On the surface, ef - a tale of memories seems to be your average romance anime series, featuring a range of characters forming relationships as they spiral awkwardly towards adulthood. Certainly, this series almost disappeared under the radar, and I only watched it on the recommendation of a fellow fansubber who was enjoying it himself. And I have to say, I'm glad I did.
While ef - a tale of memories does follow the accepted path of romance series, it's the way it proceeds, dancing away from clichés as it goes, that really makes the series. The plot itself isn't anything particularly sparkling and the idea of duplicity (two separate stories involving a different set of characters playing out alongside each other) certainly isn't new (see: Baccano and, to a lesser extent, Shinigami no Ballad) even if it handles both of these rather well. However, the strong emotional clincher at the beginning of the series, where we learn of Chihiro's shocking condition, grabs the viewer by the heart and refuses to let go. Where this series really hits it mark is in its cast of characters. The characters are ones you can either relate to, or demand sympathy. Ef is as much a series about unrequited and unwelcome love as it is about becoming romantically aware.
The series has a great way of whisking you along with it, whatever the action is. I was gripped from start to finish, awaiting each new episode to be released, which is a rare event these days. Ef's greatest tool is its fantastic storyline and direction, where not a single second is wasted onscreen without invoking some emotion in the audience. What the director has done well in this series that have failed in other similar titles, is maintaining the fine balance between the optimum amounts of action and introversion.
Having said this, however, there are flaws inherent in the ef model of storytelling. The problem I've always found with duplicity is that they only work if the stories are equally as enthralling -- Baccano works despite its massive cast because every character has an interesting story to tell. Ef, however, has a much stronger storyline in the childlike romance of Renji and Chihiro, than the bordering-on-cliché love triangle of Kei-Hiro-Miyako. Unfortunately, when this happens, the viewer is dragged in by the stronger storyline and sees the weaker one as deadweight -- to the point where it feels like that whole half could have been dropped to make the series stronger. This is what I felt for most of the love triangle story, despite liking most of the characters involved and the individual pieces of magic it brought to my computer screen.
This score is a hard one for me. At times, there are some real breakthroughs in anime artwork, in particular the two amazingly emotional scenes where Miyako and Hiro are communicating by phone (or not, in the case of one of them); and at other times, the viewer is left to deal with long distance shots with only small variations in movement.
It's a hard one to judge, but ef definitely receives higher marks for its wonderful scenery. Nearly every backdrop becomes memorable for its richness of colour, and each setting is perfectly realised -- from the beach where Renji talks frankly about his feelings with Chihiro, to the rooftop of the school, the centre of a climactic scene that I've no doubt I'll always have imprinted on the back of my eyelids.
I almost feel harsh for knocking this down a few pegs, but I get the feeling that if the art directors had just pushed the boat out a little bit more on those near-static scenes, this would be a masterpiece that everyone would remember. As it is, it has some fantastic glimpses of what it could have been.
The best soundtrack I've heard in an anime series. The last time I heard two songs so distinctly unusual to an anime series was in Gunslinger Girl, another series with an amazing opening and ending. I think, like Gunslinger Girl, ef can only achieve the emotional heights it does with perfectly placed music. The ending is an astonishingly good song, played on the accordian in what I can only assume is an imitation the sounds of Paris. There's so much going on in these songs that it's a delight on the ears listening to them.
My only comment on the music is that it would have been nice if the opening theme was in Japanese, instead of dodgy English, but even then, the song itself is a wealth of strings and orchestral wizardry -- and with a scrolling animation as beautiful as "Puzzle" was in Welcome to the NHK! to accompany it... well, I can forgive this one minor downside.
As I mentioned earlier, the duplicity of the plot unfortunately doesn't lend itself to the characters it portrays. On the one hand, Renji and Chihiro are two of the strongest lead characters of any romance series I've seen, with enough flaws to fill a psychiatrist's journal (some of the faces Renji pulls are more reminiscent of Higurashi than Love Hina). On the other, we have Hiro who is too wishy washy to really be the centre of a love triangle, and Kei who seemed to fall into too many of the regular romance traps to be taken seriously.
But then, she is the clichéd member of the cast. While other characters have compelling motivations (Hiro's attempt to juggle drawing professional manga and schoolwork, Miyako's desire to find a place where there is no such thing as silence), her only reason for existing is to be the childhood friend who secretly loves the protagonist but remains unnoticed despite her best attempts. Luckily she's strong enough not to fade into obscurity, but her character is weakened from the outset.
I think it's unfortunate that the character that piqued my interest the most received the least screentime. I wanted to see more of Kyosuke and the way he viewed life through his camera lens, forever searching for the "right" angle. I found his perspective more interesting than Hiro, but it seems as though his involvement in the story is only to give Kei another option in her lovelife. Which is disappointing, to say the least.
It's the relationship that sparks up between Renji and Chihiro that carries this mark though. In fact, on the basis of their endearing love story alone, I considered marking this a 9, maybe even a 10, but I couldn't justify it, especially when you consider that the two "teacher" figures in the church are never really introduced, talked about, or even explained.
Before anyone else says it -- yes, I'm aware that ef - a tale of memories does border on the absurd more than once, teetering along the edge of being emotionally charged and being hilariously over-the-top, but all I'll say to that is, if you're willing to let yourself be swept away in a less-than-conventional rollercoaster of a love story (or two) then this is the one for you. Yes, it has its flaws. Yes, half the characters seem either worthless or unused. Yes, it would have made much more sense to have some sort of crossover in the plot somewhere. But frankly I don't care, because this came out in a Fall season where every popular title was disappointing and this shone out above all the rest. Vastly superior to Myself;Yourself which aired at the same time, and perhaps, if given the chance, a romance series that will be seen as a milestone of the genre.
In a high school setting, there are many people whose stories must be told: Hiro, an aspiring manga artist whose view of the world is "missing a certain color," according to himself; his childhood friend Kei, who is vying for his attention; Kyosuke, a photographer and cameraman who seeks to capture true emotion in his work; the ever-cheerful Miyako, who meets Hiro by chance and immediately becomes attached to him; the gentle Renji, unsure of his aspirations to become a novelist; and Kei's mysterious and quiet sister Chihiro, who seems to be a different person every day. As time passes and they interact with one another more, their paths increasingly intertwine as shades of regrettable pasts emerge.