It is like a dream: a series of moments both strange and memorable, passing through the filter of the mind’s eye that, with a little direction, arrange themselves into patterns and meanings whose sum is greater than the parts. This series’ melange of art, memory, dream, and sorrow is a creative triumph and is, for me, the best anime I’ve seen this year. Even if the ending is a just a little too tidy.
SHAFT/Oonuma/Shinbo have given us the tightest fusion of theme, art direction, and storytelling that I’ve seen in anime this year. Many of my Anime Blogging Collective colleagues have already spoken in more detail about how they did it, so I won’t rehearse their observations here too much. But it needs to be said that this kind of coherence, where the arty flourishes actually make sense and clearly contribute to the whole of the series is very rare in television or in film today. I suppose it comes from my background in studying literature, but I find it one of the greatest delights when an accomplished writer fuses a moving story, fleshed-out characters, and meaningful symbolism into a single novel (which, of course, happens to be what some of the characters in this story are doing). This show, based on a visual novel, does the same: the colors mean something. The shot angles, changing to silhouettes, the sky: they mean something. The dream-like depiction of the town: an expression of the characters’ subjectivity. When added together, this adds tremendously to the emotional impact of the scenes in which they appear.
And the use of Tenmon’s music: while Tenmon’s score was not as brilliant, in my opinion, as his work with Makoto Shinkai, it was still head and shoulders above most anything except by Yuki Kajiura or Yoko Kanno for this year’s work. More importantly, it was used in ways that almost always added to every scene in crucial ways. The only exceptions are the somewhat predictable soaring passages that occur when romantic resolution comes (a kiss, a hug, etc). That’s almost…Hollywood. But the main OP is, for my money, one of my favorites of the year (and that’s aside from its fantastic artistic direction), and I loved how in the final episode the OP switched to Japanese and the ED turned out to be a song version of one of the main alternate motifs within the show. It greatly helped in giving a sense of conclusion.
The Story: Plot and Character
This is a show with three dimensions, all of which justified themselves by the end, and hung together.
The first dimension is about art and artmaking. I haven’t seen this process addressed so centrally and clearly in anime, aside from a few scenes in Honey and Clover, and even then it was never the centerpiece. I was tickled, of course, by how much of what was said was true to my own experience of trying to be a writer–even if I would dispute that what Chihiro had written was actually a “novel.” But more importantly, the artistic philosophies of each of the principals gave us windows into their motivations, their lifestyles, and what they hoped to be as people. A telling moment, for instance, is when Hirono is told that his art seemed perfunctory and half-hearted. His art is a reflection of his whole life, and it is the same with Chihiro and Kyousuke. The fact that these people are creators is not an accidental or side trait; it is integral to understanding who they are. That’s a sign of very good character building.
The second dimension, of course, is the romantic plots. I initially found these rather cliched and offputting; the Kei/Hirono/Miyako triangle still feels a bit soap-operaish to me, especially if you boil it down to its essentials. Here, it is the execution and direction that saves it. The most harrowing scene in the entire series, which I wrote about in my final “12 Days, 12 Moments” article, comes in the midst of the romantic plot. The phone timer countdown scene of episode 10 was brilliantly directed, moving us through boredom, annoyance, increasing panic, and seemingly final despair into black and white–only for the color to return gloriously, like in the Wizard of Oz or the ending of the original Gunbuster. The lines said between the three principal characters were also full of true-to-life insight mixed with some more conventional romantic dialogue. (Miyako and Hirono’s confession scene on the beach where they kiss, for instance, teetered on the edge but managed to save itself with a genuinely romantic closing line.) I can cite plenty more examples, but what the show does so much better than other is evoking the total experience of love, loss, and tragedy: not just the words/dialogue, but the mental experience, whether it be by the filling of the screen with unheard words or literally facing two paths in front of you.
This same story in the hands of the creators of School Days would have quickly turned ridiculous or melodramatic in the wrong way. But we are in the hands of Oonuma and Shinbo, and they really have turned relative straw into gold with their directing.
The third dimension is the inner struggle of the characters to find themselves and their places in the world. Chihiro faces the starkest version of this, where her condition keeps her in a state of permanent stasis. The other artists face this as well, but in less dramatic and more typical forms: which job to choose, which girl to choose. I found this aspect, as I did in Honey and Clover, to be the most compelling part of the series of all. And this struggle is intimately tied to the first two dimensions; resolving the first and second is key to figuring out the third. Coming-of-age stories, of course, are a dime a dozen, especially in anime. Again, it is execution: the manner of art direction always effectively put us in the head of the characters through their mind’s eye. The dialogue and monologue tended not to resemble real-life dialogue so much, but rather existential musings. In the hands of lesser writers, this would have been fatal: contrived at best and pretentious at worst. In the hands of SHAFT, it becomes meaningful and gives us great insight into what the characters are actually thinking and hoping for. Shinkai must have rubbed off on them, as he is the master of this style. The use of this dream-like, abstracted speech is also the reason why the story feels deeper than 13 episodes. It contributed greatly to the economy of the storytelling, while still adding to the characterization of each principal and is consistent with the dream-like atmosphere of the show in general.
“Do you have memories that you don’t want to forget?” So the show’s log line went, and it is more than a cheap come-on to watch the show. It is the key to understanding its entire meaning, and its implications are fleshed out in sometimes painful detail.
To remember and to forget, after all, are the two opposing states that the characters find themselves caught in between. There are moments that some of them really do want to forget, and even take steps to make sure that happens; there are moments that they want to remember but are either afraid or unable to keep in mind. Memory, of course, is intimately connected to our identities, our sense of selfhood. And the way the characters deal with their memories is also a good reflection of who they are. Chihiro, again, is the poster child for this as she faces it in very literal terms; the others all have to live with the human burden of being able to remember the past no matter what, and trying to live on top of their pasts. ef joins the illustrious ranks of Serial Experiments: Lain, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as fascinating explorations of these ideas.
I am not so sure about the introduction of wishing and dreaming in such explicit terms at the end. To be charitable, I think they are really talking about hope, about how hope is what keeps you going and what may bring about the necessary “accidents” that make your dreams come true. (They call it “wishing” rather than hoping, and while I could go into a long theological disquisition about the difference between the two–I won’t. :)) I know in my own experience that it is true that having a hope changes not only your conscious actions but your subconscious too. And your subconscious actions may in fact point you in the direction you were hoping for, even when you’re not aware of it. Chihiro experiences this most vividly, but all the characters eventually do. It ties into, however, my primary complaint about this series–the tidiness of the ending.
This show made me realize that something more important than plot resolution is emotional resolution. The struggles the characters go through are deeper than simply “does he love me? Which girl do I choose?” They were more about finding a direction and a place in life: choosing a vocation, finding a way to bring the “color” back into living, searching for the perfect shot. Which is why I can’t help but feel that the ending (particularly of the Renji/Chihiro story) is logical and sensible, also feels oddly perfunctory. We end, after all, with a series of shots in which each of the characters literally announce, sometimes even facing the camera, “I’ve found/discovered/learned x,” almost in the manner of the final TV episode of Evangelion. You’re supposed to show, not tell these things. SHAFT can do better, I think.
The only storyline that I felt got a satisfactory fleshing out to justify the end was Renji/Chihiro, since half the episode was devoted to it, and even then–I feel that the better thing to do emotionally would have been to have Chihiro not have stayed up all night remembering. She’d forget, but the incomplete pages Renji collected would be the source of a slow rebuilding of their relationship. This would have been more consistent with the tone of their storyline. It’s an example of how the ending makes sense logically–I can buy Chihiro not being able to forget especially since she wrote HIS FREAKING NAME in the diary to remind her “not to have any dealings with him,” and that Renji would be able to recover some of the pages the next morning–but it still feels just a little off.
Since this show is so much about writing, with Renji’s conclusion being the start of HIS first novel, let me venture how I as a storyteller might approach the ending. I would loosely frame the entire final episode as being part of the movie that Kyousuke is making. In it, we see snapshots: a happy, flourishing Kei dancing and running. There would be camera-lens shots of the city in the morning, complete with some of the scattered pages in Chihiro’s diary: we’d still see Renji in another scene picking them up. (I’d preserve a good part of the first half of the episode in general, especially the dialogue, but as I described above, I’d eliminate Chihiro being able to remember everything at once.) Eventually, Kyousuke shoots his final scene, and the epilogue would be all the characters gathering to watch it. Miyako and Hirono would be together. We would see the smiling Kei. Kyousuke has made the movie his soul wanted. Chihiro and Renji are together–and he would have the collected torn pages in hand, the movie would help Chihiro begin to remember more, and Renji would begin his project to describe his relationship with Chihiro in words. And he promises: one day, she will read that novel, she will then at last remember all. The story ends with the very beginning of the scene where they first met.
But what the hell. I’m not SHAFT or minori. The ending as it is is imperfect, but still sensible and even satisfying.
And one more complaint. I can understand why many will have a hard time getting into this show. Aside from the overt artsiness of the beginning episodes, the voice actors were, frankly, poorly cast for people who are not already immune to the eroge/harem style of voice acting. Renji and Chihiro, who are the most interesting characters and have the best storyline, also have the worst voices: Renji will remind too many of whiny, Raki-style spineless male protagonists, which is terribly unfair to him because Renji can’t be fairly called spineless. Chihiro’s seiyuu managed to bring lines that were well-written, insightful, and moving to the teetering edge of bleating melodrama, particularly when declarations of love or trauma were in the air.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if there is ever an English dub of this show…I would be interested to see whether appropriate English voice actors can help overcome this problem. Some of the voices are a BIG obstacle to appreciating this otherwise wonderful, artistic show, particularly if one is skeptical of many of the cliches of otaku-oriented anime. I myself came close to dismissing the show in the first two episodes, and I remember hearing people in my anime club snickering during the emotional scenes when we showed it at a recent meeting. For this reason, I wouldn’t be able to recommend this for people who are just starting out in anime. At the very least, I have to supply a warning: “please, try to overlook the voices. There’s something real here.”
I see that this is the longest review I’ve written in a while for this website. It is for a show worthy of it, however. While recognizing its imperfections, I can’t believe just how much this show accomplished in 12 episodes that take other great shows much longer to do. It is proof, for one, that source material and genre is no obstacle for producing worthwhile art. It has made me a believer in SHAFT’s abilities and promise and did it in a way that was reminiscent of the great artistic achievements anime produced in the mid to late 1990s. It is, therefore, a winner of this year’s Originality Award (more awards to come in a future post), and takes its place as one of the finest shows of the year.
Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances
- Animation: 95%. Not only were the backgrounds beautiful, and the CGI work glorious at times, but the art directing in general was superb–certainly the most impressive I’ve seen this year. It is one of the things that makes this one of the year’s most unique series.
- Music: 90%: despite a few gratuitously soaring themes, Tenmon reminds us why Makoto Shinkai always uses him. He writes such fitting and lovely music for both the languid and relaxing parts as well as the sad and harrowing parts. The OP is also not only catchy, but perfect in conveying the show’s real mood.
- Voice Acting: 75%: See my complaints above about the offputting nature of Chihiro and Renji’s seiyuus. The others were acceptable. It is in many ways a nearly opposite situation with Myself; Yourself, where the acting frequently was much better than the plot and the scene itself. Here the writing was consistently good.
- Story: 89%. I cannot quite give it 90% because of my problems with the ending. It’s just that the rest of it was fused so well with the character and with the art that sometimes it saved otherwise ho-hum plotlines. I’ve already gone in detail about why the three dimensions work the way they do and why the characters were fleshed out so well in such a short space.
- Overall: 93%. My favorite of the year. It is conceivable that my opinion might change once I finish three other shows from this year, Bokurano, Gurren Lagann, and Darker than Black. But for now, it stands head and shoulders above every other dramatic series I’ve seen this year for its unique and meaningful qualities.