A short while back I did a review of ef - A Tale of Memories and there was an almighty clamour for a review of the second season. But how could I do that if the second season hadn't been released on DVD? Well, MVM heard your cries so they'll be releasing it in September. Luckily, they let me get my mitts on a copy beforehand so I can let you know whether you need it in your life. So stick about to see how ef - A Tale of Melodies compares to its predecessor.
This time round I'm going to be a little more structured about it so that you can skip over potential spoilers because there may well be a whole lot of them going on.
Before I start, I'll do the spoiler free run down. Melodies can be watched without Memories but they're very much complementary. Melodies ties up some unimportant loose ends from Memories and bulks out some of the characters that looked like they were unnecessary the first time round. Much like Memories, Melodies is confusing and lacking direction in the first half and then they start picking up all the bits that were making no sense and give us a ridiculously powerful and emotional story. In fact, such a powerful story that I'm going to give you a trigger warning for sexual violence. So there you go; if you don't want spoilers, skip straight to the artistry section.
The plot here follows some of the characters that we met in Memories that weren't fully explored before. Specifically it elaborates on 1) Renji's womanising neighbour, 2) the person I referred to as Batman in Memories and 3) the mysterious angel character.
The womanising neighbour is Kuze and we see him meet a high school girl, Mizuki, as he appears to have given up his womanising ways (but not before explaining that having two girlfriends is cheating and they'll hate you, having 20 means they're competing against each other and they'll love you more). It turns out, however, that he has a heart condition and doesn't have long to live so he doesn't want to get into a relationship. It becomes this series's equivalent to the Renji and Chihiro arc but instead of the relationship not being workable because there's a worry that she'll forget him forever, here it's not workable because there's a certainty that she'll lose him forever. It asks very similar questions and follows similar paths but works them in a very different way.
As with Memories, Melodies is split into two stories and the second involves Yuko and Yu-kun, with Hirono as the other woman, much like the Hiro-Hiro/Miya-Miya arc from Memories. Here we once again have a tragic backstory but this one both sides of the relationship know about, specifically that Yu-kun's sister died in an earthquake and Yuko attempted to become a surrogate for her.
Though the love triangle aspects of it are more similar to Hiro and Miya, there is another aspect that asks far deeper emotional questions and brings it to the level of the Renji and Chihiro arc.
Once again, I recommend you watch it before I spoil it.
Yu-kun spurned Yuko's advances because, being a sensible person, he recognised the inherent ridiculousness of somebody trying to replace your dead sister. Instead she is adopted by the art teacher at the school who, as it turns out, is happy for her to replace his own sister. That would be bad enough except that the broken relationship falls apart and becomes an abusive relationship eventually resulting in her rape. I had been worried that the new series didn't have a proper meaty problem to empathise fruitlessly with, like Chihiro's amnesia, but this pushes all sorts of buttons and becomes a very moving story because of it. Once it gets going, it's every bit the emotional roller coaster that its predecessor was and also asks you to confront not just the tragedy of sexual violence but also the psychological and social after effects and underpinnings of it, be it for victims, perpetrators or bystanders.
I would say that the story here surpasses the original, but perhaps needs the original to fully appreciate it. Though the characters and plot are effectively unrelated, they are still part of that story and those little references to each other work nicely, especially as it all unravels at the end (though their eventual links for the four stories are tentative at best).
That being said, this has the same problem that the first series had, specifically that the first half of it is all scene setting but without ever letting on that it's going to become a good story. Both times it wasn't until episode 5 or 6 that there was a realisation that something deeper and more worthwhile was happening.
Much like its predecessor, however, it brings us back to questioning what appropriate relationships are. Should a high school girl court a much older man? Should somebody who has lost his sister really even be remotely considering a romantic relationship with somebody who has filled her role in his life? Memories was kind enough to allow the sensible answers to prevail but Melodies sticks with the awkward match ups and somehow the story manages to make that feel alright by the end of it.
I started the review for Memories explaining how adult visual novel adaptations tend to be excuses for fan service to happen but that Memories had everted that gracefully. This came back to mind when one of the first scenes in Melodies was Hirono painting a nude self portrait and her fellow characters complaining that she spends too much time in the buff. This was around the same time as Kuze's line about multiple girlfriends so I thought they may have just given into the cliche. Luckily, they hadn't and the show managed to maintain its integrity throughout.
Where Memories used a fair bit of symbolism, Melodies just swims in it. All through there are masks, footsteps and strings meant to represent various things and it can be something of a headache to keep track of. The big thing that I had a real problem with is that this story is, seemingly, spread across two identical towns, one in Japan and one in Australia. Near as I can figure out, Renji and Kuze moved to the counterparts of their houses in the new town and there are reasons for all this (which actually make a fair bit of sense but don't become apparent until the last few episodes) but it's never really explained when you're in which town or why that would be significant to the development of the characters and the story.
As for the animation, it's much the same as before, it's all either gorgeous or precisely targeted to convey meaning and emotion. Shaft, as ever, are masters of their medium and can do more with a single camera angle than most could do with three episodes of dialogue.
I was critical of the dubbing last time round and it's effectively the same here but this time round the subbed translation also suffers in a big way because of the nature of the story.
For the uninitiated, and probably being overly glib, the Japanese call each other by titles and honorifics. Honorifics are the -sans, -samas and -kuns that you see all over the place and they tend to convey status. When you see a sub or dub awkwardly overusing words like sir or mr. you're probably seeing the fruits of a translator stumbling round honorifics.
Then you get titles and these tend to convey a relationship or a role, this is your sensei, senpai and onii-chan. The problem is that these are rarely set in stone and they're very difficult to translate. Spend enough time watching anime and you'll see teachers being called doctors or vice-versa because a translator's not understood sensei properly, for instance. The real problem is with the familial relationships like the aforementioned onii-chan. These relationships are not necessarily family relationships but rather an indicator of how a relationship between two people works. It's kinda like how you might call a friend of your parents an aunt or uncle, they're not actually your aunt or uncle but they fulfil the same role.
This issue with the roles was awkward in Memories when Kei was always calling Hiro onii-chan or big brother. She called him that because they grew up together and they had that sort of relationship. In Melodies, however, that brother sister dynamic, its legitimacy, and the use of the word onii is a pivotal plot point and gets argued about frequently. Long story not particularly short, the translation does not handle it gracefully, either in sub or dub.
As for the dub, it's as bad as it was before but this time one of the characters is called Yu-kun which means that certain characters will often finish a sentence with "you coon." It really doesn't help matters that the material in this is far more emotionally provocative and the English language VAs just can't carry it.
More jarring is the singing. Though there's not a lot of singing it is called A Tale of Melodies for a reason and singing is there. The problem is that the dub is inconsistent as to when the song is translated and when it's left as is. This would be fine except that we see the core song as it's being composed and learnt and, according to the dub, it's in English. Then, when it's finally being sung in earnest, with montage and everything, it's suddenly in Japanese (small mercies and all). As ever, all I ask for is consistency.
Last time round I only had the first disk and I didn't get to see what the special features on the second disk were. This time round I have them and have discovered the depth of the absurdity of the credit free OP and ED. See, both series of ef wield their opening and ending sequences as a narrative tool so though there are three EDs and one OP they change in subtle ways. The OP in one episode is an instrumental version with no characters, in another it's all inverted. There's one main ED but sometimes the music or animation get subtly (or blatantly) changed while other times they play an entirely different one (if you've ever seen the likes of Scrapped Princess or Zero no Tsukaima you'll know how important it is to not leave your usual happy, jaunty ending/eye catch on a powerful episode), including one point where they play the OP from the first series. Last time round all I had seen was a screen grab of the second disc and it looked like they'd just put in one OP and one ED, which would have been a travesty. As it turns out, they actually play every single variant OP and ED back to back with no way to choose which one you want to see, which means sitting through 5 renditions of effectively the same sequence (which would be interesting if you got to choose categories of ED or something or got to see what episode/emotion they were attached to so you could compare them easily, but wasn't because you don't). So it's not as bad as I had thought (and I had trouble believing anybody could be that lazy) but it's only barely.
Other than that there really is nothing special that you get from the DVD other than a bizarre assortment of trailers from differing genres and variously subbed or dubbed as took somebody's fancy. It does feel as though they just needed to pad out the DVD so they reached into a big bag of trailers and threw in whatever they grabbed first. That said, there's a trailer for Arakawa Under the Bridge in there and everybody should watch that because it's fantastic.
Oh, and they're still not only leaving in the credits when you hit "play all" (which is warranted since the ED reflects what's happened in the episode) but they still have the ridiculous second credit roll which ruins the pacing of a good anime marathon.
Honestly, A Tale of Melodies is much like A Tale of Memories. It starts very slow but it's worth it once the story unravels. It tries a bit too hard to be deep and symbolic but there's enough there to forgive it despite being pretty confusing at times for it.
I would say, if you liked one you should invest in the other. They're very complementary stories but without truly overlapping. The story and the characters remain ridiculously powerful and even traumatic and the animation and artwork is still spectacular.
So it has to once again be...
Which means it's time for me to go off and see what else is on.