Saturday, 29 December 2007 22:49

ef - a tale of memories (TV, 2007)

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Overview

I'm trying something a little bit new this season, that being waiting longer before doing my review. That's as much because my time is just murdered between school and work as it is because last season half of my reviews need to be redone (still) because of abrupt changes in quality, storyline, or just plain sanity. So, with that in mind, I've decided to go after ef - a tale of memories for this review - and yes, that is correctly capitalized. The fall/winter season is always loaded with romance stories and eroge conversions, and this season has been no exception. ef stands out from the crowd, though, because of its extremely unconventional storytelling, and abstract animation style. Now, as I said, I decided that I was going to wait a bit longer to do the reviews, and that's a good thing... see, I started writing this review on episode 8, and if I'd have finished it, I'd have had to completely re-write it, heh.

Review

It's actually rather difficult to give a baseline explanation of the story in ef, because it's told in a very unusual way. Rather, let me set the stage. ef is actually a multi-layered tale that features six primary characters, three males, three females.. No single character knows all five other characters directly, but all six characters are related to all others through the ones that they do know. For example, Kei and Chihiro are twins; Chihiro has a growing relationship with Renji, while Kei, her sister, knows Hiro, who in turn introduces her to Kyosuke. It's degrees of separation, and it allows for the telling of not one, but three semi-related but separate stories at the same time. With that all summarized, I'll delve a little farther into the story lines, and why they are told in such a layered fashion. You see, the anime is based on not one, but a pair of eroge games, named ef - the first tale, and ef - the latter tale. The anime represents both of these told together, making the natural leap as the events in each took place at the same time, with these separate-but-related characters. By all rights, it should have come out rushed, hacked, half baked, and tacked together with chewing gum that was losing its stick...

The story itself would be nothing without the characters. It took me a good five episodes to realize something - all three of the male characters are a type of artist. Hiro is a professional manga artist, Renji wants to be a novelist, and Kyosuke is a video photographer. That's a relationship, and yet another onion peel layer at that, that I should have picked up on immediately. Each character is well defined and the interaction between them is well choreographed, especially given one of the character's condition. I mentioned Chihiro briefly above, one of the two twin sisters. She is afflicted by a certain condition - what I won't say here - that makes her a truly unique character.

The girls of ef actually play a fair range themselves. One thing that I couldn't help but notice in the early episodes, and came to understand was quite intentional later, is that while Kei and Chihiro do communicate, through the use of cell phone text messages, it's not until the very final scenes of the series that they're actually together in a single shot. No, I'll rephrase that - not until the very final scenes that they're together at their present age - there are a couple sequences depicting them as children. Again, I don't want to spoil any of the multi-tiered plot, so I won't say what's happening. What I will say is that that short glimpse makes you understand something about both girls. It struck me how different the two of them are, despite being twins. Kei is athletic, a little tomboyish, and cute; Chihiro is shy, quiet, and... well, cute. Yeah, that might not sound like the most original tack, but when you see why, you'll understand why it's worth mentioning here.

However, as I said, Kei and Chihiro never interact directly beyond a few scenes from their childhood, so let's not forget the free-spirited Miyako, who's story takes place in the same circle as Kei and Hiro. Or is it, perhaps, that Kei and Hiro's story takes place in hers? That's not double-speak, folks... I keep harping on this point, but that's how well written the series is - there are so many ways to interpret the plot line and storytelling that it's almost impossible to call any particular thread one particular character's or another's... Certainly, each character does have their own story, but all of them build on each other's as well.

I also have to consider the art direction - you'll notice I don't say animation - art direction to be a character in and of itself, and it's a main character to boot. ef is rather unique in how it uses scenery, backgrounds, and scene composition. You might have seen similar styles before, but not on this level. If you're familiar with the movie Silverado, you might remember the climactic shot between Kevin Kline's Paden, and Brian Dennahy's Cobb. Paden was set with the town, and specifically, the town's church standing behind him... Cobb stood with nothing but wasteland that faded into the distance in his background. It was a subtle effect, but a powerful one... ef makes that shot look amateurish and contrived - which, of course, it was. Instead, ef's strength is in using this abstract, artistic animation style to convey emotions on a level I've never seen in an anime. For instance, one of the techniques that is used consistently through the series involves filling in a character's silhouette with the sky, as seen in the screen shot to the right. And the sky backdrops! There is a rather significant portion of the budget, I think, in the brilliantly and vibrantly realized shots of skies throughout the series. There's a reason that so much time has been spent on the skies, too, though I'll leave you to figure out what that is.

You can't do something like ef without the voice acting cast to back it up, especially given that there really aren't that many characters in the series to do all the work with. Beyond the six primaries, there are a handful of extras, only two of which play major roles, and none of which get major screen time once their roles have been filled. All the rest are in the series purely because they have a specific, and brief role to serve in the play at large. There's no extraneous fat in ef's storyline - every line of dialog has importance. Luckily the voice actors weren't just up to the task - they blew me completely away. Particularly impressive were Miyako's VA, Taguchi Hiroko, and Yanase Natsumi, who voiced Chihiro. Both of these VA's had to portray particularly difficult character ranges, and both of them did an incredible job of it. Also worth mentioning is Hiro's VA, Shimono Hiro. While a fairly laid back character for most of the series, he and Miyako have a couple really awesome exchanges that had to have taken some real effort to keep up with.

The soundtrack side of ef is just as good as the voice actors - better, actually. I knew that the series would have the best music of the season when I saw the promo video - a two and a half minute long preview that includes the two major extras playing the piano and violin together in a theme that I couldn't stop listening to. If anybody has that theme, by the way, please... let me know, I'd love to get my hands on it. The series composer, Tenmon, created what is easily one of the most beautiful soundtracks I've heard in a long, long time. The series' opening theme does an incredible job of encapsulating the souls of all three of the main female characters, though I'll be fair and admit that it's mainly targeted at Chihiro.

Normally, I wouldn't take the time to point it out, but the ef storyline is comprised of more than just the games and the anime - there's also light novels, a manga series, and several radio dramas out there as well that all build on the central core. The manga I'll be getting in a heartbeat, if I can get my paws on it.

Overall

Earlier in this review, toward the end of the first paragraph, I left you with an unfinished thought. It was actually quite intentional, so allow me to refresh your memory. I said that the anime version of ef represents both of the games told together, making the natural leap as the events in each took place at the same time, with these separate-but-related characters. By all rights, it should have come out rushed, hacked, and tacked together with chewing gum... That's what I said earlier, and it's true... for all of its incredible complexity, it should have been the biggest tangle of plot threads and storylines I've ever seen, just for the writers trying to tell everything together.


Instead, I think that it's the single best story that I've seen in the last five years.


Yeah, folks, I just said exactly what you think I did. You'll note, I'm not even limiting that statement to just anime - I just put it out there against the sum total of everything that's come out over the past 5 years / 60 months / 261 weeks / 1827 days / 43848 hours / 2630880 minutes... I think you get the idea. That includes series like Ah! My Goddess TV, Ace Combat 4-6, Shuffle!, Rescue Wings, Chronicles of Narnia, Sin City, Knife of Dreams... Again, I think you get the point. ef - a tale of memories had me ready to curl up into a fetal position and just start bawling like a little girl on multiple occasions, because it's just that damned good.

I'll be the first to admit that it's not the easiest series to get into, though. Because of the way that the multiple layers of story and plot are structured, things are rather confusing until you get the basics down. The abstracted animation doesn't help much in that respect either - ef is a VERY difficult series to get started on. It's well worth it, though, because the scope of the story is great enough to be worth making the effort. This is an absolute MUST WATCH, folks - my highest recommendations! If you watch nothing else in the next year... watch this series... you won't be disappointed.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go somewhere and cry like a little girl while drowning in the warm'n'fuzzies. AGAIN!

Additional Info

  • Title: ef - a tale of memories,
  • Genre: High School, Psychological Thriller, Romance
  • Director: Shin Onuma
  • Studio: Shaft
  • Licensed: Sentai Filmworks
  • Network: TV Kanagawa
  • Format: Television
  • Episodes: 12
  • Animation: Groovy (+5)
  • Writing: Groovy (+5)
  • Pacing: Groovy (+5)
  • Voice Acting: Groovy (+5)
  • Soundtrack: Groovy (+5)

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