So, I’ve got a big review of the whole 48 episodes of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders for Funcurve that’s on the way. The first half review is finished but the whole thing is going to be published back to back, so I decided I wouldn’t keep you waiting with a preview post a month or two before the review is even published. Before I get to the second half I decided to write about something completely different, so here I am writing about friggin’ Charlotte. This was a choice that was sort of made on a whim, as I haven’t seen very much of Jun Maeda but have a nagging curiosity about his super divisive melodramas. In the earlygoing Charlotte is… okayish? There’s definitely a lot of things about Maeda’s style that are immediate turn-offs to me, but there’s bits and pieces that I think I just might come to like in the long run, or not. You can find the preview after the break.
Over the years Jun Maeda has firmly established himself atop the dubious throne of the Visual Novel melodrama, and subsequently expanded to the throne of the Anime Melodrama. He’s developed a cult following that’s made his works synonymous with terms like “feels” and “cry porn” and other far less glowing terms, eliciting every possible emotional response out of Anime fandom. And yet here am I living under a rock, having never seriously viewed a single Maeda work. Out of pure morbid curiosity I now venture into Maeda’s latest original creation, Charlotte. Charlotte is a story about adolescents with special powers, albeit powers with some serious imperfections. It follows a group of students who attend Hoshinoumi Academy, a school designed to protect said adolescents from being discovered by scientists and being used as test subjects.
We begin with the aesthetic hook of protagonist Yu Otosaka standing in the middle of a colorless street surrounded by colorless people, engaged in the important ritual of the Anime teenage boy inner monologue about identity issues. He asks himself “Why am I only myself, and not someone else?”, peppering it with self-indulgent references to Descartes and all sorts of other gobbledygook. This turns out to be the basis of his secret power, to very briefly take control of other people’s bodies. Being an Anime teenage boy, Yu tries and fails to use it to peek on girls, and eventually settles on using it to mess around with school bullies and cheat his way to the top of the school system, all of which are give copious amounts of monologue in spite of being visually told in fine fashion. It’s far from overtly excessive, but it very quickly establishes some graceless storytelling quirks.
Once that’s out of the way we have some time to actually get to know our protagonist, who we quickly realise is kind of a vain narcissistic jerk. Visual cues such as his constant sinister smirking are a nice touch in establishing this, letting us in on the fun that Yu has worshipping himself. In general Charlotte is good at using subtle gestures to establish little character nuances. Our second lead, Nao Tomori, in particular is shown to be charmingly playful by her poise, such as in one scene where she casually hops around on her tip-toes while crouching. That kind of ever so slight oddness has an organic fun feel to it. Nao is played by Ayane Sakura, who has a knack for upbeat characters with a kind of rough edge and can make quick natural shifts between her usual bubbly high voice and a much less innocent sounding lower pitch. Right off the coattails of her phenomenal role doing just that as Iroha in Oregairu Zoku this part feels like somewhat uninspired type-casting, but it works well enough.
I should also give credit to some of the smart narrative composition that leads into building the premise. Nao is shown most of the first episode appearing to be filming Yu, and then when Yu is forced to retake a test to prove he didn’t cheat on it she catches his failed attempt at possessing the exam supervisor to look at the answers, revealing the entire situation as an elaborate entrapment she planned for Yu to reveal his powers so they could transfer him to their school. It’s nothing spectacular, but it contains some fun little subtleties. As it goes on it doesn’t really maintain that solid construction. Besides the imperfections the magic abilities are mostly elaborated on in fairly broad strokes, and don’t really have a particular hook. They just happen to occupy some space in the narrative. Moreover, I don’t find myself to be very much of a fan of Maeda’s sense of humor, which seems to consist mostly of dramatic reactions and cheap slapstick. Another one of our leads, Joujirou Takajou, has the ability to teleport, but really his ability is to thrust himself at an uncontrollable rapid speed in a single direction. I found some mild humor in this when it was used as a gag in episode one, but when it came to be repeated in episode two and again in episode three it got exactly zero laughs from me. I counted them. Yu also has a token little sister, and she likes stars and can’t cook and… that’s about it. There’s very little worse than a dead weight lame joke character.
Charlotte’s major shortcoming is found in the one place it really counts: the dramatic composition. By episode two we’re already thrust into Nao’s tragic back story, which is more than a little overbearing. I feel the concept of people with special abilities being used as test subjects is one that definitely works, and it’s given some nice subtle reference in the first episode, but it goes for the big guns before we really even have a reason to care. We know that Nao is scarred by her brother’s abilities being used for inhumane experiments, and we know that Nao has become desensitized to the sight of him in a mental hospital tearing away at his futon, but we don’t know Nao. We know she has a playful but subtly malicious personality, but what else have we really been shown besides her tragedy? There are a few brief moments to show us that she has a close sibling bond, but that’s far from an emotional connection. When a narrative pulls this kind of heavy-handed drama so soon it feels like it’s trying to cheat me. Yet I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it has cheated me slightly. Maeda swings for the fences so unabashedly with his writing that I can’t help but feel somewhat invested in the melodrama. It also helps that P.A Works’ aesthetic chops bring a solid visual front to set the mood, with much of Nao’s backstory depicted in a dreary monochrome with some sharp contrasts like the red paint reading “I’m Out!!” that Nao splattered on her wall before she escaped the testing facility. If anything Charlotte knows what it’s going for, and boy does it go for it.
Charlotte is very eager to show us what Jun Maeda is about, with all the self-seriousness and the imperfections that come with it. It’s a generally feel-good but deeply fractured Slice of Life Comedy, interspersed with abrasive melodrama that somehow manages to hit a certain soft spot with me. I suspect that soft spot is what makes people fall in love with Maeda. I can’t say at this point that I’m one of those people, but I do appreciate Charlotte for trying.