I think Owen’s right: the beginning of a new season seems to make anime bloggers like me dumber. Already I’ve begun building up a track record of unfair initial reviews, like my Kimikiss one, and trumpeted shows that later disappointed me. ef-a tale of memories is a show that I pretty much dissed just yesterday (though I’d seen episode 1 several days back), and I’m already having to backtrack on my opinion after seeing episode 2…I’m warming to it in a somewhat similar manner in the way I warmed to Clannad by episode 2.
I have to admit that part of the reason is that I only realized late that this is supervised by none other than Akiyuki Shinbo, the director of Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. The weird, random, sub-Anno artsiness suddenly made a lot of sense. I had wondered why the style seemed vaguely familiar, and in episode 2, a lot of the same stylistic maneuvers that we see in that highly original comedy appears: closeups of eyes, flat, simple colors and shades, the abstracted backgrounds. This episode really showed me how effective of a mood piece this is, not quite in the same way as in Makoto Shikai’s work but in delivering a dreamy, stream-of-consciousness sensation of extreme subjectivity; it feels dream-like in many ways, or like distantly held memories. Which is very appropriate, since memory is a key motif and theme in this show, now that we know that Chihiro has no capacity for short-term memory; it takes on greater weight given that information.
Sure, some of the situations are the same old same old: the “sister” waking up “big brother” from his sleep, the random girl meeting the guy on the roof, etc. The conversations, though, are something else. They are not the realistic conversations that we hear in Shinkai’s work, nor are they the typical hackneyed, tension-free and colorless dialogue of your average harem show. (This is certainly not a harem show. I should have known better.) They are, instead, rather abstracted disquisitions on one’s future, life, dreams, and existential desires: will you be my friend? What is it you hope for? That sort of thing. The art style actually supports this with its stark abstraction; the background art is often very detailed, and yet the characters seem to be in no place in particular at the same time–fuzzy borders, mini-frames reminiscent of Truffaut’s early work, silhouettes and shadows. Seen in that perspective, it holds together quite well.
This is, in short, a much more artistic and intelligent show than I initially gave it credit for. It is indeed “a tale of memories,” and it is trying to be memory in a way, in a strikingly similar manner to a lot of early modernist literature. Are there cliches? Yes. Are there somewhat hackneyed situations, melodramatic coincidences? Sure. But the context is radically different, and I’m not sure any game adapation has dared to take these kinds of artistic chances. (I suspect Air wanted to be something epic, and Higurashi has resolved itself to a coherent, straightforward story, which is to the better overall, but at the same time not as exciting and daring as the first season seemed back then.)
My only fear is that since episode 4, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei has been quite disappointing; it’s no longer all that funny to me and the Shibo-isms are getting more and more annoying. Before episode 5 or so, I thought the show was brilliant as well as original. Now I find it still original but terribly unfocused and messy. I really hope ef does not take the same road. They have a good thing going here after all and it would be a shame to waste all that creativity, especially in a show that (to my very pleasant self-indulgent surprise) is as much about art and writing as about the elusive, transient nature of memory and hope.