The Spring 2015 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Plastic Memories ?
We don't often like to think about it, but everyone has an expiration date. Plastic Memories, at least in its first episode, seems to be a metaphor for what people go through when it is time to say good-bye to a loved one. In the world of the story, which takes place at some undisclosed future date, a company known as SAI has developed incredible lifelike androids with distinct (synthetic) personalities: Giftias. People can purchase, or perhaps the better term would be “lease,” Giftias from the company, but there is a rather large caveat – a Giftia has a lifespan of only nine years and four months. After that employees of SAI will come and take it away.
Tsukasa, our hero, has just joined the retrieval department of SAI, which basically functions as the company undertakers. He has no idea that's what he's in for, and his initiation to the job is pretty immediate. Of course, first they have to find a Giftia for him to partner with; all retrievals are done in human/Giftia pairs. At first it looks like there won't be anyone for him to work with, but then Isla walks in. She's purportedly a retrieval expert who is no longer working that job...and of course she's the girl Tsukasa fell in love with at first sight on his way to work that morning.
Yes, Plastic Memories may be a metaphor, but it isn't a particularly subtle one. We can easily infer that Isla being an “expert” means that she is nearing her expiration date, so the romance is doomed from the start. Over the course of the episode we see an elderly couple saying goodbye to their adult “son” in a scene highly reminiscent of a deathbed farewell, a young couple fleeing so that whichever of them is the Giftia won't be taken away, and an old woman being forced to say goodbye to her Giftia granddaughter in a heart-wrenching scene. The tearful, the resigned, and those who refuse to believe are all covered as possible ways this story could end, and the fact that Isla is growing rosemary in her garden, which symbolizes remembrance, seems too well-known a symbol for it to be a throw-away. (Chamomile and thyme, the other herbs she's growing, represent “patience in adversity” and “strength and courage” respectively, which can also be related to her fear of death.) There's also a sort of cruelty to the show, with owners having to be present when their Giftias are taken away – it looks like they are being put to sleep, a euphemism for death – and at one point Tsukasa mentions that there is a special offer to upgrade the Giftias' OS; they'll have a totally different personality, but hey, you can still look at the person you used to love. One of the old women tells him that SAI simply sees the Giftias as commodities, but to their owners, they are people. It's like when someone tells you that the death of your pet shouldn't matter because “it's just a dog.”
It may be worth considering that “plastic” can mean “pliable” or “impressionable,” and so the title of this show could also be “pliable memories.” That could have some interesting implications should they choose to use it that way. Regardless, I do hope they will get better about the placement of humor in the show, because while I absolutely think this sort of serious story needs moments of levity, the funny scenes don't quite work as they currently are. Isla trying to get into an old woman's house by bribing her with ever-more-elaborate tea snacks seems inappropriate for someone coming to take away her granddaughter, but the worst offender is Isla trying to control her bladder after the Giftia has been successfully recovered. It would have been more effective to allow us to ponder the moment and think about its implications; watching Isla clench her legs together and talk about peeing destroys the carefully crafted mood and really brought the episode down in my estimation.
Long story short, Plastic Memories has an interesting, albeit depressing, premise and a lot to work with. Bland character designs, a misuse of humorous moments, and a general lack of subtlety keep it from reaching its full potential in this introductory episode. If it can sort most of this out, it will likely be a sad and powerful story indeed.
I said in my preview for Seraph of the End that entertaining stories can be as good as well-written ones, but obviously, we'd all rather have both things at once. Plastic Memories doesn't come out the gate swinging like Seraph of the End, but that's because it knows it doesn't have to. Carefully considered stories and characters don't need any bells and whistles to hold them up. Quality speaks for itself, and in the case of Plastic Memories, it can silence a room with a whisper. This episode commanded my attention from start to finish solely through its own quiet assurance of itself, and I'm already excited to see where it will go in the future.
Our hero is Tsukasa, the newest hire at android production conglomerate SAI's Terminal Service Department. He will be responsible for retrieval of expiring specimens, since the corporation's perfectly humanoid companion bots only "live" for nine years and four months at the most. After this obsolescence point, their personalities and memories begin to degrade, which can be very distressing for their owners and a potential liability for the company. Teams of two are responsible for each retrieval, so Tsukasa is sent out on assignment with an android employee named Isla. With each new retrieval mission, Tsukasa begins to see that his new occupation is more emotionally distressing than he'd bargained for, and there is far more to his new partner Isla than meets the eye.
Reviews before/underneath mine have gone into excellent detail on the show's naturalistic worldbuilding, graceful sentimentality, and beautifully detailed character animation, so I don't want to beat a dead robo-horse on that count. All that stuff is impeccable, and the show is off to a really strong start, so the real question is: where is it headed? Suffice to say, this is going to be a show about death, "planned obsolescence" in its cruelest form, and this show demonstrates a lot of maturity in holding back from the potential melodrama of the concept. Tsukasa's early training days on the job are sprinkled with light humor and the colorful minutiae of his world's reality to compensate for the potential grimness of his new day-to-day; he has to treat the death of sapient beings like a routine garbage pickup, and it's better to start gentle on that loaded premise than to jump in kicking and screaming. It's become a normal, accepted part of the world he lives in, and that's how it's treated by the episode before we can examine the deeper ethics of this modern Chobits scenario in further detail. (In fact, that's what Chobits did, and it's also largely why its story worked. Get your feet wet on simple emotions before diving into the heart-twisters you know are coming.)
There's a lot of subtle emotion at play here, and I also appreciate the subtlety inherent in Isla's characterization. Normally, I can't stand the "oh so random and clumsy" moe-girl archetype she represents, but there's a sorrow hiding behind her specific flavor of the archetype that really works for me. She's introduced as a retired collection agent, who now wanders the office serving tea to other employees and secretly crying to herself in the elevator. She supposedly has the highest collection record of any agent, but is dreadfully incompetent on the missions she attends with Tsukasa, flipping and flopping and error code-ing all over the place throughout the process. Normally, the "clumsy-random" personality and "best agent we have" twist are slapped together as a punchline in and of themselves in anime, but for Plastic Memories, I think the real punchline is yet to come. Something tells me Isla acts the way she does because her expiry date is fast approaching, which would explain not only her scatterbrained moe incompetence, but also why she was retired before Tsukasa joined the company unexpectedly. She insists on returning to work because she desperately wants to be useful, and outwardly mourns that she has the power to retain memories at all, which is a surprisingly vulnerable place to take the lead character only one episode in, another indicator that she may be on death's door.
Great premise, great production, great script, and great characters. Easily the strongest entry of the season so far, and I'm absolutely looking forward to more.
Tsukasa Mizugaki is just starting his career at the Terminal Service Department of SAI. SAI are responsible for creating the Giftias, androids with “synthetic souls,” who are indistinguishable from humans outside of their lifespan - a mere nine years and four months. As their lifespan runs out, the memory and personality of Giftias begins to break down, and so the Terminal Service Department is required to retrieve the Giftia from their owners. Terminal Service employees work in pairs - one Giftia to perform the actual retrieval, and one human to make sure everything goes smoothly. But since Tsukasa is the only newbie, he's forced to team up with the older Giftia Isla, who despite allegedly being very experienced seems uncertain in the field. This first episode covers Tsukasa's introduction to the team and training period, ending with him and Isla attempting to retrieve the Giftia Nina from the uncooperative Chizu.
There is a whole lot to recommend in this show. The premise is tailor-made for evocative drama, and the show's already digging deep into its own well of sadness. It'd be easy for a show about sad dying robots to come off as too manipulative to be emotionally effective, and while this episode does certainly swing for the emotional fences, it backs that up with a real investment in its characters and ideas. We're not going to slowly build towards “this is a tragic reflection of human loss and the ways we both engage with death and celebrate those we've lost” - we're already there, with this first episode already containing a poignant little vignette and embracing Isla's own insecurities.
The show is loaded with small narrative background details that all feel part of a coherent world - I particularly liked the director's offhand “we're already being downsized” complaint, which seemed reflective of a company (and species) that is more interested in looking forward than properly respecting and engaging with its own creations’ obsolescence. The implications of the various attempted retrievals here all point to small tragedies that don't require further explanation - the middle-aged couple who embraced their adopted son, the younger owner who seems to have fallen in love with their Giftia, and the very relatable bond between Nina and the lonely Chizu. The Giftias themselves seem like a possibly misguided reflection of our technological grasp outstripping our emotional wisdom, both for their own sakes and for the sadness they inspire in others. And of course, the show knows it's all very sad, and deliberately points to the line it'll eventually take when Isla wishes she never had memories at all. We're not here to wallow in tragedy, we're here to celebrate living through accepting its end with grace.
The aesthetics ably match the show's narrative richness. The colors are vivid, the character designs crisp yet soft-lined as well. The direction is very energetic, and actually works well to elevate the show's humor. Many of the jokes here come less from actual character lines (in fact, the few jokes in the dialogue are pretty lousy), and more from smart comedic timing, great expression work, and well-chosen jump cuts. Director Yoshiyuki Fujiwara also directed Engaged to the Unidentified, and this show seems to have inherited both that one's distinctive hair highlights and its wonderful character animation. Characters are expressive and lively, their gestures and movements brought to life in perfectly weighted form. Plastic Memories looks beautiful.
There are definitely ways this show could go wrong, and that it's already hinting it might. It's obviously dancing a dangerous line when it comes to emotional manipulation, and I think its success there will largely come down to Isla. If she turns out to be a helpless, somewhat Clannad-esque character, she'll drag the show down with her - but she's already demonstrated a fair amount of personality this episode, and so as long as the show doesn't continue to play up her childishness, that shouldn't be a problem. And the actual jokes in dialogue were also weak, as I mentioned, with the show's very dumbest joke unfortunately bringing down its very last scene. But overall, this was a premier brimming both with immediate gifts and promise for the future. I hope it can follow through.
Review: I have been brought to tears by anime on several occasions, but in my roughly 20 years of watching anime heavily, only on two occasions (Koi Kaze and Cross Game) has the first episode of a TV series accomplished that. Plastic Memories is the third; in fact, it got the strongest emotional reaction from me of any series in recent memory. My respect for it being able to do that is why I am giving the series a maximum score.
The series starts on a sobering note, with lead character Tsukasa Mizugaki asking the provocative question, “if my lifespan was predetermined, I wonder how I would handle that?” It is an entirely relevant question to him because of the line of work that he is going into: he is joining SAI Corporation's Termination division, albeit without knowing anything about what it does. He soon learns that his job is to retrieve Giftias – essentially artificial people outwardly indistinguishable from humans who have “synthetic souls” – at the end of their lifespans, which is roughly 9 years and 4 months. When that time comes, their personalities break down and their memories disintegrate (presumably because of the deterioration of the synthetic soul), and so to prevent problems that have to be retrieved before then. Because the Giftia are commonly substitute family members, a procedure must be followed to ensure the owners’ privacy to the end, but what's left unspoken in this description of duties is that quite often strong emotions come into play, and so the owners must be prepared to deal with the separation, too, and things must be handled in as sensitive a manner as possible. Tsukasa sees that first-hand when he accompanies a fellow employee and her Giftia partner (all humans are paired with Gifta for this duty) on one such already-arranged termination, and he also sees the inherent problems involved when he and his assigned partner Isla must try to convince an old woman who is unwilling to even talk to them about it. Eventually they are able to come to peaceful terms when Isla finally gets an opportunity to talk to the old woman's Giftia, the little girl Nina, about her own fears about losing her memories and personality. And that's where the emotional power hits, and hits hard.
Despite the serious start, the episode seems for a while like it might go in a more light-hearted direction, as Tsukasa's introduction to the Termination division is so reminiscent of Ai's introduction to Debris Section in the first episode of Planetes that this scene has to have been patterned off of that one. It is also not without its disarming humor elements, most of them generated by Isla proving not to be as competent at something as what Tsukasa was led to believe. However, that ultimately does not interfere in the slightest with the heart of the story. This is a potent, sensitive topic loaded with all sorts of potential symbolism and implications, and I have not a shred of doubt that Japan facing an aging population is one factor in play here despite the youthfulness of most of the characters. After all, what the series is essentially portraying here is both humane euthanasia and coming to terms with end-of-life scenarios. And while this isn't outright said, that Isla will soon be facing such circumstances on her own behalf is heavily implied; after all, she has been around for several years and that she was taken off of active duty so that she wouldn't be directly exposed to constant reminders of her own impending demise is an interpretation that would certainly fit the circumstances, not to mention her clear displays of fear.
The artistry and animation are hardly spectacular, but the musical score unfailingly hits precisely the right notes and the writing and direction are poignantly sharp. The concept shows immense potential, too; what actually happens when a Giftia's personality breaks down, for instance? And how will cases where the Giftia and/or owners don't cooperate be dealt with, for instance? Doubtless these will be dealt with, along with Isla's circumstances.
It is so easy to get cynical about anime and the way it endlessly recycles the same tropes and clichés that one has to appreciate the special series when they come up. And this one looks like a special one.
It's Tsukasa's first day at SAI Corporation, a tech company that specializes in Giftias, humanoid androids with synthetic souls that are virtually indistinguishable from real human beings. Tsukasa has been assigned to the Terminal Service Department, a collection of lovable misfits with big personalities whose job it is to partner up – one human, one Giftia – and retrieve Giftias who are at the end of their life cycle, which is only about nine and a half years. This can be a tricky business, because the connection between a Giftia – again, basically a human being – and their owner is a difficult emotional process that involves a lot of tough feelings. They're saying goodbye to a loved one, forever.
Tsukasa is assigned to work with Isla, a monotone Ruri Hoshino-alike who carries a diary of her experiences retrieving Giftias and seems to have some painful memories from her past that haunt her on a regular basis. Their first retrieval goes just swimmingly, but the next one – involving a rooftop chase – ends in property destruction, and the last one, an obstinate grandmother who won't even open the gate for them, proves to be the most difficult. It's up to Isla to handle the delicate emotions involved and separate her from her beloved Giftia granddaughter.
So this is the latest original sci-fi premise from the guy who wrote Steins;gate, and it's a nice surprise. This is a very low-key affair, leisurely paced but not too slow, involving another team of likable joes (minus all the nerd culture stuff that permeated Steins;gate). The episode opens with Tsukasa in an elevator with Isla and he claims to have fallen in love with her at first glance, which telegraphs the way this is going – Plastic Memories is right upfront with the fact that it's going to try very hard to wring tears out of you, since the entire show is basically about the painful feelings that come when a loved one passes away. That stuff felt a little flat for me – if you want to build to that sort of powerful, intensely sad emotion, it needs to happen over the course of the story. Proclaiming “YOU ARE GOING TO CRY” in so many words feels a little ham-handed, but the execution in this first episode is good enough to overcome that. There's real potential for social commentary, too – during the retrieval at the end of the episode, Tsukasa starts offering the grandmother upgrades, telling her she can keep the physical body of her Giftia if she upgrades the OS (with a 30% discount!) but the personality will expire. It's a very interesting concept, the idea that a facsimilie of a human being could become as emotionally important to you as a real person, but they have a shorter life cycle than a housecat and the disposable/upgradeable nature of a cellphone, which operates inside a system designed to get you to buy a new one every X number of years. Pairing deep, life-changing emotion with the financial ecosystem of cellphones is a pretty unique idea, and so far Plastic Memories is doing a bang-up job articulating it.
I already like this show more than the author's seminal work. It looks good, the premise is solid, and the characters are likable and empathetic. It's trying way too hard to make you cry, but there's enough good stuff going on to bring me on board.
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