Reviewby Theron Martin,
ef: A Tale of Memories
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
On one Christmas three teenage boys have potential romance-triggering encounters with three pretty girls. Kyosuke, a budding film aficionado, is looking for the perfect shot when he catches a brief glimpse on camera of basketball player Kei as she runs by across the street. In his efforts to track her down Kyosuke discovers that she's the childhood friend of his pal Hiro, on whom she has quite the fixation. Hiro, who is secretly a professional shojo manga artist under his pen name, just doesn't see Kei that way, though, and instead finds himself entranced by the free-spirited delinquent Miyako, whom he encountered when she borrowed his bike to chase down a thief. Kei isn't about to give up easily, however, which leads to a fierce romantic conflict. The third boy, Renji, is directionless in life until he happens across an eyepatch-wearing girl at an abandoned train station who happens to be Kei's younger twin sister Chihiro. While hanging out with her, Renji eventually learns the reason for Chihiro's odd behavior: brain damage from the same accident four years earlier which cost Chihiro her eye also causes all of her memories since the accident to only last for 13 hours, thus forcing her to keep a very detailed diary just to keep track of recent events and who she meets. Despite the burden it places on him, Renji ultimately decides to help Chihiro achieve her one dream: to write a novel.
ef: A Tale of Memories is the anime adaptation of the first three chapters of the PC adult visual novel ef: A Fairy Tale of the Two by Minori, albeit with the three chapters – one each focusing on Kyosuke and Kei, Hiro and Miyako, and Renji and Chihiro – told in interlaced fashion rather than separately; the featured characters of the fourth chapter appear here as minor supporting characters but will apparently have their turn in the spotlight in the sequel series ef: A Tale of Melodies. The influence of its origins is very distinct, as the series is heavy on conversation, light on activity, and (unlike most others of its ilk) does get around to sex in two of its three main arcs. Those who have not played the visual novel will probably be lost about who Yuko (the hat-wearing brunette who randomly pops in and out to counsel various characters) is, as her nature and purpose is never explained or elaborated upon in this series, but she can just be regarded as the series' one concession to vague supernatural mystery in a story that is otherwise completely grounded in reality.
And that's what sets this series apart from other moe-laden romances out there: none of its story arcs resort to even a whiff of the supernatural. Even Chihiro's peculiar problem is not all that fantastic, as it is just a slightly tweaked version of an actual medical condition called anterograde amnesia. Characters also behave in largely believable fashions rather than just playing up cutesy affectations, such as the cattiness that Miyako and Kei get into over Hiro's affection.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the series does not overplay the inherent tragedy of Chihiro's situation. Without question, she is one of anime's most tragic heroines – and yes, that's saying a lot when titles over the years have produced moe girls who are quadriplegic, are or have been in lengthy comas (at least three different times!), gradually revert to the mental state of a one-year-old, have been victims of child molestation, suffer from recurring and potentially life-threatening illnesses and/or the effects of a fatal thousand-year-old curse, and so forth. Her tragedy, though, is that time has effectively come to a standstill for her. She can only temporarily learn new things, has great difficulty maintaining a friendship or relationship with anyone new, and must virtually obsess over someone or something just to establish continuity with that person or thing. Even if she can forge a new relationship, she must place an immense burden on that person for it to work. For her, an illness which results in her sleeping more than 13 hours is catastrophic; the scene in one late episode where this does happen is almost painful to watch. The story uses the novel she writes with Renji's help as introspection and the visual metaphor of her chained within a stained glass circle to represent her inability to reach beyond the 13 hours and drive home the weight of her circumstances, but only rarely does the approach feel heavy-handed.
The other girls are more typical romantic heroines. Kei mostly fits into the archetypal mold of the childhood friend, complete with the athletic-but-can't-cook option, though she stretches the role a bit with an unusual degree of ruthlessness in her efforts to try to step beyond “just a friend” status with Hiro. (Contrarily, the “guilt trip” angle, which is alluded to in one flashback, feels tacked on.) Miyako is more interesting but still fairly typical as the fun, free-spirited girl who uses her playfulness to mask her desperate loneliness. None of the guys stand out, either, although Hiro and Renji do, at least, get some development and Renji does get to show his own introspection as he struggles to deal with the consequences of being involved with Chihiro.
The series also tries very hard to stand out with its creative artistic effort. Director Shin Oonuma (whose other major directorial credits include Baka and Test, Natsu no Arashi!, and some of the Negima! OVAs) and studio Shaft pull out a vast array of inventive artistic gimmicks, from portraying characters in outline as pictures of clouds pass through them to having the color gradually fade from a scene until it is only black-and-white to spending multiple minutes gradually filling up nearly every square centimeter of the screen with the overlapping subtitles of a succession of increasingly desperate voice mail messages one character leaves another. (As dull as that may sound, it actually induces a surprising amount of tension.) In some scenes perspectives shift every few seconds, creating a feel somewhat akin to that seen in the later Dance in the Vampire Bund; in others, the shot lingers on one scene for minutes at a time. Chihiro's stained glass dreams deliver some of the prettiest scenes, while nice CG animation of clouds floating by offers the best animation effects. Colors are very vivid and draw from a broad palette when used. Character designs favor thin, fragile builds for the girls and more typical looks for the guys, with fan service being limited to just a handful of scenes scattered through the middle and end parts of the series; only one scene involves actual nudity, and that is done in outline. But really, why the eyepatch for Chihiro? Surely in this day and age a glass eye or other substitute would have been available.
As cool as all of the visual effects may be though, they cannot entirely disguise the series' biggest flaw: its animation is very limited. Movements look good when one can see them, but all of the long-distance shots, camera gimmicks, and creative effects are really just trying to conceal the fact that sustained animation of characters rarely lasts more than a couple of seconds at a time, and in some places lengthy periods go without any or with it being ill-defined because the perspective is so far away. Granted, the majority of the series just involves characters talking, so it isn't like it has a lot of action to show anyway, but many flash animation series out there probably average more animation per minute than this one does.
The musical score does have some nicely understated moments (partly courtesy of Tenmon, who has scored all of Makoto Shinkai's work) but ultimately does not make much of an impression. That comes more from the way the series uses its openers and closers. “euphoric field” by Tenmon featuring Elisa (who has also done themes for The World God Only Knows), which explains the “ef” in the series' title as well as being an acronym of the episode titles, begins as the closer for episode 2 before continuing as the opener with episode 3. It provides a good lead-in to each episode; the text flashed during it is lines from Chihiro's novel. Four different closers are used, each sung by one of the female seiyuu and typically keyed to an episode which featured that seiyuu's character. Their quality varies some but they are generally appealing without being stand-outs. The Japanese language track for the series carries over most of the vocal cast used in the originating visual novel, with Kyosuke being the only new voice amongst the six core cast members. The English cast, which is composed almost entirely of long-established ADV/Sentai veterans, is well-chosen, on-the-mark, and very effective, with performances consistently hitting the right tone and timbre and accurately bringing out the attitudes and vulnerabilities of each character. The English script also sticks fairly close – not hard to do when so little needs to be lip-synched – making this one of the better recent Sentai dubs.
Sentai Filmworks is releasing this title in separate DVD and Blu-Ray Complete Collections. The only Extras on either version are clean opener and closer, but this release shines in its visual quality on Blu-Ray, which beautifully brings out the vivid coloring and ranks amongst the cleanest of anime Blu-Ray transfers to date; that the series' artistic approach is well-suited to HD certainly helps. It lossless DTS-HD Master 2.0 stereo mixes are not as impressive but not bad, either.
A Tale of Memories is a predominately serious story whose humor is mostly incidental. It strives to be more mature and realistic in its portrayal of its core relationships, and does have some potentially affecting moments, but it never fully achieves the emotional impact that it sets out for and certainly falls short of the typical Key/Visual Art's adaptation in that regard. It also has an uneven level of success in its execution of the core relationships; Hiro/Miyako/Kei works best and is the most convincingly hard-won, but Renji/Chihiro seems a little too simple a resolution for the complications involved. It also stumbles on integrating the three central stories as much as one might expect from the way they are interlaced; Hiro/Miyako/Kei and Kyosuke/Kei's stories overlap some, but Renji/Chihiro's is so entirely independent that the only indication that their story is going on in the same time frame as the other two is an occasional phone message between Chihiro and Kei. For some, the realism, distinctive aesthetics, and character development will be enough of a draw, but others will find that the talky nature and limited animation offset the series' other appealing factors.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C-
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Interesting visuals, strong English dub, some affecting content.
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