In which Mike wonders, after seeing much of its second season, whether the sacred cow he liked best last year was really all that. (This article is the spiritual successor to a similarly titled article last year about School Days’ midpoint.)
A couple of months ago, Coburn of Claiming Ground wrote a fascinating article about “Reaction Porn.” While it was in the context of True Tears, another show that I liked on the whole but found flawed in important ways, a lot of his insights seem to apply to the ef saga too. Coburn noted that
Our main man wants to be close to his dream girl. To do it right and be allowed to see the side she hides, which will let him be there for her when she wavers. What we the audience are granted is a privileged position in which we can potentially know each waver of the heart in everyone on screen. We don’t know it all at the start, but the show builds up details to create (mostly) realistically detailed characters who are totally exposed to us.
The plot of the show is carried by the incremental exposure of the personalities of the cast to the audience and to one another. Complications consist of the odd piece of misdirection before more genuine revelations of character. The ultimate form of which would be a character crying (my emphasis).
In other words, in True Tears, the trajectory of the story is made through character revelations: moments where something previous secret is made known and thus emotions come out. In True Tears, it mostly comes more gradually than it does in ef, but the concept is the same. Coburn goes on to say that the audience is fully aware that such moments are coming, which lends them a rather artificial feeling–somewhat like porn’s revealing of sex and naked flesh. But the revealing is the point; it’s where all the energy comes to a head (ahem).
I thought of this when I watched the pivotal episodes of ef-a tale of melodies–namely, episodes 6 and 7, where both Yuuko and Kuze fall into extreme states as they reveal the darkness of their real selves to their lovers. The techniques are identical to a similar episode in a tale of memories with Miyako: a highly psychologized, fractured mix of image and text descended directly from similar moments in Anno’s Evangelion. That moment, which I chose as the great moment of anime in 2007, was shocking in its force and, as it had not been done in a major anime in a while, fresh in the raw emotions it provoked. It worked, too, near the show’s end in the climactic telephone call with its timer. Back then, I justified the rather soap operatic plotting and characterization of a tale of memories by these kind of directorial moments. The execution made the show, not so much the story.
I don’t take that back; season 1’s execution and coherence are still excellent. However, I am not so sure whether such moments compensate that much for its weaknesses. In fact, I began to wonder whether the emotional sledgehammers that such moments became were simply a raw, unsubtle play at what one might (following Coburn) call “sympathy porn.”
For one, it’s become a kind of crutch for the storytellers through overuse. Oh, it was 95% effective the first time this season, in episode 6. The horrific abuse that we learn Yuuko endured is terrible enough to naturally arouse sympathy. The repetition of synonyms, the fractured frame, and, most of the all, the guilt being piled on Himura the whole time–the gale force emotions work in a very raw, crude way. I remember concluding the episode with much of the same daze and distress that I felt the first time I watched Miyako’s meltdown in season 1. Then we see Kuze get the same treatment in the following episode, and it was at that point that I began to realize something: this is really artificial now. Contrived, even. I felt that Kuze, as a character, had not earned that moment the way Yuuko had, because his suffering seemed to be of a quieter, more restrained sort. Yuuko had suffered physical as well as emotional violence; he was coming to grips with his terminal illness. The correspondingly violent artistic method works for Yuuko in a way it didn’t work for Kuze.
I began to think further, though. Did we really know Yuuko all that well as a character, either? She was a near-angelic, ghost like figure appearing in random places in season 1; now we see her as a person longing so badly for an older brother that she is willing to be abused for it. Her “brother” is a rather one-dimensional, sneering villain too, which doesn’t help. Other than hints of being “bullied” (a sure sign of abuse, I determined early on), the show actually doesn’t spell out much about who she is prior to the huge reveal in episode 6. In a way, her big revelation in the church is the start of her real character development, which then proceeds very meaningfully in episode 8–a fine episode that for me cemented what I felt was wrong with the overuse of the “Anno” technique (for lack of a better term).
I even began to also wonder about Miyako from last season. I figured then that she must be hiding something, though coming fresh to the ef franchise, I couldn’t have guessed the magnitude of her neediness. But it was a sudden drop into the abyss of her mind there, too. I’ve no doubt that the suddenness is deliberate, so to accentuate the impact of the moment; I’m just not sure this is always a good way to show character. Especially repeatedly.
Does this basically boil down to “it just doesn’t work the fourth time around”? In a way, yes; but the fact that this is the fourth major time that such a technique was used says something about what ef is trying to do to its audience. Its method for empathy and sympathy for the girl characters (mainly) is to emotionally pummel the viewer into submission. It’s like the show is shouting at the audience: “FEEL THIS! CRY HERE!” Does the show really have any other tricks up its sleeve other than this? And isn’t it really just a form of crude emotional manipulation that betrays a deficiency in the character writing?
Well–the very following episodes do provide an interesting contrast. In episode 8, in a rare moment, the show is directed to feel “normal” for anime–which, in the ef universe, is abnormal. Much of what makes ef unique is its dreaminess, where the town is shot through a hazy gauze-like filter, the colors change like fall leaves, and the people talk in monologues about high-flown, abstract subjects. Most of the time, you never see random bystanders or any other people other than the characters themselves. These fall away in the story of Himura and Yuuko desperately running away to avoid her “brother.” We see random people on the streets for the first time. The filtered “artiness” decreases significantly. The symbols remain–the burned watch in particular–but the story, for the first time, is told naturalistically. And when the inevitable end comes, with Yuuko sadly returning to her abusive “brother,” I felt a genuine ache of the heart that I didn’t feel after the flash ‘n’ text slashing moments of the earlier episodes. For once, they began to feel like real people or characters rather than abstracted mouthpieces for feelings and thoughts. And I didn’t feel forced to feel sorry for her, either, not nearly as much.
It may be that this simply proves that there can be too much of a good thing. Nothing has really been executed worse compared to the previous season. The metaphors about artistic creation are still there; so are the shot selections and the level of the writing. But something has been “disillusioned” in me about the whole affair. I’m not sure that I would put the moment in a top 12 moments list again, let alone make it THE best moment (BTW, I am participating in this year’s 12 moments project–are you?), and while I still like what ef is doing, it is joined this season by many other enjoyable shows that Fall 2007 did not have. We have well-written dramas like Mouryou no Hako and Kurozuka and surprisingly form-breaking comedies like Toradora! and Kannagi. It’s got competition now for my watching this season.
Maybe I’m tired and looking for something different now; maybe I’m just fickle. But I know that this time around, I didn’t quite feel what I think I was supposed to be feeling in ef.
As the End Nears is a series of articles about the near-end of the season. Coming up next: Clannad and the Substitute Family.