Have you ever thought that superpowers in comics were a bit overly convenient — that they lacked the obvious downsides such powers should have? The anime Charlotte is quick to point that out for both comic and dramatic effect.
Charlotte is the tale of a world where across the planet, various children and teens develop superpowers. However, these powers only last till the end of puberty. Because of this, faceless organisations across the globe capture these children and experiment on them — with no regard for their human rights. Luckily for those in Japan, there is an organisation that seeks to harbour and protect these children until their powers disappear naturally.
The story proper follows Yu, a high school boy with the ability to possess another person for five seconds. When his ability is discovered, he transfers to a protected school for superpowered children and begins (reluctantly) helping their student council find others like him before a less scrupulous organisation nabs them instead.
One of the best aspects of Charlotte is the superpowers themselves. Each of the powers has some sort of flaw or limitation. For example, Yu can possess others but only for five seconds — leaving his own body unconscious and unguarded while he does so. Nao, the student council president can turn invisible but only to one person at a time. Jojiro has super speed but no super ability to stop — basically making him a human missile. The last member of the counsel, Yusa has the power to let the dead possess her, though she retains no memory of what happened during the possession.
In this way, the characters must always put a lot of thought into how to use their flawed powers — to work around their problematic aspects and accomplish their goals. Of course, this is the driving force behind the anime's comedic side.
For about the first half of the anime, Charlotte is a light-hearted comedy. These episodes revolve around the team discovering new superpowered children and convincing them to either join the student council or stop using their powers. And while the series does at least try to make the powers somewhat realistic — i.e., not being able to stop at super speed hurts you bad — realism always plays a backseat to the comedy.
However, at the series' halfway point, there is an extreme tonal shift. Powers become deadly serious as people die, some characters have emotional breakdowns, and despair begins to permeate the anime. While there are still the occasional comedic moments, these become few and far between.
While such changes in tone can work in anime, in Charlotte specifically it is almost a light switch turn from comedic to serious. It feels almost as if you're watching a different show with different rules. This sudden tonal shift stems from a much larger problem with the series, Charlotte's pacing.
Charlotte feels like it should be a much longer anime. With more in terms of run time, there could have been a more prominent undercurrent of the danger they are all facing in the first half — preparing the viewer and making the tonal shift feel more natural.
The breakneck pace of the second half also drains much of the impact out of the anime's plot. Let's break it down in detail.
In the sixth episode, Yu's sister is killed as a result of the emergence of her own destructive powers. Then the next episode is spent following Yu in his grief as he struggles to find a reason to live. However, thanks to time skips, he overcomes his grief by the end of the episode. Three episodes later she is brought back to life with little in the way of cost — greatly undercutting his battle with grief by taking away any and all lasting implications.
To put it another way, big rewards (like undoing death) require even bigger trials. If the character doesn't seem to suffer an appropriate amount for his or her happy ending, it feels cheap.
But that is nothing compared to the pacing problems of the ending. To save superpowered children the world over, Yu elects to travel across the planet and steal every other child's superpower one by one before he loses his own powers by growing up.
That is a story with such breadth and depth that it could easily take up an arc of a show if not a season. Confined to a single episode, calling it "rushed" is an understatement. We see tons of drama as Yu tries to keep himself sane as his mind tries to cope with his ever growing portfolio of powers. But before we can even begin to truly feel the impact of each scene of pain and conflict, we are whisked off to the next important moment in his travels. Doing this again and again, the show neuters its own emotional climax.
Charlotte is an anime that has all the pieces needed in its world of superpowers and the children that have them to be both a comedic and emotional masterpiece. However, it lacks the runtime to assemble its story correctly. As it stands now, the first and second halves are tonally discordant and the plot in the second half is so rushed that many of its emotional beats lack anything close to their deserved impact.
In other words: great ideas, poor implementation.
Charlotte aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be viewed for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.