Fall 2007 saw a literal flood of visual novel adaptations pouring into the market, from Kimikiss pure rouge, to Da Capo II, and while we’re talking about VN adaptations, there is no way we can overlook the ordained big hitter of the pack, CLANNAD (TV). However, although the card-carrying KyoAni fanboy in me guaranteed my following their latest KEY adaptation back then, I had also been drawn inexplicably to SHAFT’s ef ~a tale of memories~ amongst all the other possible choices of VN adaptations. There was something quite different in feel about this particular adaptation that made it stood out from all the rest, and I had even prophesied that of all the VN adaptations, this particular one had the promise of being the biggest competition to Kyoto Animation’s CLANNAD (TV) back then.
I was right.
Quite simply put, despite the incongruency of SHAFT, a studio better known for such acid trips as Pani Poni Dash! and Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, handling something so uncharacteristic as a visual novel adaptation, Oonuma Shin has produced a work of unusually beautiful melodrama in ef ~a tale of memories~. Let’s take a look at the various aspects of this SHAFT offering, which in my opinion makes this the only other good VN adaptation to air this season, as well as quite probably the most underrated anime of 2007.
This is the RIUVA chapter of the Triple Critique for ef ~a tale of memories~. The Triple Critique is a system of three reviews on the same series, composed in differing formats for varying needs.
For a short summary, the NHRV chapter offers a 5-minute quick read through the merits of the series.
For a rated review, the Animesuki Forums chapter offers the standard category-rated critique.
Although just one out of many visual novel adaptations in the season, ef ~a tale of memories~ is very much a trademark SHAFT product; that much is clear in how the series didn’t shy away at all from the abundant usage of what could only be called Shinbou-WTFness. Indeed, the avant-garde visuals that have come to be associated with Shinbou and by association SHAFT are an acquired taste that could confuse the uninitiated, and the first two episodes is so saturated with them that they would turn off anyone used to more conventional visuals; this would certainly be a prime reason why the take-up rate of this series is so low.
However, the Shinbou-WTFness abates somewhat after the first two episodes, and while they never really go away, they actually help to complement the mood most of the time afterwards. In fact, Oonuma proves, against all my expectations, that the avant-garde visual style of Shinbou Akiyuki can been replicated in a style that, far from becoming an impediment, actually complemented the story in a way I don’t remember ever having seen before. In fact, they kind of become a view into the thought processes of the characters in the story, and thus become instrumental in raising the melodrama into the stratosphere in a way that more conventional visuals could never replicate. While it is sometimes overdone, most of the time it’s executed well, and some of the most memorable scenes are due to especially genius usage of the trademark stark cinematography.
That said, this is still a visual novel adaptation, and as such it goes without saying that Shinbou-WTFness could not possibly carry the entire series by itself, no matter how expertly done. Therefore, there are times when Oonuma has to revert to more conventional backgrounds and scenery, and this is where the stunningly beautiful panning vistas of Shinkai Makoto is missed the most. It has to be said that, taken by itself, there is little cause for complaint with Oonuma‘s offering; his own vision of the ef world has a beauty all of its own, with a unique character that sets it apart from that of the game. However, as good as the art direction of his anime adaptation is, it doesn’t compare with Shinkai‘s game OP, which had the ability to take one’s breath away at the sheer brilliance of the sweeping backgrounds. Even the best-looking scenes in the anime looks like they were, and perhaps they actually are, taken directly from the game itself.
Nevertheless, it still goes that by no means is Oonuma‘s rendering of the ef world lackluster, and in fact, it’s still something beautiful to look at for the most part. And although the art direction has been changed from the game, that is not the case for the BGM composition; it is still handled by Tenmon, the man behind the original game theme Yuukyu no Tsubasa as well as other minori and Shinkai works, and also the composer of the anime’s theme Euphoric Field. And as expected, the exceptional quality of Tenmon‘s music only adds to the melodramatic atmosphere that underpins the storylines presented in this world.
All in all, despite the inevitable liberties that had to be taken with the ef world due to the change in directors, ef ~ a tale of memories~ still boasts a beautiful atmosphere that should be relatively pleasing as long as it is given a chance. Even for people like Hinano who lacks any patience whatsoever for the SHAFT experimental visuals, the intelligent usage of these same experimental visuals….
Ascaloth: …su-sumimase, Hinano-sama…..
….ahem. As I was saying, the intelligent usage of the stark cinematography by Oonuma deserves a second chance by anyone. Without them, half the melodramatic element in the series would have been lost, and then it would not have been the dark horse it is right now.
Another aspect of ef ~a tale of memories~ that sets it apart from the other visual novel adaptations of the Fall 2007 season is the presence of several male protagonists (an aspect shared to a certain extent by Kimikiss) instead of having the story revolve around one main male lead. This gives us a relatively balanced male-female ratio in the overall cast instead of the skewed ones all too commonly found in this genre.
Where the characters themselves are concerned, it is a mixed bag. Four of the designated main characters are shaped out of a fairly basic set of standard archetypes commonly used in love triangle stories; the Male Lead, the Chosen Girl, the Osana-najimi, and the Foil. That is basically what Hiro, Miyako, Kei and Kyousuke are respectively no matter how "dressed up" their roles are, and the way they play out their roles are pretty standard, too. That is if one wants to put it nicely; if the intent is to put their roles in a less flattering perspective, one might say that their character archetypes are ordinary, which in other words, means they’re really nothing special. Not that being easily classified into set character archetypes is a bad thing in itself, for it is hard to come up with a truly original character in these days – the mark of a well-developed character is one who adds his or her own style to the archetype he is in, and thus differentiates himself or herself from his/her fellows that way. However, that is where the four are lacking, for there isn’t actually anything about any of the four that we haven’t seen before.
What saves them though, on the other hand, is the fact that their voice actors are some of the best I’ve ever heard; despite having little actual anime experience, the voice cast brought over from the game gives an excellent performance that brings their characters to life. Standard though they might be, the characters of Hiro, Miyako, Kei and Kyousuke really displays their individual personalities through their unique yet realistic voices, and their emoting is of a level few can reach; in particular, Miyako’s Taguchi Hiroko chips in with an out-of-this-world delivery in Episode 7 that is almost stream-of-consciousness, and leaves one with no doubt as to Miyako’s state of mind. With such raw emotionality in the delivery of their lines, even fairly standard characters like Miyako and Kei can touch the souls of the viewers.
But as for the remaining characters of the main cast, Chihiro and Renji……ah, now those two are on another level altogether. There is something heart-wrenching about seeing Chihiro resorting to metaphor to describe the utter hopelessness of her situation, and one cannot help but want to cheer for the earnest Renji as he struggles through his difficulties in his unusual relationship with Chihiro, as well as his own thoughts. And both of them really develop as characters throughout the course of the storyline; they start from emptiness and naivety, and the path they took together to fulfillment and true heroism is a long and difficult journey.
And we get to watch them suffer as they struggle with the situation, with themselves, and even with each other, as they slowly come to terms with the reality of the situation. What makes it even more special is that the voice actors of the two characters are every bit as good as the voice actors of the first four; even if Chihiro’s voice can be shrill and uncomfortable to listen to at times, one does not merely see their pain through the Shinbou-WTFness that symbolises their state of mind, one hears their pain too through the raw emotion in the voices of both Chihiro and Renji. We get to see the suffering they go through on their path, and it is not a pretty sight. In terms of character development though, there’s few better examples out there.
Finally, the last aspect that makes ef ~a tale of memories~ stand out amongst its peers is its promise for the story to revolve around the three main male characters of the cast instead of the predominantly single male lead format; however, I would say that it delivers on only two seperate, self-contained storylines in the end.
The first storyline is what I would call the Hiro-Miyako-Kei love triangle. To my point of view, it is a pretty standard love triangle with disappointingly few surprises; main girl hooks up with male lead, osana-najimi sees the threat and prepares to defend erstwhile neglected territory, a series of bitch-offs culminating in main girl attaining fulfillment and osana-najimi learning to move on with life. And that is why I don’t consider the promised Kei-Kyousuke storyline to have been delivered on at all, because it looks like little more than Kyousuke acting as the rebound for the heartbroken Kei; whether there even is a hint of romance developing between him and Kei by the end of the series is debatable.
In any case, and to my way of thinking, there’s nothing particularly special within the dramatic content of this love triangle. However, what does make it so special though is not the dramatic content, but the execution of the melodrama; it soars into the stratosphere, but the usage of stark cinematography and excellent voice acting makes for a deft presentation of the melodramatic indeed. The events happening to the characters involved in the love triangle may not be anything special, but there is no doubt that it means the whole world to them, and the audience is made to intensely feel the completely raw emotionality that they exude. This is clearly a melodrama, but it is high melodrama, executed to a nicety, and packing enough impact to make the sternest of hearts waver.
Which leaves the other main storyline of ef; the Chihiro-Renji storyline, and it is a very special one indeed. With the most insurmountable obstacle to a proper relationship between the two from the start – 12 years and 13 hours’ worth of memory for Chihiro – it was always an uphill struggle from the start for them, even if it was not entirely devoid of some relaxing fun and games. However, to use a crude term, the shit was always going to hit the fan sooner or later; and what an impact it was when it finally does.
We see both Renji and Chihiro learned several cruel lessons throughout the course of their story; that their situation is something that they would have to deal with for life, that being a hero is nowhere near as easy as it is in the novels, and that the real pain stems from the knowledge of true happiness. There is something very powerful in the slow and painful learning that they do, and the way that they eventually learn to cope with what they have. Moreover, with the same incredible usage of stark cinematography and raw voicing to send the melodrama soaring into the stratosphere, the Chihiro-Renji storyline is in spirit, if not in name, a true Korean melodrama worthy of the name, and an excellent one at that.
ef ~a tale of memories~ is a very well-done work, one that exemplifies how high melodrama should be executed. Despite being a relative rough diamond in contrast to the highly-polished high-budget contenders in the VN adaptation set, this offering by SHAFT and Oonuma is a dark horse worthy of the name, and clearly it has been the keenest competition in town to Kyoto Animation’s big-hitter CLANNAD (TV), as I have predicted before. I would not say this is the best anime of 2007, for the limited production values of this series clearly preclude such a nomination, but I would dare say that this is the most underrated anime of 2007, and one that deserves a second look for its solid execution.
Are there memories you do not want to forget? Hell yeah, in my case, and ef ~a tale of memories~ is one of them. Ascaloth of RIUVA, signing out of 2007.