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?
Apocalypse stories typically try to represent some contemporary anxiety, like mass poverty and food insecurity in the Hunger Games, environmental and resource collapse in Mad Max, or lethal pandemic disease in just about every zombie story ever. So what modern anxiety does Pastel Memories explore? The death of otaku culture and a slow fizzling out of any nostalgic memories of it. It’s such an unthreatening apocalypse that the first episode had me rolling my eyes at the sheer triviality of the problem, but I’m sure some anime fans would consider that sort of future an unthinkable disaster.
The show premises itself on a comically boring dystopia in which otaku culture has made like the roller disco and faded away as nothing more than a quick fad, remembered only by the most devoted fans. Popular manga have gone out-of-print and become rare collector’s pieces while Akihabara, the once “Mecca” of anime, has defaulted back into a generic central Tokyo high-rise district with only six ((!), oh no~) stores still selling otaku products. Introduce twelve ((!), this cast is too large~) cute girls intent on preserving otaku culture and helping customers relive their nostalgic memories of lost youth by running the last manga cafe in Akihabara. For example, during the first episode, they try to assemble the complete volumes of a referential homage to Is the Order a Rabbit? (Gochuumon wa usagi desu ka?). The apocalyptic anxiety is silly, but as a cute-girls-doing-cute-things show in the same style as Is the Order a Rabbit? itself, it could be kind of fun.
But oh, that’s not all! They’re also magical girls, fighting not only an indifferent society that has moved on but also a mysterious virus that eats away at otaku’s precious, nostalgic memories of their favorite manga and anime. This twist is where Pastel Memories starts to lose its melancholy premise and look a little like the PreCure series… for literal kindergarteners. Three of the girls travel to the manga-world of the Is the Order a Rabbit? and try to destroy the virus, which has begun to corrupt the original story by transforming all of the characters into eels. It’s maybe useless to summarize something so strange, so consider these actual lines from the battle scene in the second episode:
Hero: I won’t let you destroy this manga’s world anymore!
Villain:*HA HA HA HA HA* I’m the top member of the secret organization Black Elites (close up of her pantyhose straps, close up of her cleavage). I’m Maya, as you all know!
Hero: We’ll protect the memories of people!
Villain: Can you really?
They then jump into a magical girl battle, with the heroes wielding steampunk-style weapons and the villain commanding an army of viruses from atop a giant robot. The villain begins to lose, so she deploys her secret weapon (*GASP*):
Villain: Since I expected this, I developed a special liquid developed from slimy eel component! … Go ahead. Slip forever in this super slimy liquid!
Hero:Oh, I know. I should just continue to slip! Right! (upskirt close-up as she slips under the robot’s legs) Everyone. The weakness of the mother virus is that core part. The sooner we destroy that core, the quicker we can bring this world back to normal!
Blah blah blah, the heroes bash the core, the robot explodes, and evil Maya blasts off into the sky Team Rocket-style.
Like… who is this for? Ignoring the stuffy translation in the subtitles, the dialogue and voice acting in the fight scene are so hilariously literal and over-the-top that it feels as if it were written for actual kindergarteners (with all due respect to kindergarteners). The sugary-sweet focus on friendship, the literal explanation of the villain’s secret weapon and robot’s weak spot, the villain just directly introducing herself as a villain, completely unprompted… can you forgive me for thinking I accidently turned on an episode of PreCure?
But remember the series’ wider context: the apocalyptic appeal to otaku nostalgia. The entire episode is a homage to Is the Order a Rabbit?, a seinen manga with a young adult target demographic. More subtly, the show drops a couple hints that it’s maybe leaning into intentionally funny-bad territory. In an aside, the villain even announces the show’s self-awareness with the line “This only happens in manga, doesn’t it?” Or if you want the obvious evidence, consider that the battle scene cuts away to unnecessary sex-appeal shots at least three times and, a few minutes later, the ED goes full ecchi with the full dozen girls showing off their boobs and butts in bikinis. It’s very obviously not for children.
And that’s the point where I just become exasperated with the anime industry. I could take Pastel Memories as a genuine children’s show and enjoy it like I have with Kemono Friends. I could also take it as a generic but calming cute-girls-doing-cute-things sleep aid like I have with As Miss Beelzebub Likes. Or on the more extreme end, I could even take it as an otaku-pandering ecchi harem like To-Love-Ru.
But what the heck am I watching here? It’s none of those things, or all of those things together, or… something. The dissonance between style and content just overpowered my viewing. I know it’s for adults (or at least teenagers/young adults) because of the nostalgia and self-aware winks and sex appeal, but watching the low production values and hearing the childish dialogue… just… like… what? I still have to ask: who is this for? I’m starting to feel like those critics of Ready Player One that wondered why anyone would want to read a YA novel drenched in nostalgia for 1980s, two decades before anyone in the apparent target demographic had even been born. It’s so weird! Exasperating!
So far, I’ve neglected to mention one important bit of trivia about Pastel Memories: it originated as a mobile role-playing game released back in 2017. That doesn’t necessarily disqualify the series from being good or interesting given that most anime come from adaptations of some kind. But that thought leads into a new question, which is really just a variation of my first question: why adapt this? Is it just elaborate marketing ploy for the game, or did the publishers see a real profitable market for the anime itself? “Who is this for?” becomes “Who are the publishers trying to sell to?” Is there actually a receptive audience of people who won’t roll their eyes at the thought of an Akihabara that has experienced a complete decline of otaku culture?
To me, that’s the strangest irony about Pastel Memories: the culture that it speculates losing shows no sign of decline. On my recent Tokyo vacation, Akihabara overwhelmed me with it’s huge crowds and claustrophobicly narrow focus on otaku nonsense. If Akihabara is losing its charm, that’s because the place has become too popular, a tourist trap diluted by masses of window shoppers clogging the tax-free stores that charge too much anyway. A subculture has to reach a zenith before it falls (back to that roller disco analogy…), but the anime-manga industrial complex is so heavily commercialized that it’s generated its own self-perpetuating “popular because it’s popular” capitalist engine. Hell, it even receives institutionalized support from the government via Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Cool Japan” soft power initiative. Does anyone actually worry about a future without anime?
My only guess (and it’s just a guess) is that the series is leaning into a sort of victimization narrative common to so many “nerdy” subcultures that begin to experience mainstream commercial success. On the one hand, a large part of any given fandom will crave mainstream acceptance and wish that the public would come to share their interests. But on the other hand, there is a seductive psychological appeal in a self-victimization mythology that casts a hobby as unpopular, niche, or even oppressed. “True fans,” like the twelve manga cafe girls in Pastel Memories, can hoist their egos by proclaiming themselves free-thinking pariahs protecting the hobby against low-effort contributions by mainstream newcomers. Was that Pastel Memories’ target audience?
Frankly, I kind of doubt my own theory. Pastel Memories focuses on tame homage with a fair bit of tongue-in-cheek self-parody (that self-aware line again: “This only happens in manga, doesn’t it?”). It isn’t descending into the same sort of toxic fan exclusivity that Ready Player One does. The girls themselves are self-identified otaku but remain friendly and cheerful, unlike the pathetic, spiteful losers that otaku stories usually like to depict. It’s solidly inoffensive stuff.
But I suppose I’m not thinking about Pastel Memories itself anymore. Instead, I’m interested in the business decisions that even led to the creation of a show like this. Again, who are the publishers trying to sell to? Maybe I’m reading too much into my light apocalypse interpretation, but without a hardcore otaku fandom to swoop in and save the day with expensive Blu-ray purchases, I don’t see a clear market for the series. Given Pastel Memories’ childish blandness and general mediocrity, it isn’t going to be building a strong viewership by virtue of any genuine quality (weak data, but the best I’ve got: it’s sitting at a 5/10 on MyAnimeList right now). So who’s the target audience?
The Google Play Store lists the game as having 100k+ downloads. However, since the store increments the download counter in increments of 5 and 10, it’s a safe guess that it also has fewer than 500k downloads. There’s a built-in market there, but not a large one (this certainly isn’t something like Angry Birds, with hundreds of millions of downloads leading into a movie). If I were an investor looking to fund this production, or a television station looking to fill a time slot, I would wonder why I should choose this over a more popular adaptation or a higher quality original that might attract a larger audience.
And there’s my exasperation with the anime industry again. I’m speculating from limited information, but I’m fascinated that stuff like the Pastel Memories even gets made. I’d love to see the market research before production, to listen in on the boardroom meetings doing risk assessments, to read the spreadsheets predicting profits…
…if any of that even exists. Maybe I’m just thinking about all this too hard and giving the publishers too much credit. Or in reverse, maybe I’ve hit the limits of my own empathy, unable to put myself in the headspace of the sort of people that would enjoy this sort of show. Or more cynically, maybe Pastel Memories really is just advertisement for a modestly successful mobile game and maybe it’s so confusing and mediocre because of genuine creative misfires or a flawed production process. After all, plenty of well-considered media tanks when it hits the market.
For all of that though, I’m still thinking about the gonzo-commercialism in the anime industry that drives the anxiety behind Pastel Memories apocalyptic premise. Otaku culture will only fail when it ceases to be profitable and by a similar logic, the publishers wouldn’t have adapted Pastel Memories if they didn’t think it could succeed. I’m so curious about why they made this. Does a sizable target market exist? Is it really just a cynical advertisement? Or is it an honest effort that turned out a bit bland?
Luckily, this is a blog, not a news magazine, so I have no obligation to provide answers. I’m just fiddling away idle hours at work. But I’m still fascinated by that question:
Who was Pastel Memories for?