I think its time that I eat some crow. Back in the early weeks of the summer anime season I was raving about how good Charlotte was. I think I ended every article for four straight weeks talking about how it had Anime of the Year potential. Now while I stick to some of these claims, I think I was a little blinded by the problems that Charlotte had from its onset. Problems that would ultimately take the show from a 9 or 10 down to a 6.
Charlotte is a Jun Maeda show (But what does that mean?)
So one of the biggest problems that I think Charlotte had going from its inception was having someone like Jun Maeda head the project. So I’d like to give a little context on Jun Maeda and how problems seen in Charlotte can relate back to his other works. By all means Jun Maeda is a good creator with some great ideas. Unfortunately he tends to take on projects more ambitious than what he’s capable of. As a fellow writer I see myself falling into certain traps that Maeda has fallen into and by watching his works it’s helped me rethink my capacity as a writer. Now I’m not saying that Jun Maeda someday won’t be able to execute ambition works, but for now I think he should stick with what he knows. I think he knows this too because the first half of Charlotte is purely Jun Maeda and his ability to write believable teenage characters that he honed during his 2010 series Angel Beats!.
I think Angel Beats! was a real milestone for him as a character creator and it really shines through, especially if you look back at all of the shallow/one-dimensional characters that he created in shows like Clannad, Kanon, and Air. Like it or not something happened between Clannad: After Story and Angel Beats! where Jun Maeda was able to put aside his protagonist loving girlfriends and focus on real characters. And since Angel Beats! was a huge success he probably thought he could stick with doing the same thing with Charlotte. Which he does, and it works, mostly.
So remember when I said that Jun Maeda is sometimes too ambitious for his skill level? Well sometimes even great characters can be ruined by a story gone hay-wire, and ultimately that is whats Charlottes big problem. For it doesn’t matter how much you like certain characters, seeing those characters doing something boring or pointless, or just straight out of characters can make you not want to watch something anymore (See the bount arc in Bleach for the perfect example). So okay Jun Maeda is good at writing characters but not so good at writing stories, but is the story in Charlotte really all that bad?
Yes, the story in Charlotte is really that bad
Now some people like to take the “Sword Art Online approach” when talking about how good a show is. The “Sword Art Online approach” is talking about a show while omitting certain large aspects of the show when deciding if its good or not. While I can’t say I felt the same way about Sword Art Online (pretty much thought everything down to the concept was bad and poorly executed) Charlotte can definitely be viewed with this sort of rating technique. And some of the reason I think people defend Charlotte (myself kinda included) is because of the stellar first half. And most of my qualms with Charlotte is how in congress the first half feels to the atrocity that is the second part. So to decipher why the first and second half of Charlotte are so different we need to look at both halves of the show individually.
Charlotte begins with a typical angsty boy named Yu who is drunk on his newly found super power. And for the entire first episode we are watching this deplorable human being do deplorable things to make sure things go his way whether it be cheating on tests, or faking a car accident to get a girl to like him. This kid clearly is drunk on his power and doesn’t care about the consequences of his selfish actions. That is until a girl named Nao from another school confronts him about his super powers with an ability of her own. Quickly Yu learns that he can no longer go to his school and will have to transfer to Nao’s both for his own protection and to keep eyes on him, or so we are lead to believe.
Now right off the bat the show tells us what a detached person Yu is from basically everyone else (even his little sister). So the dynamic that Nao brings of forcing him to interact and grow closer to other people is naturally compelling because you are seeing a person fight against this change. Or at least that’s what you would see if we were dealing with if a normal Key protagonist.
Yu is more complicated than that though, and at the same time, not too complicated. During the first episode we see him abusing his powers to get past working hard and just trying to be popular, a very shallow thing to do. Though it may be misleading I don’t think his maniacal or diabolic expressions are indicative of his actual personality. If anything he feels empowered by his ability and is feeling something he’s never felt before and is drunk on his status. I don’t honestly think he starts off as a deceiving or bad guy at all. He’s just a normal guy who thought he would take an easy route through life. This is even more apparent as the episode goes on and he is confronted and immediately falls apart. He’s not some diabolic villain, he’s just a kid who got ahead of himself trying to cheat his way through life. Something I think we all fantasize about but are skeptical about because, well moral stuff. This is also why I think Yu changes his tune to be so agreeable at home and with his new student council. He knew he was wrong, so instead of fighting it (which would be a huge pain for him) he choose to accept it.
So when you look at Yu’s character its easy to see why throughout the first half of episodes he is so heavily influenced by Nao and the rest of the student council. The first half is like dragging a dog on a leash, the dog being Yu. As he gets dragged more and more he finds that it would be too bothersome to resist and intern just decides to go along with whats happening. Not necessarily because he wants too but because it’s the route that causes him less of a hassle. This is whats so compelling about the first half of Charlotte.
We get to see Yu transform and be influenced by the people around him and in turn this allows him to better connect with the people who have helped him change. Its kind of like the whole circle of life concept but equated to feelings and teenage problems. The fact that all these problems feel so real and the characters reactions seem genuine and relatable are what sells the show. Its character drama at its best while not focusing too much on whats happening and instead focusing on what that means for the characters. But sadly that couldn’t last because someone at Key (Maybe Jun Maeda) felt like Charlotte needed to have more of a “story” than what it was already going. And to be fair there was sprinklings of what was going to happen early on in the show, but I never thought it would turn out so bad.
The change in Charlotte is so abrupt and apparent I think everyone knows when this show started to fall, and that was as soon as Yu travels back in time to save Ayumi. Saving Ayumi is where I split the good have of Charlotte away from the bad half of Charlotte, and it’s not just because it’s not how I would have liked things to go down. It’s because it does so much to break what has been developed from previous episodes.
The fact that Yu saves Ayumi ruins everything! It ruins the character arc that Yu went through. It ruins the way he had accepted to live his life after Ayumi’s death. It ruined the connection he had made with Nao. All of these things are ruined by the simple fact that he’s able to save Ayumi’s life.
Okay so I guess I need to explain myself further for you to understand what I mean here. So I’ll start with Yu’s character arc first. The whole point of Yu going through what happened after Ayumi’s death was to teach him about dealing with pain and lost, and coming to terms with being unable to change the past while at the same time being able to move forward with what he’s learned. It was supposed to be his final realization to stop being the character that just goes with the flow and to make a difference. But since he saves Ayumi and successfully changes the past, the weight of his lesson is lost. He doesn’t have to deal with that pain and acceptance anymore because Ayumi is alive. But of course he still remembers his past and has learned to appreciate his sister more and keeps his lessons from the previous timeline. That’s bullshit! You can’t have it both ways Charlotte! You can’t have a character changing tragedy and then reverse the tragedy once he’s learned his lesson. That’s not how life works and it takes the whole relate-ability aspect out of the equation and stops me from relating to the character and just turns it into wish-fulfillment. It cheapens the message if what you’re saying is “learn from the past and be able to move on” but at the same time a character in your story is able to change the past and get his desired outcome.
And some of the problems I just stated can also be substituted into how his relationship with Nao is somewhat ruined and cheapened. However the story does bring this up, So I’ll give it props there at least. But still pointing out a flaw doesn’t make the flaw okay. Now all the development Nao and Yu had up until the time-leap is pointless because Nao doesn’t remember any of it. And with Nao being the way she is I think it will be hard for another sequence of event to move their relationship forward like Ayumi’s death did. Ayumi’s death was where Yu not only accepted that he needed to change but the fact that Nao would be the person to help him. This helped Yu want to help and get closer to Nao, not only out of gratitude but out of admiration. It made their relationship develop in one of the most natural ways I’ve seen in anime.
So yeah that’s my biggest singular problem with the second half of Charlotte but it doesn’t stop there. During the last four episodes we are introduced to characters that perviously didn’t exist. Which shouldn’t be bad, but the show plays up their importance and emotion so high when they haven’t given us any reason to care about them. Five new characters are introduced including Yu’s older brother and before we even get to know them, they’re thrown into the forefront of the story as main characters doing stuff. Forget all the character building that made the first half so enjoyable. Now they’ll just throw in characters and expect you to understand them and even go so far as to kill one of them and try to make it seem like it means anything.
All of this happens because at some point the plot became more important than the characters. These compelling troubled characters are suddenly turned into vehicles to complete the plot in the short amount of time they had. I mean they cram a whole years worth of events that could have been its own show into the final episode, and they expected that to work at all. Forget that its contrived and has a bunch of plot holes, it takes the subtle events and emotions that made Charlotte great and turned it into an almost, I don’t even know what.
Well ultimately to me its a betrayal from what the show had built and promised me early on. It takes a show that knew exactly what it was doing and drove it down a path of emotionless plot twists and a contrived finale. If anything the second half-ruined parts of the first half that foreshadowed these events. I honestly wish that I could just watch up to the point where Yu and Nao go on their date to see ZHIEND and that’s where the story ends. But not only is that unrealistic but I still would be left without an emotional conclusion. It’s also the fact that I find that “Sword Art Online approach” to be a way to justify a bad show. Why do we feel the need to justify bad things in anime?
Sure Charlotte has a lot of great things in it but that doesn’t mean it is a good show because the things that are bad are glaring. Not only that but the things that are good don’t conclude in a way that matches the earlier parts of the show or are as impactful as they should have been. Maybe if it were flipped and the bad stuff was at the beginning instead of the end I would be more forgiving. But I don’t consider “maybe” when I’m evaluating a piece of art, all I can judge it on is by whats present. So because of Charlottes contrived and misplaced ending I think that I will ultimately remember Charlotte as just a fine, but misplaced show.