by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 13 of
Charlotte (TV 2015) ?
For one last time, I did not see where Charlotte was going. But really, how could I have predicted this?
I did anticipate its ultimate trajectory – after several years of travelling the globe, Yu returns to his lady love, world-worn but victorious. I did not predict that Jun Maeda would treat us to a thorough account of Yu's world tour. The contents of this finale could easily make up a whole other show on their own. In fact, they probably should have, since this episode opens up such a massive thematic can of worms that it might have sunk Charlotte completely. As usual, it's a testament to Maeda's skills at evoking pathos that this works on any level whatsoever. Still, this is the mother of all narrative left turns. Having just finished Angel Beats! recently, I felt at first that it was more ambitious but less cohesive than Charlotte. This episode singlehandedly reverses that. Its ludicrousness is almost an accomplishment unto itself.
Before I go into what happened, I should describe what I thought would go down. I figured that this episode would open with Yu returning from his quest. I thought that it would be about his relationships with the characters we'd come to know over the past ten episodes. You know, the stuff that most of the show was about. I thought that the specifics of the journey itself would be unimportant – it would just be a price paid to top off his transformation into a good person. I didn't think that we'd get an exhaustive country-by-country account of this journey alongside Yu's descent into madness and interactions with many broad racial stereotypes. That's right: Nao, Shunsuke, and Ayumi are barely even in this. It's all about Yu's noble struggle to rid humanity of comet-induced superpowers, not become an evil overlord in the process, and eventually return triumphant (if amnesia-stricken) to his loved ones. What?
Last week, Yu decided to save the world by plundering every ability user. This week starts immediately after that, as he sets off on his journey. Starting in the Phillipines, he locates someone with the ability to track down other ability users. From that point, his quest progresses rapidly. With each ability he plunders, Yu grows more and more unstable. He stops sleeping altogether and becomes more reckless with other people's lives. As his infamy spreads, he's given a nickname: “The One-Eyed Reaper.” While initially horrified, he eventually embraces it, snatching people's abilities with glee. To complete the antihero ensemble, he even begins wearing a black longcoat.
It soon becomes apparent that his memories are degrading. By the time he reaches America, he no longer remembers Nao, Ayumi, Shunsuke, or the rest of his childhood. For a moment, he contemplates giving up his quest (whose origins he no longer knows) and becoming an omnipotent tyrant. The only thing that keeps him sane is a keepsake from Nao – a flip book full of helpful translated phrases – that he carries with him at all times. It evokes feelings of purpose that he can no longer explain, but nonetheless affect him deeply. By the time he's found the last ability user, Yu is just a shell of himself. As he plunders the last user (whose ability is, in one final moment of gut-wrenching sap, courage), a man tries to kill him with a crossbow and claim the One-Eyed Reaper's bounty.
Just when it looks like Yu is about to die, Shunsuke emerges from the sky like an angel in a helicopter to reclaim his brother. Some time later, Yu wakes up in the hospital. Nao's been waiting at his bedside. They speak for the first time in years, but he doesn't remember her – thousands of abilities were too much of a strain on his mind. She's heartbroken, but then she sees that Yu treasured her keepsake the entire time. Sensing that the emotional connection between them hasn't wavered, the two resolve to start over. In the end, Yu reunites with Takajo, Yusa, and Ayumi. Nao films them, promising to retain these memories forever. There's the happy implication that even though Yu no longer remembers his friends, Nao has recorded most of their time together. Despite the price, it's a happily-ever-after.
I feel like I can't make a statement on Charlotte's overall quality until I've watched the entire show again. I don't believe it's a bad show – it's a creative, entertaining, and incredibly well-produced work. Every aspect of the experience is dripping with personality. I had immense fun writing it up every week. It's just so weird. It doesn't reveal its thematic purpose until two-thirds of the way through its run. (That purpose seems to be Jun Maeda's opportunity for melodramatic elaboration on the emotional dilemmas posed by Madoka Magica.) It dedicates the same amount of time to our heroes playing baseball as it does the crucial time-travel-conspiracy-backstory. Important plot elements, like the foreign gangs of ability users, come out of nowhere. Yu's supervillain tendencies – which are central to the conclusion – only show up a couple times throughout the entire run. It spends one episode poignantly depicting the main character's realistic grief over his dead sister, only to bring her back to life soon after. Her death and resurrection is ultimately not relevant to anything!
I just can't wrap my head around why a person would pace a story like this. Sure, Angel Beats! had its own pacing problems, but most of those stem from its runtime being cut in half before production. I don't know what excuse Charlotte has, or whether an excuse would even cover this. The final episode of Charlotte could have easily sustained its own multi-cour anime. In fact, it probably should have. I just can't begin to fathom why someone would think to structure a show like this. It's like if AnoHana suddenly turned into Darker than Black. Why would you do that?
This all makes me think that Maeda needs to go to remedial foreshadowing school. To be the best series it could have possibly been, Charlotte should've introduced the foreign gangs earlier and maybe tied them into the organization of evil scientists (which were also too vague.) The student council antics could have been cut down or distributed more evenly throughout the rest of the series. Maybe scenes of Shunsuke's crew could have been replaced with more of the main cast? They showed up a lot near the end, but turned out to be pretty nothing characters apart from Kumagami, who needed to do a little bit more for his death to earn its gravitas. Ideally, he would have a prior relationship with Yu and Nao outside of "drenched oracle." That would have been a good way to make us care and slip in a bunch of Shunsuke foreshadowing. It also might justify his sacrifice to save Nao, which was a little narratively convenient.
At the same time, Charlotte worked as well as it did thanks to Maeda's talent for sculpting singular, evocative moments. If you look at pretty much any episode of Charlotte in isolation, there's at least a couple solid bits each time. The problem arises when you try to tie them into a bigger picture. Maeda is a strong writer of immediate pathos because he managed to make me care about events that came right the hell out of nowhere. Unfortunately, stuff comes out of nowhere an awful lot in his shows. Naoi's flashback from Angel Beats! is a good example, because his character was one of the most flawed parts of an already messy show. However, his four-minute flashback is a masterful slice of character psychology, both evocative and gorgeous. The weakness of Naoi's place in the overall story, juxtaposed with his strong standalone backstory, created the starkest contrast between incompetence and brilliance.
Charlotte's last episode has the same problem. This one episode contains the entirety of the main character's arc: Yu overcomes his natural tendency to abuse power in order to do the right thing. In a normal show, squishing this in one episode would be ludicrous, but Maeda hits enough important beats to make Yu's downward spiral and eventual triumph work in a 20-minute timespan. The episode's desert scene is fantastic. He clearly understands how to convey the tortured process of becoming omnipotent at the cost of mental exhaustion. If the show had just been about the superpower world tour idea, this would have been a climactic moment. For Charlotte as it stands, however, this moment doesn't mean anything because Charlotte's message has been completely lost. This is pretty much just “Yu as a Christ figure,” right down to being tempted in the desert and getting pierced with arrows like Saint Sebastian. (What modern-day bounty hunter would own a wooden crossbow but not a gun?)
Charlotte as a whole is inefficient: a collection of sprawling narrative ideas. I thought that they'd be able to tie all this stuff up somehow. There were plenty of different directions they could have taken it. Earlier on, I floated “Yu has to choose between Nao and Ayumi” as a potential endgame direction. That would have made Charlotte about the inevitability of loss – a theme already prevalent in Maeda's oeuvre. Alternatively, just go whole-hog with the idea of Yu as a potential supervillain. Make him struggle with his dark side the entire way, not just at arbitrary intervals. You could even flip the story around altogether! Make most of the show about Yu wandering the earth gathering abilities, then reveal his past (the main story with the student council) via flashbacks.
With any of these potential options, Charlotte could have landed a message besides "Yu becomes a half-baked savior figure." I'd bet money that Maeda saw Madoka Magica and decided to write his own flavor of it. First there was the specific timing of the time travel twist, and now the show ends with “the main character becomes mankind's redeemer by taking
magical girl powers abilities onto himself at the expense of his individuality.” Plot details and tone aside, Maeda's main change to this Madoka story involved giving the savior a happy ending where they reunite with their loved ones. That's sweet and all, but it also overlooks what made Madoka powerful in the first place.
It doesn't help that Charlotte's portrayals of other cultures are extremely unfortunate. Yu helps the brown people with their social turmoil. Japan is an extremely racially homogenous nation, so it doesn't surprise me that these popular creators sometimes have limited conceptions of other races and nationalities. In Charlotte, other countries are mostly where things like poverty and child soldiers and hunger happen. There's nothing I can do about it besides shake my head.
Ultimately, Charlotte succeeds as a work of entertainment but disappoints as a work of art. As pure entertainment, it doesn't have a dull second. It's entirely unpredictable from beginning to end. P.A. Works' production is gorgeous. The soundtrack – scored by Maeda himself – is fantastic, probably worth buying standalone. If you just go to anime for a glossy good time, Charlotte will most likely reward you. However, if you pay any attention whatsoever to storytelling as a craft, Charlotte will at best baffle you and at worst infuriate you. It gets off to a fine start, loses its balance around episode six, and just keeps topping itself with twist after ludicrous twist until the end. For that reason, I honestly couldn't settle on a grade for this bizarre finale, so I'll just have to hope that my words explain my feelings better.
I'll give Charlotte this: I was never bored. I don't dislike this show. In fact, I think I'll end up with a lot of affection for it. It's as passionate as it is flawed, and that makes up a lot of the difference for me.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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