical representations, is completely blemishless and beautiful, allowing readers to find him sexy and visually appealing without even a moment of confusion or rejection of his appearance.

The Phantom's mask in this version is seriously wacky - it's one-eyed and has a bizarre spiky and unexplained shape sort of like a W, which obviously has nothing to do with the Phantom's non-deformity and therefore is included purely for purposes of style. It's probably intended to evoke hurtful and dangerous imagery by being sharp, uneven and possibly organic-looking, but we must also be aware that it is among the most fabulous of Phantom masks. Dance and Danova, be very jealous.

I don't normally post pictures of various Phantom masks (although maybe I should do that someday for the joy of comparison, eh?), but I'm going to post this one just because I'm not sure I can describe it adequately for all of you:



This is in its tamest form, but it appears to grow, get spikier or more weirdly shaped, and otherwise change over the course of the story as is appropriate, becoming more frightening when the Phantom is threatening the characters and more innocuous when it's being used as a symbol of comfort. The one eye's descending line suggests tears, giving us some foreshadowing about the tragedy inherent in the character who wears it. Also, see what I mean about pretty Phantom? You just want to put your hands in his hair and fluff it right up.

Our Christine character is named Rina, and we meet her here as a young girl, a curious little ballerina in training at an exclusive arts academy (where the "ballet dormitories" of the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film can actually make sense!). She is Japanese but attending school in France; this isn't discussed a great deal, but Rina's presence as an outsider with looks and background considered exotic by the other characters echoes Christine as a Swedish outsider in French society in Leroux's novel, and gives her the same sort of orphaned status in spite of the fact that we never hear whether or not her parents are still alive.

A particular practice room in the school is widely considered to be haunted by the students, which is an obvious update of the haunted Box 5 in the original novel to match the story's setting. The school itself is housed within a "castle", most likely intended to refer to the French convention of chateaus (sorry, sportsfans, they won't say which one); the time period is not addressed, but the academy is said to have been established fairly recently by the last noble to own the place due to his love of music and especially ballet, so it seems likely that we're at least a little way back in the misty, unexplored realm of recent French history. The name of the place is the Marselina Academy of Art, which immediately brings to mind Marcellina, the doomed first Christine character in the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film, although no other obvious connection exists between the two interpretations.

The legend of the haunted dressing room says that the Phantom appears in it each midnight in order to search for a beautiful dancer; enchanted by this possibility, Rina sets out to sneak into it in the middle of the night, but is thwarted by running into Ren, a handsome young man and childhood friend who is also studying here. Ren is clearly a Raoul-analogue, but he's joined very quickly by a second one, another childhood friend named Yuriy (we don't get any particular examination of Yuriy's background, but his name suggests he's of Slavic origin, probably Russian since that country has long been associated with ballet). The two of them will commence competing for Rina's affections for the rest of both volumes of the story; it's tempting to compare them to the dual Raouls (Anatole and Raoul) from the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, but their characterization is substantially different, with both of them also childhood friends and both also friends who are unwilling to be overt in their courtship of Rina for fear of hurting one another.

All three students have a very easygoing, teasing relationship; interestingly, Rina teases Ren about all the time he spends with Yuriy, implying that she is teasing him about a potential romantic relationship between the two of them. This implication resurfaces a few times but is never confirmed or pursued, but it's still an interesting possibility for the Phantom story, which has always revolved around Christine's romantic involvement with two men being incompatible, to experiment with solving that problem with a poly relationship. Surely someone will solve it that way one day! I mean, it's right there!

Oddly enough, the academy is run by nuns, which seems weird when so much of its doings revolve around entertainments such as dance that are usually considered a little too worldly for most Christian religious orders, especially if our time period is not modern. The nuns seem to be down with sexy dance lessons, though, if not with children sneaking around in the halls after lights-out.

The three kids are discovered and packed off back to bed before they can encounter any supernatural phenomena, but Rina accidentally leaves behind her ribbon, which the Phantom, in our first real glimpse of him, finds and muses over. The comic is in black and white so we don't know what color it is, but I was nevertheless reminded of a reversed image of Raoul, in Leroux's novel, retrieving Christine's scarf when she lost it.

Interestingly, Rina knows the story of Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, because she outright references it here as well as mentioning Christine, the original protagonist of it; or, more likely, she's familiar with Lloyd Webber's show, since she appears to be romanticizing the Phantom considerably. She longs for a similar power to swoop down out of the wings and make her a star as the Phantom did for Christine, which gives us a little context for why she's sneaking around looking for him in the middle of the night. It also tells us that this is one of those odd retellings of the story that isn't really a retelling at all; because the characters are aware of Leroux's story within their own, they are not really performing a version of it but rather borrowing its imagery as the inspiration for something new.

It's neat that both Ren and Yuriy are dancers themselves; unlike many other versions of Raoul (including the original one) who aren't particularly artistically inclined, they are frequent participants and partners with Rina in her artform, and both of them doing so again distinguishes them from the 1943 film's warring suitors, one of whom was a performer and the other of which was an unmusical policeman.

The legend of the academy's Phantom is expanded upon some more here, where we discover that he is supposedly the oldest son of the chateau's former master, killed before he could inherit the place and now haunting it in a combination of possessiveness and vengeance. Kakinouchi draws this backstory out considerably, revealing it only piece by piece, so that at this point we still don't know what killed him or what supernatural forces are at play, and have to continue on with the mystery intact, a very similar approach to Leroux's.

A very Raoul-and-Christine-esque flashback here shows us Rina's first meeting with Yuriy, in which both of them are about seven years old and introduced as a consequence of Rina's parents, famous singers, meeting Yuriy's, who own a performance venue. The young Rina and Yuriy are adorably intrigued by one anothers' looks - Rina because she's never been outside Japan before or met anyone with such golden-haired and blue-eyed fairness, and Yuriy because he's fascinated by Rina's jet-black hair - and their simple exploration of one another while the adults ignore them sets up a childhood bond that can extend to their relationship dynamics later in the story. Interestingly, there is no corresponding dedicated childhood scene for Rina and Ren; the unspoken implication is that although they have been friends since childhood, their relationship is more "ordinary" since they have less striated cultural backgrounds, and that therefore there is less of a magical quality to their encounters. Although Ren's origins are never addressed, we can infer that he's not Japanese thanks to Rina telling him Japanese colloquial phrases he doesn't recognize later, but that's all we get; Ren is a traditional Japanese name (meaning "romance", so very subtle, there, Raoul!) that seems to suggest he might also be Japanese, however, or at least from a Japanese family living abroad.

Where Rina's parents were famous singers, Ren's father was a violinist, further muddying the waters about who represents what role from Leroux's novel, in which it was Christine who had the violinist father. Kakinouchi also does a pretty able job of keeping those of us familiar with the Phantom story guessing when it comes to who is who, and with turning our expectations of those roles upside down later on in the second volume.

To add a further level of complication, the upcoming ballet production is called Le Masque, and is the story of a basement-dwelling sorcerer who wears an intimidating mask and has powers over the dead. We do not see this piece performed at any point (which is a shame!), but it, too, is obviously drawing from the Phantom story, hearkening back to the original Erik's underground haunts and connection to the concept of death. Comparing the sinister main character of the ballet with the strange but as-yet unthreatening Phantom of the dressing room also gives us a clearly laid-out parallel to the division between Christine's Angel of Music and the reality of the Phantom of the Opera in the original book, although oddly enough it's the character actually referred to as the Phantom that takes on the Angel role, while the other is referred to only as "the mask". Considering that a mask is a central symbol for almost any incarnation of the Phantom, it's interesting to divide the two versions of the same character this way and to stress that the one represented by the mask is the more dangerous; it implies that it's the mask itself, with its connotations of secrecy and the ability to hide terrible things, that is connected to the more negative part of the Phantom's personality.

To be honest, however, Kakinouchi's plot is not always very coherent, even allowing for some blips in the translation from Japanese; it becomes clear later in the story that Le Masque is also telling the story of the Phantom that haunts the chateau, but doesn't address how the two are connected and ignores the fact that the two legends were originally presented as separate. It's possible that, like Erik's Don Juan Triumphant, the Phantom himself composed Le Masque to tell his story, but if so, no one ever remembers to tell the reader about it.

Rina finds herself called from her bed in the middle of the night to the haunted practice room, apparently without any idea why, which recalls the Phantom's powers of hypnotism and suggestion in Leroux's novel and several subsequent versions of the story. She is both semi-aware of going there but bewildered as to why that happened, and the scene's resemblance to a dream sequence also suggests that it's possible she's sleepwalking or otherwise creating the scenario entirely on her own.

The Phantom finally appears to Rina here, as an image in a mirror that does not reflect her own face, a haunting choice that successfully underlines the extremely supernatural nature of this particular version of the Phantom. He refers to her as "mon ange", calling up the angel imagery of the original novel but applying it to Rina as the Christine character rather than himself, and exhorts her to dance for him; visually, Rina's skirt flies in an unexplained wind that makes it look like wings for a moment, further driving home the point.

In an excellently creepy interlude, the Phantom in the mirror - still not present anywhere in the room with Rina, who keeps frantically looking for him - takes Rina's reflection and begins to dance with it, giving us an effective visual representation of the Phantom in some supernatural way possessing or invading some part of Rina through magical means which she is helpless to resist or understand. Her fear and what looks like possibly even pain from struggling against him are realistic, but there is also very real conflict in her expression and behavior, making it clear that even while he is frightening her the Phantom is exerting some control and attraction over her. The entire scene continues to be dreamlike, to the point that is becomes unclear to the reader what exactly is happening - if the Phantom is dancing with Rina's reflection, if he has come out of the mirror to dance with her, or if Rina herself has been drawn into his mirror world and potentially lost to her normal life.

As Phantom characters often do, he offers to teach Rina the art of dance, claiming he will make her the most beautiful of artists as long as she tells no one about his existence; while there is no parallel to his role as Angel of Music here, since Rina knows perfectly well who he is and has never harbored that kind of idea anyway, there is also no real malice in him other than his frightening her. At this point, he's simply a strange supernatural force offering to help her, which is what she had hoped for in the first place. (Of course, that doesn't stop her from being freaked out, but I don't know many people who wouldn't be in this situation.)

The conversion here of the Phantom from a tutor of the voice to one concerned with dance is one experimented with before in other versions of the story, notably the 1992 Clark/Englund film (which also took place at a ballet academy), the 1990 Rosen/Schierhorn musical in which the Phantom appeared to begin offering ballet tutoring at the end of the show, and the 1997 comic Batman: Masque, in which the principal characters were mostly professional dancers. The connection of ballet to opera is an old and strong one, making the leap from one kind of traditionally performed Western "high art" to another an easy one, and its application to the Phantom is especially interesting, changing as it does the subtext afforded by his choice in artform. By the very nature of dance, it makes him a more physical and sensual being who must touch and physically interact with his student, something that was outside the scope of the original Phantom's actions for the most part, and conversely the idea of the voice as a vessel for the Phantom's spirit in Christine's body is lost, making him more of a puppetmaster of her body rather than a possessive force singing through her. As if to underscore his graduation to a very bodily-oriented Phantom, he also attempts to kiss Rina here; she attempts to avoid him, but the move itself suggests a much more sexual and confident version of the Phantom than we're used to seeing.

After the spell is "broken", the creepiness is concluded when the Phantom departs in the mirror, taking Rina's reflection with him, again suggesting that he has stolen or possessed part of her and that she is helpless to oppose him. The heavy use of the mirror in this scene recalls both the mirror in the original Christine's dressing room, which functioned as the portal through which the Phantom was able to interact with and eventually abduct her into his own realm, and reminds us of the issues of visual appearance always at play in the Phantom story.

Rina falls ill soon after, which may be partly because of the folkloric convention in several cultures of one's reflection being part of or a visual image of one's soul, suggesting that the Phantom taking it from her may have injured her in some way. Yuriy, a rare voice of reason, points out that whatever happened to her, mysterious ghosts aren't necessarily an inherently romantic or pleasant thing and that she should probably stop going around looking for them.

Once she recovers enough to return to her classes (which, by the way, also include acting and singing lessons, although these are clearly not her preferred arts), Rina muses some on Laura, her roommate and the current star ballerina among the students who is assumed to be a shoo-in for the lead role in Le Masque. Laura is beautiful, blonde, and immensely talented, all of which make her seem more like a reprisal of Leroux's Christine than a Carlotta character. Rina feels intensely inadequate and physically unattractive in comparison with her, which again plays upon the idea of Rina as an outsider who isn't compatible with Western ideals of beauty and whose cultural ostracization keeps her orphaned even among friends.

As should surprise no one who has ever read or seen a version of the Phantom story, Rina's desire to be more talented eventually causes her to fall under the Phantom's spell and begin receiving tutoring from him, although again it's difficult to tell if this is ever really happening or if it takes place only in dreams or strange magical sequences. As she does so, Kakinouchi kicks it up a notch by letting us learn a little bit more of the legend, revealing that in the ballet everyone is auditioning for, Le Masque is imprisoned underground with "all the evils of the human heart" inside it, and that it is waiting to be released by the blood of a pure heart. The suggestion that purity must be sullied or killed to appease the villain is very Faustian, and also very uh-oh for Rina.

As Rina is taken to a strange, half-destroyed underground stage to dance for the Phantom, paralleling her visits to the Phantom's house in Leroux's novel, we further learn that the elder son who was supposed to inherit the chateau in which the school is now housed was prevented from doing so by an evil uncle, who killed him and both of his parents as well as setting the basement on fire. Although exactly what he wanted to burn down in the basement isn't addressed in the first volume, we see a figure injured in the flames, suggesting that the Phantom might have a burn-injury disfigurement similar to those in the 1983 Markowitz/Schell and 1988 Friedman/Rydall films. As in those movies, this makes the Phantom a wronged party who has been mistreated, not an outcast from society since birth; this is especially underlined by his previous status as a nobleman, which is about as far from being exiled from humanity as you can get.

What's most interesting here is that figure that has apparently been disfigured in the fire, because it turns out to be a woman. Her name is given as Rinaticia, which is not a real name anywhere but in this story but which is most likely meant to be exotically European-flavored, and which is clearly an intentional parallel to Rina's own name. It turns out that she was the sister of the murdered young man and therefore the last living member of the family, and that, seeking vengeance or perhaps some kind of continuation for her brother, she found the mask, here revealed to be a cursed artifact kept in the basement by the family, and shed her blood over it to activate its powers. The result is the creation of the Phantom, who has been haunting the place ever since.

There's a lot going on with this concept, and Kakinouchi fires a bunch of information at us very rapidly without bothering to stop and make sure the reader can make sense of it all. The Phantom's weirdly-shaped mask is now a magical object in its own right, which is a common device in Japanese folklore, and the curse mentioned in the ballet's plot is clearly in full force for it, implying that Rinaticia's self-sacrifice was the kind of corruption or sacrifice of an innocent needed to give it life. It's interesting to ponder, however, exactly who or what the resulting Phantom is; he seems to be masculine (at least the characters think he is) and the legend of him being the ghost of the dead heir to the chateau would suggest that Rinaticia's sacrifice gave her brother's spirit the power to stalk the halls. But it was Rinaticia's face that was half-burnt in the disaster in the basement, necessitating the half-mask with the single eye that the Phantom wears, and the Phantom narrates her actions in the first person, saying, "I was locked underground with my face half-burned," implying that it is Rinaticia herself who has become the spirit walking abroad. At the same time, when Rina, terrified and confused, asks the Phantom point-blank if she is Rinaticia, the Phantom responds by saying that he is the ghost of Andrew (any relation to Lloyd Webber, Kakinouchi?), Rinaticia's brother, instead.

So possibly the Phantom is Andrew's ghost, given pseudo-life by Rinaticia's sacrifice, or possibly the Phantom is Rinaticia, taking on the form of the brother who was killed, or possibly the spirit is a combination of the two, with Andrew's image animated by the strength of Rinaticia's emotions. Like many other parts of the supernatural plot in this manga, Kakinouchi does not explain it and it ends up unclear and potentially confusing, so the reader will need to choose their own favorite option. Either way, the theme of the mask as a cursed object that is animated by negative emotions is present, and the suggestion is that it is the mask itself that is the real villain; it's also possible that it's neither Andrew nor Rinaticia that is truly the Phantom, but rather that the mask itself is the only power, and that it is simply using the trappings of the long-dead players in the tragedy that awoke it.

Rina has by this point realized that she is in deep, deep trouble, but she is unable to escape as the Phantom drags her toward the long-ago room where Rinaticia died and tells her she, too, will need to shed blood for the mask so that it can be empowered to continue taking its vengeance. While she is eventually saved by the intervention of Ren, who comes to find her in traditional Raoul style, she also demonstrates the same compassion and understanding as Leroux's Christine, realizing that the Phantom appears to be weeping in spite of his threats and telling him that vengeance won't end his pain and she feels nothing but sadness for his empty quest.

Rina runs to Ren and the mirror into which the Phantom was attempting to draw her abruptly cracks, signifying that the two worlds have once again become separate and he can no longer reach out to attempt to affect her. While Rina is aware that one day she and her two friends might have to deal with the unresolved matter of the Phantom again, she's just relieved for now that it's over, and goes back to her normal student life.

It's neat to note that because Rina successfully resisted the Phantom's advances, she did not end up supplanting Laura as the lead in the upcoming ballet; she officially eschewed the Phantom's supernatural guidance in favor of continuing to work on her own. The story implies somewhat that doing so is admirable, and that the "shortcut" of supernatural aid would have ended in tragedy anyway.

Volume 2:

Kakinouchi follows up on the lingering confusion readers are probably already suffering from in the first volume and starts right off here by introducing new supernatural elements to the story and refusing to explain them, which appears to be largely her M.O. I have to wonder, since this is a Japanese story written for a Japanese audience, if she's really providing as confusing a lack of information as it feels like she is, or if there's simply cultural context at work here that would be obvious to a native audience but that isn't obvious to me as a foreign reader.

At any rate, we start the volume with two new characters, already interacting in medias res with no prior explanation of what they're up to. One of them is Michelle, apparently another dance student at the school, and the other is the Phantom - or at least, he looks like the Phantom, but his mask is now black instead of white and he refers to himself as Le Masque Noir (the Black Mask), giving us a confusing case of a doppelgänger of an already-established character in the first volume. Michelle has apparently descended to the basement of the school in search of the Phantom, hoping he'll grant her wish as Rina once hoped, but their dynamic is far different; the Phantom has no interest in teaching Michelle and instead wants her to provide him with a body to possess, allowing him to interact with the physical world instead of remaining an incorporeal presence tied to the mask, giving us a clearer image of him as a manifestation of the cursed object rather than an individual tied to it.

Michelle, in turn, isn't seeking a teacher or confidante the way Rina was; she wants the Phantom to turn her into a man, explaining through flashbacks that her parents always wanted a son and that while she can easily succeed in her career, she can never be what they want in a child as a woman. Michelle's desire to change gender presentation (and physical sex characteristics, it is implied) definitely stems from her parents' expectations rather than any stated preference on her part, and we don't get to experience any more of her perceptions or background so we're left fending for ourselves as far as her true motivations and thoughts. She does demonstrate a moment of unease with her parents' treatment when she gives the Phantom her name, which she ruefully says is very masculine; of course, Michelle is the feminine version of Michael in English, but in French the male name is Michel and is pronounced identically, so we can assume that she's either French or has spent a lot of her life speaking it. She seems not to be dissatisfied with being a woman herself so much as seeking to become the person her parents want her to be, and to that end she turns to supernatural transformation that will not change her personality or identity, but only her outward physical markers and how others treat her.

Unfortunately, however, none of Michelle's problems are really discussed, which is a shame because already she's way more interesting than any other character in the entire comic. She functions as a random antagonist, one given a throwaway motivation so she can oppose the protagonists, and she will never be important or thoroughly investigated in her own right from here on out.

At any rate, the most plot-important part of this conversation is that, aside from the plot to procure the Phantom physical form, he mentions Rina, whom he refers to as "the black-haired princess" and who he claims he needs for undisclosed, amorphous reasons of supernatural power. The princess moniker is a little confusing, since it didn't appear at all in the first volume and this Phantom, in addition to having a weird new title of his own, appears to be viewing her completely differently than he did last time they interacted. Kakinouchi will explain this later, eventually, but not in a way that makes it particularly coherent.

Meanwhile, Rina, Yuriy, and Ren are all grown-up teenagers now, about to embark on adulthood and leave for new careers, although they remain at the academy for their final year at the time of this story. Rina has apparently never given up on the idea of the Phantom as a benevolent protector, in spite of her trauma of the previous volume, but it's quickly apparent that this is because he seems to be showing up to spend time with her and be every inch the gentle friend she wants him to be, often in the garden during the evening.

This is less confusing once we realize a few pages later that Ren seems to have kept the Phantom's mask as a souvenir and has it in his room, and is impersonating the Phantom in order to spend time with her. This is an odd inversion of the Phantom impersonating an angel in order to spend time with Christine in Leroux's book; both Ren and Rina are accepting the Phantom's angelic qualities of protection and guardianship in spite of their experiences with him, and therefore Ren is able to impersonate an "angel" similarly. Of course, Ren doesn't have any devastating social problems other than a giant crush on Rina, so he doesn't have much of an excuse for skulking about in the garden with her, although his flowing robes do give us a nice visual reminder of the hoods often used to conceal the Phantom in the 1937 Weibang/Sheng film and its Chinese descendents.

Since the first volume of this story hit the idea of the mask as a dangerous cursed object so hard, it's confusing that Ren is wearing it as a costume prop with no apparent ill effects, though. Why did it stop exerting its own power? Does Ren wear it because it makes him, and if so, what does that mean or look like? How is it connected to the black version that Michelle is even now conversing with down below? It looks like a weird case of Raoul possessed by a supernatural Phantom (which will actually happen in the second Meadows novel, although not for several years at this point), but he demonstrates none of the Phantom's frightening characteristics or behavior from the first volume, and seems only concerned with providing Rina with the companionship she seeks.

Sorry, no answers for you, readers. Instead, we get to revisit Yuriy, who is Ren's roommate (and there's that implied subtext again!), and who has noticed him disappearing a lot and being secretive and tired but who doesn't know what's wrong with him. Yuriy's appearance as a young adult is suspiciously similar to the glimpses we got of Andrew, the deceased previous heir of the chateau, and that is neither a coincidence nor unlikely to affect the plot in the rest of the story.

There is clearly a lot of unresolved teenage love triangling going on here still, with Rina obviously nursing a crush on Yuriy but also an attachment to her mysterious Phantom, Ren clearly sighing wistfully over Rina all the time, and Yuriy mostly seeming confused and concerned about Ren while trying to keep everyone in the situation from getting upset. Ren is suffering some internal guilt for his impersonation of the Phantom, but annoyingly enough not for lying to Rina but rather for "stealing her" from Yuriy. Dudes, man.

Lest Ren start becoming self-aware, the Black Mask turns up at this point, causing him an understandable amount of confusion since he thought that the real Phantom was gone and only he was still impersonating him. The Phantom threatens him and tells him not to interfere in his affairs, and interestingly enough appears to consider Ren a rival because of his possession of the white mask, which apparently still has significance as a magical object. The Phantom makes several melodramatic declarations about whichever one of them managing to possess Rina becoming the "real" Phantom, and wounds his rival, establishing that he has the ability to cause real damage to living people now without the prop of the mirror.

This is an interesting device that will continue throughout the rest of the story: essentially, Kakinouchi has split the character of the Phantom into two halves, which are then pitted against one another in a fight for dominance. They represent opposing parts of the Phantom's personality - the white mask as representative of his function as a protector, teacher, and companion, the traditional "angel of music" role, and the black mask as representative of his associations with murder, danger, and the supernatural. In fact, Ren is able to use the mask to "transform" into the positive version of the Phantom in order to fight the Black Mask, all magical-boy-style, making it downright overt that they represent the same force fighting an internal battle over its own motivations and actions. The assertion that whomever wins will be "truly Le Masque" suggests that the losing facet of the whole's personality will be erased, and the remaining version of the Phantom locked into its chosen personality permanently.

Alas for poor Rina, whose choices and personal autonomy are now the "prize" fought over not only by Ren and Yuriy but also the two halves of the Phantom's supernatural force. Christine characters can't catch no breaks. To Ren's credit, however, when the Phantom taunts him and asks if Rina will be his, Ren says that that's for her to decide (and internally he actually suspects she's more likely to choose Yuriy than himself anyway), so even while embodying half of this fight over Rina's destiny, he is still thinking of her as an independent person of her own.

It's not actually revealed for a little while, but it's pretty obvious by this point, through the Phantom's ability to physically injure Ren and his self-satisfied dialogue, that he has successfully possessed someone's body; and it's also pretty obvious that that body is probably Yuriy, which explains his foreshadowed resemblance to the dead Andrew and finishes drawing the love triangle among the students on either side of the Phantom's split. Even Ren is suspicious of Yuriy, especially when he finds that his roommate has begun doing the same thing as him in disappearing and turning up inexplicably exhausted, but it appears that Yuriy himself isn't aware of the possession and therefore Ren can't prove anything.

Later, Michelle leads Yuriy into the underground lair of the Phantom (which is confusingly different-looking from the previous volume, but which seems to generally represent what's left of the destroyed foundations of the chateau that were set on fire), and we get confirmation via very creepy artwork of the black mask turning into a giant spiritual force that enters his body, forming an indistinct misty face of its own before disappearing. Michelle also begins her campaign of being downright nasty and antagonistic toward all the main characters here for no apparent reason, which she will continue doing until she exits the story, and which I suspect is just Kakinouchi trying to make sure you know who the bad guys are.

The school is still being run by nuns, and one of them accidentally wanders into the Phantom's domain here in search of Michelle, prompting him to assault her and inform her that "There is no God, not in this chateau. There is only the Phantom." A nice connection can be made here between this Phantom and the original Erik, who was pretty upset with God and his general life circumstances but very good at playing them off with bravado when he wanted to, but such is lost on the traumatized nun, who promptly quits and runs away.

I will say that, in spite of the inconsistency and confusion of the plot, these main characters are not slow to catch on when weird things are happening. Rina has by this point noticed that both of her best dude friends are performing some unexplained midnight wanderings and is beginning to suspect that one or both of them is in fact the "Phantom" she's been meeting, although she can't figure out which one.

As is traditional for Rina, she discovers some more of the plot via dream sequences, in which she sees a young girl who looks like herself and a young boy who looks a lot like Yuriy, which we are shortly informed are the ill-fated Rinaticia and Andrew of the chateau's past. This is confusing because, while the Andrews match up, we saw flashbacks of Rinaticia in the previous volume and she was definitely a wavy-haired blonde, while here we are looking at a dark-haired, solemn-eyed girl with pin-straight locks. For a little while I thought that maybe Kakinouchi wrote the volumes separately and just didn't remember that she'd changed that, but eventually we learn that this is incorrect; there were in fact two little girls, born as sororal twins, and the family named them both Rinaticia because apparently French aristocrats are not very creative. The blonde Rinaticia was raised with the family, but the black-haired Rinaticia was kept hidden in the basement and not allowed to interact with her siblings, and while she was taken care of with creature comforts, her development was so severely neglected that she never even learned to speak. It's not clear if one of the Rinaticias was developmentally disabled in some way, but it's implied that the family somehow knew (or planned) from her birth that she was destined to be a sacrifice to the cursed mask, so they hid her away to prevent anyone from knowing about her or getting too attached.

This certainly helps explain the sudden references to "the black-haired princess" that didn't make sense earlier, and invites comparison with Dumas' famous French novel The Man in the Iron Mask, which likewise revolved around an inconvenient and possibly royal twin kept isolated to prevent anyone from discovering a dirty secret. Apparently, the young Andrew discovered his secret sister at some point and visited her undercover in spite of the parents' attempts to keep them apart, and eventually helped her escape the chateau when he realized that she was going to be sacrificed; the family's failure to appease the mask is therefore the cause of the uncle's descent into insanity and the ensuing destruction of the family, which trades heavily on themes of the inescapable nature of prophecy and curses and the previously-established idea of innocence - in this case Andrew's - being the unwitting mechanism by which evil is released.

In among all these dream flashbacks, we get a few more moments to examine Michelle's motivations, which now also include her dislike of Rina based upon the fact that Michelle has everything she ought to need in life but is miserable, while Rina is less talented, beautiful, and rich but still gets to be happy and loved. Michelle is clearly unable to understand why Rina is "better" than she is and again blames this on her own failure to be the son her parents wanted, and her antagonism toward the other characters is revealed to be a function of her jealousy of their happy and comfortable lives.

Unfortunately for Rina, we are all now aware that she is surely a descendent or reincarnation of the escaped Rinaticia who was supposed to be sacrificed to the evil mask, and the Phantom knows it, too, because he kidnaps her and she wakes up with him on top of her about to impale her with a sword (and yeah, you read that sentence with the right amount of horrifying subtextual imagery). The distraught Ren, who is looking for her, receives a spiritual message from the white mask - the only time either mask directly communicates with anyone, which feels a little weirdly out of place but could play into the possibility of the masks being entities in their own rights instead of vessels for other spirits - in which it explains that the black mask is its "other half" and needs to be stopped, so off they go for the final showdown in the underground lair.

As in Leroux's novel, it's a combination of Rina's tears and his own love for her that allows Yuriy to fight off the masks' influence for long enough to avoid murdering her before anyone comes to the rescue. Of course, he can't hold out against the forces of darkness forever and still goes in for the kill, but Ren manages to show up in time to jump into the path of the sword and get stabbed, again in the white-mask Phantom costume, so we can have the Phantom literally facing off against himself again. It's interesting that we have both the two halves of the Phantom externalized in the persons of Ren and Yuriy, but also that the Black Mask has its own problematic internal split going on as Yuriy struggles against the mask's influence; it's possibly a comment on the fact that, as the evil and disharmonious side of the Phantom, the Black Mask can't be at peace with itself even when it's in its "pure" form.

But after all that manful effort on both their parts, Rina still gets stabbed to death a moment later, making her the first-ever Christine to actually die during the usual events of a Phantom story. It's not a huge surprise, considering all the histrionic flap about innocent blood giving power to evil when shed and how the Black Mask has been working his butt off to get Rina's out of her, but it's still kind of shocking. Rina does not get to be an active participant in events here, as opposed to the original Christine; she represents a passive symbol of innocence and tragedy, not a personality capable of affecting events.

Hilariously, a vengeful Ren then busts out some finger-claws to go to town on his enemy, which is semi-successful since the Black Mask is having problems in the wake of Yuriy's internal meltdown over Rina's death disrupting its possession somewhat. Things go firmly off the rails here and into the realm of bizarre magical phenomena that no one will explain, including Ren being healed by Rina's touch (?), Rina's spilled blood coalescing into a magical sword that only Ren can wield (?!?), and a few moments later Rina resurrecting herself with no explanation or apparent difficulty (?!?!?!?!) in order to be able to kiss Yuriy before he dies. None of it makes sense, but I don't think the author was worried about it making sense; rather, it's intended for symbolic and metaphorical value, and the exact events occurring don't matter as long as they have some emotional resonance.

Ren eventually discards the white mask, symbolically throwing off his connection to the Phantom and becoming the Raoul character at last, changing his own representation from the positive supernatural opposing the negative to the power of humanity opposing supernatural shenanigans in general. Yuriy, not to be left out of the party, as his last act manages to hold his body still long enough for Ren to run it through, after which Rina's kiss destroys the black mask for good and the evil of the Phantom is symbolically dispelled.

Kakinouchi wasn't quite done with us, though; although Ren escapes with Rina as the chateau begins to crumble and cave in above them, he leaves her and comes back to attempt to rescue Yuriy as well, who is mortally wounded but still vaguely alive at this point. He is unsuccessful in trying to pull his friend out, however, and ends up buried in the rubble himself, leaving Rina the only survivor of the debacle, similar to the 1989 Little/Englund film's outcome. Rina goes on to become a famous dancer and the school is rebuilt, and the comic's parting images are of Ren and Yuriy as co-Phantoms, haunting the school in a sort of benevolent way together forever, underlining that the evil parts of the Phantom have gone and left behind only the beneficial ones, and making me once again suspect that the author is implying more than just a platonic relationship between these two in addition to their mutual affection for Rina.

So that's all she wrote, and as I said, it's hard to compare it to other versions of the story or grade it based on its content, which is clearly not intended to slavishly follow anyone else's story or incorporate too many of anyone else's ideas. It does make a firm stab (I am hilarious) at providing its own meaningful subtext, however, so while it's not the deepest story I've ever read for this project, I'm inclined to say it's a pretty decent way to pass a couple of hours.

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