Why I Won’t Remember Plastic Memories

I’m not sure whether to count this as an actual ‘review’ of Plastic Memories or just my thoughts on why I seem to disagree with every fan of the series I come across online as far as how effective the finale was at finishing off what had already been an incredibly hit-and-miss series. I’m no different to the next anime fan who enjoys a good weepy time with moe girls, and I won’t deny that the climax of PlaMemo left me with a slightly damper face. But after the feels, the credits and the obligatory epilogue, I was left with one resounding feeling overall:

I’m not going to remember this show.

Or at least, I’m not going to care whether I do or not, which usually leads a series to drift into the recesses of my mind where it’ll be rarely thought of after months of other shows that have sucked up my attention. Compared to something like Hibike! Euphonium, which I’m certain to remain interested in long after the finale airs next week, PlaMemo is going to slip away from me. While the show may at times have been an emotional roller-coaster, the entire ride was never thematically or characteristically fulfilling, which are the traits I look for most in a series that aspires to the heights that the tragic and tragicomic genres can and have reached in Japanese animation. The hardest part is that I shouldn’t even be labelled as a ‘hater’ of the show; I’m just done with it. I won’t want to talk about it again after this article and whatever discussion briefly follows it, which for me is one of the worst ways an anime can go.

It’s been a while since the series turned away from its speculative sci-fi side, and I sometimes get the feeling that the generally positive response from communities like the one on reddit is because most of the people who’d be negative about the show at this point had already dropped it weeks ago. As for me, I was still invested in their romance. The progress towards Isla breaking away from wanting to be a machine, embracing love and the beauty of relationships, was sweet and enjoyable. Yet, the sweetness of their resultant relationship – wherein there was no conflict or challenge to their unity in the last two episodes barring the inevitability of her death – numbed the climax to the point that it wasn’t even an anticlimax. It just wasn’t there until the very, very end, where the viewer had already imagined everything that would unfold, right down to the ferris wheel if you don’t skip the OP. Such a challenge to the conventions of tragic romance could have been artistic if it wasn’t so horribly over-simplified.

The trajectory of the final episode encapsulates the only aspect of Tsukasa’s ‘development’ as a character, in which he imbues Isla’s character fully into his own. This is something we’ve seen to some extent or another in many a romance where the guy loses the girl at the end – he is given a new sense of purpose, ideology or life by the character who leaves the narrative and carries that with them as a way of keeping them around or alive. Irritatingly, PlaMemo’s use of this is so explicit that it takes away the questioning nature of this typical ending and replaces it with a view of development that the viewer is forced to accept, with nothing else stemming from it. It’s demonstrated by an overuse of circularity that makes Tsukasa and Isla’s role-reversal overly simplistic – he has her robotic-ness in his numb repeating line, her crying, her last words in her dying ear; every character trait the writer could remember while putting the scene together. There’s no way to argue against, around or within the fact that Tsukasa is going to carry on Isla’s work. Hooray for more happiness from a climax that was only trying to be continually happy until it had to do its tearful moment.

Similarly, the whole romantic plot for Isla all boiled down to her fully embracing the joy of making memories with someone, which she’d already done last episode, making the last episode’s continuation of these enjoyable moments one stretch of idealistic romance too far. How many times do we need to be told that they’re getting closer without anything getting in the way? Isla evidently didn’t want to accept the tragic genre’s typical structure and instead vied for a peaceful conclusion, the kind of desire that most writers would challenge with conflicts and obstacles because variety – change – is the spice of life. Isla’s love-life was thus too mild for my tastes, offering no changes or surprises, making the last few episodes feel like an extended epilogue where the real drama of the show – her getting into the comfortable relationship she has – had already been solved. There was an over-reliance on the foreshadowed tragedy to make their pedestrian love-life more interesting, again in a world surrounded by interesting principles and challenges that could have been explored. Isla’s prior development, albeit interspaced with hit-and-miss comedy and bolted-on speculative sci-fi, was more impressive – what Tsukasa means to her, encapsulated in the letter she gives to him, and her overcoming her emotional barriers – but the ‘climax’ itself feels like an extended fade-out for this show’s real dramatic core.

There were other aspects of the conclusion that I found uncomfortable. Isla is presented as being locked in the present, enjoying the moment, keeping things normal and avoiding change, thus avoiding the concept of time itself in their relationship, but the last moments before death, in terms of her characterization, are all about the past and future; her loving back-story stems from the experiences of other retrievals, and Tsukasa’s memories of her will be decided by her own retrieval. Yet, there is no attempt by her character to make more of her life, further affirming that that she’s already made it all before their relationship gets comfortable, as Tsukasa had already brought the most important development out of her mid-series. This is the opposite of tragedies like The Fault in Our Stars which about trying to make the most (in conflicting and complicated ways) of our youth, especially if it’s ending prematurely. Why, then, do we get Tsukasa’s motto at the end of ‘making the most of his life’ when he has arguably made so little of his last days with Isla, doing exactly what they’ve always done? If his version of ‘making the most of his life’ involves doing the same thing over and over again, as the cyclic ending implies, I don’t want to support it.

There’s a reason why the history of romance in storytelling is full of drama and conflict and change – it’s more widely applicable as realism, especially for young love. People want to see how characters overcome obstacles to have unity with those they cherish, and we remember those challenges. In PlaMemo, however, only Isla was overcoming any character-defining obstacles, and they were all overcome before the last few episodes; the memories made afterwards, in terms of blissful happiness, could be made with any moe girl, as the cyclic ending also implies. The fact that only Isla developed was why Tsukasa never resonated with me; he belonged far more to the less-dimensional supporting cast. Ironically, in terms of characterization mechanics, he was far more of a robot than the simulation of humanity he fell in love with, programmed to carry out a predictable and inevitable question-and-answer plot progression. Question: will the guy fall in love with, have a relationship with and cry over the death of the dying girl, keeping her alive afterwards by becoming and embodying what she wants to left behind? Answer (stretched over the last few episodes): yes.

Also, will he be awkward about it? But maybe that one never has to be asked…

Perhaps Isla’s tame desires for normality were sweet and in-character, but they were again too unadventurous for a series that had so many speculative micro-journeys all boiling down into this one romance. Even though I cried at the end, this simplicity lessened the tears and led me to wonder why I shed them aside from being in-the-moment. I now understand more why Aristotle wrote about how spectacle is the least important for tragedy, with plot being the most, and as ANN reviewer Gabriella Ekens had already pointed out, the show doesn’t have enough of that for its length and so relies on directorial choices in its main plot for emotional effect. The ending needed the characters to interface with more dimensions their last days, but their last days were so one-dimensional that the destination of the feels-train was unimpressive aside from its brilliant cinematography. It’s a case of only being able to celebrate one aspect of the fireworks show and not the whole display.

Aside from the tragic circumstance which arguably feels too easily accepted (why isn’t Tsukasa delving into the history of Giftias to find any loophole he can? He’s only passively obedient to thinking about the options provided for him), the general lack of conflict towards the area of greatest conflict within a tragedy leads me to think of the show as just idealistic emotion porn, as another viewer has already dubbed it. Tsukasa and the viewer got exactly what they bought into – the ‘dream’ that has to end, which the show was self-aware of creating. There’s no debate, no questions, as to how they got here, where they were going or where Tsukasa will go from here, and they didn’t even fill that predictable pattern with anything ‘new’. Never before have I ever felt the absence of plot so entirely. The show was described by one reviewer as akin to a sad story on the news, and I can’t help but agree. Some people cry at those, but does the fact that you watched it and cried about it matter to you next week? For a show about ‘memories’, it’s surprising how little there is that stands out as memorable in this show’s main plot; all the greatest moments, for me, were in the sci-fi distractions that the show eventually gave up on.

The idealism of their romance also clashed with the idea of making ‘memories’. Arguably, normal moments in life are the things we remember less, and the fact that the show implies a cycle of Giftias teaming with Tsukasa means that he’ll have these ‘normal’ memories of him and his partner repeat, with variation, over and over again. There’s an argument for complacency in this series which is jarring; instead of telling us to try our hardest, to overcome everything we can, to be as intimate as we can with those we love, it’s suggested that desiring averageness is awesome. Why have an intensely meaningful love-life – even if it’s fraught with conflicts which, even when overcome, amount to sadness at the end – when you can have an unexciting but enjoyable one? Why take the harder road when you can do the easier thing and spend your last days with your girlfriend doing what you always did before? Forget your bucket list, forget The Fault in Our Stars, forget everything storytelling has told you before about striving for something more out of life. Be passive and accept that your life is just a string of normality after normality, where one girl goes but another enters your life. The only change is the switch from one to the next, those nine months you spend getting over the girl you were so into that you never once challenged the fact that she would have to die once you were together and getting closer and closer to each other until the end of your unrelaistic ‘dream’ together. The show could have even managed a commentary on this cycle, perhaps even in relation to anime culture and the repetition of plot and character cliches, if it had pulled off a more multi-faceted ending. As is was written, however, there’s no room for such an interesting interpretation to arise from the show, and all I can do is see it as a victim of its own crime of boring me to tears after I obligatorily shed some for Isla’s death.

In the end, PlaMemo is a throwaway romance that surrounds itself in an air of something more. You can enjoy it for the feels-train, but it lacks to expansiveness of concept, theme and character that so many other shows have nailed, especially since those themes and characters, for me, seem to undermine the show itself. The memories Tsuaksa makes are so much more pedestrian than those of Otonashi in Angel Beats! or Jinta in Anohana, and those shows are far less explicit (and, maybe incidentally, more successful) in their execution of the theme of ‘memories’ itself. Perhaps ’emotion porn’ is too harsh, but it gets across the general angst that I and many reviewers share – we delight in seeing a story expose its soul of complexity, especially when that inner core of theme and challenges to our view of characters, people and the whole world is so dazzling that we have to go back and work out the true nature of the show from a rewatch or from extensive research online, which might even give us multiple and perhaps conflicting opinions of what the show really ‘means’. PlaMemo is, in contrast, so clear about what it ‘means’ that it’s like a public service announcement. You get the message and move on, and you may not even like the message; there’s an underlying feeling that the writer rejected two staples of tragic storytelling – having a dynamic, developing MC (which Tsukasa is not) and having an increase in conflict and drama towards the finale (which the final few episodes are not). But ultimately, the issue for me is an oversimplification of characters, themes and ideas, regardless of how they were put together, that at first seem like they’re going to explore new horizons but later severely disappoint everywhere but on the emotional surface that the story clings to. For the exact reasons why people want a second series of Angel Beats!, no-one should want a second series of this show. In Jun Maeda’s story there is so much more I want to say. In Naotaka Hayashi’s, there is nothing more to be said.

And that’s why I won’t remember Plastic Memories.

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