Home > Series Reviews > ef: A Tale of Memories – I Still Remember

ef: A Tale of Memories – I Still Remember

One of the interesting things about Asian popular entertainment is the different genres that just don’t exist in the West. In the West, stories of a couple meeting and falling in love are nearly always either the subject of a formulaic romantic comedy, or merely the b-plot to a much broader story.

In Asia, however, there is the genre of romantic drama, which normally consists simply of the trials and tribulations of two people falling in love. In order to keep things interesting, there’s usually a good dose of ridiculous melodrama, but that’s part of the charm of these shows.

Ef: A Tale of Memories is two stories of two people falling in love. One is a good old fashioned love triangle, with a dash of bildungsroman thrown in for good measure. The other is an exotic tale of a strange relationship doomed to tragedy.

Extreme close-ups are one of SHAFT’s visual signatures

Both of these premises are fairly typical for the genre. What makes ef special is its unique visual style and the warped relationships that develop between its flawed characters.

Hiro Hirono is an ordinary high school boy with a secret: he’s been moonlighting as a manga writer/artist to pay the rent. Trying to do both school and work leaves him without the time to either attend class or fully pursue his art, and it’s taken a toll on his body, as well. Kei Shindou, his childhood friend, has been taking care of him ever since he was young, and her sisterly affection has gradually blossomed into love. However, one day Hiro meets the free-spirited Miyako Miyamura. They have a lot in common (besides oddly alliterative names): both feel isolated and alienated from the rest of society, which means they both skip school a bunch. They fall for each other, which sparks an intense rivalry between Miyako and Kei.

Kei and Miyako really don’t get along

Renji Asou is a bookish teenager with an unfortunate haircut—although no one in the show seems to mind. One day, he meets a strange girl with an eyepatch at an abandoned train station: Chihiro Shindou, Kei’s twin sister. She’s mysterious and evasive, until they grow closer and she explains the reason for her erratic behavior: she suffers from anterograde amnesia, which renders her incapable of forming long-term memories. Like Leonard Shelby in Memento, she will gradually forget everything that happened within a certain time frame; unlike Leonard, she has a fairly generous 13 hours to work with. That doesn’t stop the two from falling in love, though, even though it seems doomed to fail, and goes against the advice of Yuu, Chihiro’s guardian.

I bring up Memento because if you’ve seen the film, it’s hard not to compare the two portrayals of retrograde amnesia. Leonard lives in constant confusion, struggling to record and organize as much information as possible in order to live a normal life.

Seriously, what is wrong with Renji’s hair?

Chihiro’s memories last for longer, and she’s not trying to conduct a vigilante murder investigation, but unless it suits their interests, the writers frequently gloss over the everyday realities of someone with her condition. Leonard keeps notebooks full of hastily-scrawled notes, photographs to remember people he’s met; if he needs to remember something important, he gets it tattooed onto himself.

Chihiro, by contrast, lives a life relatively free of difficulty just by writing down as much as she can into her journal and reading it every 13 hours. It’s apparently perfectly organized and always contains exactly the information she needs. Form the glimpses we get of it, everything is fairly neat and systemic. There’s none of the chaos and disorder that would result from trying to describe an entire life on 4”x6” paper: no hastily-scrawled notes at the last minute, no complex system of indexes that would be necessary to find anything, especially if you wouldn’t be able to remember where you’ve written it.

Chihiro feels constantly trapped by her condition, unable to live a normal life and unable to change anything

Now, the notebook becomes an important plot point later, and it has to be said that Chihiro herself admits she doesn’t have much of a life, but the same failure to properly think of the consequences of her disorder show up elsewhere.

The best example would be her relationship with Renji. A big part of becoming closer to someone is the little quirks and events that take on significance: the private jokes, the speech patterns that become familiar and eventually adopted, the other person’s preferences—all the small, private moments that you share.

Discovering these little things is one of the joys of being intimately connected to someone, and their absence is something that would doom any relationship. Even if you’re aware of why it’s happening, even if you consciously make an effort not to let it affect you, one person being unable to participate in this would make it almost impossible for the relationship to continue. It would always be at the back of your mind: “She doesn’t feel the same way. There’s no way she’ll ever be able to.”

Yuu seems to exist solely to tell Renji what a bad decision he’s making by falling for Chihiro

We do see by the end that something is taking its toll on Renji, but only in one or two scenes, and it never gets into specifics. In a way, it almost makes the dire warnings of Chihiro’s guardian seem meaningless rather than the wise counsel of a parent that the two are rebelling against out of love. For that matter, it undercuts the drama of their struggle, since all they appear to be struggling against from is some future possibility of tragedy, and Chihiro’s own psychological issues stemming from her inability to live in the world. Now, that’s plenty for half of a 13 episode show, but if you’re going to use the overly melodramatic premise of giving a girl amnesia, you need to go for the audience’s heartstrings as much as possible.

And, to ef’s credit, it does just that in the finale. The end of this story is blatant, unapologetic tear-jerking melodrama, but it nails it so perfectly that I can’t help but be affected by it. I was pretty unimpressed with their relationship throughout the entire show, and the ending still hit me like an emotional hammer to the face. It’s probably the single element in ef most responsible for me writing about it.

Seriously, the ending of Chihiro’s story by itself probably makes the whole show worth watching

I had almost the opposite reaction to the other storyline. I enjoyed the setup of the love triangle immensely—who doesn’t love love triangles?—and thought every character in the other story was stronger than either Renji or Chihiro. Kei is a girl struggling to understand what love is, and afraid of being left behind by her rapidly maturing peers. Miyako’s parental abandonment left her so afraid of rejection yet dependent on others that she is incapable of being around anyone, and Hiro is as indecisive as most anime protagonists, but is earnestly struggling to find his place in the world.

The only exception is Hiro’s videographer friend, Kyosuke, who ends up falling for Kei. He is easily my least favorite—his fight for artistic expression against his popularity seeking peers in the film club is awfully trite and blatantly self-aggrandizing on the writers’ part. His role as detached observer and infallible advice-giver is even more damning. In a show of characters with brutal, crippling flaws, being a shining beacon of perfection is frustrating to no end.

Kyosuke is a bit too flawless, and his tormented artist schtick is aggravating

Those flaws are what ruined this storyline for me. They’re a bit over the top—for all its experimentation with abstraction in the art, ef is unabashedly a melodrama—but, as with Renji and Chihiro, despite driving the drama, they’re ignored by the writers when convenient. To be fair, this doesn’t happen in this storyline until the end, when everything is quickly resolved so the show can end.

After being told by Kei that she will force Hiro to abandon her, echoing Miyako’s abandonment by her parents after their divorce, Miyako freaks out and forbids Hiro from ever leaving her side. When he runs off to help Kei, who injures herself running away after discovering Hiro and Miyako are sleeping together, she calls to let him know that she’s leaving him and moving out of the city, rather than risk being abandoned again.

Hiro races to meet her before she leaves; they hug and, that’s pretty much it. Earlier, Kei confesses her love to Hiro, who tells her he loves her like a sister, but nothing more. And nothing is said of either. All we get is a montage and some voiceover about how they resolved their personal issues and matured a little.

Miyako and Hiro do not have a healthy relationship

Also kind of odd is the tacit approval of some questionable behavior by the protagonists. In an abstract sense, ef is a show about its male characters making promises they don’t know they can’t keep, to girls who need them to make those promises to keep on going. Even though he’s young and in love, Renji has to know that he’s in over his head promising to take care of Chihiro, but he does it anyway.

Miyako’s demands are impossible: she wants Hiro to completely give up on Kei: his only family, after he’s run away from his parents. It’s been established very clearly that she is frighteningly unstable emotionally, with her relationship with Hiro being the only thing keeping her sane. Whether or not he promises to do break off ties with Kei is unclear, but he does promise to always stay by her side, effectively tying her continued emotional health to his interest in being in a relationship with her.

In both cases, the show basically glosses over these consequences, in favor of scenes of happy romance. The dissonance in making bittersweet endings seem happy is kind of bewildering.

Kei is more Hiro’s mother than anything. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t have feelings for her

It’s times like this that best reveal ef’s origins as a dating game. The game ef is about the player developing a relationship with two girls who are utterly dependent on the protagonist for their continued existence—emotionally in Miyako’s case, and literally for Chihiro. So, that’s the way the anime inevitably goes. It’s sad that these relationships are so one-sided and unhealthy, yet clearly idealized. It’s a sad part of the psychology of these games.

Anyway, most of these observations about the characters come not from my own insightful analysis, but from them telling me directly. As a show, ef is not very subtle about depicting its character’s struggles. There’s a lot of anguished dialogue explaining their psychological problems, and not a lot of situations for this to play out in, especially towards the end. In other words, ef breaks a basic rule of writing: show, don’t tell.

The show is peppered with quick cutaways to different art styles. It quickly became a SHAFT staple

It’s yet another sign of ef’s roots in Asian melodrama. I’m sure part of this stems from trying to cram all of these plotlines into half of 12 episodes, but it’s still frustrating. Especially when everything else about ef’s style is so oblique.

Rather than try to gradually introduce its characters—or introduce them at all—ef just drops you into the story, leaving a lot unsaid. Indeed, some things are never explained, such as why Chihiro is living with Yuu instead of her family, and where exactly they’re living (her only communication with her sister is through phone calls and text messages).

Chihiro and Kei communicate mostly by text messages

This subdued, quasi-realistic tone is a big part of ef’s style. It uses a lot of the elements that have become hallmarks of experimental or artsy anime: flat, unemotive directing, lots of close ups, frequent silence, washed out colors and choppy editing. There’s a lot more experimentation with the abstract here, too, mostly in still frames, but used to great effect in one scene to write out a desperate Miyako’s repeated answering machine messages over the screen.

The animation was done by SHAFT, who have since become well-known for their unique visual style, and you can see elements of how that developed in ef. The frequent interludes in different art styles, the flat shading and rotating opening and ending songs to fit the mood have all become signatures of the studio.

Scrolling text doesn’t play well in still shots, but this scene is pretty crazy in motion

The visual style and affecting, if flawed, character drama make ef a memorable show. It’s not perfect, but it’s well worth watching, especially if you enjoy melodrama.

Sadly, it’s not legally available in English, not having been licensed by any Western anime distributors. Given that it originally aired in 2007, has only a niche following in the West and is extremely mature-oriented, both in the storytelling and the sexual relationships that develop between the two main couples, I wouldn’t bet on it being released anytime soon.

[Edit: We live to be surprised. Sentai Filmworks has licensed the series. You can find it here for purchase; Crunchyroll has both it and its sequel available streaming. –3HM]

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  1. aseariel
    June 19, 2010 at 6:55 am

    The description of the Chihiro/Renji plot actually brings to mind the relationship between Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore’s characters in 50 First Dates, at least in that the movie is romantic comedy about a heroine with a (fictional) type of amnesia that makes it hard for her to return the hero’s affections. I only ever saw the last third or so (which was rather light on the comedy, and heavy on the drama), but I rather liked it.

    • threeheadedmonkeys
      June 22, 2010 at 10:00 pm

      I haven’t seen the film, but the wiki synopsis does draw many parallels. Chihiro has the advantage of not losing everything when she sleeps (so long as she doesn’t sleep for 13 hours), which gives her a bit more control over the situation, but the same concerns obviously apply.

  1. January 10, 2011 at 10:19 pm
  2. May 5, 2011 at 10:58 pm
  3. October 25, 2011 at 8:19 pm

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