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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Ready Player One, isekai anime, and the value of cross-cultural criticism

[By now, I think I am beating this dead horse mostly to annoy my friends, but hey, I need something to do in the office between class periods!]

As a capstone on my mad hate-bender over Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, I figured that I ought to watch the movie adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg. It was… fine. I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but I didn’t hate it in the same way that I did the novel. Maybe that means Spielberg et al. deserve praise for achieving a rare “the movie was better than the book” moment. At the same time though, thrice 1/10 is only 3/10, so be damned with praise, I suppose (sorry, statistics pedants of the world, for using multiplication on an interval scale!)

The film corrected many of my biggest problems with the book especially because as a movie, it literally had no choice but to “show, not tell.” Instead of using Cline’s uselessly vague descriptors like “80s dance moves” the movie had to actually put the stupid dance on the screen for the audience to see. Even the awful pop-culture references, which were so annoying and lazy and unavoidable in the novel, mostly drifted away into the ignorable background because the animators crammed so many icons into the OASIS that focusing on any one of them became impossible (an upgrade from unavoidable to ignorable? damned with praise again!).

However, at 2 hours and 19 minutes, the movie dragged on for far too long through CGI cutscene after CGI cutscene. That excessive length might explain my lack of substantive commentary because after about 90 minutes, I started to zone out while twiddling on my phone and counting down every 10 minutes for the movie to end. Whatever. I am finally feeling a little fatigue discussing the franchise and don’t have anything special to say that professional critics haven’t so I’ll stop there with the movie.

I am more interested in seeing if I can make any meaningful comparison between Ready Player One and video-game setting anime. Initially, that was maybe my implicit goal. I grabbed the book as a self-conscious break from a month-long isekai binge thinking I could write about it. But, as much as I tried, I couldn’t force a comparison. This is not for lack of similarities. If Ready Player One’s virtual-world self-insert power fantasy had been published as a light novel, it would have cleanly landed in the isekai genre. Plenty of cynical forum posts have already noted how Ready Player One resembles a Western version of Sword Art Online. They fit together almost perfectly.

Instead though, I gave up on making a direct comparison because I stumbled across a much more interesting one. The works themselves did not differ much, but my cross-cultural styles of consumption did. As an insider in Cline’s nerd culture, I found myself far more critical of every little fault in the book: some lazy minority tokenizing here, a transphobic line there, and bad prose everywhere. Criticizing Ready Player One was easy like… uh… bullseyeing womp rats with my T-16 (what useless pop-culture reference would Cline use here?). By contrast, I lack that same cultural and critical context with foreign media. Despite the great similarities between Ready Player One and the isekai genre, the Japanese works genuinely challenged my analytical skills and resulted in far greater self-reflection.

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The death of culture in Ready Player One’s unintended dystopia

[Forgive the self-indulgent rant… I didn’t expect to write more about Ready Player One but I disliked the book so much that I couldn’t help myself. I could even keep going!]

One of my persistent (and probably irrational) anxieties is that I will present my personality like a bad dating profile: a laundry list of likes and dislikes. I like anime. I like video games. I don’t like sports. Though mostly true, those statements feel facile. They beg for just a little extra effort and nuance. I don’t want other people to think of me only in terms of the media I consume or the hobbies I enjoy.

I don’t have a coherent response to this “dating profile problem,” for lack of a better term. Worse, I’m not sure that it really even is problematic, other than being a bit boring (boredom! the horror!). The closest I can get to a solution is something like this blog’s modest attempt to produce reviews with a little rigor. If it is insufficient to state that “I like this,” maybe answering the question “Why?” will come closer to whatever undefined ideal I fear violating.

That all is a roundabout way to say that I hate, hate, hate, hated Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. Why? Because it does exactly what I try so hard to avoid: the book defines itself solely by the 1980s-ish pop-culture icons that Cline clearly adores. Ready Player One fails because it barely even tries to answer the question “Why” from my “dating profile problem.” Throughout the book’s 250-some pages, Cline continues to chant “I like this. I like this. I like this” until his virtual reality world begins to seem unintentionally dystopic. Cultural creativity itself seems to die in the ironically named OASIS, replaced only by lazy references to the pop-culture properties that form Cline’s canon of “things I like.”

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A comprehensive criticism of the depiction of Japan in Ready Player One

[I suppose this post will spoil the plots related to the Japanese characters. But then again… Ready Player One has so few surprises that I doubt it matters…]

As a break from my MMO isekai anime binge, I thought I would jump back to my own culture to observe the state of American virtual reality fiction. However, I had one requirement: it had to be a book so that I could read it during summer break downtime in the teacher room. The obvious choice seemed to be Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One, which had been riding high on media hype early this year following the release of a film adaptation directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Two friends were already reading it, so I decided to pick it up and make a book club of it.

And o-ho boy, did I make a mistake. Ready Player One might be the worst book-for-pleasure I have ever read. I should have stuck to anime for my VR fix…

Since this site has become a de facto anime blog, I’ll skip a more general review and focus on Ready Player One’s shocking ignorance of Japanese culture and language. Plenty of other people have criticized the book but I have yet to come across a comprehensive breakdown of its awful depiction of Japan. So, while trying to stave off heat exhaustion in an unairconditioned Japanese middle school, I thought I would give it a shot.

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