Falling in Love With the Future

It’s been a while since my last post – seems post-exam stress hits you harder than the worries you get before. But the lack of exams has also meant I can watch more anime, to the point that I finished my first ever binge-watch today: the entire series of Ano Natsu de Matteru. A brisk, poignant, well-orchestrated romance that might not be on every otaku’s radar. Aside from some unnecessary overuse of sexually-charged scenes to demonstrate the awkwardness of certain characters and situations, I enjoyed everything it had to offer. It was hardly a sci-fi masterpiece like Eve no Jikan was, but it was primarily a romance, and it excelled in that field.

Once it was over, however, I couldn’t help but compare it to the currently-airing (and nearly finished) series Plastic Memories. While that show may not have reached its conclusion like Ano Natsu has, making a critical comparison of the two fraught, enough people have dropped or been disappointed in PlaMemo for a single reason; its poor balancing of sci-fi and romance. Though I’ve previously found that judgement to be fair, Ano Natsu helps to exemplify how the show may have been misdirected. Likewise, a hidden gem like Eve no Jikan also sheds light on where PlaMemo may have lost a part of its audience. There are certainly many more examples of this kind of story, but these three help illustrate together how the genres of sci-fi and romance can collide for better and worse.

To summarise, Ano Natsu is a story about the love that blossoms between a young boy, Kaito and a transfer-student-slash-alien, Ichika. The former has an ambition to make the most of his summer by shooting a film, in a nod to how many a film about filmmaking itself brings the protagonist to see life in a new way by viewing it through a lens, at different angles, making memories that you keep and discard, and other metacinematic touches. The latter, in some way similar, is trying to find a memory of her own, a place without a name that she believes is somewhere on Earth. In their collective pursuit of discovery, which leads to self-discovery, they find what they were ultimately looking for in each other. The use of science-fiction is primarily for driving the plot, forming the obstacle which the the central couple must overcome while also influencing the developments of the supporting cast’s relationships.

From my point of view, the show raised the question of what we needed to set the camera rolling on the things that matter in our lives. Kaito needed a girl to crash-land from space into his usual routine of filmmaking, just as a film needs an inciting incident for the character to begin their journey, just as we need massive, painful changes to occur in our lives so that we can become stronger and wiser than before (which, for Christians, God ensures: ‘every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful’). A girl falling from the sky to change a protagonist’s destiny is a well-used technique in many romances, from Gaiman’s Stardust to the Petrachan tradition of worshipping a girl like a star or an angel that would otherwise belong in the sky. Thus, Ano Natsu’s use of science-fiction is a powerful device at forcing this theme to arise. The show then focuses on its metacinematic and romantic touches, keeping the context of the girl’s sci-fi origins back to later implement them as a final obstacle that throws the characters towards their climax. Romance was always in the foreground, with the show’s use of science-fiction bolstering the themes and character developments. Love first, implications of non-human life-forms second.

Why, then, is Plastic Memories more haphazard in its use of the two?

This doesn’t completely sum up the series, but it comes close.

It follows a similar pattern, wherein a boy – Tsukasa – falls in love with a girl whose origins are not natural, destining her for an unnatural end, which in this show means being robotic – a ‘Giftia’ – and having a tragically short lifespan. Already parallels start to form, as Ano Natsu’s climax centres around Ichika being unable to stay on the planet for much longer due to her extraterrestrial origins. PlaMemo has our hero push away this context, however, for the sake of treating his robotic object of desire, Isla, as he would any human being. The show’s progress towards its climax is all about its romantic angle; Tsukasa and Isla have overcome what normal couples have to overcome, embracing those struggles as part of the natural experience they long for. Even now, approaching the finale, Isla desires anticlimax in how she wants them to carry on as normal. There’s a refusal of the tragic genre, which favours putting our lovers in the most extreme conditions, and in place of it there’s an acceptance of those conditions and sweet, wholesome love in the face of it.

All this would stand much stronger in the show if half of its time wasn’t devoted to a whole different premise entirely; the speculative ramifications of the established premise and how other characters present and deal with the kind of philosophical notes that one would greedily devour in one of Phillip K Dick’s works. Weaving in and out of this tragicomic romance (where the comedy is hit-and-miss) are multiple instances that capitalise on the show’s science-fiction foundation, aided by the characters being part of a department responsible, effectively, for giving funerals to Giftias who sequentially present different social, moral and ethical issues with their job and the very existence of androids themselves. The difference between this department and the rest of Terminal Service, however is that they actually care about the feelings of those who are losing their Giftias; a tradition, as we find out later in the series, started by Isla herself. In some way, therefore, the show’s sci-fi-enriched questions – of hanging on to something temporal, investing your emotions into a mere simulation of humanity, and making memories that only you yourself may be able to keep – are linked to Isla’s struggle with Tsukasa. The show ties its speculative element to its romantic trajectory and the result is Tsukasa and Isla’s tale being displayed as the most complex, integral and beautiful retrievals in the series.

Unfortunately, the lack of serious focus on their relationship in the early stages of the show – episode three’s unsatisfying comedy (in contrast to Ano Natsu’s comedy that always made me laugh) and the lacklustre developments in episodes six and seven – means that this knot can only be tied towards the very end. Whereas Ano Natsu had a clear focus on romance with it’s sci-fi elements used as plot devices and thematic hooks, PlaMemo appeared at first to be far more dedicated to its speculative nature, with romance only vaguely on the sidelines as a motif for comedy or further exploration of ideas. The fact that the show switches this around and has its thematic prowess underpin its romance, as Ano Natsu did successfully, has clearly led many viewers to become disillusioned with the show as a whole. It’s only fair, from my perspective. The number of retrievals suggests a number of angles of questioning and interpretation that can arise from viewing the show with a speculative mindset, but the focus on a single relationship arising from all of this, boiling it all down to a single plotline, is, for lack of a better word, boring. It’s boring in comparison to what you may have found interesting at first.

It also brings to mind the short but incredibly memorable ONA series, Eve no Jikan.

Clocking in at only the length of a movie (especially if you watch the movie version available), Eve no Jikan, in contrast to PlaMemo, prioritises the significant issues that arise from human and android co-habitation. There are questions of love, identity, and family, cultimating in a few moments that gave me more empathy with the characters – in a shorter space of time –  than PlaMemo ever has. Not to knock PlaMemo’s use of ‘feels’; the show’s had me weeping on a few occasions, and I do empathise heavily with Tsukasa and Isla’s plight. Eve no Jikan, however, perfected the structure that PlaMemo broke up with its slower and more ‘comedic’ episodes. Each episode approaches a different aspect of the ‘Time of Eve’, the eponymous cafe where androids and humans meet on equal terms, with romance only entering for a part of the show. Just as Ano Natsu maintained its stance as a multi-faceted, developing rom-com, all leading to a dénouement that precedes the real climax of the show, Eve no Jikan kept an episodic approach that its more recent counterpart only embraced in part. The first two episodes of PlaMemo detailed different retrievals, with speculative implications, in the foreground, with Tsukasa and Isla’s relationship growing in the background. Yet, the rest of the series has these retrievals – particularly after the fifth episode – fade out of focus in favour of the central romance. Thus, while audiences can remain hooked on Ano Natsu’s romance, with sci-fi in the background, and audience can remain hooked on Eve no Jikan’s speculative sci-fi, with romance in the background, PlaMemo’s use of genre evolves against the preferences of an audience that prioritises the sci-fi that the show prioritises in its initial storylines.

This, to me, illustrates how a character ought to fall in love with the future. The audience has to be behind whatever their journey is centred on. If their awkward and emotional struggle is the centre of the show, it should take centre stage from the first episode, regardless of how awesome and fantastical our futuristic world is. PlaMemo tried to accomplish this with emotionally-charged shots of Tsukasa and Isla near the beginning, but the overall focus of the narrative wasn’t there. Kaito’s relationship with Ichika was, however, established as the centrepiece right at the start of Ano Natsu, and the thematic implications of the show along with it. PlaMemo has its themes enjoyably all over the place as disparate retrievals, and while they eventually come together through Tsukasa and Isla’s relationship, this does nothing for their prowess; for me, it only seems to mute them in favour of further attention being on the present-day tension and tragedy that the characters counteract with their sweetness and charm. The use of the futuristically abhuman, as in Eve no Jikan, should likewise have encouraged the audience to delve deep into the show’s speculative edge, but poor comedy and a shift in focus on an all-too-familiar romantic trope have diminished the show’s sci-fi credentials to be beneath the expectations of many fans.

The ‘just kiss already’ fans are finally satisfied.

PlaMemo, to me, is a show demonstrating how an audience wanted to fall in love with a future – a future full of questions regarding the social, moral and ethical implications of investing your feelings in artificial life. But that love is taken away just as Giftias are tragically taken away from their owners; fitting, perhaps, but not in an enjoyable sense. If you want such a great speculative ride, watch Eve no Jikan. If you want a fulfilling romance with sci-fi undertones, watch Ano Natsu de Matteru. But if you want the best of both, I can’t recommend PlaMemo.  It fails to marry the realistic portray of love with the fantastic elements of the future that invite the mind to wander. The characters may be trying to make memories they can cling to, but the show itself loses its memorable edge because of its failure to establish a dependable genre.

I couldn’t fall in love with PlaMemo like I did with Eve no Jikan or Ano Natsu. But how about you? Don’t hesitate to leave your thoughts below!

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