[Lead characters, Tsukasa (right) and Isla (left) get acquainted for the first time]
Japan has a new type of AI called Giftias. A Giftia is accepted in modern society as use for labor, child rearing and other various needs. The catch to the system is that a Giftia can only “live” for nine years. When a Giftia’s time expires it must be collected by a special government agency known as the Terminal Service, before it goes berserk. Tsukasa Mizugaki is a new recruit to the collection agency. Along with his giftia partner Isla, he’ll learn and experience new things.
When I read the description for this show I was pretty excited. I watched it during its run in 2015 with the hope that this original anime would deliver on the neat, albeit heartbreaking, ideas that it was throwing out in its premise. The idea of an AI in society is really not as far away as we think. We have advanced AI that play chess better than humans and are learning to play games as complicated as Go. We have AI that can make facial expressions and for crying out loud people in Japan practically worship Hatsune Miku and she’s nothing but an advanced voice synthesizer!
As technology advances further along it becomes fascinating to look at or think about the role of AI in society. What happens when it gets to a point where they (androids) looks and feels like us? What happens if/when they surpass us? We don’t know the answers, but stories that hypothesize help us mold our own personal opinions about the subject.
In this vein, Plastic Memories has a really interesting setup. Giftias look and act like humans for all intensive purposes. They are accepted by society and they perform various duties for towns and cities (or so we hear…). Since we never leave the small town our main characters are in, we don’t really know the global impact of Giftias or how (heck..or if) they are used by other countries. This bring me to the umbrella problem with Plastic Memories. It sets itself up with a set of circumstances and never deviates. It’s basically all a cardboard play, setup to try and draw out emotion without ever telling you that you just paid for smoke and mirrors.
[You just made that number up right now, didn’t you?]
Every character in Plastic Memories’ Terminal Service is a trope used for an uninteresting purpose or is not used at all. There’s the secretly kindhearted but usually violent and drunk “it’s supposed to be funny #laugh” boss, the pervert guy who shows up late, the boy next door, the tsundere, and Tsukasa…the doormat. Every member of the Terminal Service gets a Giftia partner to help him/her collect expired Giftias. These partners don’t help the character arena much, as they consist of the same kind of troping as their human counterparts. Almost nobody gets much time to develop or as soon as real emotional development rears its head, it gets immediately squashed in favor of poor plotting.
[Left to right: Ultra Drunk (Kazuki), Miss Tsundere (Michiru), Dat Guy (Tsukasa), Creepmeister (I don’t remember or care what his name was)]
With regards to plotting, the show wants a bigger scope than it can handle. The beginning episodes give us the sense that the show is going to be about the Terminal Service members retrieving Giftias and the toll it takes on them as they interact with everyday people. Through them we the viewers would learn about Giftia’s roles in society. This works…until the plot chooses to shift its focus to the romance blossoming between Tsukasa and Isla. It’s dropped fairly early in the series that Isla’s timer is running out. The hope was that the show would use their time inside and outside work to weave a tragic yet beautiful tale of doomed love. Instead, Isla and Tsukasa fumble with their emotions, take silly advice from others, and all of this is weaved in as the show continues to throw out more and more thought hooks that don’t catch enough fish. This is what most of the middle of the show is devoted to.
[I hate you blonde girl…]
[Isla honey…put that down right now and never use it again…]
[Gentleman, write this down. It’s the finest advice this creep can offer]
The other plotting problem is the world building. Plastic Memories does a decent job of organically adding ideas into the show but it never expands on them. It drops these points in and then casually uses them here and there. The big themes and ideas are left with no impact. There are large questions at play here that the writers open up and either don’t want to answer or are too lazy to answer. Tsukasa’s romance with Isla throws in the idea that Giftias can fall in love. Can Giftias have children? No answers for you kids!. Giftias have synthetic souls. So…Japan learned to manufacture souls?!??!? Oh wait…we’ll never discuss this ever.
[This seems TERRIBLY important so let’s never bring it up again, shall we?]
Later we learn about a fascinating concept when Michiru (Miss Tsundere) opens up about how her father was actually a Giftia, and he went berserk because she tried to keep him after his expiration date. Children raised by Giftias are known as “Android Children”. This concept never gets explored again and later, one other Giftia is used as fodder to show the berserk effect off, and throw something in there about black market Giftia collection/distribution.
It even ropes in the concept of how the army gets involved for (usually violent) Giftia disposal. All of this gets dropped immediately afterward. Then there’s the biggest question of all. If it’s so painful to have your Giftia taken away, why do people get one in the first place?! We see them used for labor (mechanic) but we also see couples “raising” Giftias and in one super ridiculous episode the Yakuza has one. Not a single utterance of why these people get Giftia is ever heard.
[Michiru’s “Android childhood” doesn’t get enough development]
[This poor soul gets used and abused for “Berserker” demonstration purposes and then is barely touched upon later]
This isn’t to say that ALL of Plastic Memories is bad. Artistically the show looks gorgeous. The colors are bright and the animation has a constant gloss to it that makes the whole show pop. Musically it’s nothing to write home about but the opener “Ring of Fortune” is a very pleasant song. I had a really tough time ranking this show because of how good the beginning and ending episodes are, along with scattered ideas and themes in the middle. In its best moments, the show gives us the opportunity to look at how the Terminal Service operates and essentially functions as a microcosm of letting go of a loved on. Every person who owns a Giftia that’s expiring gets two choices. They can keep their Giftia, and have its memories wiped such that it will have a new personality and won’t remember anything prior. The other option is to let your Giftia’s mind be wiped and give it back to the Terminal Service for reuse by someone else.
[The show starts off very strong with gripping and relatable emotions related to “death”]
[Nina is so cute and her retrieval…]
[…totally didn’t make me cry ;_;]
Each owner reacts differently to these options so everything from crying to anger at the Terminal Service occurs. Everyone fears death and the idea of facing that or facing it for a loved one is scary. Some of the episodes do a great job reminding us that it’s hard and painful, but everyone must go through it at some point. There’s some very touching moments in the middle where Tsukasa realizes that Isla’s distant personality comes from her fear of making memories that won’t last. This chains into hints of a great plot arc as Isla learns that making memories and sharing emotions is what living is all about. Finally, the last two episodes are absolutely beautiful and heart wrenching. I don’t know who got ahold of the ship and steered it out of the maelstrom but that guy deserves a medal and a promotion.
[In its stronger moments with Tsukasa and Isla you realize Plastic Memories could have been something amazing]
In the end, Plastic Memories didn’t live up to the fascinating ideas it desperately wanted to have. It used its plot to bind itself in place and create a “tragic scenario” that is just kept playing right into. While the beginning and ending episodes are fantastic, the middle gets bogged down by romantic nonsense that only has hints of greatness. You may get more mileage out of this show if you really enjoy fluffy romance or appreciate the show more than I did when it spun close to the orbit of greatness.