Surprises come when you least expect it.
I am shackled to this aspect of story-telling called ‘plot unpredictability’. The way it throws me in a loop and delivers yet another conclusion that is almost entirely unpredictable and unexpected thrills me to no end. Caught up in the adrenaline of the moment as my stomach drops, I throw away all inhibitions, all objectivity, and all logic, and I just let the excitement consume me whole.
I become but a slave to the story, as the control over my own evaluative, otherwise relatively discerning mind, slips from my fingers, dropping to the ground below with a clumsy ‘splat’.
Charlotte was that roller coaster, and its major plot twist was that split second you hover before you plunge down into the darkness, the words which had started to form in your mind dissolving into sheer exhilaration, a blinding flash of white.
If one were to compare Charlotte to a weapon, the first thing that would come to mind would be a katana blade. Riding on the tip of what was possibly the largest tidal hype wave into the Summer 2015 lineup, it sliced, thinly and sharply, a clean line between its fervent supporters, who propped up its sales and snapped up its merchandise like hotcakes, and its haters, who were equally as vehement and outwardly vocal in expressing their distaste. Demographically speaking, it would seem that as it was voted as the No. 1 Top Anime of 2015 in Japan, most of its ‘haters’ would hail from the international arena of anime enthusiasts.
It all started when it became known that the famed Jun Maeda was behind the set of Charlotte. Producer of the internationally and domestically loved KEY Works, of which Angel Beats and Clannad are arguably the most well known, his works are a prime example of commercial success without sacrificing depth, also achieving character development and the ability to induce ‘feels’. With this searing hot brand-name came the mountain-high expectations, so it was not surprising when the episodic form of the first half of the series generated some disappointed murmurs amongst the crowd of onlookers, serious watchers, self-important anime critics, and hype-train pouncers.
And yet, that was certainly not the end of it all. When Jun Maeda dropped his first bomb on his unsuspecting viewers, and subsequently proceeded to plunge the story what objectively, should be seen as a ‘trainwreck’ with a couple of smaller, but equally impactful ‘bombs’, the anime scene exploded. That was because Charlotte literally blew up its previous plot structure, character development, and its clearly directed efforts into smithereens.
The Fatality of its Impact
Charlotte’s flaws are nothing short of glaring. Even as an almost-blind supporter of ridiculous plot twists, there are so many loopholes by the end of the series that it becomes hard, even from a non-objective viewpoint, not to acknowledge their existence. By subverting the entire direction of the mainly episodic form prior to the Little Busters Refrain-esque plot twist, Charlotte not only ended up with an atrociously paced latter half of the series and a half-baked attempt of a resolution in steering back the series into normalcy. One criticism was that it also discarded what possibly are the most fundamental rules of story-telling by completely defying its audience’s reasonable expectations, introducing emotional conflicts that had no prior introduction or were a side-effect of poor foreshadowing. To top it all off, there were certain plot points which were never addressed or resolved in the end, leaving most to wonder whether the studio merely decided to chuck all their previous painstaking efforts of building character and plot all into the bin. The formulae that the audience were led to believe the series would follow were discarded without explanation, especially when previous characters thought to be ‘main characters’ were sidelined in the introduction of new characters that were integral to the surprise plot twist. In other words, Charlotte was a literal mess by the end with both the first three-quarters and the last quarter feeling like drastically different stories, and that was sufficient to set most of its audience off.
All of which was a pity given that even though its narrative structure was in dribs and drabs, barely held together by the end, Charlotte, true to its name, shone brilliantly in the managing to bring in the elements its audience loved most, making references to previous KEY works, famous characters from other works, and a combination of tropes that have shown to be prominently popular amongst the anime fanbase.
Defending Charlotte’s Flaws
Yet, even though the way the transition of one arc into another was callously handled, the upside to it all are the opportunities that are created to flesh out the true main characters of the series. In fact, it could be said that the wild goose chase the viewers were led on in the beginning deliberately served to show the multi-faceted sides of Yuu Otosaka’s fascinating character, and how flawed yet fundamentally human this character really is. From smart and lewd self-serving prick at his introduction, he is thrown into emotional turmoil which roughens him up, breaks him in every way possible, the process which is meticulously drawn out and shown over the course of one heart-breaking episode. Post plot twist, his first instinct is to run and hide, being the inherently self-preserving human being he is and is entitled to be, but is yet changed by the power of emotional connection and bonds of love to shoulder worldly responsibilities and to accomplish goals that are astonishingly admirable, given the less-than-desirable person he was at the beginning of the series. The establishment of a morally ambiguous and unlikable main character was a bold move that is unprecedented for both KEY works and Jun Maeda, who perhaps decided to take a leaf out of Sunrise’s book. However, it possibly yielded more room for exploration and development, even though it may very well be at the expense of plot coherence.
For detractors who argue that Charlotte is merely a poorly consolidated mish-mash of other works’ most successful elements (for example, the predominant use of baseball as a method of resolving conflict, the sisc0n-brocon complex, presence of pop idols with music as blatantly obvious commercial hooks, the hint of the supernatural at work), Charlotte ‘s saving grace in the emotional department probably still lies in how they are not at the very least overused as compared to the thousands other tropes that exist on the same plane. Even though this time, the series is no longer as successful as previous works on being tear-jerking, these elements, taken individually and as a whole, are almost trade marks of KEY in their combinative use that it still manages to be perceived as nostalgic references for some of its fans, rather than being received as dispassionately as other heavily used tropes. For the first (or few) timers of KEY’s works, these would likely not serve as much of an obstacle to the series’ enjoyment.
On a similar line of argument, the lack of cognizance between the pieces of Charlotte becomes less obvious as flaws in the light of a riveting (or otherwise continuously evolving) protagonist, a milder, rational female lead and a whole host of other themes and ideas introduced and squeezed into 13 episodes. An analogy could also be drawn to how Code Geass managed to get away with some of its loopholes and lack of further development of certain areas, though Code Geass certainly did a much better job at holding its fundamental structure together. Such an approach is certainly risky, and its mask likely to be unveiled on a more discerning second watch of the series, but it certainly delivers impact at least on its first watch.
Charlotte is not an easy series to recommend. While being a relatively good watch for those who do not see much value in evaluating their anime with objective criteria, it is likely to be the nemesis of those who highly prioritise the conjunctivity of plot progression and its logical sequence. Those, however who watch their anime with almost equal parts of brain and heart, are possibly the group of people who would end up the most divided and torn over how this series progresses and ends. Yet, it is possibly one of the more successful attempts of concealing plot inconsistency with its out-of-the-world twists, characters, and certain capacity to evoke emotions. Even so, Charlotte is interesting even for the emotional-logical paradox it presents to its viewers, and it could certainly serve as a test for those who have no idea which side of the fence they fall on.
As usual, thank you for reading, and feel free to read or comment below 🙂