It's rare when something like Charlotte comes along, and I feel a little lost for words on how I feel about an entire experience. I know I'm not alone here. What started off as a slice of life Angel Beats style, very briefly became School Days, before moving into Clannad, and finally settled into its own style for the ending episodes. I'd even argue there's a little Haruhi Suzumiya in here too at times. Universally, it's agreed that it was around episode 7 that things started to change, with the seeds planted beforehand. It was from here on that the biggest transition occurred, and we were left wondering what genre this actually fit into, and what angle it was aiming for.
Sounds a bit ambiguous at the moment right? As if I'm using typical reviewer vocabulary, where I'm not really defining an absolute opinion or statement about the piece of the article. Here's the thing though; whilst watching Charlotte, it changes genres, or at least the tone changes very suddenly throughout. There's all kinds of moments from different genres clashing together and piggybacking off of each other. If you and I were having a drink in a bar, and you asked me what Charlotte was like, I would probably say in a very casual and general manner, that it's "Clannad, if you gave everyone superpowers, but you started off as Angel Beats before you got there".
This actually made sense when I came to this conclusion after the final episode, because it turns out after looking into it, that Jun Maeda was responsible for Charlotte. Who if you don't know, is the creator of Angel Beats and Clannad. So brownie points to Jun Maeda for being consistent enough with his style, that even without knowing it, I used two of his previous works to describe how I felt about his most recent one. It's that which defines a creator's style, like how you would know what Quentin Tarantino film feels like, regardless of whether his name was on the promotional material or not, or if you've just read a Stephen King novel. The style is there, and it asserts itself in the tone, very boldly and without any doubt over who produced it.
For the anime regulars | veterans, you'll know where I'm going with this. It's presented as an emotional rollercoaster, with just enough humour and charm to help balance out those tearjerking scenes and keep it watchable, not leaving you feeling depressed afterwards. It tackles a few themes other anime won't really go for, or at least not tackle them as seriously, with very little or no fan service getting in the way of what they present as a well intended story. Basically, they try to tell an interesting story, without any ecchi or moe getting in the way; rare these days, though I'm not one to complain considering my tastes and viewing history.
For people not wanting spoilers, I'll simply leave you to watch it yourself [if you intend to] and finish by saying; you can expect an enjoyable and surprising ride. I won't say how good or how surprising, because that might leave you going in with an influenced expectation from anything I say, so just go watch it knowing that it won't be a waste of your time, and there'll be some surprises to what you expect along the way. Not the best I've seen, but certainly not the worst, and it tries hard enough consistently throughout, that it mostly hits the right notes. If you're still with me at this point, I'm assuming you've either finished watching it, or you want more details before you actually invest time watching it. I won't be holding back here, and I'll even be mentioning the ending in this review, because it was actually something I had a few problems with.
The show starts off, very slice of life style. We have our main character Yuu, showing us his ability for [what at this moment in the story at least seems] being able to possess someone's body in his field of view, but only for a few seconds. He obviously exploits this power to cheat on tests, start fights, and get into a variety of various hijinks and fun. It's not long thereafter where our supporting characters Joujirou and Nao come to tell him that he's not the only one with these 'broken' or ' half hearted' powers, and take him off to their specialised ability-wielders school, where there are others like himself. Their goal is to go out in search of other ability wielders, in order to save them from various groups and organisations around the world, who want to imprison them in labs to test and experiment on.
Other seemingly broken abilities shown in the group are the ability to go invisible to only one person at a time, to teleport [actually, just the ability to displace yourself very quickly] but have no control over where you end up exactly, and the ability to see where other ability wielders are on a map but only when he is soaking wet. This is a good premise for the story, but is eventually contradicted at the end of the show, where on his final adventure to use his real power for ridding the world of these special abilities in order to protect the people who hold them from themselves and those that wish them harm, the powers they have are actually quite normal without any restrictions or broken qualities to them. Fire weaving, ice shards, telekinesis, these powers are shown later on, but have no 'catch' to them as such. So what starts off as a interesting idea, simply vanishes later on, and is replaced with run of the mill, regular powers. Granted this doesn't occur until the very final 2 episodes, but was offputting as I reached the story's conclusion, because it was something that stood out at the start as interesting, unique, and quirky.
Yuu loses someone close to him, and he enters a stage of depression and turmoil. He goes around using his power for evil, and things get dark quite quick. This is something I've always admired Clannad for doing. Jun Maeda isn't afraid to show the darker side of human nature, or how things can go from good to bad in the blink of an eye. It usually makes for an interesting experience that anyone can relate to. In Charlotte however, the transition is too abrupt without much build up to it. Obviously part of the effect the team were likely going for, was to bring about this change without any expectation for it, because in reality, tragedies have no dramatic timing, and they knock you down and wind you when you least expect them to. So whilst I can understand why the change is so quick in order to achieve a certain effect, that effect to me just came off as feeling out of place, and in a medium where you have control over the timing and presentation of events, this left me as confused and as disorientated as the main character was. In one sense that's kind of the point, where I'm empathising with the main character by going through a similar emotional process myself, emulating his situation perfectly. When I consider the points I'm about to bring across next though, I'm more inclined to say that it was slightly poor execution and pacing, rather than a calculated and decisive effort to have me mirror the emotional state of the characters.
Pacing is what I'm trying to criticise here, because Charlotte not only wants its cake and to eat it, but it wants a birthday party, inviting all of its friends, and it wants everyone to bring presents along with them. I feel it's trying to do too much all at once. Like I said before with the mixing of genres, it's trying to get the emotional elements of Clannad, mixed in with the slice of life school elements of Angel Beats, and trying to mix a little bit of supernatural with the whole meteor explanation for why people have powers in the first place. Those are the main 3 going on, but there's little bits of various genres weaved in subtly throughout, that it's difficult to get into one mindset for the entire series before you're pulled out suddenly and conditioned into another.
This is how Charlotte leaves me feeling; uncomfortable. I can't settle into any kind of viewing mode, because as soon as I get comfortable into a light hearted slice of life, it becomes supernatural. So I'm now invested in finding people with super powers, and I think every episode is going to be a new target, and it's going to be a sequential ascension of acquired targets until the end of the series with some sort of emotional conclusion or climax. Now we have a dramatic tonal shift, and suddenly we're at the death parts of Clannad, and I feel upset and depressed. Don't feel down for too long though, because now we shift into a whole uplifting moment of positive thinking and moving on with life, but hold on, we've got some sci-fi twist style storytelling coming up where we go back in time and change everything, also we meet some new faces that completely change what we knew about the story and what to expect from this point on again! So with this new outlook, we move forward, and now we're a little disorientated not knowing if we get comfy in this current position, or if we get ready to move on again. Turns out you've got one more jump to make into the heroic traveller story, before we finally stop off at "I love you", and "Everything's back to the way it was" town, without actually wrapping things up completely. I'm supposed to just believe that after becoming the most wanted person in the world, that Yuu can just go home, and live happily ever after? What happens to his powers, does he lose them fairly quickly as her enters adulthood, or does it take a little while longer, what happens until then? It leaves questions unanswered in the most annoying of ways, mainly that he can't possibly just disappear from the face of the earth after everyone has been looking for him until now, as he is known as the one eyed reaper globally.
Yuu basically has to travel around the world at the end and acquire everyone's super powers for himself to rid the world of this 'infection', to save them from becoming lab rats and doing any real damage to anyone with them. Turns out his broken 4-5 second possession ability was actually him entering their bodies and stealing their powers. Which brings us into DeathNote god complex territory, where he starts to forget his main mission, and the stress on his mental well being causes him to feel superior to others, making him briefly consider the possibility of becoming a god on earth, and having his way; a slight nod to his corrupt state after his tragic loss near halfway through the series.
Eventually he succeeds and gets brought back home by his friends, who somehow happen to know when he removes the last ability from the world, and also happen to know exactly where he is. The actual rescue of Yuu, asks a whole lot more questions than it answers, and feels a bit cheap to think that he steals the last power, loses most of his recollection of why he's there and who his friends are, and they just happen to show up when he's in trouble, and about to be killed | captured. Which in turn also begs the question of why he can't stop a random guy in an alleyway from shooting him with a crossbow, when he's been stopping bullets Neo style from the Matrix up until now without a problem. He's suddenly 'tired', and is shown to be weak, using a walking stick to move around. This is also after a few seconds previously, where we saw him jumping around and teleporting like some magical Ninja, without any sign of wear and tear. There's moments like these that feel forced into the plot, to make you feel a certain way, even though it contradicts what came before it, or causes a lot of friction. Similarly to how the people he meets at the start have broken powers, but the ones at the end have complete ones without any restrictions [or at least not shown], it's these kind of moments that cause inconsistencies that tell me that the rest of my qualms and reservations about other parts of the plot and characters, are more likely errors or shortcomings, than things constructively decided to make me feel or think a certain way.
I'm left thinking that the great bits in the series, are purely happy accidents, rather than intended moments, because of how it presents these sorts of problems mentioned above. I lose confidence in the show multiple times, and I'm left wondering if the enjoyable bits were intentional, or just accidental. That's why I can't call Charlotte a wonderful follow up to Maeda's previous work, because in comparison to the more concise and deliberate efforts of Clannad and Angel Beats [and from what I've heard about Air etc.] Charlotte can't help but pale a little in comparison. Not for want of trying, it just falls a little short of the expectations I had going in, and especially against the expectations I had built up from early episodes, and even later ones once I had changed my perspective to match the genre shift.
So all of this criticism aside, what did I like? Character development. Through the twists and turns of the genre defying transitions and erratic pacing, the one thing I enjoyed was the characters. Goals and motivations are clear to understand and empathise with. Dialogue is interesting and was one of those rare anime that manages to keep me concentrating even through lengthy expositions and emotional scenes. It's a shame the pacing didn't match, otherwise I would have been attentive towards a more holistically enjoyable experience.
There's one scene with Nao in underwear which doesn't really make sense, where she's beaten up and hanging from the ceiling. It felt a little like fan service, especially since Kumugami is tied up to a chair next to her, but he's fully clothed [though his torture is much worse physically]. Reflecing back on that scene in particular, I can find excuses such as the enemies being mostly male, so they would perhaps have a little more fun torturing Nao as a woman than they would Kamugami, but it still feels a little tacky. A blood stained blouse would have sufficed, maybe a few buttons undone with a few tears in the fabric, but there's nothing gained from having her in underwear. It doesn't really add to the fundamental story at that moment in time, yet there it is. Maybe I'm missing something culturally, like is it shameful for a woman to be exposed like this in Japan, and this was an attack on her pride and mental state, as well as physically beating her up? Would the same psychological attack have no effect on a Kamugami because he is a man? It's certainly a topic that's up for debate, but personally I felt it wasn't needed, and did come off feeling like some kind of subtle fan service overall.
The music was good, the art style is very nice to look at as well. It's consistent throughout, and at least visually I didn't feel as if I was on the same erratic rollercoaster as the story. There are some really beautiful visual moments in the series, and the endings are always a different set of stills and animations, that fit in nicely with the ending songs. Sometimes they serve as thematic closures for the episode beforehand, and aren't always just cut and pasted copies of each other, they differ somewhat slightly.
Overall I'm torn. I came away asking more questions about whether it was good or not, and not whether I personally took something from the experience or not. I was more concerned over whether I 'should' like it, rather than if I 'do'. If an anime does a good job at being what it wants to be, you can sit back and recognise what it wants to be, and what it finally became by the end, and you can measure up whether you agree with the stylistic choices and presentation or not, and whether you liked it or not for those reasons. With Charlotte, it's hard to pin down what it is exactly to begin with, so depending on who you ask and what parts they reference in particular, you don't really get a truthful or straight answer. Other reviews I've read of Charlotte have all echoed a similar opinion over and over again, which I mostly agree with; it's like Jun Maeda took the best bits and pieces of his previous work that worked well and placed them in random places throughout Charlotte, what you're left with is a slightly disjointed mess.
Almost as if he was thinking to himself "Hey, this made people cry before, let's put that here. Oh that made people angry before towards this character, let's do this here. Better not forget that this made people happy and gave them hope, I'll throw this at the end after all this depression". It all just comes out of this massive genre blending machine that was at the time Jun Maeda's creative vision. Kind of like looking at a Sunday roast dinner. In separation on a plate, the ingredients look tasty and appealing to the eye. Grind them all together in a blender with gravy, and you just get this massive pile of brown mush that you wouldn't put anywhere near your mouth. If you took each episode after episode 2/3 of Charlotte, removed character names and identifiable marks, and just laid out the entire script on paper, you'd think every episode came from a different anime!
Ok perhaps that's being way too harsh and definitely melodramatic! Charlotte was good, but I can't say anything more than that. It was just 'ok'. I gave it a 7/10 on myanimelist, and that's how I feel. It was good, I enjoyed my time there, but it didn't meet the standards of previous shows from the same creator that I liked, and it just seemed like too much was going on. The problem with focusing on one genre/aspect though, is that you would have just ended up with one of his previous works.
Focus solely on the slice of life school super power themes? You have Angel Beats.
Focus solely on the emotional loss of a loved one, and the dark depressing moments of loneliness and sadness you feel with a slightly supernatural happy ending? You've got Clannad.
Focus solely on the Amnesia elements, and you have Kanon.
Focus solely on the meteor/infection story arc, and you have something not too far from Air.
Really, Charlotte should have focused on a different theme or story, and avoided stepping too far into areas that Maeda has previously covered, or at least present them in a different light.
It is just like all of his best works mashed together, hoping for something amazing to arise from the ashes, but for me at least, it just ended up having little sparks shoot out occasionally, but no Phoenix ever rose from them. Because of where the show has come from, and the work that has proceeded it, I think at the very least, it's important to watch Charlotte simply to have an opinion within the anime community. Just like how there's an onslaught of fans defining Clannad as the saddest anime they've ever watched, and others not seeing the appeal, I think the same exists of Charlotte. We aren't talking about tonal shifts as dramatic and jarring as School Days' ending, but we're in that territory.
By any standard though, the show isn't terrible, and there are fans very vocally offering their support and love towards the show, claiming it to be the best piece of work from Maeda. The rest of us however, are still scratching our heads, wondering if we should just give it the title of 'most disappointing show of the season' and move on. That aside, just go watch it, and have your own opinion, because no one can really agree on this showt. We've seen a more concise collective opinion in the months leading after the final episode, but feel assured that you won't waste your time investing in this show. It's enjoyable, mediocre, better than most, could have been better.