If you are a frequent visitor at this site, then you already know I am a hopeless romantic. Give me a good love story designed to tug at the heart strings, and I instantly turn into a blubbering pile of feels. Even more so if the ending of that story is a bittersweet one.
This week, I’m taking a look at just such a show, a 13 episode love story from 2015 of androids and humans, Plastic Memories. Produced by Doga Kobo, the gang behind Gekkan Shouko Nozaki-kun, 11eyes, Myself; Yourself, and Yuruyuri, this is one of those series that designed to make you cry.
Which means it did make me cry. I’m super easy on that front. If it might bring a tear to the eye, I’m bawling.
The show is set in the near future, after androids have been introduced into the world. Called Giftia, these androids are completely lifelike, right down to their ability to experience the full range of human emotions. However, due to limitations of software, all Giftia’s have a nine year life span, after which their data becomes corrupted and they lose all their memories, and can become a danger to humans.
The company that makes Giftia’s, SAI, has established a Terminal Service, which tracks the life span of Giftia’s, and retrieves them before they can fail. While at first, this sounds almost like a Blade Runner situation, it’s actually not. The Giftia’s have no desire to hurt anyone, especially the humans they are closest too, and usually willingly surrender themselves to the Terminal Service.
Some don’t, which is where Terminal Service has their real work cut out for them. Working in pairs, one human and one Giftia, they have to bring the Giftia in before anything horrible can happen.
Which is where our young protagonist, Tsukasa, comes in. Having missed his chance to enter a university due to health issues, his dad has helped him get a job with the Terminal Servcie, where he is paired with the somewhat loli looking Giftia, Isle. At first a somewhat fumbling relationship, they quickly bond, and soon, fall in love.
Then Tsukasa learns that Isle’s nine years are almost up, leaving him to decide how much further he wants to pursue their relationship. Does he want out now, or will he stay to the bitter end?
With a show like this, it’s super easy to screw up the world building. A lot of questions come up in terms of android rights, especially when we’re talking about fully sentient ones that are capable of all emotions. When I first sat down to watch Plastic Memories, I was pretty surprised by the fact that they actually tackled most all of these issues.
It’s never a focal point of the story, mind you, but these things are addressed. Androids, by and large, are still property, but are not slaves in the way we would expect from a more cynical series. Instead, they are a responsibility. Yes, they are owned, but that ownership isn’t what you think. Their owners are fully responsible for providing them a home, clothing, food, and anything else they need. In return, the Giftia’s enhance the owners lives in a lot of meaningful ways.
Tsukasa’s first retrieval sets the stage for how this world works best. The Terminal Team is sent out to pick up a Giftia near the end of his operational life. Preparations have already been made, and he learns that in the weeks ahead of actual retrieval, the Terminal Service makes contact and begins preparing both the Giftia and the humans for what is to come. In this instance, it is an elderly couple, who had never gotten to have a child. The Giftia was their chance to experience that. While the Giftia is a young man, he presents himself as a successful business professional, allowing these people to know what it was to have a son who they could be proud of for all his accomplishments.
Their goodbye is heartfelt, and sad, but the Giftia thanks them for all they did for him, all they gave him, and the love and support they showered him with all of his life. This is the core conceit around which the series revolves. These androids are property, yes, but they are not slaves. They are an irreplaceable part of these peoples lives.
Another retrieval revolves around a young boy who lost his parents and was raised by the family Giftia, who he sees as a sister. Another revolves around an elderly woman and the child like Giftia she refuses to part with, because this girl is all she has. Each retrieval is an emotional moment, as these people must say goodbye to one another after sharing a life together.
Maybe that’s what gets to me about it all. The idea of saying goodbye to a loved one. Knowing there is nothing that can be done, and allowing them to leave this world in peace, rather than, as we see at one point, a shell of their former selves.
At it’s best, fiction is more than just good storytelling, but a metaphor for something else. Plastic Memories accomplishes this by revolving around the idea of saying goodbye, forever, to those we love. Of the painful joy when it can be done at the right time, and the agony of when it can’t.
Tsukasa, as a character, is pretty okay. He’s not the best, or the worst, in anime. Most of his actions are based on his feelings for Isle, which is to be expected from a romance themed series. However, there’s another side of his story arc that is far better done, and far more subdued. His slow journey to understand just what it is his job entails, how important it is to do it the right way, and just what it is he is offering both the Giftia’s and the humans who love them.
On that side of his character arc, is a much better story than the romance one. That simple story of a young man who comes to understand the incredible power of empathy and kindness, and how it can make a tragic day more bearable for those involved.
Isle, on the other hand, takes an almost opposite journey. When we first meet her, she behaves like you’d expect from a robot. She speaks in a monotone, using computer speak at every chance, and has almost no personality. Very quickly, though, we learn that this is all an act she is putting on. She knows her time is running out, and rather than deal with the emotions she is feeling, she is trying to behave like a machine, that feels nothing.
The romance side of her arc is accepting that while she is a machine, she is also human, and that it’s okay to feel. It’s okay to be happy, to be sad, to laugh, and to cry. It’s even okay to be angry at a cruel fate that would end her life for no reason other than programming errors that can’t be fixed. As she slowly opens up to Tsukasa, and falls in love with him, she sheds her robotic false persona and we finally meet the real Isle, a warm, generous, kind, and beautiful soul.
The greater part of her story, though, like with Tsukasa, lies in her job. Before Isle joined the Terminal Service, it was just a job for everyone who worked there. They didn’t think of the needs, or the feelings, of the people involved. Isle changed how Terminal Service operated by offering both the humans and the Giftia the kindness and empathy they needed, and in her actions, inspired others to do the same. While their overhead is higher than corporate would like, they can’t argue the massive change this has had on public perception, or on the sale of new models, so they allow Terminal Services to do as they please, for the most part.
On that side, it’s the story of how simple kindness changed the lives of many people. Not just her co-workers, but everyone who her co-workers lives touched after that. The strain of doing the job eventually got to much for Isle and she retired from the field before Tsukasa meets her for the first time, but everyone else continued on doing the job the way Isle showed them, by her actions, her kindness, and her willingness to go the extra mile to make this difficult process less painful.
The rest of the cast is pretty good. Michiru, one of the human workers in Terminal Services, comes across as the standard bitchy character, but quickly develops a backstory that allows you to empathize with her personality quirks. Her Gifia partner, Zack, makes everything better with his snide comments and sarcastic observations on everything. Every anime would be better with Zack offering his snarky insights into the plot.
Kazuki, one of the head honchos at Terminal Service, starts as the typical scary lady, but also quickly develops a backstory and character arc that allows us to see her in a very different light as a person in incredible pain, with a massive heart, who just wants to make the world a better place for everyone, as best she can. Her Giftia partner, Constance, doesn’t get a lot to do, but is frequently a very wry observer of humans, and frankly, gets to be one of the funnier characters when he shows up.
In terms of the plot, the romance side is good, but not well balanced, leading to a few uneven episodes later in the story as Tsukasa and Isle begin dating, and living together as a couple. It leans on some old cliches a bit too heavily, but brings it home in the final episode with a truly heartfelt and beautiful moment. Sad, yes, but beautiful as well.
The retrieval side, which gets pushed too far to the back burner in the later episodes, offers up a far less cynical than usual look at a world where androids are common place. We learn there are laws that forbid implanting tracking devices in them, for example, as it violates their right to privacy, telling us a lot about how the world sees them.
While I get that this is a romance story and all, that side of it, the work of Terminal Services, and the way androids have been incorporated into daily life as individuals, rather than tools, was the far more interesting story in my mind. Enough is offered to flesh it out into a functioning world, but not enough, for me at least, to really get into it as much as I would have liked. Still, it remains one of the best aspects of the series as a whole.
A world where androids could be owned, but still have rights. What an optimistic little show this is.
Plastic Memories was directed by Yoshiyuki Fujiwara, who has worked on such shows as Ao no Exorcist, Cardfight! Vanguard B, Guilty Crown, Kimi no Todoke, Planetes, Sword Art Online, and Toradora in a variety of capacities ranging from key animation to storyboards, to episode directing. In Plastic Memories, he is very mindful of what the story is about, and uses a cautious hand with the camera. There’s no really big flashy moments, though there are a few decently tense ones that he handles very well. He knows what the story is, and he keeps the focus where it needs to be. While he might not be winning any awards for outstanding direction, he does keep his eye on the ball, and offers up a solid story, with only a few weak moments.
The script work was handled by Naotaka hayashi, who’s only other credits are from Memories Off, a storyboard on Robotics;Notes, and the scripts for a few anime shorts for IBM using the characters and setting from Steins;Gate. With Plastic Memories, he crafts an incredibly interesting science fiction world that I would love to get to spend more time with, and a mostly great love story that wanders off a bit before coming back to a solid finish. If he was to expand the world setting, I know I’d be interested in more, so for the most part, I’m willing to give him high marks for creativity in the world building department, and a pass on the love story side, since it did end well.
The music was handled by Masaru Yokoyama, who did work on series like Iron Blooded Orphans, Your Lie In April, Occultic;Nine, as well as Freezing and a bunch of Queen’s Blade stuff. Basically, he’s the best part of any show he’s working on, even if it’s something as faceplam inducing as Queen’s Blade. In Plastic Memories, he offers up a solid soundtrack that, while great, is also quickly forgettable. I don’t recall a single piece of music from the show now, but I do remember that it always fit the scene and was well done. So, I guess that’s good.
In terms of animation, Plastic Memories isn’t breaking any new ground, but neither is missing any marks. It’s good, not great, but it never dips into bad either. The character designs are a bit on the generic side, and wouldn’t stand out in a room full of generic protagonists from other shows, but fit well to the personalities and sensibilities of the series itself. Except Zack, who is just a sarcastic bundle of joy from start to finish, wrapped up in a cutesy boy body.
Overall, Plastic Memories works as a romance anime, but only just barely after tripping over itself in some of the later episodes. As a science fiction piece, it’s far better, with a new and interesting look at how sentient androids would fit into our daily lives, and offers a more optimistic take on the Blade Runner approach of having to retire androids.
For that alone, it’s worth a watch.