I was thinking of leaving this review empty to sum up how I felt as the story came to a close.
It’s disappointing that I was wrong on the issue of whether Yuu would succeed in his task, and also disappointing that I was right. Because really, he shouldn’t have been able to get every power; his path is laid with coincidence after coincidence and unexplained – and perhaps unexplainable – benefits. Early on he manages to find, by chance, all the kinds of powers he would need to hunt people down and survive those hunting him – he even finds a duplicate ability of Kumagami’s, but fortunately not one that duplicates his. He also manages to fly from country to country without getting stopped – though we never see how he manages this – and has an illness-increasing ability for an issue with the ‘carriers’ that gets introduced and resolved so quickly it makes you wonder whether the show wants to have any conflict in its finale at all. To top it all off, he has the most cringey power-user of all inexplicably get between him and a crossbow-wielding assassin. If she has the power of courage, surely she should know that she’s helping one of the most over-powered characters in the history of anime, who’s been bit by bit becoming an annihilating monster. Surely the man with the crossbow is the one needing a courageous girl to stick up for him.
But the biggest insult was the appearance of Shun in the helicopter at the end. Until then we had the potential for a tragic, though not incredibly moving, deterioration of character. Yuu’s struggles may have been ridiculously cliche – getting delirious in a desert to symbolise loneliness and separation, think about becoming God, etc. – but at least it was taking his character in a direction. The Deus ex Helicopter – I’m sure that title was printed on it somewhere – made all this struggle pointless. Yuu was never in danger of becoming isolated or a monster or dead because it seems that the helicopter would have found him anywhere. There’s no explanation for how he could be located in such a large country. Furthermore, his loss of memories also feels inconsequential, as Nao has been recording all sorts of things which, if he could have his mind wiped but still regain memories from a sub-par Engrish post-rock song, could easily return his memories. I could throw a comet into this plot-hole.
The style of narrative was even more of an issue, though. Great movies like Pixar’s Up demonstrate how effective a montage can be for summarising the state of affairs at the start of a story. Now try to name one where the climax, wherein the narrative needs to be ‘in the scene’ as much as possible to immerse the viewer in the highest heights of drama and tension, breaks up all the action into tiny disparate chunks where the only running conflict is the character gradually losing himself before he’s spared all consequences of this self-destruction. Yuu’s struggle could be an epic story that could fill a whole movie; cramming it into twenty minutes made it unbearably dull. He didn’t even seem to have a character by the end, being a nice guy in one scene and an asshat in the next and having no thematic link between them. And we mustn’t forget that instead of the symbolic music player seen throughout the show, we were treated to a symbolic book of phrases that had only been given to Yuu the previous week. The only parallel I can draw is that it was something useful that became useless, but he held on to it anyway – just like Nao.
It contributes to the significance of this ‘climax’ being by far the worst I’ve seen in any of Maeda’s stories. In storytelling tradition, there’s a little thing called ‘Unity of Action’ that, while not an iron rule, explains a lot why certain things work and others don’t. It basically sums up how a good story is centred around one main plot where one thing causes another, which causes another, etc. A problem with Charlotte in this sense has been that Ayumi’s recovery caused nothing else to happen – Yuu’s personal story, the main plot for most of the series, ended up becoming a sideshow for this detrimental issue of power users around the world. But this finale flew in the face of plot design even more – by having Yuu gain a healing power and not heal his eye, trying to make a statement about not ‘tampering with time’ and focusing on his mission, the show seemed to forget that everything – literally everything – good in this series has come about because of the Time Leap ability. The scientists and Ayumi’s death were both overcome by messing with the story. It was hard to take anything Yuu did seriously after he ignored his potential for saving Kumagami and giving himself far longer in which to complete his mission, which would have helped against his growing delirium too.
A number of other things really brought down the excitement of this ending: the terribly un-Maeda-like lack of humour, the horrible amount of Engrish at the start, the laughable Around the World in Racial Stereotypes vibe, that awful scene with the ‘courage’ girl, and how Nao’s brother was given a tiny scene to show he’s okay just because it had seemed like Yuu had completely forgotten about him (and come on, he had). Nao crying at the end because of Yuu’s survival and memory loss didn’t resonate with any of her past characterization – she hasn’t come to understand anything better, fixed any flaws in her character or developed her love at all. She’s had the condition for her unconditional love fulfilled by a godlike being, which sets a happy-forever-after vibe that kills any excitement for what will now happen to these characters. They may be all alive, but they’re dead to me as a viewer, while Kumagami, remaining dead because… I don’t know, is Yuu really that distant from Shun that he doesn’t care about fixing his loss? Anyway, the issue of Kumagami’s death is ironically the most alive aspect of the show in my mind.
So many changes of direction or character, before or during this episode, could have given it more room for success. The drawback to Yuu’s Plunder ability was so minimal that it enabled him to get the best of everyone (except those terrorists a few weeks back, but let’s forget about them – the show obviously has); had he been the anime equivalent of Super Smash Bros’ Kirby by only copying one ability at a time – thus losing most in the process forever – his struggle would have felt more limited and exciting, and he could have become a rock that this montage could have stood upon. Had his time-leaping negatively affected anyone, he would have had more justification for his choice not to save Kumagami. Had his final development not been yet another character reset (and an obviously impermanent one), said development and its stages could have felt important. What does him ending with no memories of Nao have to do with him being a cheater, or potentially becoming a monster? This episode, and the ones before it, ultimately ends up feeling like a rubbish sequel to a decent series that ended a little too happily a few weeks ago with Ayumi’s salvation.
With that in mind, I guess it’s fitting that Sala doesn’t appear at all after Yuu’s brief stint with her before Ayumi was saved. Not even in the post-credits scene, because her musings about the prices she paid obviously meant nothing at all. If they had, Yuu would have paid some price for what he did. But he didn’t, and that’s the most insulting thing of them all.
Final Final Thoughts
It’s hard to contain just how disappointed I am with Charlotte. What began as a hit-and-miss supernatural teenage drama with a sense of an underlying beast of a plot ended up having no clue what it was or could have been. Even the stronger points of it don’t connect at all – Nao warned Yuu that he could become ‘less than human’ without her help during episode seven, but in the penultimate episode she was the one filling his mind with suggestions of how to potentially do just that in the worst envisioning of ‘one man against the world’ I’ve ever seen. Their relationship began as a sweet, subtle, slowly brewing and deeply involving connection between two very different but also similar personalities. But I’m struggling at the end to remember who or what their characters are, were or stood for.
There’s no coherency between Yuu cheating on tests and being framed as a Christ figure, and nothing good can be said of Nao being boiled down first into a damsel-in-underwear, and then into the ‘prize’ for saving the world – the bedroom we see her waiting in might as well be a tower. Nao’s personal quest also gets completely forgotten, as if it had never mattered at all. And really, it hadn’t. Had she been slowly manipulating Yuu into plundering each ability that we saw each week? Who cares! The finale demonstrates that he could have plundered them all without her help. Yuu’s development towards being a nicer guy, embracing the sweeter side of life, etc. also fell flat as he exhibited a natural tendency towards cruel stupidity – forgetting Nao’s brother until the very end, and not saving Kumagami, and never thinking of plundering abilities as a cure for this ‘disease’ of powers until Nao suggests it to him.
What Charlotte lacks is an ending that makes any meaningful semblance of the whole story. Why would I watch this again? Unlike other Maeda works like Angel Beats!, this story merely calls back to things we already fully understand (they are signposted ad infinitum, after all) and even obstructs its effectiveness the more you know about it, rather than informing you of new and exciting things in earlier episodes and dynamics. Why would I slog through the power-a-week stuff again if I knew it was so many episodes being spent for just a few plot points being stretched thin? Why would I care about seeing Ayumi die and Yuu spiral into madness if I knew it would all be reset – twice? Why would I want to watch Kuragame die when Shun’s only role after his death was to fly the Deus Ex Helicopter? Even Yuu’s ambition, though I feel it was built up well, felt wasted at the end, with his decision to cure the world of the powers lacking any consideration of the fact that he’d just had his ass handed to him by a tiny proportion of it. His ambition at the end just looks stupid, and the coincidences he has to rely on made it feel even stupider.
And of course, even though Yuu refused to heal his eye now, he still retains the healing ability and a latent potential to time travel. Not saving Kumagami might have been Maeda’s way to keep time travel away from the ending, but it’s irrefutably still there, and that means that everything – again, literally everything – that we’ve seen could just be undone. There is no permanence to anything in this plot. Yuu would have had to have died, or lost every power (maybe if he lost the one he had whenever he plundered a new one, he could have ended with that joke of a ‘courage’ ability and had the gall to face his inner demons instead of having them lifted away by Shun), to prevent this impermanence.
Echoing PlaMemo’s disaster of an ending, Charlotte loses its grip on pretty much every character relationship towards the finale and throughout it. In hindsight I can see that Takajou’s fanboying over Yusarin really was pointless to watch, as were Yusa’s spells, cooking and dual personality. Misa’s conflict is forgotten about for a long time before being suddenly and terribly resurrected for some feels, while Takajou’s friendship with Yuu only amounts to ‘we spent High School together! Yay!’. There’s nothing explored in the hearts of these side characters – at least Angel Beats!’s sketch of a supporting cast contributed to the whole of something special and a more punchy integral trio. All the little notes of significance bear no relevance to the plot that takes over for the last few episodes, leaving Charlotte without a powerful meaning or message, another thing that feels very unlike the Maeda I’ve previously loved.
But is there any message we can take from this at all? Well, you can cheat your way through life in one way – stealing what people have to be successful – and another – retrying what you failed at and having an upper hand at knowing what’ll go down. You’ll pay for what you do to get happiness – like Sala did – unless everything goes your way and everyone’s nice to you or doesn’t stop you or is prevented from killing you by a helicopter. You’ve earned your girlfriend’s love if you wreck most of the world in order to save people from a disease that came from space. And her ambitions? Forget about those. Forget about her goal of keeping people away from the scientists or shooting a ZHIEND music video. None of that matters in the end.
I have a bitter hatred of what aspects of humanity this story promotes towards and through its conclusion. The sense of superheroes being able to ‘do it all’ and have things go their way because they’re the good guys is being nicely challenged in the West – Age of Ultron did a good job, and even though I don’t like what Doctor Who is offering right now, it’s also trying to test just what kind of hero the Doctor is – which falls back to the great dramatic tradition of all great heroes having an Achilles’ heel. But Yuu works against that. Yuu is a guy that deserves nothing – a cheater through life – and yet he gets everything from everyone. Of course, I acknowledge in this that I too am a Christian who deserves nothing and yet is saved and provided for by God. But Yuu, in the end, was able to somehow do everything himself, becoming more and more powerful by gathering the collective strength of abhumanity and inhumanity, and he reaps no ill gains. Does he bear the ‘sins’ of the world? Christ did not bear them by sinning – he died for them. And if the vague memory of Nao is what kept Yuu going until the end – stopping him from trying to become a God – what does that say about how much he cares about the rest of the world?
Finally, how Yuu is supposed to live a happy life now that the entire world knows his face as a destructive wraith is beyond me. Charlotte ends much like how it plodded on for a few months, exuding vague possibilities and choosing the most coincidental and insubstantial in order to move the plot forward. Who thought it mattered that the powers came from space dust? Naming your series after the dullest revelation of the story is only a good way of summing up just how your storytelling works – elements of Charlotte that are elevated into the reader’s focus simply don’t have the same kind of substance that Maeda’s stories have previously been master-strokes of. There’s nothing to unpick about Yuu, no complexity in Nao at the end, and let’s not even mention all those other people that joined us halfway through, because hey, the story hardly mentioned and used them itself.
I haven’t lost hope in Maeda, nor in anime melodramas, nor in Key or PA Works or anything affiliated with this show. I’ve just lost all hope in seeing Charlotte as anything more than the most disappointing show I’ve ever been tortured by week-to-week, enticed by strands of meaning that went nowhere and merely disrupted others. My old praise for the show has withered into disgust for how it rewarded investment in its cast. Gabriella Ekins sums it up well on ANN: if you have any understanding or familiarity with the craft of storytelling at all, you’ll ruin any chance this series has of being a fun ride. If Angel Beats! was an iceberg with masses of depth and complexity of character and plot resting underneath the surface, Charlotte is like a frozen lake: skate across, but don’t dawdle or poke the ice, lest you drown in its awful management of depth and meaning.
Imagine these final thoughts are empty so you can understand how I feel about this series as a whole. Now that I’ve put it in words, I can’t see why I’ll ever feel like thinking of this show ever again. Like the comet it’s named after, it’s pretty, but pretty dumb to look at in any significant way. It came, it went, and only bloggers who contracted themselves to review it weekly should care about its trail of debris fading away.