The girl is the only one in the world. That made her the god of this world.
We move on to number eight on the list and with it, our first visual novel adaptation. It’s somewhat surprising it took this long since visual novels are a medium that I often go out of my way to defend as they tend to get unfairly derided. Still, while I strongly believe in their potential as a source for anime, they also by their very nature will result in a lot of weak adaptations. Ef, however is an exception to the rule. Despite the visual novel medium lending itself to bland male leads and girls who exist solely to be saved by the main character Ef manages to deliver an interesting story with well-rounded characters both male and female thanks to its unique format. Rather than being a story about one central point of view character who can form a relationship with every girl depending on the player’s choices, ef instead tells the stories of five different couples, each with their own circumstances and primary actors. The result is a cast with far more variety in their personalities and both male and female characters that start out as flawed or insecure and grow over the course of the show.
That said, ef is by no means a perfect show. Especially early on its run, the writing is suspect and the dialog can be clunky and wooden. However, the show demonstrates an incredible ability to nail the biggest, most climactic scenes. Whether a tearful goodbye followed by a moving reunion, a haunting series of terrifying revelations, or a triumphant confession of love, ef consistently demonstrates a flair for the dramatic and an ability to rise to the occasion when the plot calls for it. While the show isn’t as consistent as Madoka or Ano Natsu, I personally value peak over consistency and ef has that in spades. When it’s at its best, ef rises to a level few other shows can match.
One way in which ef stands out is its unique visual style. It’s not surprising that it has distinctive visuals since it is animated by studio Shaft but surprisingly was actually not directed by Akiyuki Shinbou (although he did do some storyboards for Memories). Ef benefits significantly from this as it doesn’t have the type of visual excesses I associate with Shinbou but rather makes very purposeful choices with its particular brand of “Shaft weirdness”. The surreal moments or jarring transitions almost always serve a thematic purpose and work to emphasize a particular point the show is trying to make.
Another extremely strong part of ef is the way it combines five separate stories into two thematically consistent seasons. The show presents Miyako and Hiro’s story concurrently with Renji and Chihiro’s story and Kuze and Miyuki’s story concurrently with Yuu and Yuuko’s story which is a departure from the game which presents each story in series one after the other. This works so well because of the way the stories connect thematically.
Putting Hiro, Renji and Kyousuke’s stories together works well because each of them represents a different aspect of the search for purpose in life. First we see Hiro, trapped between the schoolwork he knows he should do and the manga he truly has a passion for. This tug of war is personified by two girls pulling him in different directions. I like the way ef shows these two girls as representations of two different phases in Hiro’s life both through the narrative and visually. The process of Hiro letting go of his past and his school life and by extension rejecting Kei was superbly executed and was an incredibly emotional experience.
In contrast to Hiro who was being tugged between two distinct possibilities, Renji was faced with almost unlimited possibilities. The older people around him were envious of his youth and the potential it represented but Renji himself always felt overwhelmed by the uncertainty in his future. He knew he wanted to do something meaningful but never really knew what it was until he met Chihiro. Writing a novel with Chihiro provides Renji with the sense of purpose his life was sorely lacking. Kyouske, in contrast to both Hiro and Renji, always knew exactly what he wanted to do and merely lacked the opportunity to pursue it. It’s his relationship with Kei that allows him to finally have that opportunity to create the movie he knew he was capable of. His story is less fully realized than Renji or Hiro but he provides and important complement to both of their stories.
While each of the boys in Memories represents a different aspect of the pursuit of one’s dreams and passions, each of the girls represents a different take on the fear of being forgotten or disappearing. Miyako has been through this already having been left behind by her family and this overriding fear informs everything she does during the show. Her carefree attitude is just a mask hiding her fear of real human connection because of the risk of losing somebody again. This manifests itself in her frantic actions later in the show. She breaks down because she thinks that she’s once again being cut out of somebody’s life.
Kei, for her part, doesn’t want to be forgotten by Hiro due to her lingering guilt over her sister’s accident. She feels like Hiro is the one last thing connecting her to the happy times they had before the accident and to lose him is to lose those memories. Ultimately she finds that despite her best efforts, she can’t control another person’s life and must let Hiro go. Ef shows that to grow up we need to overcome these fears of being left behind and be able to accept the pain that comes when you make yourself vulnerable to somebody else.
Chihiro’s story is a slightly different version of the same concept. Rather than living in constant fear of being forgotten, she expects it because of her condition with her memories. Her story with Renji is a beautiful and tragic articulation of the life of a girl who is remade each day. The show does a superb job of showing her isolation and the emptiness of her existence visually. Chihiro struggles to gain her own identity because in a very real sense she is a different person each day. The impermanence of her existence makes Chihiro somebody who, unlike Miyako and Kei, doesn’t fear losing the human connections she’s built but rather is wholly incapable of making such connections.
Ef also does a great job of showing how this impermanence is both freeing and entrapping for Chihiro through the novel she writes with Renji. The girl in the novel represents both the freedom to act that Chihiro’s condition provides her but also the prison that it represents to her. The way ef articulates this combination of ultimate freedom and ultimate imprisonment through storytelling and visuals is something few other shows can match. The breadth of emotion that we experience with Chihiro from the brink of insanity to finally finding the ability to form a real human connection is one of the best parts in the show.
Melodies, the second season, takes on a very different tone from Memories and I think it was a good thing that the two were made as separate parts rather than as a single production. In contrast to Memories’ focus on teenagers trying to find their way in the world, Melodies takes on a more adult focus that covers dealing with loss and the need to face your challenges head on. First we see Kimura Yuu, a man who has become stone-faced and emotionless after losing everything that mattered to him. We see how Yuu repeatedly ran away from his troubles, but every time he does this it never resolves the underlying issues and it comes back to hurt him. Even when it finally looked like all his problems were solved after Akira was out of the picture, Yuuko is ultimately taken away from Yuu anyway. It may have seemed arbitrary but in the context of a cruel, uncaring world that refuses to let Yuu have what he wants if he isn’t willing to stand up to adversity, it really works to drive home the show’s point. Throughout this the show does a great job of moving back and forth between the present Yuu who’s struggling to accept his loss and the past Yuu whose actions ended up resulting in his present suffering. The show slowly paints a picture of how Yuu’s past experiences made him the enigmatic man we see today and it informs how he interacts with Kuze in the present.
Kuze provides an interesting companion to Yuu as he occupies a different point in the same process of running away and refusing to face your fears. Kuze is constantly dodging any difficult challenge often saying he refuses to take on any battle he can’t win. This has made him a solitary man, suffering alone in a prison of his own making. Yuu lectures Kuze about this but Kuze refuses to listen to him and Yuu isn’t willing to push hard enough to change him. Into this mess comes Mizuki, who initially seems like an odd match for Kuze given their age difference, but actually provides the perfect complement to his desire for isolation. Her youthful energy and her bright-eyed lust for life allow her to pierce through the shell Kuze has built around himself and pull him out of his depression and isolation before he loses everything like Yuu did. This story contrasts with the typical visual novel format since it’s a story of a female character seeing the suffering of a male character and helping him overcome it rather than vice versa.
Melodies also makes use of a more bizarre visual style than Memories which I think really works for the kind of story it’s trying to tell. It’s further evidence that the two are clearly distinct shows despite being part of the same franchise. The show’s choice to depict Kuze repeatedly in a mask show how he tries to hide his true self from the world around him and chooses to suffer in silence. The use of the metronome as symbolic of his ailing heart was also a very effective choice that made use of his connection to music to emphasize his impending demise. This visual style was also used to great effect when Yuuko finally revealed to Yuu the suffering and pain she had gone through after he abandoned her. The way the scene displayed the stark contrast between the purity Yuu perceived in Yuuko and the ugly truth was outstandingly executed and provided a viscerally impactful experience. If the ending to that scene doesn’t leave ashes in your heart, I don’t know what will.
Ultimately, ef represents the potential present both in the visual novel medium and also in a studio like Shaft. The unique format allows for a variety of characters to portray a different aspect of a larger theme and the show makes effective use of Shaft’s visual style rather than employing visual flair for its own sake. The show is thematically rich and a deeply moving experience whether you’re watching it for the first time or you’ve already seen it several times. Despite its awkward beginnings, the show gets the important things right and the result is truly outstanding.