Charlotte Review — One Step Forward, One Step Back

And one step to the side into an alligator-infested swamp.

You know, for all the flak that PA Works gets for focusing a lot of their shows on crappy dramas, I think a good portion of their works suck because they don’t have enough drama. There was Angel Beats, which seemed to think that every single part of the story needed to be on dope because it thought subtlety would put viewers to sleep. Hanasaku Iroha had 20% of worthwhile material in its runtime buried under boring “anime comedy” and teen drama that refused to move the story and characters forward. Tari Tari wanted to be cheese. Shirobako had the director wear a cowboy outfit. Glasslip is something we all want to forget. And now we’ve got Charlotte, which as the making-of-interview (that has since been taken down so I’m not going to link it) flat-out stated wants so hard to be energetic that the definition of context escaped their brain, went go-karting with Bowser, and came back a jittery wreck.

Now I haven’t been paying much attention to the reaction this show has gotten since it’s written by Jun Maeda and anything he’s involved in is pretty much doomed to spontaneously combust all over itself before the first episode airs. And honestly, I’m surprised he’s still trying to be noticed after all this time. I mean it’s been awhile since Key has been relevant, as you only see them mentioned these days because someone just keeps on discovering the existence of Clannad rather than through any real effort on the company’s own part, which is so knee-deep in irony that the amount of tears shed by the fanbase just can’t compare. And let me tell you, when someone wants to recapture nostalgia in the anime industry, it almost never ends well, as Steins;Gate just can’t seem to get through its overinflated skull.

But let’s not bash the man too much. I mean it’s not like I have anything to add given the number of hammers with his name on it that most people I talk to seem to own. I’m actually kind of glad that Charlotte exists, because I personally found it interesting in how it succumbs to and (barely) avoids a lot of things I don’t like about “visual novel anime”, and this is a good opportunity to list off my issues with that flawed medium using it as a framing device. Perhaps I can convince VN writers who come across this list to actually make a smooth transition into the medium. And then maybe I can become Iron Man and wipe out all terrorism in the world.

1) Please Establish Personal Stakes Within The First Episode

When I watch a premiere, I want to have an idea of what I’m watching and why I should care about it. Since almost all first episodes are only 22 minutes, this usually works by focusing only on one character, finding out what makes him tick, and then introducing a conflict that is both engaging in terms of scale whilst having enough of a narrow focus so that it affects the character in a significant way. Most visual novel anime unfortunately decide the best way to start is to have too many characters dick around or participate in unestablished, usually saccharine events whilst trying to find the plot through the various characters and plot elements it (slowly) meets whilst doing so, hoping the audience will have enough trust in what could be rather than what actually is. And anyone who falls for this method gets funny looks from me, especially when they fall for it fifty-gazillion times.

Now this is actually one of the things that Charlotte does do right for the most part: having Yu discover his powers, abusing them, getting punished for it, and then given a chance to become a better person. It’s one mistake was that it didn’t make it clear how said redemption would occur. Which didn’t turn out great for the show, but we’ll let the rest of the steps take care of that.

2) Stop Confusing Setup For Story Progression

I’m aware that exposition is important in real life as well as in fiction, but visual novels in general seem to only use it as an excuse to world-build or move plot points along, and world-building/plot progression for its own sake is about as interesting as watching somebody play a videogame with said game being The Order 1886. But at least there’s some interaction when you’re doing that sort of stuff with the actual source. Anime doesn’t have any physical interaction from the viewer at all, and thus watching the characters finding random super powered people who will never be important again after they’re dealt with, or establishing rules that will only pay off later and don’t have much of a current purpose is really fucking boring. Puzzle-piece anime needs more to it than just solving a puzzle, because otherwise you’d get those awful walking simulator games like Gone Home or the once-mighty, now pitiable Durarara adaptation. And god knows I have enough boredom in my life as is.

3) Quit Using Time Travel as a Story Mechanic

Not that it was that badly used in this anime. I did like how the show acknowledged at the end that time travel shouldn’t be used as a Deus Ex solution and proceeded to follow up on that. But I still think something’s gone horribly wrong when you’re blatantly ripping off Madoka, and time travel wasn’t exactly used well there either.

4) Don’t Masturbate Character Interactions

This one sort of crosses over into Number 2, but my point is that characters should drive the story. Story should not drive the characters. When I watch characters on-screen, I do not want to see them hang out like they’re at every single party I’ve ever been too (remember, I had kinda strict Asian parents) or watch idol vidoes or the importance of building robots for over four hours! I want to see them go through challenges in their lives with personal stakes and growth at the end of it all. You can have them relax in-between tense moments ala Persona 4, but the tension and central narrative must always still be there because otherwise you’d just get Persona 4 Golden’s nauseatingly sickening additional friendship scenes. And even then, some of said scenes were funny. But as we established sometime ago, anime humor sucks major balls, so good luck with getting me involved in what’s happening by getting me to laugh.

5) Don’t Include Useless Characters In General

So Charlotte has these two characters – a glasses guy who is basically Youhei Sunohara by way of post-90s Sonic the Hedgehog, and an annoying idol who is slightly more tolerable when she’s possessed by her dead gangster sister – and to say that they add fuck all to the narrative would be such an understatement that it’d make “this is bad” sound like an accurate representation of your entire apartment complex burning down. An actually good VN anime would have them go surf on a tidal wave and into a volcano far away from me or give them minimal, yet vital screen time whilst convincing me they have lives even if it’s not related to the story. But as we established far back, Charlotte is not a good VN anime and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that the show never gave them anything important to do because their present-day screen time was already testing my patience. And that’s not even including everyone else, who either exist to die or just exist to be blatant plot points that could have easily been tackled by characters that had actual meat to them.

What is up with visual novel writers wanting to put in every stereotype imaginable in the narrative anyways? Yes Maeda, I know fans really loved the fishing guy from Angel Beats, but fans also really love Pyramid Head from Silent Hill 2, and he hasn’t had any dignity since then.

6) Enough With The Large Number of Poorly Connected Set Pieces

You know how visual novels all have multiple routes, usually in the form of each character having their own story and all that? And how visual novel adaptations in the old days decided the best way to please the fans would be to cram them all into the narrative no matter how disjointed and artificial it seemed? Well that practice is all but dead now, but old habits die hard causing a lot of these types of anime seem to come from the school of “coming up with the set pieces first and then stringing a plot around them”. And boy does it show, because there’s this rock group in Charlotte that pretty much exists solely to have a concert that is barely connected to the plot and could easily have been replaced by something else. And to make matters worse, the concert was nowhere near as good as the one in Angel Beats, let alone something decent like Nana.

Not that it’s an inherently bad method of telling a story, as James Cameron’s Terminator film has proven back in the 80s, but even Naughty Dog hasn’t done a great job at perfecting that method with their Uncharted games so what makes you think people far-less skilled than the best AAA storytellers in the world would do any better, let alone pull off what happened in Episode 11 naturally?

7) Rushed, Poorly-Connected Endings Need to Die

Charlotte’s ending isn’t actually too bad, but it could have been a lot better than it was. Most visual novel anime realize at the end that they had neglected to connect their large number of plot threads throughout their runtime and attempt to tie up as many of them as they can in the final episode so it feels rushed to the point of either deus ex or horrendously lacking in substance beyond those connectionsCharlotte keeps its focus on the main character for its finale and unlike Plastic Memories, actually makes him go through real struggles with actual consequences that are brought out by himself as well as his environment before ending on a bittersweet note that nicely caps off his personal journey from dick to flawed Christ. However, it does this at the sacrifice of botching its “super power as a metaphor for puberty” angle (because personally, I’ve never seen a human with the ability to take away teenage angst just by looking at them) and its main female lead ultimately ends up as nothing more than a bit player due to this. It’s pretty clear early on that Nao is supposed to represent the hopeful side of what happens after you “grow up”, but that doesn’t excuse how little she actually gets to do.

8) In Conclusion…

Charlotte has the bones of a half-decent superpower drama, but either it didn’t drink enough milk to grow them properly or said milk was always chocolate and the sugar high caused it to drop down a sewer somewhere. This is probably the first time anybody’s said this, but this is one Key anime that really could have benefitted from having more drama in it. The actual bits where the main has to overcome obstacles that actually progress the story are alright, even if the setup to them is wonky as hell. And the important characters are slightly above average when they’re not trying to do bad stand-up comedy. But its visual novel-rooted failures are too major to really recommend, and it just doesn’t go far enough to deliver satisfactorily on its promising start – which is the one thing Maeda has been getting better at over the years admittedly, so baby steps along with a personal note from me that he should quit whilst he’s ahead because I’m pretty sure he’s run out of ideas by this point.

So the show is a bit of a wash overall, but I did got a lot of mileage out of finishing the thing. That’s not saying much though, because I also finished and have written quite a bit on Classroom Crisis – another original anime written by a popular VN writer – as well. Thanks for the experience Maruto, although I doubt you’ll be returning said thanks once my review goes up tomorrow.

PS: I’m aware all of Air’s useless characters make a two-second cameo in the last act of the film, okay?

9 responses to “Charlotte Review — One Step Forward, One Step Back

  1. Nice review. Charlotte was heavily flawed but I still found most of the second half enjoyable. Kind of like Angel Beats.
    Looking forward to your bashing of Classroom Crisis. I had quite high hopes for it because the writer, Maruto Fumiaki wrote White Album 2 which is one of my all-time favourite VN’s. I guess this just continues to prove that VN writers are (usually) shit at writing anime.

    • White Album 2 never really had a good story when you think about it considering it’s very character-dependent. That’s not a bad thing (moreso in the VN medium than the anime one), but it does cause opinions on it to be more subjective than usual.

      Whilst I don’t know why his character-writing skills suffered over time, Maruto has never been good at plot and his desire to focus more on it in his last two works hasn’t done him any favors.

  2. Let’s discuss every part individually:

    1/ I agree with this to a degree. Shows where everyone sit and talk about nonsense for 40 min like Fate anime are terrible, but slice of life or drama don’t need stake in first ep..

    2/I’m not sure what you’re trying to say with this. By your definition of setup, classic literature like War and Peace or Les Miserables spent like 70% of the time on that. Such set up is not directly plot relevant or important to main characters can still be thematically important, delivering overall complex and challenging message. The problem with most anime is that their world building are not good enough and the message is extremely dumb.

    3/Time travel mechanic doesn’t need to be well thought out. I dislike Madoka, but time travel in that show is fine, since it serve plot and character. Hollywood movies like Back to the Future’s time travel make little sense or properly explained, but the charactes development hold it together.

    4/ Character interactions are for creating emotional investment. Well written dialogue are enjoyable by itself without stake. Humor is not necessary all the time.

    5/ Related to point 2, characters can be thematically important without plot important.

    6, 7 ,8/ I agree with all of those point.

    • but slice of life or drama don’t need stake in first ep..

      Couldn’t disagree more, especially with the existence of Planetes.

      Such set up is not directly plot relevant or important to main characters can still be thematically important, delivering overall complex and challenging message

      I find themes without plot/character-relevance to be a bunch of hot air.

      Time travel mechanic doesn’t need to be well thought out.

      My complaint was more in direction to how overused it is in VN anime these days.

      Well written dialogue are enjoyable by itself without stake.

      It can lighten the mood, but by itself I don’t find it very enjoyable. Its part of the reason why I don’t like those Avenger films or Bioware games.

      characters can be thematically important without plot important.

      Yes, but those two chuckle-fucks and most of the other characters weren’t. Only Nao and Yu’s brother fit that bill. Maybe his sister, but that’s a bit of a stretch.

  3. Charlotte is entertaining. I loved every minute of it. Maybe my inexperience with time travel anime(aside from Stein;Gates), and my particular liking of character interactions have something to do with it. The time travel plot twist made sense and was well done. The comedy wasn’t that good but it worked. Its animation never failed to impress me. The show might not be great, but it is definitely not a bad show. Sure, it could have been a lot better if it used its elements in a different way. At the end of the day, Charlotte is an amusing show whether you think it sucks or not.

    • We’re really going to have to disagree on the comedy. I found it obnoxious, particularly since it was getting in the way of the bits I actually found interesting.

  4. Wow. You’re really kind with this show. Yes, I also wondered why on Earth Takajo and Yusa exist in Charlotte. They never did anything plot-shaking in the show. They’re mostly like.. well, display just to comply with the four koma prerequisite of a VN? I don’t know.

      • I hope you pray for my poor soul as I am going to watch that one after I finished watching Shimoneta. Well, Classroom Crisis could be an effective sleeping pill so I don’t lose either way. LOL