Before I start watching a show I take a quick glance at wikipedia to prepare myself for what's to come. So when the new DVD of ef: a tale of memories landed on my desk I was prepared for an adult visual novel adaptation. This brings with it certain assumptions.
Adult visual novels seem to follow a pretty predictable pattern. 1) Come up with an interesting story, 2) add in gratuitous nude scenes to bring in an audience, 3) strip out the naughty scenes for a playstation release, 4) release an anime with lots of fan service but no nudity, 5) release an OVA which is effectively porn. ef did the first three but then the rest of the rule book gets thrown out the window (there are a couple of nude scenes, they take you by surprise but they're pretty artsy).
I'll give you the quick run down in case you want to skip over the minor spoilers: ef is a pair of decent love stories with acres of character development but it takes about half the season to work out what the hell's going on and why any of it might be related or worth watching.
So ef follows two slightly connected stories. One of Renji meeting Chihiro, who suffers from anterograde amnesia and the other of a love triangle between part time mangaka, Hiro; fun girl with mummy and daddy issues, Miya; and stone cold crazy bitch, Kei (seriously, she's the worst person ever). Actually, they're both pretty crazy; guy has a hard life.
The problem I always have with romantic anime is the guy ending up with the wrong girl. Luckily, every girl here is the wrong girl, but that doesn't matter too much because the climax of the season is well executed and you end up feeling really happy for them regardless. I won't go into too much detail about the Hiro arc because it's just a love triangle with a couple of quasi-yandere, but the Renji arc is actually pretty interesting.
On the face of it, the Renji arc is a rehash of 50 First Dates but not a comedy. In fact it actually dives deep into a lot of the issues that come with somebody not being able to remember past 13 hours ago (and also the mechanics of coping with it). We see the crippling depression that comes along with severe mental problems and people dealing with them as best they can, from the family distancing itself from her, the well wishing father figure being overly protective and the prospective love interest having no idea what he's meant to think about a girl who can only remember him by reading about him in her diary.
The really fun question for me, though, is the one that they never address and they really should. Anime's predilection for little girls means that they often give us characters who are hundreds of years old but with the body of a ten year old girl, be it because they're vampires, earthly avatars of demons or some other excuse, and it always begs the question if them being sexy is sick and/or wrong. Yes, they have the body of a child but their mind is fully formed and they are supposedly very experienced in worldly ways. This, however, tacitly posits the opposite situation: Chihiro may be 16, but her amnesia means she has the mind and the emotional maturity of a 12 year old. Seems to me that this is the far more awkward proposition. It's kinda like when you think too hard about Romeo and Juliet and realise it's actually pretty horrific.
The whole amnesia bit is really the meat of the story and is very well thought through. It seems throughout as if there might be all sorts of plot-holes and inconsistencies as well as needless poetic wankery but, in fact, it all gets neatly tied up at the end in the cheesiest way possible.
The other sides of the storyline are pretty much as you'd expect from romantic anime, but are benefitted by great character development. Actually, if anything it has too much character development. There are characters in there that seem to be padding and bit parts. The whole AV club is pretty unnecessary, the promiscuous friend of the family raises far more questions than are ever answered and Renji's mum is best not mentioned.
But you can't have an anime without animation and that's where this gets fun.
I started watching this and I thought the character animation was a bit simplistic but the backgrounds were freakin' gorgeous. Then they started doing all sorts of crazy artsy crap and I wondered what was going on. Then I saw SHAFT in the credits and it all made sense.
Turns out that this originally aired in the season immediately following Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei and it acts as kind of an antidote to it. It has all the frenetic art direction that you would hope from SHAFT as well as some of the kinds of camera angles and silhouettes that are their trademark but actually has a plot going on, something which SHAFT often have massive issues with (or did until Madoka came along).
And that's the fundamental difference with SHAFT. They're about the only studio that will make a series where everybody will comment not on the artwork (which there is in spades and lots of variety of it too) but on the direction. Any idiot can make a cartoon out of pretty pictures, but it takes SHAFT to make sure each and every scene is dripping with meaning and each cut is perfectly timed to tweak a particular emotion. One scene near the end where one of the couples is having a conversation from a pay phone has the music change as the direction of the conversation changes and that would be enough to stir up the romantic feelings, but then they punctuate it with constant cuts to the pay phone timer which manages to build suspense in a damned romantic moment. It's toying with your emotions of the highest order and is endemic of a show which is a veritable work of art.
But you can't have any of the story or the animation without a medium and that medium is DVD. I want to know who's still watching DVDs. I get the argument for Blu-Ray over digital download because it's lower compression and whatever else, but DVD is just dire. Most people's phones expect higher definition than you get through DVD.
Some might argue that you don't need the extra definition for cartoons and I'd be inclined to agree except for when it's a show which is an artistic masterpiece. Even worse is that SHAFT has a predisposition toward covering the screen in text, and text does not work well in Standard Definition.
Maybe the special features will save the day, except there are none. The special features consist of Japanese or English audio and subs or no subs (actually there is also an option to just sub signs, though I've yet to work out who would want that).
Full disclosure, I only had access to disc one. I'm told the second disc offers us an isolated, credit free, opening sequence and end sequence. This is great because SHAFT shows always do good things for the credits (I used to use one of the Bakemonogatari end themes as my alarm clock because it's just too good to sleep through) and ef is no exception. I had been worried that the ending sequence had neither naked ladies (staple of all good adult visual novel adaptations) nor girls walking or running (staple of every anime ending ever. It's just not the end of an anime if there isn't somebody moving on the spot). Then they had another end sequence with running and another with walking. All my prayers were answered. The problem is that I'm told the second DVD only has one opening and one ending, which is odd for a show which has three of each. That and the fact that there's no karaoke means I'm not too happy with the handling of the OP and ED. The way I see it, I'd much rather sing along to the song than know what the song means. There's also a second set of credits on each episode that are just text scrolling on a black screen with no music that make the "play all" feature of the DVD a chore.
So the special features aren't doing much, which leaves only one thing left to consider, the translation. Translation comes in two guises, subs and dubs and, I'll admit, I'm very much a subs man and this show has cemented my opinion on that. The subs were pretty par for the course, neither full on localising nor explaining things left untranslated. It's what you expect but I consider it pretty lazy; pick one because the middle ground is not a good one. The dubs, however, were flat out dire. I got used to Renji's voice but really, every single voice actor in English sounded like they were just putting on a terrible kiddy voice (apart from the father figure guy who clearly thought he was Batman). Couple this with the fact that all the names were left in Japanese, honorifics and all, and it makes for a terrible experience.
I do wonder if I would hate Japanese voice actors if I spent enough time in Japan to understand accents, but I don't so instead I have to put up with terrible screeching from voice actors in English that couldn't possibly carry the gravitas of the situations they were in. Hell, even the fun and frolicky bits were marred by Chihiro constantly calling Renji, Rangy Coon. I also have problems with various points where the dub deviates from the sub in ways that make no sense, culminating in one moment where somebody says "onii-chan" in Japanese, the sub translates it to "big brother" (itself not a great translation in context) but the dub says "onii-chan" despite being in English. All I ask for is a little consistency.
Regardless, this has gone on too long. ef: a tale of memories is a great show which is worth watching if you like to see some crazy art direction, like an interesting romance or like to get weird and philosophical with stuff. DVD's not the best medium for it and it isn't even used to its full potential but it's the only medium you're going to get it in the UK and MVM deserve all the credit they can take for bringing it to us. So, when it comes out on August 5th, definitely consider dropping your hard earned cash on it and letting the British anime industry know that we're ready for some real stories and some proper art.
That's it from me, I'm off to see what else is on.
P.S. Can anybody tell me what the weird ghost/angel/lady was that appeared every so often?