Pastel Memories’ commercial apocalypse; or, who is this for?

Is this for children?

I’ve written extensively about why I hate Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One for it’s lazy racism, it’s lazy post-apocalypse, and the lazy thinking it induced in me. It’s just about the worst book I’ve ever read. However, through all my ranting, I never included one of the most common criticisms of the novel: that it had contradictory target audiences.

Many online reviewers like to joke that Cline managed to write a solid young adult novel, just one so overstuffed with nostalgic references to 1980s pop-culture that only middle-aged men could appreciate it. The argument goes that modern teenagers who might enjoy YA-style fiction wouldn’t understand Cline’s endless nostalgic navel-gazing for a time before they were even born. Meanwhile, their middle-aged parents who still reminisce about the Atari 2600 (or whatever) wouldn’t enjoy the weak prose and generic structure of a YA novel. In more general terms, the criticism observes a dissonance between Ready Player One’s style and subject matter: the novel’s immature form would only seem to appeal to children but the relentless focus on nostalgia would only seem to appeal to adults.

Or at least that’s the theory. I don’t really agree because those “woulds” often become “shoulds” that hide a bit of an elitist value judgement suggesting that old people shouldn’t read children’s literature and that young people shouldn’t limit their cultural consumption to another generation’s nostalgia. That seems a bit unfair for the simple reason that to a large extent, pop-culture icons from the 1980s remain pop-culture icons that young people still recognize today, and in reverse, adults can enjoy whatever children’s media they want regardless of age. For heavily commercialized mediums like genre fiction, it’s interesting to consider how target audiences might have shaped the final product, but in Ready Player One’s case, the book probably has broader appeal than some reviewers gave it credit for.

With that said though, Pastel Memories from this winter 2019 anime season strikes me as a genuine example of that sort of target audience contradiction. Like Ready Player One, it seems to have a bizarre dissonance between a childish style and a nostalgic subject matter. Taken from one angle, it’s art, humor, and character designs resemble something like Hugtto! PreCure, with a generic magical girl template not far off from the coloring book art plastered all around the walls of my kindergarten. But then again, the actual premise of the show leans heavily on nostalgic homage that addresses older otaku’s anxieties about the decline of their culture via a light apocalypse story (emphasis on light!). It’s so weird!

After watching the first two episodes, I can’t figure out Pastel Memories’ target audience. Nostalgic, middle-aged otaku? Or like… actual kindergarteners? That maybe sounds harsh, but I don’t mean it maliciously. With no disrespect to either group, I can’t stop asking “Who is this for?”

To push towards an answer, I suppose I’ll mirror the bait-and-switch structure of the first two episodes themselves: I’ll start with the nostalgia angle before jumping into the surprise magical girl twist. I have a clear conclusion — Pastel Memories isn’t a children’s show — but that thought leads to a whole new set of questions about commercialism and popularity in the anime industry, questions that again all boil back down into my first: Who is this for?

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