Charlotte was a true contender for anime of the year. Being written by Jun Maeda (writer of the good parts of Clannad, Little Busters and the smash hit Angel Beats) gave it a hype level few other anime this year could muster. Yet, it was for this very reason that I was not excited, but conflicted. On one hand, I consider Maeda’s work to have unquestionably changed my life, but at the same time I know his narratives leave much to be desired.
While many may call heresy to the following statements, I believe them to be undeniable facets of his writing style. Jun couldn’t write a good cast of characters if his contrived magic plot twists depended on it. It is a guarantee of Maeda’s work that the majority of his characters will fit into convenient tropes and mainstream moe-girl mannerisms, stuck in what will initially be a high school setting where magic — whether introduced or not — will find a way to resolve any and all conflicts in a rushed and unsatisfying manner. Yet, I still hold Maeda in high regards.
Maeda’s strength is that he manages to take his few well-written characters in interesting directions while using them to address powerful ideas, regardless of if he knows exactly where his story is going. His main characters usually have the breadth of personality necessary to make these ideas compelling, and whether intentionally or not, subverts his own caricatured and hyper-idealized school settings to address the real world dilemmas that would make an individual seek escapism through a fictitious relationship with a girl that has tea cup saucers for eyes. In short, he succeeds in execution, bringing about his trademark Jun Maeda FeelsTM that have given Charlotte a hype that seemed to have reached interstellar space.
But how does Charlotte stack up against Maeda’s great repertoire? It fails miserably in every single category. Charlotte has all the makings of a last ditch effort from a man whose creative juices have simply run dry; either that or P.A. Works is milking the Maeda well dry after the success of Angel Beats. My main point is that Charlotte carries over nearly all of the errors from Maeda’s previous works without bringing anything new to the table.
The story seems to have been built on missed potential from the get go. From the synopsis, I was under the impression that the story involved a cast of characters helping teenagers with their magic powers, rather than scouring town to make people stop using them. The result of this, is that each of the initial episodes were a shallow dive into unfleshed characters who had no hope of having a follow up session in the story. Angel Beats might have been bogged down by too many characters, but the characters they focussed on managed to get some backstory to them. Then again, not a single character in Charlotte feels like they have an ounce of flesh on their bones.
Literally and without exception, every character in Charlotte feels like a hodgepodge of mainstay anime tropes that seem to have been conceived solely to drive the plot forward and deliver the same old, stale and rehashed jokes that so much of modern anime has been reusing. Yuu feels like Lelouch Lamperouge from Code Geass most of the time, showing Tomoya Okazaki-like defeatism when sad and Light Yagami levels of god-complex when abusing his powers. Ayumi is literally Fuko Ibuki from Clannad – minus the whole being a ghost-sort-of-thing – meets Nagisa Furukawa from Clannad After Story; she’s an odd mix, like hyperactive imbecile kid meets pseudo-mother figure. Takajo is literally Takamatsu from Angel Beats with an idol obsession who spouts way too many zany “jokes”. “Yusarin” is so 1D moe girl that the ghost that occasionally occupies her feels more like her real personality than the one Jun Maeda gave her. I will say that Nao Tomori would have to win best character award; while her baseline personality puts her in the category of Rei Ayanami clone, her moments of human excitement and passion make for an interesting contrast that brings some chemistry to the Yuu-Nao pairing.
But let’s not lose track of the story, as it losses track of itself quite often after episode 6. Here we got what I was waiting for. The “killing off the character twist” has been brought back from Kanon and Clannad to once more bring about the FeelsTM. Why they chose to kill a character the audience has no interest in is beyond me, and why they used such a corny set up for the death is another question to be asked, but regardless, the result is episode 17 of Clannad After Story with worse characters, less justification, weaker themes and a sloppy resolution.
Episode 8 brings back two plot points pulled straight from Clannad. Sara, the Zheind vocalist, is an actual clone of Yusuke Yoshino from Clannad After Story except blind and bad with English. They both were in a band, had resentments, overcame them, like monologuing to the MC about the life lessons they learned; it’s all there. But then, in the cruelest twist of fate, Sara literally pulls off a Clannad level miracle by bring the mentally ill back to sanity through singing (in bad English).
One thing to mention is how aimless the show is at this point. What are anyone’s goals? Where do we go now? What am I watching for? Charlotte hadn’t lost its momentum, it suffered from an existential crisis for which its solution was throwing new problems into the pretty much fully resolved plot to impose new meaning into its life.
Let us meet the greatest meaning-imposing plot twist one could ever conceive. Our main character, by the power of music, remembers an alternate universe where he was a test subject in a laboratory where his older brother possesses the power to time travel, and our main character actual has the ability to steal magic powers, and his brother has been time traveling multiple times to create a universe where him and his family can be safe, and there is a syndicate of superpower possessing teenagers that fight off scientists for survival, and there are international terrorists after these kids that speak bad English, and our main character decides to take on the weight of the world and steal every power from every teenager all over the world, because the powers are caused by the Charlotte comet that approaches earth every some odd years whose moon dust gives magic powers to only teenagers, and must I go on! That level of story exposition unfolds in a matter of 5 episodes! Could this have been salvaged? Only if we got real foreshadowing rather than tidbits of information. Having Yuu randomly say “It feels like we had another member in this family” back in episode 2 is not sufficient build to such a massive change in direction. Besides, why does Sara’s voice have a magic ability to it? Why must Yuu stay down in the syndicate when the school is purposefully built for him and relatively safe? Why kill off Ayumi just to bring her back? Have you learned nothing from Clannad Jun Maeda?!?
While we are asking questions, let me levy some more. Why is the cinematography nothing but the usual high quality key frames interspersed between sloppy animations? Why are the CGI cars not very good looking? Why is that one scientist a good guy? Why is the pacing a mess? Why is food the solution for Yuu coming back to his senses? Why would you try to shoe-horn a baseball episode into this story? Why does the latter half of the plot feel stolen from the Key visual novel Rewrite? Why is there so much bad English? Why was the final power on earth the power of courage? The power of courage? Did Charlotte honestly reuse plot points from the Soul Eater anime exclusive ending?!? I could go on, but I’ll tone things down, as I don’t bear hatred against Charlotte.
It’s obvious that Jun Maeda and the team at P.A. Works put effort into Charlotte, but they were trying to build a castle of FeelTM on pillars of plot holes. Above all else, I feel sad for the team that made this. Jun Maeda has produced a fine selection of stories but Charlotte will not go down as one of them. In all of the copy and paste ideas Maeda has used in this show, I see someone who has expended their creative potential but still gets brought back to do more. Charlotte might not be the worst anime, but when considering who wrote it, one expects far better.
So in the end, regardless of the disappointment Charlotte has brought, I still view it more as an expression of Maeda himself. Taking on the burden of changing the world, bringing the FeelsTM just one more time, even when several years back he had declared that he would never write something greater than Clannad ever again. Maeda feels like a tired soul trying to simply give people what they want, even if he simply isn’t capable of it anymore. So to end this off I will quote a line from Clannad. To Jun Maeda: regardless of what they may think of Charlotte, let it be known that in the eyes of your fans, “You have done more than enough.”