I think it is hard to imagine the frightening prospect of memory loss without experiencing it, but this series does an amazing job of portraying the tragedy of a failing memory. Chihiro has a form of amnesia where her ability to store away memories long-term stopped at the age of 12 following a car accident. Her condition is roughly based on a real-life form of amnesia, and it has left her only able to retain memories for 13 hours. She deals with this by keeping a detailed diary and going over important memories in her head, so effectively she starts remembering the remembrances. This is something we all do, actually. If you have a memory from your very early life you are probably remembering the act of remembering it, rather than the original memory itself.
At the age of 16 Chihiro starts developing a relationship with a kind and thoughtful boy named Renji, and this is where things get really interesting. The series really challenges what this means for each of them, and the nature of love. From Renji’s point of view, the girl he falls in love with on one day isn’t quite the same as the girl he meets the next. For Chihiro it’s a case of relearning what the relationship means to her each day by reading her journal and retaining important moments as much as possible by running over things in her head repeatedly. Night times are a problem. In the morning Chihiro has lost all but her final thoughts the night before. An illness is an even greater problem. In one particularly tragic moment, Chihiro wakes after being unwell and has lost everything. She is a 12 year old again in an unfamiliar world, and it’s hard to watch. Can love conquer all, even something like this? That’s the central question this strand of Ef asks, but it is not the only storyline.
We also follow the life of young manga writer Hiro, who is caught in a love triangle. Being as he’s a teenage boy he’s blissfully unaware of that, failing to pick up on the obvious signals (having been a teenage boy once, I can confirm this is entirely accurate!). His two love interests are his childhood friend Kei, who is Chihiro’s twin sister, and Miyako, a free-spirited but lonely girl who has more than a hint of Haruhi Suzumiya about her demeanour and outward confidence / inner insecurities. Also in the picture is aspiring film-maker Kyosuke, who is fascinated by Kei and wants to make her the subject of his film project.
You might be thinking: yawn, another anime love triangle. But this is very different. It is a far more mature approach to the subject matter. Kei can’t pluck up the courage to truly confess her feelings to Hiro, and their relationship is an uneasy one in any case. She acts more like a sister, nagging him to concentrate on his school work when all he wants to do is pursue his writing dreams. She does that because she cares deeply about Hiro and his future, but when Miyako comes along she is a breath of fresh air and is exactly what Hiro needs. Who cares about school when you’ve got a dream like that, and one that’s actually working out? Hiro might be young, but he is already a professional. He is being commissioned to create manga and he has deadlines to meet. Miyako wants him to follow his dreams, but more importantly she wants him to make his own decisions in life. The showdown between Miyako and Kei when they eventually debate that is a blistering moment, wrong-footing Kei who is in my opinion entirely in the wrong.
That’s when things get really interesting, because Kei won’t back down and she won’t play fair. Their battle for Hiro’s heart is a shocking example of deviousness and manipulation, and it almost destroys them both. Probably my favourite moment of the series is barely animated at all. One of the girls (I won’t say which) has been stood up (I won’t say why) and her increasingly desperate phone messages play out over a graphic of the words moving across the screen. It goes on for almost half an episode until the screen is covered in writing. I have only heard the dub version so far, but its a virtuoso voice acting performance and my wife and I watched it in stunned silence, completely absorbed by every tragic word. As a portrayal of desperate loneliness and the whirlwind of teenage emotions it was astonishing.
That moment is just one example of how inventive this series is with the animation. All sorts of different techniques are utilised, often highly metaphorical. For example, Chihiro’s condition is represented by showing her chained to the centre of a circle of stained glass, unable to reach beyond the point of her thirteen-hour memory. Anyone who is in any doubt about anime being an art form needs to watch this series. It’s beautiful.
In the end, I think what I enjoyed most about this series was its maturity. I have seen so many anime love triangles and anime tragic girls, but Ef tackles its themes unflinchingly. Teenage emotions are messy, and the series doesn’t shy away from that. It’s real.
We will be looking at the second series, Ef: A Tale of Melodies in a future article. RP