Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Yu Otosaka has a secret power - he can take control of another person's body and make them do whatever he wants for exactly five seconds. After exhausting the usual deviant ways such a power might be abused, Yu dedicates himself to cheating his way into a top-tier high school and the affections of a cute girl on the side. Unfortunately for Yu, he's not the only one with powers. Before he can even exult in his victory, he's snatched up by a pair of fellow gifted teens and forced to join them at a very special school of their own.
Jun Maeda is one of the more high-profile creators in anime circles, though he didn't initially build his reputation in anime at all. Maeda is instead largely famous for his visual novels - he was a central player in building KEY's reputation, where he worked on Kanon, Air, Clannad, and Little Busters!. His work was instrumental in the rise of the nakige ("crying game") genre, comprised of stories that sell themselves on their ability to make the player cry. Eventually, he expanded his reach beyond visual novels, working as the series composer for Angel Beats!
Maeda's works are extremely divisive, because they often rely on major assumptions of audience investment to justify their towering emotional resolutions. Maeda's stories are unabashed melodramas, featuring exaggerated characters and oversized emotions that consistently go for the dramatic jugular. You can pretty much guarantee that a Maeda series will feature waif-like girls, heavy slapstick, tragic backstories, and untimely deaths, along with the swelling music and watery eyes that accompany most of those variables.
Charlotte eventually gets to all of those things, but it starts off in relatively mundane and somewhat silly fashion. Yu Otosaka is an otherwise ordinary high schooler with the strange ability to take over other people's bodies for five seconds at a time. Being a bit of a scoundrel, Yu abuses this power before being discovered by other similarly powered teens (Nao Tomori and Jojiro Takajo) and dragged away to their own special high school, where he's forced to join Tomori's student council to help track down even more gifted teens before they can get spirited away by nebulously defined scientists for experimentation. The first half of Charlotte plays out mostly as a mission-of-the-week adventure, as Yu, Tomori, and their various companions track down and shelter a variety of kids harboring all manner of powers. There's some nice creativity in the various ways both Tomori's squad and the kids they're hunting use their gifts; one kid uses telekinesis to excel at baseball, while another's spiritual abilities make her a vessel for the ghost of her dead sister. Things proceed at a leisurely episodic pace until the show's midpoint arrives with its big tragic twist.
All of that could be good in the abstract, but Charlotte's awkward narrative composition unfortunately drains a lot of its story's impact. Those nebulously-defined scientists are a reasonable example; even though they're framed as the central threat for kids abusing their powers, we never really learn who they are, why they have power, or what the police have to say about any of this. Tomori is the only person who gives us any backstory on why this school for gifted children exists, but whether they're hiding these kids from the law or even if other kids at the school understand what the facility's true nature are questions that get nothing approaching an answer. Charlotte's vignettes take place in an amorphous world with no clear stakes or sides, where basically anything could happen purely because the narrative wills it.
This loose dramatic foundation extends to the smaller narratives of individual episodes. Characters pop in and out with no reason or explanation, and dramatic conflicts are too transparently absurd to carry much weight. The show's third episode is the clearest example of Charlotte's structural issues. In order to save an idol who accidentally read some of her producer's secret nefarious texts, the heroes simply use their powers to beat up the producer's hired goons. Then, when that not-solution is complete, the idol's dead sister (possessing her body) takes a few minutes to say goodbye to the boy who loved her, a character who's had maybe a line and a half of dialogue. Charlotte's story progresses less as a conventional narrative than a disjointed series of baffling events.
Of course, the overt plot is basically never the point of a Maeda story. It seems instead to be a vehicle for getting to climactic emotional moments. Unfortunately, Maeda's style tends to result in the same effect as fast-forwarding through a movie to get to the climax or skipping right to the last page of a book. Tragic things happen in Charlotte, but without the dramatic grounding of a solid narrative behind them, they land without impact. Charlotte's big turns feel as breezy as the rest of its material: sudden shifts in a continuous gale, where nothing is steady enough for its eventual absence to feel meaningful. By the final episode of this collection, there was almost no narrative link between one scene and the next - things simply happened one after another, offering little more than a collection of disjointed scene fragments.
But for all those negatives, there are certainly still things worth appreciating here. I found the slapstick in Charlotte far more effective than in prior Maeda productions - gags were varied, didn't repeat themselves, and didn't rely on lazy hateful stereotypes. The developing relationship between Yu and Tomori also felt very genuine. I would happily watch a show just about them, as long as it went through some narrative revisions and avoided killing characters with falling anvils all the time.
Beyond its various narrative issues, the show also looks very nice. Charlotte is definitely one of the better-looking P.A. Works shows in recent memory. It occasionally goes too heavy on its consistent filtering and soft focus, but the overall production has vibrant colors and plenty of dynamic visual highlights. The direction is also quite strong; Yoshiyuki Asai is equally adept at bringing to life Maeda's usual slapstick and his darker material, and the seventh episode in particular features a portrayal of listless depression that felt painfully real. The show's animation is also consistent, and the solid relationship between Yu and Tomori is regularly lifted by their physical back-and-forth. The show also pulls off some CG-enabled visual setpieces, where CG backgrounds allow the camera to either follow a character down a hallway or spin with them around a corner. Couple all of that with the show's lovely backgrounds and expressive character designs, and you've got a stellar visual package. The show's music is less impressive, mainly comprised of a variety of low-key synth songs. That's a surprise, frankly - Maeda is perhaps more renowned as a composer than a writer, so I was hoping for a more distinctive soundtrack. Still, the music is totally functional and often pleasingly timed to match the physical comedy.
Aniplex's release comes with a variety of extras, along with a competent but not remarkable dub. Perhaps the biggest complaint I had with the dub is that Ray Chase was unable to make Yu's wilder dramatic moments come across as natural. There's a naturally sinister tone to the original performance that made his more theatrical digressions feel funnier and more coherent as an expression of the character - in English, those more extreme moments seem feigned, and some lines pulled me out of the production with their lack of naturalism. The rest of the cast is serviceable, outside of a few awkwardly delivered lines and Yu's sister's perhaps too high-pitched delivery.
Charlotte comes in a standard cardboard slipcase, accompanied by a set of character-focused pinup cards. On-disc extras include fairly useless episode previews, as well as an excellent in-depth pre-screening feature that includes comments from both the production staff and the main voice actors, making it a very welcome inclusion. The feature opens with a panel featuring Maeda himself, where he comes off as just the sort of shy, earnest person you'd expect from his stories. (He intros his thoughts on Charlotte by saying that he “never thought someone would want to work together with him on an anime again.”) He talks about how his experience with Angel Beats! informed his thoughts when constructing Charlotte, so he sees Charlotte as a more narrowly character-driven show. There are even comments from the character designer on the philosophy underlying each of the central characters. Overall, it's a great look behind the scenes, far more substantive than you tend to get with standard releases.
In the end, Charlotte demonstrates a variety of small improvements on the Maeda format, but it still can't overcome his more fundamental storytelling issues. Maeda wants to arrive at big emotional peaks, but he doesn't seem interested in the foundational work that makes such peaks meaningful in the first place. The show is disjointed as a narrative and unsatisfying as a character story, offering small pleasures here and there, but no steady dramatic meal. It's a few revisions short of a full story.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : D+
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B-
+ Strong aesthetics across the board, the relationship between the two leads is relatively engaging
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