Sunday, February 2, 2014

Anime Review No. 73 Ef a tale of memories

"We have all forgot more than we remember."
Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

Ef: a tale of memories

Fall 2007 TV Series

Studio Shaft, Director: Shin Oonuma, Writer-Katsuhito Takayama

Well, it's February again and that means time for looking at romance-oriented shows. Way back in 2012, I took a look at several shows with the primary focus being relationships (Oh My Goddess, Legend of the Labyrinth, My Dear Marie). Last year, I took a look at Kare Kano, an ultimately great show containing both romantic comedy and drama and yet somewhat underrated. But, is there a 21st century equivalent in anime when it comes to romantic comedy and drama? And what if this show was handed to the great experimentalists at Studio Shaft, under guidance by their grand guru of postmodernism? Well, I believe that I found that: The Ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two series. For this and the next review, I will be covering both seasons of this series. First, off Ef: a tale of memories, which begs the question: What's this show about?

Well, that's a bit of a tough task. See, this is one of the first shows that I have looked at with multiple storylines/narratives. At a basic level, it is about the lives and relationships surrounding a group of high school students and young people in a town called Otowa. But, instead of dividing the series' run of 12 episodes in half focusing on one story at a time, it focuses each episode as a somewhat even split of focus of the stories. I think this works well as the show makes you pay attention to what is doing.

The first season has 2 stories, intersecting into each other and weaving in and out. Story A concerns the love triangle between Hiro and the two girls who love him: Miyako and Kei Shindou. Hiro is a manga artist who, one Christmas, runs into Miyako, a perky and care-free girl but with a hidden fear and the two start a relationship. However, he has to deal with Kei, the female childhood friend/tomboy who is a bit jealous and unwilling to move on. In addition he must overcome his own indecision regarding his life, you know as most teenagers do and can attest to.

Now, I want to like this, but Story A is rather weak, though it has a great payoff so it is certainly worth it. It is a little awkward at times, mainly due to it wavering between nice high school slice of life and romantic melodrama moments. Plus, it doesn't help that Miyako is roughly unrelatable and annoying at moments, though I want to relate to her sad back story. It culminates in the second half of episode 7, which has to go down as one of most harrowing and ultimately depressing moment I have seen in an anime, the closest I get to feeling sorry for Miyako's plight. Add to that the animation becomes so stark that the bleakness of the sequence is magnified tenfold emotionally. Of course, Kei and Hiro aren't exactly saints either; Kei is stubborn and obsessive to the point of being a bitch, and Hiro is so indecisive that I wanted to yell out 'Oh come on guy do something. Pick an option and stick with it!' at certain points. Maybe that's because I find myself still like Hiro, or at least once was me. Luckily, it ends on a happy ending for all, even Kei who hooks up with Hiro's friend Kyosuke which I find a nice touch. Love triangle stories typically end with the couple met and the other jilted and alone, so Ef gets some kudos in that department.

Story B, meanwhile, is by far better to Story A. It concerns Renji, a young man who meets Chihiro Shindou, a young, shy and meek girl with an eye patch (which turned into a thing, who knows why). But, she holds a hidden sadness due to a particular condition. Both of them are aspiring novelists and with that seek to write a novel together. In the process, the relationship develop despite the hardships and obstacles. Of course, the novel ends up being a subtle autobiographical piece about Chihiro. I feel for Chihiro and Renji as it is very heartwarming and saddening at the same time. Chihiro is essentially the link between the two stories, with a childhood incident as the pivot point; No further spoilers on that. Suffice to say, a happy ending is afforded to them because they struggle. There is also some neat commentary on the nature and process of storytelling thrown in for good measure.

A side-story involving Kyosuke, Hiro's school chum and member in the Photography/Film Club. It is mildly interesting, but only because it is tied slightly to Story A and in ways mirrors that story. Kyosuke deals with indecision, and interacts with Hiro and Kei in different respects.

There are some supporting characters: The weary priest and the mysterious nun (more on them in next series), Mizuki (Kei's female friend more on her later) and the rather frank Shuichi Kuze (family friend to Renji more on him later) and Renji's mom. I said more on them later as they form the main cast of Season 2, so details on that to be discussed in that review. I will say that the mysterious nun in Story A and the Priest in Story B have rather similar mentor roles to the main cast and it is hinted at that the two know/knew each other. Again, more on that later.

Theme of memory prevades the show, be it Chihiro and the retention of memory or Miyako and her slipping out from Hiro's memory. Other themes include regret and loss and how one moves on from it, in both the healthly and not so healthly methods.

The animation is top-notch Studio Shaft work here. Shin Oonuma directed this, but with Akiyuki Shinbo as supervisor, his trademarks are all over the place. Be it use of text on screen, abstract backgrounds, or the studio's personalized head tilt, it works on an experimental level in places to compensate for the low budget, but its look gorgeous nonetheless. Presentation and content are congruent is what I am saying. In fact, Artsy and symbol-heavy is the best word to describe the animation. At moments, it seems akin to a more polished version of Gainax's Kare Kano adaptation from the late '90s. For example, Chihiro's chains preventing her from leaving her state of being along with the second half of episode 7 with the way Miyako's desperation is presented. Music is very good and suitable to the mood, filled with lots of soft strings and piano music, much of it ambient yet tinged with melancholy and sadness.

Now onto the English dub, which is a selling point that Sentai Filmworks added to the DVD set. And good thing too, as it is the easily the most definitive dub from Sentai Filmworks. Chris Ayres directed and wrote this and it is packed to the brim with talented voice talent. For this season at least, voice actors/actresses such as Greg Ayres, Clint Bickham, Luci Christian, Monical Rial and Brittney Karbowski are in it and all are doing what have to be the best performances they have done ever. As stated before in my reviews for Bodacious Space Pirates and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, I like Chris Ayres as ADR Director; he's one of my favorites working today for anime dubs. Chris Ayres brings two essential things when it comes to english dubs: pitch-perfect casting combined with strong vocal performances and writing. This show, along Bodacious Space Pirates, helped me to watch more Sentai Filmworks releases.

Overall, the first season of the Ef series is good, but miss the mark at points at being great. Granted, its got a decent story and characters, fitted within an excellent visual presentation with a very good English dub. But, it is with the second season that it starts to get great maybe even a masterpiece. Thus, that will be the subject of my next review: Ef, a tale of melodies.

Til next time, dear readers.

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