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November 25th, 2020
Anime Relations: Plastic Memories
Plastic Memories was a divisive anime. Many people watching it as it aired in spring 2015 were frustrated that the series didn't even begin to explore the interesting scifi concept of the finite lifespan androids called Giftia that it sets up in episode 1, instead choosing only to use them as a backdrop for a romance plot. I personally loved the anime, as someone who loves romance series and slice-of-life. But when I finished it I was left with the same question a lot of viewers probably had: just what exactly are Giftia, and how do they fit into society? The anime is nearly devoid of exposition to answer questions about the world it takes place in and the nature of the androids themselves, but little bits of lore can be pieced together based on dialogue to form a rough picture. I'm going to compile my own observations here, feel free to add anything else you noticed as a comment.

1) Giftias have "souls", but that soul is contained in software. In the first episode, Giftia are explained by the main character Tsukasa as "loaded with synthetic souls". This concept is never elaborated on, we are never told anything about how exactly Giftia are manufactured in the first place (only that SAI Corp are the only ones capable of making synthetic souls) or whether these souls are considered "human". We are however told what happens when they are "recycled" - when the vacant body of a retrieved Giftia is upgraded so that it has "a new soul". Michiru explains the recycling process to Tsukasa as removing and replacing all of the Giftia's software components, and SAI Corp material that Tsukasa reads to customers describes the process as an operating system upgrade. This implies that, however the souls of Giftia are created, those souls exist in the form of software.

2) Giftias are owned as private property, but have some legally recognized "human rights". Humans who have Giftia are described as "owners" by SAI Corp personnel, so it appears Giftia are private property belonging either those who order them from SAI Corp or next of kin who inherit them as is shown with Souta, who inherited ownership of the Giftia Marcia from his late parents. Giftia can also be owned by corporations, such as SAI Corp itself who presumably owns all the the Giftia who work at Terminal Service One. Whether there exists a legal resale market for Giftia or a buyer is bound to them for life is not explained, and it also isn't explained whether Giftia can voluntarily leave their owners. Regardless, Giftia do not seem to take issue with their nature as property, all Giftia depicted in the series seem to genuinely care about their owners or job. However, Giftia do not seem to be just chattel slaves completely devoid of rights. In episode 5, Kazuki mentions offhandedly to an R Security employee that Giftia have "human rights" under the "Android Protection Laws", specifically mentioning that the law forbids them from being implanted with tracking devices. The full extent of their rights is not elaborated upon, but the R Security employee has an interesting response: he balks at the notion of machines having "human" rights, which in turn earns a scowl from Kazuki. This seems to imply that the question of whether Giftia are "human" is a politically divisive topic in this world.

3) Giftias have a heartbeat and blood, are capable of eating and drinking but do not require it, and rely on batteries for power. Isla says multiple times that being around Tsukasa makes her heart go doki doki, apparently not just euphemistically: she is shown as having actual blood or something analogous to it when she trips and falls into a wall in episode 2, causing her to bleed. Whatever the nature of their circulatory system, Giftia are battery powered and typically charge by sleeping on specialized charging stations at night. They seem to only be able to go 24 hours without charging, Isla is rendered woozy from low battery levels when she stays up with Tsukasa all night when he's ill. Despite this, Giftia are actually capable of eating and drinking and even have a sense of taste, though they do not require food or benefit from it in any way. Isla is described by Tsukasa as having "no interest in meals" and never eats anything until Tsukasa asks her to. Giftia seem to actually be capable of most every human biological function, required or not: they need to pee when they drink, they bathe when they get dirty, and Yasutaka even implies they are able to have sex.

4) Giftias are incapable of ever forgetting anything. When correcting Tsukasa on his notion that Isla just needs to "shake the rust off" through practice to get used to work in the field again, Yasutaka tells him that Giftias' memories don't work like humans and they are in fact programmed to never forget anything they have ever learned or experienced. In episode 6 Isla herself also muses on how foreign to her the human ability to forget is, wondering if Tsukasa is acting happy after having ended Marcia's life only days prior because he had somehow forgotten what had happened, and she asks if humans "have a function which allows things to be conveniently forgotten". It is possible this inability to forget is key to the innately finite lifespan of Giftia, and their lifespan ending is just due an integer overflow of available memory.

5) Giftias have existed for about 20 years at the time the series takes place, maybe longer. At the beginning of Episode 8, we see a brief exchange with a Giftia owner who choses to have her Giftia which is due for retrieval have its operating system upgraded. This surprises Tsukasa, but she says she has already done it once before. This would imply she has had the same Giftia for just shy of 20 years, 2 full lifespans. This is likely roughly how long Giftias have been around in that world, given the fact that the most senior employee at Terminal Service One, Yasutaka, says he has worked there a little over 10 years (around the time the first Giftias made would've needed retrieval).

6) The existence of Giftias is common knowledge, but they are expensive and rare, most people have never knowingly seen one. In episode 1, the clueless Tsukasa during his first day on the job he knows nothing about is able to explain what a Giftia is to provide us with a bit of exposition, but he comments that he himself has never actually seen one up close. This proves that while most people would know what they are in this world, Giftia seem to be relatively few in number. This checks out with the caseload of Terminal Service One - Michiru says that in a busy week a team might get 3 retrieval cases. Given that there are only 4 teams supposedly servicing the entirety of the world's "far east region" (by which I assume they mean Japan, since they never travel by anything but car), this would imply that a decade prior to the series, less than 12 Giftia were being sold per week in all of Japan. Giftia owners in the series usually seem to be relatively wealthy people, either with large houses or their own businesses. We can assume that Giftia are expensive luxury goods and not something the median person would have the means to purchase.

7) Giftias' strength is artificially limited to that of a humans for the sake of safety, their bodies are actually physically capable of superhuman strength and speed. When explaining the danger that a wanderer poses, Sherry says that one could easily lift a car due to the fact that their "limiters" are turned off. This is demonstrated by how Michiru's father was able to shatter Kazuki's leg when he became a wanderer, and how Marcia possessed superhuman speed when she did. During the manhunt for Marcia, Yasutaka also says that turning off limiters of normal functioning Giftias is an option to subdue wanderers, implying that this limiter is something artificially installed for simple safety rather than innate to any non-wanderer Giftia.

8) Giftias seem to weigh about the same as or less than humans do. Tsukasa is shown to be capable of carrying Isla twice in the series, once at the very end when he carries her body out of the ferris wheel, and once during the hunt for Marcia when he holds up her injured body to help her hobble along. Michiru is also shown to be capable of lifting Zack, and the workers who unload retrieved Giftias from Terminal Service cars seem to have no issue doing so. This means Giftia likely aren't very heavy, perhaps being even lighter than the average human of the same size.

9) To the eye and to the touch, Giftia cannot be distinguished from humans. In episode 1, the manager of Terminal Service One tells Tsukasa that you wouldn't be able notice that someone is a Giftia rather than human "even if you walked by them on the street". Shortly afterwards, Tsukasa trips and falls but is caught by Constance, who had just introduced himself as a Giftia. Tsukasa then remarks that he totally can't tell that Constance isn't human, even though he just made physical contact with him. This means that not only are Giftia visibly indistinguishable from humans, they don't feel noticeably different from humans on a tactile level, either.

10) Giftias' physical and mental skills decline linearly with age. When Tsukasa visits the Unit Testing Room in episode 2, he is told that Isla's continuous testing is "pointless", and sees a graph of her test results showing a linear decline from her first test. This is later elaborated on by Yasutaka, who says that no amount of practice will improve Isla's skills, as her abilities will always be no better than they were before and will in fact simply continuously decline with time, that this is the nature of Giftias. The testing room's chief engineer Mikijirou also tells Isla several times that her body is "showing its age", she is said to need longer to recover from injury than before and even begins to need reading glasses. It is unknown if this is due to the age of her soul, or her physical body itself. Recycled Giftia do not seem to suffer from their bodies being "old", but it is possible they are physically refurbished when their operating system is upgraded too.

11) Retrieval of a Giftia at the end of its lifespan does not seem to be treated as exactly the same thing as death. At no point in the series is the end of a Giftia's fixed lifespan actually described as death, in fact, the words "death", "dying" or "dead" are only used in the series in reference to humans (namely, Souta's parents). Instead euphemisms like "was retrieved", "lifespan expiring", "ripping apart memories", "going to sleep", "leaving others behind" and "losing their memories and personality" are used. Whether these euphemisms are used only for the sake of polite conversation or indicate some fundamental difference from human death isn't ever fully explored. But one noteable difference from human death is that Giftias themselves do not seem to ever resist retrieval or take issue with its necessity or timing. They express sadness at parting with those they love, and in episode 1 Isla even says she is scared of losing her memories and personality when she is retrieved. None the less, she does not express any desire to avoid retrieval even when Tsukasa himself suggests it. All other Giftias express no fear or disagreement with their retrieval and Isla says that Giftia becoming wanderers because they could not be retrieved are "very rare cases" that seem to be universally caused by owners rather than the Giftia themselves, prior to the events of the series it had been 3 years since the last one. Giftias seem to understand that the alternative of becoming a wanderer is worse and invariably choose to go along with retrieval voluntarily. The process of retrieval itself seems to be instant and painless, with all memories being erased at once and the Giftia being left empty but bootable, described as "sleeping".

12) If a Giftia is not retrieved before its lifespan expires and it becomes a wanderer, or if the Giftia is hit with a Virus Data Gun, it can never be recycled or rebooted. Whatever causes the final unchecked end of a Giftia's life, it literally destroys the hardware itself. This is confirmed by Yasutaka when Tsukasa asks him about the effect of the Virus Data Gun he is given to subdue a wanderer, Yasutaka tells him that a Giftia hit by the gun can never be booted again. And, Michiru says that a Giftia becoming a wanderer is the worst case scenario because they cannot even be recycled, implying that even without the use of the specialized weapon wanderers are beyond all repair and simply need to be subdued.

and, finally, most obviously and yet most mysteriously:

13) Giftias live for specifically 81920 hours, after which their personality will begin rapidly disintegrating and will be completely lost within a maximum of 10 hours, usually sooner. This is mentioned many times in the series, but at no point is it mentioned why this number specifically is their maximum lifespan. It doesn't feel randomly chosen, the number doesn't convert to a neat integer value of years, weeks, or even days. My first guess was that it is a Fibonacci number, given the presence of the Fibonacci sequence in the background several times throughout the series, but it in fact is not. Neither is the same value when converted to minutes, seconds or milliseconds, nor any of the number's larger factors. The only remarkable thing about the number numerically is that it is a 10-harshad number - that is, when written in base 10 (the numeral system used in both Japanese and English) the number can be divided by the sum of its own digits. 8+1+9+2+0=20, which 81920 divides by neatly into 4096. But 4096 itself is also not a Fibonacci number or in any way remarkable. One explanation I have seen is that the number was chosen only because it roughly corresponds to "9 years and 4 months" (as a Giftia's lifespan is overtly described in the series) for symbolism related to those numbers in Japanese. The number 9 in Japanese (九) is pronounced the same as, and symbolically linked with, the kanji 苦 meaning "suffering". 4 (四) is pronounced the same as and symbolically linked to the kanji 死 meaning "death". Thus, 9 and 4 could be interpretted as symbolic of the primary theme of the series: suffering caused by someone's death. This could very well be the case, but there's a great deal of numbers of hours that could round up to roughly 9 years and 4 months, and I feel there's got to be some greater reasoning behind the number 81920 that's eluding us.
Posted by emmeka | Nov 25, 2020 2:54 AM | 0 comments
Private Entry
May 27th, 2020
I'm jotting down this list to have something to link to for recommendations, feel free to share it yourself or comment your own suggestions. This list contains only completed, fully translated manga series, and excludes ongoing series, anthologies and oneshots. It does however contain completed series with ongoing sequels or spinoffs, as well as series only available as fan translations. I will update this periodically as more things I'm following reach their final chapter, or I discover new content.

1) Girl Friends by Milk Morinaga, 2006-2010 (Licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment)

Girl Friends is the first yuri series I ever read, and one of the few I've reread multiple times. Years gone by have not dulled my love of it. Widely consider Morinaga Milk's best work, it is a classic of yuri in traditional shoujo manga artstyle, but don't let that and its high school setting deceive you into thinking it's a run-of-the-mill shoujo series where both leads happen to be girls as a gimmick. Published in a Seinen magazine, the work is very mature for its theme and instead of the usual endless string of embarrassed blushing, love at first sight and heart throbs interspersed with tropes for tension, the characters in Girl Friends go through the legitimate angst of gay romance with all the messy doubts, emotions and desires that come with it. The character development and romance is painfully believable and well paced, and the only deficit to the series is that there is not more of it to read.

2) Kase-San Series by Hiromi Takashima, 2012-2018 (Licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment)

other formats: Kase-san and Morning Glories (OVA, 2018)

Though the sequel series to this, Kase-san to Yamada, is ongoing, the original 5 volumes constitute a complete story and so I've chosen to add it to this list. Kase-san is the peak of yuri slice-of-life, it does not dwell on angst or drama and instead provides us a series of snapshots of the blossoming cheerful romance between the cool and athletic Kase, and the shy greenthumb Yamada. The manga intersperses these snapshots with just enough progression of the main duo's relationship and just enough emotional turmoil to keep you hooked, but at no point will there be so much of it that you will be frustrated with the characters, melodrama, or cliches. It's a fluffy, beautiful romance perfect to brighten your mood, with bubbly and beautiful art to match its tone.

3) Bloom Into You by Nio Nakatani, 2015-2019 (Licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment)

other formats: Bloom Into You (Anime, 13 Ep., 2018), Bloom Into You: Regarding Saeki Sayaka (Light Novel prequel, 2018)

"Unique" is a hard thing for a romance plot to be, no other genre falls back so heavily on established tropes and archetypes. Bloom Into You manages this unlikely feat. It is, to oversimplify, about a coolheaded kouhai who despite all effort and desire for it finds herself unable to fall in love, and her overachieving senpai who hates herself so much that she finds the idea of someone who cannot love her true self alluring. These unusual characters shatter the normal senpai/kouhai dynamic and instead provide us a baseline of a toxic relationship out of which positive change and personal growth is built brick by brick. This is bolstered by one of the more memorable supporting casts of any manga I've read, Sayaka in particular is probably one of the better written gay women in manga. And the art to this series is beautiful, one of the more visually stunning manga I've read. All of this has made it the most popular yuri series of recent years, it's essential reading material for any fan of the genre.

4) Sweet Blue Flowers by Takako Shimura, 2004-2013 (Licensed by Viz Media)

other formats: Sweet Blue Flowers (Anime, 11 Ep., 2009)

Also known by its Japanese name Aoi Hana, this series progresses with a timing and artistry that only Shimura can manage, and it feels stylistically and thematically similar to her other more celebrated work about trans youth, Hourou Musuko. This is a coming of age story about gay women, each of them taking steps towards adulthood, not always at the same pace or in the right direction. It's a story filled with subtle developments as time marches on, shifting character dynamics and settings, small advances in maturity and self-discovery. It tackles homosexuality with brutal yet eloquent integrity. This is a serious work, if you go into it expecting the usual sappy love story and an ecchi scene or two, you will be disappointed. But if you want queer romance as heartwrenching art, with fleshed out and breathing characters that you can connect to, this is the best yuri has to offer.

5) Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou by Hitoshi Ashinano, 1994-2006 (Unlicensed)

other formats: Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (OVA, 1998), Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou: Quiet Country Cafe (OVA, 2003)

I hesitated to include this series, because the lesbian romance is ultimately a subtle subplot to it rather than the main focus of the manga, but in the end I felt compelled to because Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou (literally "Yokohama Shopping Log", but more commonly known by its Japanese name or as YKK) is slice-of-life's masterpiece, if not one of the single greatest manga ever written. The series remains criminally unknown in the west, due to the lack of any licensed translation and its lacklustre and unsuccessful OVAs. It is, essentially, a series of moments in the life of an android girl running a café during the calm and gentle process of a slown-burn armageddon, the "twilight of the human era". It is a unique approach to post-apocalyptic fiction as rather than occuring in a dystopia, the series presents the overwhelming normalcy of day to day life during humanity's decline. Its tone is peaceful melancholy, you are made to feel the unique sadness of the transience of time in an age where with each passing day the footprint of the human race upon the earth grows lighter. All of this is underscored by the development of the protagonist, Alpha, and her friendship and romance with another android girl, Kokone. For lovers of both yuri and post-apocalyptic fiction, this series is a must.

6) Octave by Haru Akiyama, 2008-2010 (Unlicensed)

If there's a problem that the vast majority of yuri series have, it is their erasure of actual sexual orientation. Characters in Girl's Love tend to simply fall in love in an ideal world where no special thought is given to the personal and social implications of the gender of the one they desire. Octave does not stumble into this pitfall. It is a very adult and realistic series, and the main character is wrung through every step of the angst of a sexual relationship with the same sex. She doubts her orientation, she is ashamed of it, she wants wants others to accept it but also wants to hide it. She's a sexually confused wreck, just like most real life gay teens are in their heady days of self-discovery. If that's what you want out of yuri, an honest to god gay woman trying to navigate the waves of a heterosexist society, then this is the manga for you.

7) Hana & Hina After School by Milk Morinaga, 2015-2016 (Licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment)

A lot of the series on this list are "heavier" content ladden with angst and serious takes on LGBT topics. But sometimes, you just need sappy cute girls in love. That is fundamentally what this series from Milk Morinaga is. She gets the distinction of being the only author to be included on this list twice; Milk Morinaga is synonymous with yuri manga, few other authors have been as prolifically committed to the genre over the years. It is in this work that we see her expertise on crafting the archetypal girl's love story that has been done so many times before, but rarely as well as this. It's an enjoyable, light read about cute girls working in a cute boutique, falling for each other and progressing through the usual romantic missteps.

8) After Hours by Yuuta Nishio, 2015-2018 (Licensed by Viz Media)

Many yuri series, and romance series in general, fall back on the familiar coming-of-age setting of teenagers in high school. After Hours breaks from this mold, with the lead characters being 24 and 30, respectively. The dynamic between the two is a refreshingly grown-up relationship, without any of the pubescent hormonal theatrics that plague the median romance manga. This may leave some feeling bored with the series after the first chapter, as rather than sexual tension it focuses on the professional and adult lives of its protagonists together, love and commitment being only a subplot. What's enjoyable about it is not the romance but seeing these two navigate the detailed setting/subculture that is presented, professional DJing and the nightlife scene of Tokyo. If the idea of exploring that through the eyes of two women in a gay relationship sounds enticing to you, give it a read, you won't regret it.

9) Fragtime by Sato, 2013-2014 (Licensed by Seven Seas Entertainment)

other formats: Fragtime (OVA, 2019)

Fragtime has an opening premise that would make you think it's an ecchi series. The main character can stop time for 3 minutes a day, and uses this power to observe the more comprimising parts of those around her - for instance, the panties of a girl she admires. Woe to the protagonist when it turns out the girl whose skirt she's peeping under is immune to her time freezing powers. Yet instead it is a serious story of romance between two troubled girls, one who wishes to bond with others but feels she has to choice but no avoid them, and one who feels she has no choice but to bond with others, but wishes to avoid them. Their dynamic as polar opposites exploiting a supernatural power and entering each other's world in the process makes for an oddly compelling story. My only complaint is that because the series is so brief, enough to fit into a single volume for the U.S. release, the character development is rushed to conclusion far too quickly. Still, wishing that a series was longer is usually a sign that it is good, and Fragtime makes it onto this list because of that.

10) Don't Become an Otaku, Shinozaki! by Shou Hikawa, 2012-2017 (Unlicensed)

Before introducing this series, I have to admit that I'm not generally a huge fan of comedy manga, especially the sort of lighthearted romcom targetted at boys. You'll notice there's not a single other comedy series and absolutely no 4koma on this list despite the prevalence of shoujo ai around in both of those. Shinozaki-san is an exception to that. It's a story about a girl who, despite loathing otaku, decides to pretend to be one in order to befriend a beautiful otaku girl immersed in the PreCure fandom (or well, a knockoff of it called "PrePure" in the series), so that she can "rescue" this beauty from the depravity of the otaku lifestyle. In the end, all the heroine accomplishes is being gradually sucked into the subculture herself, as well as falling head over heels for the girl she's enduring all this for. It's a hilarious story made great by how badly Shinozaki's attempts at self-control and subtlety fail and the detail the series puts into explaining otaku life that Shinozaki stumbles through. If manga about characters who themselves love anime/manga is your style, or if the idea of a girl perpetually embarrassing herself for the sake of her crush sounds like it could be funny, pick this series up. If you're going into this to hunt down any real romance before the final chapter though, this isn't for you.
Posted by emmeka | May 27, 2020 11:14 PM | 0 comments